This seems unalterably true: whenever I go to New York, I’m going to come home with a suitcase story.
Sorry if I have been silent, lately. Not only is this a heady time (just moved to a new home, with boxes left to unpack; now writing regular articles for this fabulous magazine in Seattle, and our wonderful wedding less than five weeks away), but I have been away from home.
Yes, it’s true. I had to leave the Chef for three days.
(Don’t laugh. We’re so tender with each other that this was unexpectedly hard. After all, we hadn’t been separated since last July, when I was in Alaska for two whole weeks. You never could have told me, before I met him, that I would want to stay close to home, so joyfully.)
However, we both braced ourselves and laughed our way through it. After all, I was going away for some great reasons.
The good people at the Gluten Intolerance Group asked me, several months ago, to fly to Richmond, Virginia, to be one of the keynote speakers at their annual conference. Of course, I said yes. I am honored. And I am also, perpetually, struck by the surreality of my life. You could never have told me that my first visit to the South would be instigated by a gluten-free speech.
Life constantly surprises me.
The least expensive, and least invasive, flight I found to Richmond involved a long stop to New York. Well, if that was true, why not make it deliberate? I arranged a nearly all-day layover in the city, so I could meet my editor for lunch.
I never turn down the chance to be in Manhattan.
And this is why I was, once again, lugging my suitcase up and down museum steps. Last year, in February, I had a grand adventure with my blue suitcase. I learned, then, that there are no luggage lockers in Manhattan train stations or places of rest. But, happy with my sly knowledge from last year, I knew where to go. A museum.
Last year, I left my luggage in the coat room of the Natural History museum. After paying the entrance fee, I could escape the weight of a giant suitcase for the entire afternoon. That’s what inspired my decision for the itinerary on Thursday.
My plane landed at 8. Lunch would take place at noon, in the Village. Common sense said to stay close to that area, maybe write emails in a coffee shop, until I could meet my editor. But the chance to be in Manhattan for nine hours does not inspire common sense in me. So I took the Air Train, and then the A-train, and switched to the 5, and made my way to the Upper East Side.
When I had asked Sharon, days before, what she would do with a few hours in New York, she said, “I’d go to the big room at the Met. And then I’d walk through the park.” She’s smart, that one. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.
Mostly, I knew, I needed to go to Strawberry Fields. I needed to go there for the Chef, and take photos, and call him from the Imagine sign, and sigh into the phone just how much I loved him. (If you don’t know our John Lennon connection, read this.)
I could have gone to the west side, gone back to the Natural History museum. But I wanted to experience the grandeur of the Met, the bustle of the Upper East Side, see that building I love, gawk at the flower displays on balconies of brownstones, watch the nannies and their children walk along sun-dappled streets.
And beside, the Met? It’s really nearly free. Here’s a secret that newcomers wouldn’t know. The Metropolitan Museum of Art emblazons a huge price on their signs, but the fact is? It’s “suggested donation.” I’m all for supporting art, but when I wanted to be there for ten minutes? I don’t mind giving them a dollar.
So there I was, with a much smaller suitcase this time, on the subway. There are so many stories on the subway that I felt entirely awake, no matter that I could not sleep on the overnight flight. The older man who sat with an algebra book on his lap, but who could not study because he was so busy laughing with the young boy sitting across from him. Or the young woman who stood timidly by the greasy pole, hemmed in from all sides by other human beings pressing into the car, so she smelled her own hair, every few moments, just to make herself feel better.
I never grow tired of the subway.
And then I rose from the 86th street station, so familiar to my feet. There they were, the guys selling produce on the curb, their tomatoes probably covered in car grime. Dean and Deluca, gleaming as always. And on the corner of 5th and 84th, a flurry of little girls, dressed in light blue pinafores and starched white shirts, giggling with each other, looking every inch like a page from the Madeline books.
Still, by the time I reached the steps of the Met, I was ready to rid myself of the suitcase. The sunlight made me itchy — I wanted my arms to be free to take photographs. Almost there, I thought. Almost there.
When I reached the top of the steps, an officious security guard shook his finger at me, then pointed toward a sign. “No suitcases! Not in here.” His finger alerted me to the image of a suitcase, with a big red line through it.
“But wait!” I spluttered. “They let me check it in at the Natural History museum!”
“This isn’t the Natural History museum,” he said, bluntly. Well, that was true.
“How long has this been going on?” I asked him.
“Since September 11th.” While he talked, he was waving people past him. I stood there, gaping, not knowing what to do. When there was a break in the surging masses, his face softened, and he leaned into me. “Sorry, sweetie. Normally we send people down to the Guggenheim, but they’re closed today.”
I thanked him, especially for his last-moment kindness. Weary, I turned around and prepared to drag my suitcase down the steps.
On the second step, I noticed another security guard. He was eating a sandwich, his face amused. He caught my eye. I caught his. Something in his sly grin made me realize he might know an answer.
“Hey listen,” I said, as I dragged the suitcase, exaggeratedly, as though it weighed twenty pounds more than it did. “You wouldn’t know anywhere I could stow my suitcase, do you?”
He looked around, dropped his voice, and gestured down the steps. “Yeah, the hot dog vendor.”
“Look, you didn’t hear it from me, but if you slip them a little money, they’ll watch your suitcase for a couple of hours.”
“Is it safe?” I asked him, already laughing.
He swallowed, and said, “Yeah. Look, it’s the same guys every day. They do a nice little business. I’d trust ‘em. But don’t quote me.”
(Oops. I just did.)
Grinning, I thanked him, then lifted my luggage into the air. Already, it felt lighter.
When I reached the hot dog stand — the bottles of water and soda splayed out in front — I asked the guy behind it, “Is it true you store luggage?” He looked around furtively, and said, “Twenty bucks.”
Twenty bucks! Yikes. I thought about saying no, but there I was. I needed to be back on the subway in an hour and a half, and I would never make it to Strawberry Fields with that suitcase behind me. Oh, all right. I gave him the money, and he rolled my suitcase, quickly, behind him. I walked away.
And I don’t regret it. That walk in the Park was idyllic. There were small girls skipping around the Alice in Wonderland statue. Old men on a bench, leaning into each other, talking as they probably have for dozens of years. Dappled sunlight, the smell of popcorn, students propping themselves on schist rock for an outdoor class, sassy teenagers talking on their cell phones, and people running under leafy-green trees. I can never spend enough time in Central Park.
I have to admit: as many times as I have been to Strawberry Fields, and stood in front of the Imagine mosaic, I cried this time. I missed the Chef. He was in my ear, because I talked to him while I was there, and he is always in my heart. But I wished he was there. Somehow, in a deeper way than it has ever hit me before, this fact hit me: I really do get to marry him. I’m going to spend the rest of my life with the best love I have ever known. (Thank you, John and Yoko.)
Finally, after taking far too many photographs, I had to make my way back across the Park. I had a lunch to make, an eagerly anticipated lunch. I needed to be on the subway. Time to retrieve my suitcase.
As I approached the hot dog stand, the man behind it caught my eye. He pointed at me, then behind him. As I started to say, I’m ready for my bag, he put his finger to his lips. Shhhh. Confused, I obeyed. When I was within two feet, he looked around and said, “Are you ready?”
“Yes,” I said.
He looked to his right, and then shouted, “Vidal!!”
Instantly, the back of the silver coffee cart opened. I saw another man, furtively looking around. And then I saw my suitcase, covered with a light-blue towel. “You ready?” he hissed at me, through a whisper. Yes. He looked both directions, looked at me, and then ripped the towel from the suitcase and shoved my luggage at me. He slammed the door, and I stood there alone.
I laughed all the way to the subway.
Welcome back to New York, Shauna.
* * *
(In the coming days, I’ll be sharing more stories, of a gluten-free lunch at Gotham Bar and Grill, barbecued pulled pork in Richmond, a glorious conference experience, and how not to eat gluten-free at the airport. This trip amazed me.
But I have to say, I’m happy to be home.)