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Valerie McMorris writes in “I Was A Trump Taj Mahal Cocktail Waitress:”
Now, 26 years later, I look back and reflect on my personal journey and Trump’s promise of greatness. I see now that the opulence and glamour were all just bait. His rhetoric was supported by majestic surroundings, but they were financed through junk bonds. The profits that Donald Trump enjoyed were not reinvested in the building or the employees. They were shipped back up to the shore to Wall Street. That casino money flowed right out of Atlantic City and into the coffers of the billionaire hedge fund owners.
Trump Taj Mahal, Atlantic City — © Brian Rose
It was Monday around noon, almost 60 degrees at the end of November, and a scattering of people strolled the boardwalk. As I stepped down to the beach across from the Trump Taj Mahal I encountered a half dozen stray cats lounging about as if they owned the place. And in a sense they did. The Boardwalk Cats Project feeds and tends the 150 or so spayed and neutered cats. Atlantic City may be bankrupt along with many of its casinos, but the cats are doing fine.
A wall with a discreet no trespassing sign blocks passage to a stairway into the now abandoned Trump realm.
On the north end of the Boardwalk just beyond the abandoned Trump Taj Mahal, Governor Chris Christie’s tax payer supported mega project.
Two years later, the Revel is shuttered — wiping out thousands of jobs amid an economic implosion of the gambling industry here. Rather than serve as a shining example of Christie’s economic stewardship, Revel now stands as a 57-story example of failure in a city that has bedeviled New Jersey governors for decades.
There is a party, everyone is there.
Everyone will leave at exactly the same time.
Its hard to imagine that nothing at all
Could be so exciting, and so much fun.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.
— Talking Heads
The bankrupt Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City. Closed in October 2016. The beginning of a new series of photographs.
The closure of the sprawling Boardwalk casino, with its soaring domes, minarets and towers built to mimic the famed Indian historic site, cost nearly 3,000 workers their jobs, bringing the total jobs lost by Atlantic City casino closings to 11,000 since 2014. Atlantic City now has seven casinos.
Although I tend to keep politics in the background on this blog, there are times when the background and the foreground collapse into one another and it becomes impossible to separate them. So, I’d like to address the question of the appropriateness of the cast of Hamilton confronting the Vice President elect — who was attending the show — with a statement expressing their concerns about the incoming Trump administration.
Let me share a story from 1967 when I was 13 years old.
President Lyndon Johnson was in Williamsburg, Virginia to address a group of Washington journalists of the Gridiron Club. It was a roast much like the White House Correspondents Dinner, and there were the usual rhetorical jabs directed at the President amid the clubby conviviality between the press and the powers-at-be. I performed at the event as a member of the Colonial Williamsburg Fife and Drum Corps, and I remember vividly how the jokey bonhomie that evening clashed with the reality outside of constant protests against a never-ending war, and Walter Cronkite intoning the latest daily casualty figures on the evening news.
The next morning Johnson attended the Bruton Parish Church, an Episcopalian church presided over by the Reverend Cotesworth Pinkney Lewis, an eloquent, sometimes melodramatic, speaker
originally from Birmingham, Alabama. I was there with my parents as Lewis mounted the pulpit high above the congregation and directed his sermon at the President of the United States sitting just below. His remarks were respectful in tone, but the message was blunt: “there is a rather general consensus that what we are doing in Vietnam is wrong.” Lewis asked why the war continued to drag on and why there did not seem to be a concerted effort to end it.
Johnson, of course, was a captive audience to Lewis’s criticism, ambushed, some said in a house of worship, and Reverend Lewis came under fierce criticism in the national media. The governor of Virginia and the local vestry felt the need to apologize for his breech of protocol. But as far as I know, Lewis never apologized. A year later Johnson announced that he would not run for a second term. James Jones, President Johnson’s chief of staff wrote years later in the Times: “Mr. Johnson had begun to doubt our ability to prosecute the war to any clear-cut victory.” Precisely the criticism made by Reverend Lewis at Bruton Parish.
As a young teenager I considered Lewis something of a pompous ass, in love with hearing himself speak from on high, delivering well-tuned platitudes that soothed the earnest complacency of those filling the pews below. But Lewis broke from his habitual cautiousness that day, his conscience aroused, he seized what he knew was a once in a lifetime moment, and challenged the President of the United States on the prosecution of the war in Vietnam. Lewis’s church was not a safe space that day.
So, when I see the cast of Hamilton stand up and respectfully challenge Mike Pence in the sanctuary of a Broadway theater, I think back to that day in Virginia in 1967. Sometimes it is necessary to disturb the normally observed conventions, to break the fourth wall when the opportunity presents itself, and confront those whose words and actions promote intolerance and threaten our principles and our rights. May there be no safe spaces over the next four years for Mike Pence or Donald Trump.
Reverend Lewis closed his 1967 sermon to Lyndon Johnson with these words:
“The years ahead will be painful. Customs which seem an essential part of life may have to be given up. Opinions we have held tenaciously may be proven false. Physical and emotional landmarks may be swept aside. We may be compelled to think new thoughts and walk in new paths. Emerging young men and women who will gradually take over must have more understanding than we have had. Necessity will compel them to rise to greater heights than we have known. The future looks terrible; but with guidance from God (as in every strategic juncture of history) He will infuse the essential factor into the equation – something we could never suspect as a possibility – to make the future glorious.”
Post election New York. Despite the shocking result — Trump mustered barely 10% in Manhattan where his fraudulent antics have been known for decades — beauty is still to be found in the ordinary. The morning sun glints off of aluminum studs stacked upright in a construction supply business. Hearts pop colorfully (maybe cheerfully) from the doorway of a bar as a figure darts by. Two pictures, less than 30 seconds apart.
An article and portfolio of my photographs from WTC on Untapped Cities, a web journal about New York City.
WTC is book about the Twin Towers, their presence and absence, and the rebuilding of the city after September 11.
It is also a tribute to New Yorkers and all who carry a piece of the great city with them. It is a book that commemorates rather than exploits, a book that preserves memories, both painful and hopeful, and celebrates, however cautiously, the resilience of this city in the face of adversity.
Purchase WTC here.
Close up of Folk City 20th anniversary flyer (1979)
4-11-61 Robert Dylan
In many respects, Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in literature is an affirmation of what those in my songwriter circle have been doing for decades – crafting songs in which music and lyrics interlock in poetic balance. Is it literature, or something else? Certainly, Dylan’s lyrics were not meant to stand alone on the page, though many of his lines and phrases have become as familiar as Shakespeare or the Bible.
My old friend, the songwriter Jack Hardy, now deceased, would have probably sneered at Dylan’s Nobel accolade – after all, in Jack’s demimonde of folk music, Dylan was a sellout. He was/is a pop star of tremendous fame and fortune. That makes him a problematic figure to some, but I see his hyper success, to a great extent, as a product of the 60s, when songwriters and rock bands burst onto the scene promoted by an expanding record industry and the rich diversity of free form radio. He tapped into the cultural revolution of the moment – as did the Beatles – and his songs were disruptive and catalytic, both in social and aesthetic terms.
It’s harder now. There are a million more opportunities to get one’s work out there, which is a good thing, but the method of distribution is atomized, and audiences break down into smaller and smaller niches. The shared experience of a stunning new song crackling across the airwaves such as “Like a Rolling Stone” or “Tangled up in Blue” is largely a thing of the past. We now rely on youtube videos, streaming music, or other electronic forms of connective tissue.
For many songwriters that also means doing it the old fashioned way, playing to people directly, making tours of small clubs and even living rooms. And in fact, the kind of song that Bob Dylan mastered was the outgrowth of an oral tradition deeply rooted in western culture, cross-pollinated by influences from the African diaspora in North America. Jack Hardy would have called it the bardic tradition (minus the lyres and leprechauns, please), and he was right. The kind of song that Dylan cultivated and ultimately transcended was based on an ancient means of lyrical communication that pre-dates what we think of now as literature.
So, I’d like to think that the Nobel committee has recognized one of the greatest and most complex artists of our time not so much for extending the boundaries of literature, but for reconnecting us to the roots of literature itself.
Passing through Cleveland on the way to Oberlin, Ohio we stopped in an area called Hingetown west of the city’s Warehouse District. Had a great coffee at Rising Star Coffee Roasters in an old firehouse. Across the street was a mural by Cleveland artist Joe Lanzilotta.
We traveled Upstate to visit colleges last weekend — my son is a high school senior — and he is looking at various options. We stopped briefly at Bard, a couple hours up the Hudson from New York City, and walked around Frank Gehry’s auditorium with its billowing metallic sheathing. The grey silvery material melded with a lowering sky as if threatening to fly off in the wind.
The launch of WTC took place at Cooper Union in the Great Hall, the famous room where Abraham Lincoln gave his “right makes might” speech. It was an honor to present my book there as an alumnus of Cooper, and it seemed the right place for a book so interwoven with the history of New York.
Sean Corcoran of the Museum of the City of New York gave an introduction, and I then walked the audience through the book, reading excerpts from the text. Afterwards, we adjourned to the lobby for refreshments, and I signed books with my son, Brendan, helping make sales. Thanks everyone who made this possible, my Kickstarter backers, friends and family, New Yorkers.
WTC is available here.
This is what 2,000 books looks like when stacked nine boxes high. 169 boxes in all. Your first thought when they arrive is — what have I done?! — and then they fit exactly as determined weeks ago when they were on a container ship slowly making their way to New York. So, no surprises.
The moment of truth is here. Please join me for the book launch in Cooper Union’s Great Hall. I will be doing a slide talk, taking questions, and there will be a reception afterwards with books available for purchase and signing. See you there!
WTC Book Launch
September 8, 6:30pm
The Great Hall
7 East 7th Street
New York City
Save the date — September 8th — for the launch of WTC! Books are in the port of New York and should arrive soon.
WTC Book Launch
The Great Hall at Cooper Union
7 East 7th Street
New York, NY
6:30pm (until about 8pm)
Slide talk and book signing afterwards
Light refreshments served
This is it folks. Advance copies of WTC have arrived from the printer, and — what can I say — the book is stunning. The original design for the cover had the letters WTC dissolving into a close-up of the skin of one of the Twin Towers, symbolic of their disappearance and ghostly presence. But we decided to go with silver reflective letters that almost float above the matte background. The effect is stronger, more iconic. It is simple, elegant, and I think, powerful.
The spine and endpapers are a cool blue, taken from wedge of sky seen between the Twin Towers in one of the images. The photographs and text blocks are a consistent scale with white borders throughout except for the bleed images that break up the different sections. This is a book to be read — both the writing and the imagery.
I am very proud of WTC. It is the third in a trilogy of books about New York City. It is the culmination of a lifetime of observing the urban landscape and architecture, the center stage for human endeavor. It is a story both personal and shared — this great city and the tragedy that befell it 15 years ago. It is an attempt to honor and commemorate even in this moment of public vulgarity and corrosive discourse.
The official release of WTC is September 8th. I will be providing more information about the launch later. In the meantime, the book can be pre-ordered on my website.