Growing Up at Trump Towers
“There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter — the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something….Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.” — E.B. White
Every month, I stop at Trump Towers to pick up my father’s mail. My father, who has not resided on a full-time basis at Trump Towers for the duration of his thirty-year apartment ownership, does not trust the reliability of the government run U.S Postal Service. His skepticism has resulted in my monthly journey from the Upper West Side via CitiBike, down Central Park West and around Columbus Circle where I eventually dock my bike in front of the Plaza Hotel and approach the looming midtown tower. Every month, I walk through the lobby where the doormen tip their hats at me and hand off a thick package of mail stored in a designer shopping bag leftover from one of the residents. I remove the bundle of mostly advertisements from the bag, slip it into a backpack along with my reawakened memories of once living at the midtown megaplex and continue with my day.
Spanning over 58 floors, the commercial and residential sides of Trump Towers have consistently solicited universal attention since 1984. The playful clothing displays of Alessandro Michele’s Gucci patterns greet the commercial side visitors, setting the tone for what is to come inside. The interior is encrusted in blinding bright gold plating and is full of boutiques, dramatic fountains, musical performances, a subpar café and an occasional pigeon led astray on its crosstown flight. This side is the quintessential combination of an accessible public space full of inaccessible items for sale. You too can partake in the Trump brand.
The private, residential side sings a different tune. Swing a left on 56th Street and 5th Avenue and you are transported into another world, whether financially verified or not, of a very particular sect of the population. The floor to ceiling walls consisting of dark black glass dually asserts a machismo tone while also making it visually impossible to clearly distinguish the faces of its inhabitants. Any bustle of tourists, taxis, or tumult from the outside streets of New York are replaced with a pin drop silence. There are no families bustling around with groceries from Fairway or giggling teenagers in their Everlane athleisure ensembles. There are no elderly men in berets and Burberry trench coats taking their dachshunds for an evening walk or children dribbling basketballs in the lobby. There is merely an occasional foreign businessman, who may or may not be laundering offshore money through Egon Schiele paintings, gliding through the lobby wearing dark sunglasses and an Eastern European model on his arm.
The residents of Trump Towers are residents for the discretion the building affords. This isn’t the sort of discretion factored into the pre-war buildings of the Upper East Side or the modern colossals tucked away in Hudson Yards or Billionaire’s Row. At the foundation of Trump Towers is a loyal staff of doormen, elevator men, and concierge cloaked in black suits, white gloves and postal boy hats, whose sole purpose is to ensure their residents’ personal and/or professional affairs are kept under the radar. It is the staff that facilitates a domicile where its residents can anonymously exist within the literal shadows of its deep mauve colored carpet lined hallways.
My Midwestern father, the son of Turkish immigrants, didn’t fit into the customary category of Trump Tower residents. His parents, former manufacturing workers in a Goodyear Tire plant, saved enough money to humbly invest in his growing real estate business. This investment gave him leverage to elevate into the ranks of the growing upper middle class of the early nineties. The economy was booming under Bill Clinton, so much so that someone like my father could make buying an apartment in New York a reality. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t a Wall Street trader or foreign raconteur. What mattered to him was the dream an apartment in a building like Trump Towers represented. He too, could be a part of the financial elite who played the markets and ate Chilean Sea Bass in Southampton on a Saturday in August. He was a part of the other America who were in quest of something else. He didn’t want the wholesome quiet suburban home with the white picket fence and a yellow Labrador retriever. This was the other America who wanted the high-rise apartment, the Armani silk suit, and an open tab at the Oak Room. This was the other America who believed if they could associate themselves with a brand, they too could have that dream.
Growing up, my family loved to visit New York. The more often we visited, the more likely the chance was that we would someday live here. That one day, we would join members of the population who lived in tiny apartments without a washer & dryer and shopped at Citarella. From the age of five, at least twice a year, we filled up our green Ford Tauris and ventured on an eight-hour drive on the I80 from Akron, Ohio to New York City. Of course, it always took longer than eight hours; there were two children on board howling for pee breaks and banana chocolate chip pancakes from Perkins. Sometimes there were torrential hailstorms; other times a twelve-car pileup caused by a Poconos blizzard. Regardless of the weather conditions and food stops, we always made it. Always in the dead of the night. Except the City was never dead, it felt immortal.
Typically, we stayed at the Sheraton Hotel on 52nd Street and 6th Avenue. This was still a period when concierges and bellboys cared about service, and it didn’t matter whether you stayed at a Sheraton in Midtown or the Carlyle on the Upper East Side. Service was hospitality; the customer was king. We always ended up with the same bellboy, “Nick”, who made it his priority to ensure extra chocolates were left on my pillow. The Sheraton was the first place I had ever spent the night other than my childhood home in Ohio. I treated it as my second home, swinging a Skip-It around my ankles in the corridors while carrying Beanie Babies purchased from the lobby giftshop. Eloise at the Plaza Hotel was nothing compared to Amy at the Midtown Sheraton.
Our trips always centered around “old New York” activities inspired by movie characters like Dean Martin or Barbara Streisand. The advantage of spending most of the year living in Akron, Ohio was the financial liberty it afforded us on our trips to New York. When we were not looking for an apartment to buy, things like seafood towers and Shirley Temples at Gallagher’s, Cats on Broadway and ice skating at Wollman Rink filled our time. We had a family tradition of getting haircuts on our biannual trips to New York, as if our hometown somehow was deficient of hair stylists. All of the models get their hair cut in New York my father would proclaim; as if my nine-year-old blunt too short bangs resembled anything like that of a model’s.
And then it all changed on one apartment hunting trip in 1997. It was Christmas Eve, and my family was finishing up their shopping at F.A.O. Schwartz when we naively stopped to watch a magic trick happening outside the store. A couple of hands later and my father was pickpocketed $500 in cash. Being Christmas Eve, the banks were closed and A.T.M. machines were just gaining in popularity. Unsurprisingly, the same man who doesn’t trust the U.S. Postal Service was also a late adapter of credit cards. In those days, he operated solely in cash.
We returned to the hotel defeated by the City’s underbelly, the bitter truth my family never wanted to believe or accept. Just like clockwork, Nick left chocolates on our pillows and arranged my Beanie Babies by size on my rollaway twin bed. It felt different this time, New York had wronged us. We just wanted to retreat home, to Akron and repress this beautiful nightmare. My father being my father never accepted defeat. That same night he went on a walk and returned with a large pizza comped from the guys at Ray’s “Original” Pizza and a voicemail from our real estate agent. The owner of an apartment at Trump Towers accepted my father’s offer to buy his one bedroom on the 33rd floor. As quickly as New York had burned my father, it reeled him back in just as the doubts were settling. What was $500 when you’ve achieved your dream?
We were now tasked with doing what every other New York property investor had to do — find a tenant. Cut to Peter (“Pete”) Moceo, our first and infamous tenant of 721 5th Avenue. Pete arrived at Trump Towers with a glistening olive tan from his summer in Naples and a briefcase of cash. My sister and I joked that Pete looked like an Italian “Uncle Fester”, short and stubby with a shiny bald head. He had a thick Long Island Italian accent and always paid my father rent upfront, above market and in cash. We never asked questions. Not out of fear of the truth but out of thrill.
We didn’t know how he made his money or anything about his upbringing. What we did know was that he had a dream like many New York transplants to start a new life in the City. Just like my father, renting an apartment in Trump Towers would afford him the respect he desired. A step in the right direction. And that direction was launching a rice pudding empire.
Anyone who knew Pete knew his passion for rice pudding was obsessive. He spoke endlessly about how he wanted to bring the local Neapolitan delicacy to New York. At that time, he was still in the early excitement stages of his dream, chittering with nervous energy about the food revolution he was about to launch downtown. On every trip to New York, we’d always make time to visit Pete. He felt like a quirky uncle whose passion was affectatious. He took us along his rice pudding journey, piled in a yellow cab into the depths of the Bowery, through Little Italy, searching for shop locations. He vividly described the gemstone colors of the shop and the pea sized shape of the reusable spoons. But what really mattered to us were the flavors. Pete introduced us to test kitchens all around Manhattan to try out different recipes. This wasn’t just going to be your normal vanilla bean rice pudding. Customers would have options. 16 options to choose from. The flavors would be named quirky euphemisms like “Oreogasm” and “Sex Drugs and Rocky Road”. Pete could make anything sound appealing.
Five years and hundreds of recipes later, Pete finally opened Rice to Riches, tucked away on the corner of Spring and Mott. Soho-ites and tourists alike flocked into the shop that was both futuristic and nostalgic. A multicolored arch with flashing disco-colored lights beckoned guests to expand their palatal construct of rice pudding. Rice to Riches launched just as “froyo” began to peak in popularity; projecting Pete’s dream into reality. He brought an Italian delicacy to New York and shaped it into his own. His apartment at Trump Towers filled with boxes of shop merchandise and test flavors. Pete was ready to expand. He was ready to take on Cold Stone. He was ready for an empire.
Then, just two years after the launch, my father received a call on a Thursday morning in February. Pete had been indicted for running a $21 Million gambling ring in his Long Island hometown; the largest gambling operation in Suffolk County. His co-defendant was a concierge at Trump Towers. After the story broke, the feds seized Pete’s assets forcing him to move out of our apartment. He disappeared into legal battles, never to be heard from again. There would be no riches from Pete’s rice or ring.
Coincidentally, Pete’s exodus timed perfectly with my acceptance to New York University. As he faced trial, I, a fresh college student, faced the prospect of my father’s empty pied- à-terre. To celebrate the end of my high school career and college embarquement, my father threw me a graduation party at the cocktail lounge next door, Trump Bar. For the first time, I understood why my father loved Trump Towers. That night, eight of my friends wore clothes too expensive for our budgets, makeup too heavy for our fresh faces and ordered cocktails solely based on cultural references. It was 2009, the prime of Gossip Girl. We drank Cosmopolitans and Appletinis, running around the gold encrusted escalator within the commercial side of the Tower. We didn’t care who the residents of Trump Tower were or what the brand represented. We were eighteen (I, seventeen) and drinking at a cocktail bar. Nothing else mattered.
In the initial months of my freshman year at NYU, I joined my father on the Trump Towers wave. In a university full of students from around the world, the sons and daughters of diplomats and Hollywood directors, I too wanted to stand out. Growing up in the Midwest was a disadvantage, I told myself. Who cared about Akron, Ohio when you had an apartment in Trump Towers? And so, I began the revisionist project so many New York transplants take on. I struck out memories of bonfires and firefly catching in the Cuyahoga Valley and replaced them with vivid descriptions of the one week of one childhood summer spent in Montauk, slurping freshly shucked oysters at Gurney’s. I wasn’t from the Midwest, I was a real New Yorker and had the apartment to prove it.
That apartment saw a lot under my watch as I came of age, experimenting with the different types of person I could become. During the summers, my international friends stored their dorm room boxes in its closets. I wrote thesis papers on game theory while scheming how I could pull off getting an internship at the United Nations. I snuck in a series of boyfriends past the concierge, though my romances were the least of his concern. We played house in that glass room surrounded by Midtown’s BDE; eating strawberry cheesecake from Carnegie Deli in bed, drinking miscellaneous bottles of alcohol gifted to my father. Regardless, if it was Hennessy or Grey Goose, we drank it straight, from Pete’s crystal champagne glasses that the Feds chose not to confiscate. Other times were spent wallowing over breakups from those same boyfriends. I chased my anxiety away on a treadmill at the Trump Gym on the 52nd floor, water bottle with Trump’s face plastered on it in hand.
Contrary to his dream, my father never did end up living in the City full time. Perhaps his reasoning behind maintaining a mailing address at 721 5th Avenue was symbolic. If he kept the mailing address, the dream of living in New York would remain tangible. He made up for his absence by throwing parties whenever he was in town, inviting an eccentric troupe of acquaintances he had met in and around the City. His magnetic personality allowed him to befriend interesting personalities in places like the Baccarat hotel lobby, Sotheby’s auctions, and cigar parties at Club Macanudo. Some of his parties celebrated birthdays or holidays; others were just a celebration of his temporary existence in New York. All were invited to these parties, and all had their role. An ex-pro boxer shared conspiracy theories. An art dealer showed off his Picassos on the 42nd floor. A psychic who ran a Buddhist shop downtown gave readings to guests in the master bedroom. My father’s parties guaranteed a heavy flow of Chianti, trays of baked ziti and meatballs catered from Carmine’s in Times Square and a good time. In a way, he was living the youth that he always wanted, full of parties with interesting people and food in what he considered was the best city in the world. He wanted the life that I lived, as a now seasoned New Yorker. Those few years while the apartment sat vacant were exhilarating for the both of us. We were both living our dreams of trying to become settlers in a city so unlike our hometown.
At some point, the glamour of Trump Towers faded away as I eased into the person I wanted to be, not the person I thought I had to be. It was time to break free from my father’s dream and build a life of my own in New York. People move to New York to either shed their former selves or become more of their real selves. I needed to remind myself why I moved to New York and how I wanted to shape my experience, not how others would shape it for me. What passion, did I, a settler, have to offer? I was so caught up in looking at my classmates’ biodata, I missed that we were actually all in the same boat. We all attended college in New York and had the same opportunities to seize what New York had to offer, regardless of our upbringing.
In 2015 a new tenant moved into the apartment, ending our debaucheries. When Donald Trump announced that he was running for president in 2016, at an early GOP debate viewing party at the Stonewall Inn, I enlightened friends on memories of running into Donald and Melania in the elevator over the years. My connection to Trump and Trump Towers was still naively novel; merely a past time that required no further dwelling. I subsequently moved to Los Angeles and for the first time in almost twenty years, was physically detached from the building. I archived the apartment in my memory box and rarely thought about the apartment that meant so much to my father, to Pete and at one time even to me.
Until November 2016. My fond memories suddenly transformed into embarrassment. Although my father disapproved of Trump the president, he still loved Trump Towers. Those four years of his presidency created a deep rift in our relationship. While I struggled to disassociate myself from the brand, my father stood by his apartment, refusing to sell or downplay his association with the building. When I moved back to New York in 2019, I begrudgingly resumed my mail courier services. Instead of walking through the glamourized couture branded streets of 5th Avenue, I was hit with police barricades and bomb sniffing German Shepherds. I felt betrayed by the building staff. Once the keeper of my mischiefs, were now complicit in Trump’s actions. Was I also complicit with my monthly visits? The physical trauma of the police ridden surroundings, the trigger of what the Trump name, the building had become was jarring. I hated that I was forcibly connected to a man who represented so much hate and bigotry. How could my father, the son of immigrants, a Muslim, stand by this building, by this man?
Exactly one year has passed since the electoral college deemed Joe Biden the 46th President of the United States. Of the past year, it is only within the most recent months that I have been able to revisit my past with Trump Towers. After a long self-imposed mail strike, I resumed my courier role and found that 56th Street was open again for traffic to pass through. Like the former president, the barriers have disappeared into a distant abyss of increasingly unrecognizable memories. There is a lightness amongst the staff as well. They too are relieved the circus has concluded, allowing them to resume the role they initially signed up for, as the staff of a prestigious New York residence.
With Trump’s presidency behind me, I have had space to reflect on 721 5th Avenue. As I mended my relationship with my father, I began to recognize the vast difference between our New York journeys. As much as I was embarrassed to start at NYU with a Midwestern upbringing, I still would graduate with the same degree as my classmates. My privilege afforded me a world of opportunities. I was guaranteed a certain level of respect and acceptance that my father, a middle class, first generation, Muslim American raised in Ohio, didn’t have. He had to build that respect for himself by buying an apartment in a building everyone recognized. He bought an apartment brand, and I bought the university brand. It was never about Donald Trump, or Trump Towers; it was about creating a seat for our family at the New York table.
Of all our memories spent at Trump Towers, the first night we spent there is the fondest. Just like our previous road trips, we got into New York late into the evening. But this time we didn’t have Nick to greet us with chocolates. I suspiciously watched the concierge fasten my stuffed animals onto the luggage trolly and takeoff in a gold-plated spaceship to the 33rd floor. When we unlocked the front door, the apartment was empty. Our furniture order from Macy’s was delayed. We ended up spending the first night in our brand-new prestigious Manhattan apartment camped out on the floor eating burgers from Burger Heaven and sleeping on a makeshift mattress constructed from t-shirts and pajamas. But no one slept that night. Not from discomfort, or noise from incessant fire truck sirens, but from excitement. We did it. We were New Yorkers.