The Trump Carousel
“The thing with kids,” Holden Caulfield said, “is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything.”
There I was, at the Central Park Carousel. Children were going up and down on the horses. The old band organ was playing a polka.
I got a funny feeling standing there. But maybe this is what happens. To paraphrase Shelby Foote’s famous understatement about Southerners and the Civil War, “New Yorkers are funny about that Carousel.”
And by funny, I mean that for some of us, nothing is as redolent of childhood — both its innocent joys and the bitterness of its loss — as that creaky old merry-go-round, and the sound of its jarring antique organ. Once, as I was walking past the Central Park Carousel with my friend John, his eyes suddenly filled with tears, and just like that he ran off in the direction of the zoo. I finally caught up with him, leaning against a tree, wiping away the tears. “I don’t want to talk about it,” he said, firmly.
Holden Caulfield was funny about it too. “All the kids kept trying to grab for the gold ring, and so was old Phoebe, and I was sort of afraid she’d fall off the goddam horse, but I didn’t say anything or do anything. The thing with kids is, if they want to grab for the gold ring, you have to let them do it, and not say anything. If they fall off, they fall off, but it’s bad if you say anything to them.”
I’m sorry, did I say Central Park Carousel? I meant to say Trump Carousel.
Actually, the official name is the Michael Friedsam Memorial Carousel, but there’s a sign on the side of the ride now that makes the branding clear: Trump Carousel Rules and Regulations. The current Republican nominee for President stepped in in 2010, after its previous tenant was evicted. And a good thing too: the pre-Trump operator let the carousel go all to hell. Controller John Liu is quoted in a NY Press story about the carousel that “the operator’s employees built a makeshift toilet in the mechanical room using buckets and a funnel.” There were complaints as well that the popcorn and hot dogs were contaminated. Nasty.
All of that changed when Trump took over. He’s committed to $400,000 in renovations. His annual lease started at $250,000 and is set to increase to $325,000 by 2020, when his lease is up.
Trump has been reluctant to provide a wide picture of his finances, most notably his taxes, but he’s been remarkably forthcoming on the matter of the merry-go-round. Between 2013 and mid 2015 the carousel grossed $1.72 million. That’s a lot of popcorn.
When I was a student of John Barth’s at Johns Hopkins in the 1980s, he used to say that the best symbols in literature are not the grandiose ones, but the simple, modest metaphors whose self-evidence just breaks your heart. One of the quests every writer embarks upon, he said, “is the search for the homely metaphor.”
Surely there’s no homelier — or more accurate — metaphor for the current state of the country than the Trump Carousel, the endless merry-go-round we’re all now on, one sustained by the candidate himself?
As Joni Mitchell once said, we’re captive on a carousel of Trump.
Some riders, upon learning of the carousel’s sponsor, want to get off.
“We bought the tickets too soon,” said a woman quoted in the NY Press article written by Daniel Fitzsimmons earlier this year. Another rider quoted in that piece noted, “If it had been something like picking which shop or café to go in, I would have picked one that wasn’t Trump.” Others said that it didn’t matter. “Not with a three year old,” said Sarah Orza, pushing a stroller.
In 2015, after Trump’s racist comments on Mexicans and immigration, the city explored ways of terminating its relationship with the Trump organization, according to the NY Press story; the license agreements do contain terminate-at-will clauses. But a DeBlasio spokeswoman says that a review of the contracts provides “no legal way to cancel.”
The Central Park Carousel, of course, isn’t the only structure that presents a moral choice to New Yorkers. If you consider Trump a threat to the future of the country, as many reasonable people do, then is it immoral to shop at Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue? Do you boycott Trump World Tower on United Nations Plaza, or The Trump Building on Wall Street, or Trump International Hotel and Tower on Columbus Circle? Surely some fraction of every dime spent in those buildings winds up in the pockets of the man who has called women like me (just to pick an example) “fat pigs,” “dogs,” and “disgusting animals.”
Personally, I don’t find it particularly difficult to boycott Trump’s businesses or buildings. There are lots of places to spend money in New York.
But the carousel is different.
Sometimes I think about my friend John, the man driven to tears by the sound of the carousel’s band organ, back in 1980. I had always thought that at that moment he’d been stabbed by the past, by the memory of everything he’d been robbed of by the passing of years.
But maybe I was wrong. Maybe, in that moment, he was having a sudden premonition of the future, of everything we had yet to lose. In the end, our innocence may be the least of it.
There’s a set of Rules posted at the entrance. On the Trump Carousel, “Everyone must pay.” John Barth would have found that metaphor satisfyingly homely — and true.
But I would like to think that the carousel — like the country itself — can outlast the foolishness of any one man, even one as colossal as Trump. As I watched the children going around on their ponies recently, their faces full of wonder, it was hard not to feel something grander than resentment.
At the end of Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield senses something like this too on his sister’s face, even as he gets drenched in the rain while he watches her. “I felt so happy all of a sudden,” he says. “the way old Phoebe kept going around and around. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.…God, I wish you could have been there.”