American Almanac 2016

Weeks before Donald Trump took his oath of office, writer Gus Kalantiaw went to Washington D.C. and New York to see America’s changing landscape and discovered how its storied past haunts its uncertain future.

by Gus Kalantiaw, photo by J Santos Dago

Weeks before Donald J. Trump took his oath of office last January 20, writer Gus Kalantiaw went to Washington D.C. and New York to see America’s changing landscape and discovered how its storied past haunts its uncertain future./h3>

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It was entirely by accident that I encountered Donald Trump along Pennsylvania Avenue in DC. It was my first time taking the Metro subway, and I got off a station away from where I needed to be. The Trump Hotel, just like the Trump White House just blocks away, was still weeks away from occupation. Trump had won just 4.1% of the vote in Washington D.C., yet a parade would soon be held in his honor along its most famous street.

 

This night, Trump Hotel was mostly left alone. The exception was a group of young white males. Of course we can’t leave town without having our picture here. They asked me to take the picture. They were all smiles and whooping, but it was hard to tell if they were sardonic or worshipful. Had I certified they were not Trump fans, I would not have minded dropping a Fuck Trump bomb. But because I was unsure, I was conscious of the risk that I, who did not look like them, could be on the other end of a Trump-fueled rage.

 

I was still bitter about the election result, and in no particular mood to search for the Trump voter. One e-mail I got said, If you decide to meet X in New York and you end up talking politics, just know that he’s a Republican. I did not make plans.

 

I took the Amtrak to New York City. I was of that sort who were taking in the election results on a per-county basis, so I knew that in between DC, Philadelphia, and New York City, there was a lot of red. It was early morning in America when I passed through those towns with their single-story wood framed houses dotted around windmills. Their fault, their fault, I muttered without empathy.

***

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It did not immediately dawn on me that the young men and women in red jackets were the vaunted interns of American comedy lore. That afternoon, their role was not to draw laughs – the four widescreens at the theater lobby playing a loop of the best of Colbert sketches was expected to do the job of distracting the audience in the two hours or so they were to stand line before they could take their seats. The weather outside, though not spiteful, was cold enough to pose a health hazard had CBS fostered a publicity-friendly line outside the theater. Thus, everybody was packed into the lobby – there were two shows to be consecutively taped that day – and the shoulders pinned against shoulders generated enough heat to mildly warm over some chestnuts.

 

They let us in, and the audience was duly prepped for primetime by a stand-up comic whose duty it was to be funny enough, but not as funny as Stephen. Colbert emerged after the band warmed up. What they don’t show on TV are the questions that the four lucky audience members get to ask Stephen. Three of these questions were about Donald Trump. One lady asked f Stephen was afraid that he would be censored by the Trump administration. Stephen’s answer involved an upright middle finger and a suggestion that Trump could stick it where the sun don’t shine. The audience roared approvingly, which I did not wholly expect. Earlier, while compressed in the theater lobby, I had overheard enough backstories from the others in line. No one, it seemed, was from New York; no one, it seemed, invested focused efforts to see Colbert as opposed to any of the other entertainers who filmed in New York. There surely were Trump voters in this group, but no one was obnoxious about it, not today.

 

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This was the same theater where, over fifty years earlier, many girls were memorialized on black and white videotape as they screamed to dehydration at John, Paul, George, and Ringo the night they first Brexited into America. Today, it was that lumberjack-bearded Michael Stipe, that ageing hipster enabled by but quite distanced from The Beatles. It’s the end of the world as we know it, he and Stephen sang, but with the lyrics given that Billy Joel Fire treatment. It ultimately of course was about Trump, and those for whom he was disgust, their karaoke rendition was cathartic. It’s the end of the world as we know it.

***

I hope someday you’d join us, and the world will live as one.

 

I had not planned on paying homage to John Lennon at the Dakota. I was not old enough to know of him when he died; I was not impressed by that kumbaya nonsense that is “Imagine.” Yet when the tour guide announced that the bus would glance by the spot where Lennon was shot, I climbed to the unroofed upper level of the double decker to catch an unimpeded view. The wind chill was well below zero. I stared at the Dakota Apartments with the now-familiar feeling of ice water on the verge of bursting through my larynx.

 

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Sam, the bus tour guide, I could sense, was not chill into Lennon. His recital of the facts of the case, and the succeeding enumeration of eminent residents of the Dakota, was by-the-book. Sam admitted having read the book just six months earlier, after having been hired as a tour guide after a lifetime of doing other things. One of those things, he explained as he pointed to one of the brick edifices along Central Park West, was serve as the physical therapist of one of the old Jewish ladies who had bought her apartment for cheap when the neighborhood was less than toney. He served her faithfully until her death, and I guess he loved her (though not in that way).

 

When the bus passed by the Trump Towers at Columbus Circle, Sam had even less to say. There are actually two Trump Towers in New York City, he offered. This was one of them. And not a word more. The only people of color on that bus were Sam and me.

 

Sam though became absolutely invigorated as the bus entered Harlem. This was his town. He pointed at the streets where he had grown up, where Satchmo lived, where little Michael Jackson had wowed his first crowd. When the bus stopped beside a non-descript government office, Sam rhapsodized at length over Adam Clayton Powell, the congressman after whom the office building was named, the only prominent African-American congressman for decades. I did know who the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell was (I did memorize the Presidents of the United States in chronological order by the age of 7), but I did not let on my secret knowledge to Sam.

 

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I got off the bus at the Guggenheim, and soon was walking that vaunted Museum Mile – Fifth Avenue sidelined by Central Park. By deliberation, it was a slow and timeless stroll that one hopes is sufficiently embedded in the head for future cameos in dreams. I ended up at the Met, and at MOMA. I should add that this trip featured my first ever encounter with the works of any of the American or European “masters,” and that realization bore on me in every gallery I stepped in.

 

The one piece of art that had surprised me was Washington Crossing the Delaware, by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, hanging at the Met. The image has been forever familiar, but what was unexpected was its enormous size – over six meters wide and three meters high. Big Cheese Washington is stalwart forward, his men (no women) stoic, all of them depicted in clean lines – no doubtful brushstrokes of the impressionists here. There are no complicated textures. It is a terrible piece of art, yet its gaudy confidence propagandizing an overblown myth cannot be ignored, cannot be unseen despite the most fleeting of glances. It is the Twitter account of Donald Trump on canvas.

 

Almost every conversation you would overhear, from pedestrians waiting for the light to turn green, from diners letting their coffee go cold as they ranted, was all about the President-elect of the United States. Mostly, the tone is of resignation – he will be President and we will be doomed. The less morose, more assertive voices were from those talking to nobody in particular, standing on ledges or steps or stools, holding cardboard signs. Fuck Trump! Fuck Trump!, they would declaim. There were two such protesters along Fifth Avenue, just across where Trump Tower stood out as the darkest of thumbs. On that day though, New Yorkers rushing to get home gave them barely a stare and none of a cheer. A New Yorker tries to be unperturbed over sights in the streets or in the subway, such as the giant pool of blood that I saw commuters doing their best to step around later that day in Time Square-42nd Street Station.

 

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I did not linger at or near Trump Tower; this was the best I could get at civil disobedience. I proceeded instead, as intended, to the Museum of Modern Art. Admission was free since it was a late Friday. There was a crowd of young, ethnically diverse men and women. Several of them were in the habit of staring at the paintings, inhibited from movement until the secrets of the art had moved them. Many of the works at the MOMA were acquired by Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal New York Republican who later became Vice-President of the United States. Decades later, those pieces he selected quenched the thirst of those who retreated into this oasis of good taste, fleeing from the sensibilities of that very different kind of New York Republican holding court at Fifth Avenue.

***

I had not planned as well to drop by St. Patrick’s Cathedral, yet it seemed like a good idea – an antidote to the Mordor of Fifth Avenue. As you step in, before you can kneel at a pew, you must first submit yourself to the metal detectors.

 

The buzz inside was frantic, not contemplative. I was too tired to kneel, yet I still staked out a spot at the center of the church, far enough from the holiday-minded tourists. There was much to think about – to discuss even. I was thankful for the unexpected physical strength the last several days. For a few months now, I had been saddled with intermittent back pains – often innocuous but sometimes debilitating. I had not gone to see a doctor yet – that would wait until after I had returned from America. Yet the mind could not help but dwell on the worst-case scenarios, after a lifetime of chain-smoking and downing canned meats. If this were it, would it not be such a bad time to go, when the liberal democracy was gasping its lasts gasps? Human rights, civil rights — you had deemed indispensable and enabling to the kind of society you were proud to be a part of, dependent, it turns out, on the willingness of men elected to government to prop them up.

 

The other high-tech gadgetry at St. Patrick’s other than the metal detectors was a kiosk where the faithful could key in greetings and petitions. “Good health,” “peace on Earth,” these were the ilk. I identified myself as from the Philippines, and typed in a one-word plea to God. Duterte.

***

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It was 5 in the morning, and it had been snowing while I slept. This was my last day in America, and I, hauling my luggage, trudging in the dark, across a snow-swept outdoor plaza. I never did buy proper snow gear, and this morning, I was paying for it. My ears were ready to snap off. My steps were slow, cautious as one walking atop a frozen pond. And all around me that solitary morning were the names of over a thousand dead, etched where they were crushed to death.

 

I just wanted to get from where I was, luggage in tow, to the Oculus. From the Oculus, I could catch the train to Newark Airport. The hotel clerk had assured me that walking to the Oculus was the best option. She herself made that walk every day. I told her that I had seen snow for the first time only days earlier; she laughed.

 

I had been at the World Trade Center memorial a few days earlier, in daylight, when people strolled and posed for selfies as they would at a park. This time it was dark, this time I was utterly alone. This time, I did not pause to think about the evil or the sorrow, or to read the names now obscured by the snow. I did imagine, if I slipped and fell and hit my head, or if I simply froze to death at the World Trade Center memorial, my plight could very well be a pithy headline inside the pages of the New York Post.

 

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The Oculus is an impressive glistening white shell, its pristineness highlighted at the height of the sunrise when the establishments of commerce are shielded by light-colored shutters. This was 1940s MGM wishful thinking of what the gates of heaven must be like. Perhaps they imagined the lost souls of September 11 would stray in here and find the restful paradise we all like to imagine at the end of it all. For those still living, though, in a world where fear now trumps all, the Oculus is but a momentary distraction that one needs to get past, on the way to New Jersey.