When Percy Bysshe Shelley was challenged to write a sonnet about Ramses II, he reflected on the emptiness of vanity, using the Greek form of the pharaoh’s name to title his poem, “Ozymandias.”
Since Ramses II is taken, I’ll have to settle for Donald Trump.
Not to try to one-up the great British poet, but Shelley hadn’t actually seen the regal ruins, the “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” that stood forlorn and abandoned in the shifting sands of the Egyptian desert. He read about it in a history book.
I, on the other hand, jumped on a Divvy bike Tuesday afternoon and went to eyeball the huge “TRUM . . . ” being installed on the south face of the Trump International Hotel and Tower on Wabash. The big “M” was halfway up. The giant “P,” alas, is coming.
Seeing it go up will make it extra sweet when it comes down.
There is no accounting for taste. So if you are reading this column in a newspaper you found, say, in a plastic surgeon’s waiting room on North Michigan Avenue, killing time before the next collagen injection in your bee-stung lips, you might want to stop here, pick up an old issue of Chicago Social, and no harm done.
Gone? Good. The allure of Donald Trump has always mystified me. I like fancy stuff as much as the next guy. A well-crafted English shoe. An exotic car. But to me Trump represents not quality, not taste, but expense for expense’s sake. Wretched excess. Money divorced from sense, from balance. “Trump” is so synonymous with a kind of gold-plated lusting after empty status, it’s hard for me to believe anyone thinks otherwise.
Shelley notes the stone pharaoh’s face:
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
“Sneer of cold command” sort of evokes Trump, the man, does it not? I only met him once, when he was in town drumming his Atlantic City casino. No king he; Trump needed a shoe shine and a haircut.
Despite my low regard for the man, Chicago’s Trump Tower struck me as a pretty building, except for the name of course. A cool blue finger pointing toward the clouds, like a skyscraper on Mars.
Thankfully, the “TRUMP” will only deface one side. Standing across the river, looking all around, I noticed the lack of any similar sign. Nothing atop the Wrigley Building, or the Gothic horror show of Tribune Tower. A small “Hotel 71” on the old Executive House, and that is out of date too. It’s a Wyndham now. A reminder of how fast things pass.
Rich Daley, despite shafting the city in many ways, was good about keeping downtown from devolving into the set from “Blade Runner.”
I contacted the office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel — a subtle multimillionaire if ever there were one — to ask: Why? The 5th floor said, in essence, don’t blame us. The sign was “approved in the mid-2000s” — code for it being Daley’s fault, just like the pension mess. The sign, they said, also was originally 25 percent larger and multi-colored (!), so let’s count our blessings it’s only as bad as it is and not even worse. The City Council had to approve the Trump sign, the special bill sponsored by Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd).
The OK had to come not because the sign is too tall, amazingly enough — city ordinance allows signs 24 feet high, and Trump’s letters are 20-feet-and-change tall — but because it’s too long, 141 feet, when the legal limit is 100 feet.
Who does this sign benefit? Out-of-towners who pass by and wonder which building this is? The hotel and condo owners ballyhooing themselves? As bad as being Donald Trump undoubtedly is, being caught basking in his glow is even worse. Admiring Trump is like bragging about shooting a lion; there might be some small band of humanity who thinks better of you for it. The rest draw back in confused revulsion.
I would love to hear from Chicagoans who disagree. Begin your note, “I think it’s GREAT that the Trump name, that hallmark of excellence, is going up in the heart of Chicago. I sincerely admire Donald Trump because . . . ”
Complete that thought, then sign your name. I’ll print it.
I’m not expecting response to my plea. A big Trump sign is not the Chicago way. Not to go all Garrison Keillor on you, but we’re Midwesterners. Modest people, the Pritzkers notwithstanding.
Self-flummery is New York-ish. And while in the distant past, New Yorkers did well in Chicago — our first mayor, William B. Ogden, was a New York lawyer — generally New York has a way of failing in Chicago. Nathan’s Hot Dogs? Failed. The Limelight nightclub? Failed. Howard Stern? Failed. Chicagoans don’t like to wait behind velvet ropes. Not a lot of helicopter service or even town car service here. Or doormen for that matter. We can open our own doors, and generally avoid the kind of grotesque display that passes for status in the scramble up the greasy pole that is Manhattan.
I’d be more distressed about this, but frankly, I really believe this is temporary. (“Everything is temporary,” as Cosmo Castorini sagely says in “Moonstruck.”)
Sure, but how long? How long will the noxious “TRUMP” be up?
Squinching my eyes, I’d predict . . . 12 years. But maybe I’m being optimistic. I’m a cheery sort.
Maybe more. The white, illuminated, block-letter “PLAYBOY” sign — at 9 feet, not even half as tall as “TRUMP”— was atop the Palmolive Building for nearly a quarter century, from 1965 to 1989. At the time, it was hard to believe it would be gone; now it takes effort to recall it was ever there.
The Smithsonian, by the way, wouldn’t take the Playboy sign letters. Too big. Maybe they’re half-buried in the sand somewhere.
A lesson for Trump. My guess is that after enough prospective tenants say that they’d love to live at Trump Tower, if it weren’t for a pang of shame they’d feel mumbling the name of the place, a change will come.
“What goes up must come down,” I muttered aloud, straddling my Divvy bike, almost as a curse, then turned and pedaled gratefully away.
Shelley’s poem ends:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings.
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.