Déjà Vu in the Outer Boroughs

President Trump and I were both born in the outer boroughs of New York, I in Brooklyn, he in Queens, in approximately the same era. In those days, Brooklyn was low, compared to Manhattan, or The City, as it was called, and Queens lower still.  (This was, of course, way before Brooklyn became a hipster Mecca; for me and my peers, it was a place to leave.) Mr Trump retains his thick outer boroughs accent. I am still identifiable as a New Yorker, more, I think because of velocity than vowels, but I don’t speak like Mr Trump, even though I am somewhat older than he is. Essentially, when I hear the president speak, I think of my dad’s generation, and I wonder why. Why should a man five years younger than me speak like someone a generation older?

When I hear that voice I’m transported back to my dad’s fruit and produce warehouse, where as a child I spent many a Sunday afternoon, while my dad was on the phone ordering carloads of celery. Produce never sleeps, as you know. Like most little boys, I was fascinated by big trucks and so I spent a good deal of time out on the loading docks, where the drivers hung out, waiting for their trucks to be loaded. 

In those days, male adults more or less ignored children unless they got underfoot, so I had the freedom of the place, and it was easy to climb into the niches that occurred transiently in the stacks of melon or orange crates and observe.  The guys would smoke incessantly and talk; in cold weather they would pass a flat pint around and light a fire-barrel. 

They wore cloth caps and leather jackets, with union buttons on the caps; the World War II vets, of whom there were many, often added the little gold eagle in a circle that for some reason was universally called a ruptured duck.  Their talk consisted of baseball and boxing, betting on same, grievance, and insults. They complained about their wives, their relatives, their bookies, politicians, the boss, and how both the city and America were going to hell. I enjoyed the insults, which demonstrated that these big tough guys were not much different from my grade school peers. This is what men did in groups was my take-away: they boasted, taunted, jockeyed for advantage, were raucous and obscene. Looking back, I can see that much of their conversation, or arguments I should say, about public events was bullshit derived from the opinion columns of one or another of the New York tabloids.  They were all for the little guy, but doted on the rich. They were casual, cheerful bigots. Many or their grievances involved the deplorable behavior of some non-Euro-American eth, invariably referred to by one of the colorful epithets so characteristic of American speech. The one thing they positively hated was anyone from their own milieu putting on airs. The details of this talk have fled, of course, but I have an almost visceral memory of their tone. The elongated vowels (Pawkway, Yuuuge.); the self-testimonials (believe you me; I’ll be honest with you; I guarantee you); the invective tossed at anyone in public life, sports especially: “that bum!,” “that miserable character!” 

In fact, my dad talked that way too, a somewhat more refined version of the same style. When I moved away from the city to lose myself in America I thought I had heard the last of that argot. I didn’t speak that way and neither did my peers. It was a generational thing. We had gone to upscale colleges and we now spoke like our professors or like people on television, the hip American demotic of our generation. Then there came “Yu-ehh fie-id” on my tv set. I guess I had lost touch with Mr Trump, having been out of town, but apparently he had made a bigger splash in the city than I had, my dad unaccountably having failed to leave me a quarter of a billion dollars, and now he was adding a reality show to his successes as a wrestling and beauty contest mogul. The rest is history, but the question remains: why does Mr Trump talk like a member of the previous generation?  

Many observers have commented on how Mr Trump’s speech has changed over the last few decades, and this is true. He used to speak in sentences, like regular people, and express coherent thought. He was crass, people in the city thought, but charming and occasionally funny. He did not then refer to himself in the third person. More significant though, is the fact that he talks like my truck drivers of sixty years ago. It’s a little freaky, because when Mr Trump speaks I hear not an urban baby boomer but his father. People used to say that the Republicans were the Daddy party, but I don’t think they meant this. Some evil alchemy, it seems to me, has given us not Donald but Fred Trump as our president. Quite apart from any content, this makes it impossible for me to listen to him talking without the skin-crawling sensation that I am in contact with the dead.