The Boy Who Would Not Be Queens
Spending a night in Donald Trump’s childhood home is not like sleeping in Hitler’s lair, but thanks for asking.
ABOVE MY BED IS A SIGN ENCASED
in a wooden frame. “In this bedroom,” it says in calligraphic font, “President Donald J. Trump was likely conceived, by his parents, Fred and Mary Trump. The world has never been the same.”
The bedroom is on the second floor of a Tudor house on Wareham Place, in a part of Queens called Jamaica Estates, in New York City but closer to Long Island than Manhattan. Far closer. The house is “vaguely faux-tudorish,” says Gwenda Blair, author of The Trumps: Three Generations of Builders and a President, and with its cream stucco façade, peaked roof and decorative wooden planks, it looks like the manse of a minor English lord. Every “good” suburb of Connecticut and New Jersey has such houses.
This was the house Fred Trump built in 1940, as he was becoming one of the city’s most powerful builders. Donald, his middle son, spent his first four years here, from 1946 until 1950. What that log cabin was to Abraham Lincoln, this house is to Donald Trump. He is a New Yorker, sure, but not in the way of Manhattan-born Theodore Roosevelt. He is a man of Queens, like that other great defender of forgotten Americans, Archie Bunker.
As the Trump family grew in both size and wealth, the house became too small, so Fred moved his family one street over. You can see that house from the bedrooms of the first Trump house. While the first house is on street level, the second is on a rise of land, already distancing itself from the people below.
Earlier this month, the Wareham Place house became available on Airbnb. The cost per night is $725. The listing also says the house can sleep 20, though most of those people have to be cool with bunk beds. Also, the woman who manages the listing, Ari, will be there the entire time. (She lives in the attic.)
The day before I am to spend the night, Ari informs me the hot water does not work. I decide this is karmic punishment for all the times I have called Trump an orange goofball or worse.
The final price, with taxes, is $816, making it more expensive to stay in Queens than at the Plaza in Manhattan. You might remember that glamorous hotel from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, a young Macaulay Culkin wandering its ornate, carpeted hallways. He asks a tall businessman in an overcoat how to get to the lobby. Trump points him “down the hall and to the left.” He delivers the line with the knowing, hurried precision of a Manhattan native. All traces of his roots in Queens are gone.
Jamaica Estates is on the eastern edge of Queens, the New York borough sometimes called the most diverse place in America. To get there, I take the Flushing line. It is not the fastest way to Jamaica Estates, but the elevated train affords me the pleasure of floating above Queens, watching the signage of the lowrise neighborhoods change, from English to Urdu to Spanish to Korean, then back to English, then Russian. Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker once took this line for a game against the New York Mets. He wasn’t a fan. In a famous 1999 interview with
Sports Illustrated, Rocker complained about sitting “next to some kid with purple hair next to some queer with AIDS right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing.” He added: “I’m not a very big fan of foreigners.”
Neither is Trump, unless they are Russian billionaires. Russian billionaires do not live in Queens, and the people who do live in Queens are not big fans of Trump. Of the 473,289 people who voted in the 2016 presidential election in Queens, 75.1 percent voted for Hillary Clinton. Jamaica Estates was even more anti-trump, with 77.47 percent of its voters choosing Clinton.
You can see why when you emerge from the subway at 179th Street. There is the Bismillah Supermarket. There are roti shops. The local school is named for Susan B. Anthony, the suffragette. The people here work hard, have to work hard, and they do not get “small” loans of millions of dollars from their fathers, as Trump did. I know these people. I am an immigrant, as they were. They want to be rich, as I did. A few months after my family arrived in the United States from the Soviet Union, my uncle told me he’d shared an elevator with Trump’s first wife, Ivana. I remember the immense pride I felt upon hearing this. He’d been here longer, my uncle, than the rest of us. He lived on Long Island and did something involving biznes, like every Russian immigrant. It didn’t matter. He’d gone to Trump Tower, and he’d stood shoulder to shoulder with Mrs. Trump. He’d made it in America.
“IT’S LIKE SLEEPING in Hitler’s lair.” That’s what a friend told me at breakfast, as I prepared to head to Queens. Later, one of my colleagues made a similar point, which forced me to seriously consider the similarities, especially since newsroom screens all that day showed Trump talking about how some of the white nationalists and neo-nazis who ravaged Charlottesville, Virginia, were decent folks. Later yet, someone on Twitter responded to a photograph of the Trump house I’d posted: “Have you found Mein Kampf yet?” This may have been a reference to an assertion made by Ivana in Vanity Fair, that “from time to time her husband reads a book of Hitler’s collected speeches, My New Order, which he keeps in a cabinet by his bed.”
I don’t think renting out Trump’s house in Queens is the same thing as shacking up at Wolfschanze (Wolf ’s Lair), where Hitler spent much of World War II. Trump is the president of the United States. He is part of our history. Instead of raging against that, we should figure out how that came to be. Remember how people used to hate George W. Bush? Now they praise him as an elder statesman whenever he renounces Trump. Will the passage of time be as kind to Trump? Probably not. You never know, though. Two years into the Rob Kardashian presidency, we might be pining for the civility of the Trump era.
THE TOILETS ARE NOT made of gold. (Someone on Twitter asked.) There are three toilets, and they are all porcelain. Trump the son is all about gold, but Trump the father was apparently all about wood. The house is full of the kind of original details design geeks geek on: wooden shutters, molding, windows with leaded diamond patterns, radiator covers with narrow slits.
You come into the house through an alcove separated from
Wareham was the last placewhere the trumps were even remotely regular folks.
the living quarters by a door. In the moment before I open that second door, I have overwhelming anticipation. You can’t just rent out Mount Vernon with three clicks on Airbnb. But you can sleep in Trump’s house! The irony is that while a ticket to Monticello, the Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson, will cost only $25, access to Trump’s birth house is going for $725. The forgotten Americans may have the White House, but the Trump house in Jamaica Estates likely remains out of their reach.
When I open that second door, I am greeted by a life-size cutout of Donald Trump, staring at me from across the living room. In the dining room is a framed People magazine “At Home With the Trumps!” cover, as well as an Andy Warhol–like multicolored collage of Trump portraits and a photograph of Vice President Mike Pence. On the dining room table, an American flag has been laid out as a runner, in a show of patriotism that is misguided, excessive and perfectly Trumpian. Above the gorgeously carved wooden fireplace hangs a framed photograph of Trump being interviewed on The Tonight Show by Jimmy Fallon, who is holding up a picture of the Wareham Place house.
All these decorations may seem tacky, but inadvertently, the Wareham Place house captures the raison d’être of Donald Trump, which is the endless veneration of Donald Trump.
“Wareham was the last place where the Trumps were even remotely regular folks. Four kids surely filled the place with life,” says Michael D’antonio, author of The Truth About Trump.
When Donald was 4, Fred moved his growing family into a colonial brick mansion on Midland Parkway. “On Midland Parkway, the individual Trumps had as much room as they wanted and were attended by servants,” D’antonio says. “It’s here, I think, where Donald learned what it was like to be rich, pampered and isolated.... Sometimes I wonder if [Donald] and the rest of us would be a lot better off if Fred Trump had kept his family rooted on Wareham Place.”
I DON’T KNOW MUCH about the owners of the house, and since Ari refused to be interviewed, I don’t know how she is related to them, other than that they bought the house at auction earlier this year. Sometimes, I hear her footsteps in the attic. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it was Fred’s ghost, wandering like the restless ghost of King Hamlet.
Fred was a true dealmaker of the kind Donald played on television. In the 1930s, Trump historian Blair tells me, Fred was running a supermarket when he acquired a mortgage company that had gone into bankruptcy. That allowed him to revive his real estate business, which had been stymied by the Great Depression and, in time, to amass enough money to build the Wareham Place house. “He gamed the bankruptcy court in 1934,” Blair says of Fred’s acquisition of the mortgage company, “just as his son managed to game the bankruptcy system at the end of the century.” In fact, Donald was so good at gaming that system, he took to calling himself the King of Debt.
You can’t pin the sins of the father on the son, unless the son seems intent on replicating those sins. In 1927, Fred may have been arrested at a Ku Klux Klan rally in Queens. Donald wasn’t alive then, but he stood defiantly by his father in 1973, when the two of them were accused by the Justice Department of refusing to rent apartments to African-americans.
As Ari and I are talking on the sidewalk, five women in burqas pass on the other side of the street. Children run and ride bikes before them. Ari is telling me one story; the women tell another, their burkas rippling in the light summer breeze.
THE FLOORBOARDS ABOVE ME creak as, on the television, Sean Hannity issues a fiery denunciation of what he calls the “destroy-trump media.” I move the cutout of Donald Trump next to the television, so that he is watching me as I watch Fox News. Later in the evening, I will return from the kitchen and, having forgotten about the cutout, will be frightened by Trump standing in the living room, confronting me in my boxer shorts. “What are you doing in my house?” he will ask. And I will tell him, “Paying $816 to take a cold shower.”
I GO INTO WHAT may have been Trump’s bedroom as a child. There is a picture of him with Michael Jackson, as well as a quote from The Art of the Deal: “I like thinking big. I always have.”
I walk around the house, running my hands along the smooth wood, like a prospective buyer pondering an offer on the place. I am surprised by how much I like this house, how it feels both spacious and cozy. And though it’s obviously gone through
PAPER DOLL: Trump’s childhood home still has many original details, such as fine woodwork, and some recent additions, such as this cardboard cutout of the president.
several lamentable renovations, plenty of original—or original enough—details remain. A big bedroom on the second floor, for example, has inlaid bookcases with desk space. My children would be happy in this room, as would yours. It is big and full of light. I think of poor Barron, Trump’s 11-year-old son, growing up in the gilded prison that is Trump Tower. No wonder he always looks miserable. He should move to Queens.
The best room is the study, which I have to assume was Fred’s. The study, off the dining room, is wood-paneled and dark. I sit there, listening to Ben Webster play sax. The study has a bathroom. This is a glorious man cave in the making.
I HAULED A BOOK with me to Queens to ward off boredom. Twilight of American Sanity is by Dr. Allen Frances, a psychiatrist, who argues that while Trump is more or less sane, American society no longer is, mired in denialism and rage. Hence, #MAGA. It turns out I don’t need the company of Frances and his analysis of Trump’s politics. For starters, there are at least a half-dozen copies of The Art of the Deal placed around the house. I envision guests reclining in the living room, reading aloud the passage in which Trump saves the farm of an old lady in Georgia or restores Central Park’s Wollman Rink. “As an adolescent, I was mostly interested in creating mischief,” Trump wrote in that book. “It wasn’t malicious so much as it was aggressive.”
There is also Historic Homes of the American Presidents by Irvin Haas. It shows a photograph of Lincoln’s log cabin and of the White House, which Trump has called “a dump.”
The bookshelves in the study and upstairs bedroom hold a hodgepodge, including literary fiction (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections), beach reads ( Tales From the Crib by Jennifer Coburn) and academic titles like Jesse Goldhammer’s The Headless Republic: Sacrificial Violence in Modern French Thought. I don’t know if these titles speak to Ari’s tastes. They certainly don’t speak to Donald Trump’s, for he does not like to read.
When I “check out” at the end of my stay, I leave Twilight of American Sanity behind, on an end table in the living room. It pairs nicely with The Art of the Deal, whose ghostwriter, Tony Schwartz, once called Trump a “sociopath.”
FOR A WHILE, I stand at a window, watching my new neighbors get out of cars, herd children through doors, drag refuse bins to the curb. Then I try to talk to them, only to quickly find they aren’t thrilled to have a reporter around. One woman opens her door thinking someone she knows has come calling. Instead, it is a journalist. Later, I learn that she has been interviewed by other reporters. The woman keeps talking about how she does not want to talk about Trump, but it occurs to me that she enjoys immensely talking about Trump. Just like the rest of us. “It’s just a house,” she says as I am leaving. “It’s just a house.” I ask another resident how people in the neighborhood feel about Trump. “I don’t think you’re gonna find too many fans around here,” he says.
After a while, I give up on the talking-to-the-neighbors gim- mick. They do not deserve this. It is their neighborhood, not his. He fled long ago.
I INVITE EVERYONE from the Newsweek newsroom to come out to Queens and visit the house where Trump crawled around in diapers. Nobody comes except one staffer, but it’s fine, because he is a friend. For a while, we sit in the living room, watching Tucker Carlson, the Fox News pundit, talking about Nazis. There isn’t alcohol in the house, which is fitting, since Trump does not drink. There is no food either. We scroll on our phones, looking at local restaurants. Carlson keeps talking about Nazis.
Hillside Avenue is one of those great New York thoroughfares where humanity is glorious and squalid and somehow everyone gets along, although nothing remains of the white Jamaica Estates Fred knew. His history has been erased, which I guess is what makes many white Americans anxious: They remember when the roti shop was an Irish bar, forgetting that before it was an Irish bar, it was something else. Their grasp of history is ferocious but limited. They do not see far down Hillside Avenue.
My friend and I find a halal Indian steakhouse called Mirch. We are the only white people inside. This is thrilling, until self-awareness kicks in and the thrill turns into shame. The food is very spicy and very good. The owner sits with us. He is from Bangladesh (I think). He works on tech for a Long Island hospital consortium and says he will give us free food if we write about his restaurant. We tell him we will mention his restaurant by name (I did). I promise to review it on Yelp. (I did.)
We ask him about Donald Trump. “He’s a businessman. I’m a businessman,” he says in a voice that makes clear there’s more to it than that. He is a member of the Eleanor Roosevelt Regular Democratic Club. He campaigned for Hillary Clinton. Like the vast majority of the people in Jamaica Estates, he is not white. But much like Fred, he is building a business, hoping to turn his restaurant into a franchise. He is scouting for space on Long
Island. Maybe his children will go to the University of Pennsylvania, like Fred’s son did. Maybe they will run a restaurant empire and, when that thrill has cooked down, turn to politics.
IT TOOK ME A WHILE
to decide where I would sleep. There are several bedrooms on the second floor of 85-15 Wareham Place, each with Ikea bunk beds. Call me a coastal elitist, but I believe that spending $725 for one night’s stay rules out a bunk bed.
The “conception room” beckons, in large part because I can watch Fox News from bed. That bed, of course, is not original, but I suspect the sign above it may have encouraged guests to attempt a conception of their own. I am a germaphobe, like Trump, and the desire to wipe every surface with hand sanitizer grows acute. The fear is irrational, like many of the fears that Trump summoned on his path to electoral victory. We are not governed by reason, as our best politicians have always known.
Finally, I muster the courage to bed down in the conception room. I watch Fox News. My colleague has gone back to his apartment in Manhattan, because he wants to sleep next to his wife, not under a picture of Trump and Michael Jackson. I get that. The air conditioner drones. Hannity whines. I look up from my laptop just as Geraldo Rivera says something about “gangs of pedophiles,” while violent scenes of Charlottesville play. Were those neo-nazis also pedophiles? And how does Rivera’s mustache stay so pointy?
Everything I’m doing now suddenly seems very wrong: I want to sleep next to my wife, far from the site where Donald Trump was possibly conceived. It occurs to me that maybe I
should turn off Fox News.
SLEEP IS FITFUL.
In the morning, I go for a run. As I am plodding down Hillside Avenue, Trump begins to tweet again about the previous weekend’s neoNazi rally in Charlottesville, which devolved into violence that claimed three lives. Despite campaign promises that he would behave “so presidential,” the last few days have found him defending neo-nazis and Confederate statues, to the dismay even of descendants of the men those statues depict. I wonder what he would say about Jamaica Estates, where you are far more likely to see a woman in a sari than a white guy in a “Make America great again” hat.
The whole country, in fact, is becoming less like the Jamaica Estates Trump knew and more like the one I’m jogging through now. Maybe a visit to his birthplace would reassure the president that America does not lose its identity when it loses is pallor. Nobody is hatching terrorist plots on Hillside Avenue. The MS-13 gang, an obsession of Trump and his attorney general, is not prowling side streets. It is peaceful here. It is America.
AS I INSPECT
the house, I find a mezuzah attached to the back door. A mezuzah is a small container that holds a prayer, and it is usually attached to the door of a Jewish residence. The Trumps were not Jewish, but later owners of the house were. Future residents here may be from Pakistan, Zimbabwe or Miami. They might tear down the house, or they might turn it into a shrine to the 45th president. But the house will not return to normal. I am sure of that. Trump inspires only extremities of feeling. Wareham Place will never be the same. Nor will America.
Time to go. I clean up, then take the train back to Manhattan. The ride is long. I read tweets. Everything is bad and getting worse. Trump is furious, and the resistance to Trump is furious. Everyone on my train looks exhausted. Many look afraid. By the time we reach Manhattan, there could be nuclear war with North Korea, a trade war with China. Clattering along on the train pulls me out of the suburban idyll that Wareham Place represented for the Trumps and for the successive generations of homebuyers who followed them out to Jamaica Estates.
I know Jamaica Estates is not the future; that is a half-dozen stops ahead, in the jagged skyline of midtown Manhattan. This is the journey a young Donald Trump took, dreaming of bigger things than Queens. Only he did it in a chauffeured car.
UPWARDLY MOBILE: The Airbnb listing says the house will sleep 20, but that’s only if most of your guests are willing to sleep on bunk beds.
BIG BANG THEORY: The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon interviews Donald Trump and shows the Queens house where the president, according to a sign in one bedroom, “was likely conceived.”