Trump Cleaners Inc.
My father used to be a dry cleaner. In 1964, after selling a small store in Nassau County, Long Island, he hoped to open something new. Working with a broker, he found an excellent location in a shopping centre in an apartment complex that was going up in Brooklyn, right off Neptune Avenue, a few blocks from Coney Island. In those years Coney Island was being superseded by more daring, more modern theme parks, the beach was unclean and the perception that New York had become unsafe was amplified in the outer boroughs. The new middle-income construction, subsidised by the State of New York, promised to anchor the neighbourhood.
The seven-building complex was called Trump Village. My father’s store was being incorporated as Trump Cleaners. It would be the first and only dry cleaner’s in the shopping centre. In addition to the rent stipulated in the lease, Fred Trump demanded $10,000 up front. The sum would have to be paid in non-taxable cash and handled discreetly. Closing the deal, somewhat anxious about carrying so much dough, my dad took it to the property office in a shoebox, which thus entered family folklore, with folklore's attendant unreliability. (‘Hey, watch what you write!’ my 95-year-old father now says. ‘I don’t want to go to jail.’) He handed it to Fred Trump’s ‘money man’ (he isn’t sure now whether Fred Trump was in the room), and in return received the key to the empty storefront.
It was by no means a bad deal, except for the tax-collecting authorities struggling to keep New York City financially afloat. After my father installed the fixtures and Secomatic equipment, Trump Cleaners prospered. Even though I was only about 10, I came in during summer to help out. For a small boy, a dry cleaner’s is almost like an enchanted forest. The plastic-sheathed clothes that hung from the winding racks dangled high above my head, shimmering, and clung at me as I passed through the aisles, a customer’s ticket in hand. I’d occasionally be fairy-tickled by a tendril of static. The glade was rich in the clean steam smell of the pressing machine, and the astringent, not unpleasant odour of the dry-cleaning fluid (which, however, was possibly a carcinogen). As young as I was, I was allowed to operate the cash register, where I learned to make change quickly, before the customers could find flaws in the cleaning.
Trump Cleaners occupied a single lot in a subdivided retail building that was called, in former New York parlance, a ‘taxpayer’, which is kind of ironic, considering. There was a delicatessen next door and a few other small shops, whose owners must have delivered their own shoeboxes. From my place behind the counter, Trump Village’s 23-storey towers seemed as drab and monotonous as those in any other outer-borough contemporary apartment complex. I’m surprised to learn now that the buildings were designed by Morris Lapidus, who also built the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, the embodiment of a certain kind of 1960s glamour.
According to the New York Times, after the Trumps removed two of the towers from an affordable housing programme, they fraudulently undervalued them to avoid taxes. They had previously been found to have excluded black tenants: a 1967 state investigation found only seven African American families in Trump Village’s 3700 apartments.
My father dutifully paid his rent every month and, a few years later, sold the business to buy another dry-cleaning store in Chelsea. The next owner dropped the Trump brand. We didn’t have anything to do with Fred Trump again, and Fred Trump no doubt never gave a thought to us, but we would continue to recall our brief encounter with the corrupt leviathan powers that ruled New York, as they grew wealthier and more corrupt with every passing year.