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Trumping a Trump

When Donald Trump was a teenager in 1962, a student at New York Military Academy, I had just finished my first year of law school at Georgetown and returned to New York City for the summer and a job in construction through my father’s union, Local 15 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. Little did I realize that I would soon find myself working for Donald's father, Fred Trump.

Dad and my uncle Pete were on the local’s executive committee, which certainly helped in the hiring hall on Manhattan’s lower East Side. I had worked the previous four summers in numerous construction jobs including the Chase Manhattan Bank Building, the Equitable Life Building, the Throggs Neck and Verrazano Bridges, and the construction of a sewerage tunnel under the East River.

My first Monday back from law school in late May I reported to the union hall at 7 a.m. The small narrow room on Manhattan’s lower East Side resembled a Quaker Meeting House, albeit in appearance only since those who frequented it were not a peaceful sect. Set against the opposing walls were two rows of elevated chairs, where men waited to be called to the window of the small office at the far end of the room where the union delegates took calls from job sites in the five boroughs of New York City for oilers, truck crane drivers, grader - bulldozer - front end loader - tunnel locomotive operators, maintenance men, compressor operators, well-point installers and other jobs under Local 15’s jurisdiction.

Dad had spoken to one of the delegates the previous week, who said he had a job for me. About 7:15 a.m., the window opened and Johnny Murphy called my name. He handled the job sites in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island which is not exactly where I wanted to work since the job sites in those boroughs were usually far from public transportation and I did not have access to a car. I was hoping that Willie Keenan, the delegate who controlled the jobs in Manhattan and the Bronx, where public transportation to job locations was better, would have called me to the window.

“Neal, it’s a new job site, near Neptune Avenue in Coney Island called Trump Village. It’s an oiler’s job on a shovel (diesel powered excavating shovel). Report to Fred Trump.”

I walked to the 14th Street Subway station and took the BMT Brighton Beach Line to the Coney Island station and walked about four blocks to a small office in a wooden shanty where I reported to Mr. Trump at about 8:30 a.m. He looked at his watch and told me I was a half hour late. When I told him I came right from the union hall, he grumbled about being on time the next day. He pointed to the shovel I would be working on about two blocks into the job site. The place was literally a desert, a vast waste land of sand about three blocks in from the boardwalk and the beach. The construction of this massive middle-income rental housing project had just started. The shovel was digging the foundation of one the first buildings -- loading sand into waiting trucks to be hauled away from the job site.

I trudged through the sand to the shovel, climbed up on the rig, introduced myself to the engineer, and asked him if he wanted me to get him coffee. He too, had just started that morning, and he did not know where I should go. I looked around and the nearest location likely to have a luncheonette where I could get coffee and Danish pastry seemed to be back towards the BMT elevated line.

Within minutes of setting out across the sand towards the commercial strip under the elevated BMT line, I heard a car engine behind me and a voice calling out, “Where do you think you’re going?” It was Mr. Trump, who had driven up in his car.

“To get the engineer his coffee,” I said.

“I take the coffee orders. You stay by the rig in case the engineer needs you.”

I was somewhat taken back. This had never happened to me before on a construction site. Here was the contractor, this multimillionaire builder, taking the coffee orders, which he placed through a telephone installed in his car. I gave him the money and our coffee and Danish order, and he drove off over the sand. He returned shortly with our coffee and Danish and the correct change. Further, he said he would stop by shortly before noon to take the lunch orders. The guy was a multi-tasker, a consummate micro-manager. Simply put, Trump ran a tight ship. I now understand why his son, Donald, did not work for him very long before setting out on his own.

I had plenty to do with the rig working in the dry sand compounded by the breeze from the ocean blowing sand into the shovel's cats, which required me to grease the cats at least twice a day to assure that the shovel could move freely through the sand. The sand also found its way into the cable drum and onto the cables requiring the application of grease every day or so. By far, the messiest part of this task was filling up the grease gun from a bucket of heavy grease. Also, the old rig’s steaming radiator had to be topped off with water from the two large water cans in the back of the rig. Once each day a water truck cruised the site allowing me to keep the cans full. Later in the day, another truck delivered diesel fuel for the rig.

The big problem for me was the lack of shade close to the rig. There was no shade for blocks. I was literally burning up out in the open and after the first day my face and arms were sunburned. At dinner that night, I asked dad if I could bring a beach umbrella to the job. He laughed, but he saw no reason why I couldn’t. “As long as you’re doing your job, I think it’s permissible. Some of the men running front end loaders and bulldozers have umbrellas mounted behind the seat to protect them from the sun.”

The next morning, I rented a beach umbrella at a store next to the subway station and set it up on a sand dune about 75 feet from where the shovel was digging -- a spot from where the operator could see me and signal me if he needed something. No sooner had I done so, when Mr. Trump drove up. Leaning out of the car’s window he said, “What do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m watching the rig and protecting myself from the sun. As you can see, I got a bad burn yesterday.”

He harrumphed and began to drive off. As he did so, I called out. “Hey, you forgot the coffee orders.”

As he backed the car up I saw the scowl on his face. He was shaking his head when I handed him the money for the same order as the previous day. When he returned and handed over the coffee, pastry, and the change he said sarcastically, “You’d probably be more comfortable if you had a chair.” I nodded and said, “Thanks, I just might get one,” which I did the next day, and the rest of the week that I worked there.

On the day that Mr. Trump challenged me about the umbrella, Johnny Murphy called Dad that night to tell him that Trump had called the union hall to complain about me -- that he wanted someone else on the job. Murphy told Dad that he informed Trump that the union would decide who worked on his job site, and that my bringing an umbrella to protect me from the sun was what any sensible person would do. After they talked for a while, Dad looked at me and said, “Johnny says the job is yours if you want to stay there. If not, Willie Keenan has a job for you in Manhattan.”

I’ll take Manhattan. I gave Dad the thumbs up and said yes to Willie Keenan’s offer. Dad told Murphy that I would leave the job and go to Manhattan. Then he broke up laughing as he ended the call. He told me that Murphy said he would tell the guy he was sending out to the Trump job to bring an umbrella. The job in Manhattan, driving a front end loader, was on a construction site a block from a subway stop about 20 minutes from our apartment in Woodside. By comparison, it took a little over an hour to get to Coney Island on the subway.

The next afternoon, my last day on the job, Mr. Trump paid me for the week, $212.40. I still have the W-2 form from Trump Village Construction Corp, 2611 West 2nd Street, Brooklyn, 23, New York. (Taking into account 54 years of inflation, $212.40 would be equal to $1,754.05 in 2016.)

In my parting conversation with Mr. Trump he asked me if I was going to college. When I told him that I had graduated from NYU and was in law school at Georgetown, he grumbled something about education being very important.

His son Donald may have spent some time on the job site that summer. It would have been neat to have had him fetching coffee for me.

I know that one thing that Donald Trump learned from his father was to be on top of everything and also to always be in control of things. Something else he obviously learned was to use his power to try to bully people -- to settle scores for perceived slights.

The acorn did not fall far from the tree.

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