Connections that Sometimes Define our Souls
My father sometimes traveled with a weekend bag – a zippered green canvas and leather grip with a suit side and a regular compartment. The suit side contained a hinged aluminum frame for folding and an attachable hanger. The other side included ribbons of cloth for tying down whatever had been packed. There was an external zippered compartment. It was a simple design – not remarkable, save that it had a certain old-world elegance from a time before suitcases had to roll. Above all, it represented a lifestyle.
My father had traveled extensively with it around the Caribbean when he was president of the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association as well as other stints that had him flying around the region aboard Douglas DC3’s in terrible heat and humidity. The suitcase had shown its age, and by the time I was in my teens, I was given use of it. It featured a pink and white customs tag and a wonderful travel sticker featuring a flying Barbadian fish.
The Caribbean epoch itself was firmly over by 1970, as employment for my father took us back to Ohio where heat and humidity abated for much of the year. Yet by my mid-teens, there was sadness in that whatever glamor the previous life had offered was now long vanished from our lives. For me, the suitcase represented something lost, given that my father had succumbed in part to depression – in one sense a delayed reaction to the Holocaust of which he was a survivor – and now an aging one. He was already 42 when I was born, and being a typical child of a survivor, I protected him madly.
The suitcase, then, was younger days and the busy president and consultant who would arrive home, at one point regularly greeted at the airport by my mother, me, and a carton of Camels. There was often a gift for me from New York – a frequent destination – a coveted box from Bloomingdale’s or F.A.O. Schwarz, or something slightly exotic from one of the islands, like my first cassette recorder. This canvas suitcase had been along for many rides, and it was slowly fading, its form shambling into a softness. I often wondered where I might find another one just like it. It seemed an unlikely search, given its age. It had probably been assembled in the early 50’s, and no tag identified its maker.
Fifteen years after our last flight out of Puerto Rico (our last residence in the Caribbean), I moved to New York. Amid my luggage was the canvas suitcase – still holding a form, still functioning. One afternoon, perhaps a half year into the adventure, I was walking down Madison Avenue when I saw a luggage store on the corner. I stopped – transfixed by what was displayed in its window. On its shelves was my father’s canvas suitcase – not just in green but in navy blue, maroon, brown, and tan. It matched perfectly – stripe of leather for stripe. My father and I had apparently been toting a Crouch & Fitzgerald suitcase – something he’d probably purchased from that store three decades earlier.
Crouch & Fitzgerald were noted makers of steamer trunks and grips dating back into the 19th Century. The suitcase was priced at $99, creating the instant temptation to purchase one. Although I was working, functioning well without even a credit card, the price seemed too steep for something that wasn’t absolutely essential. At least that was my thinking at the time. I passed by the window still astonished that the great travel suitcase was still being made.
A year or so later I was again walking by the Crouch & Fitzgerald corner and saw my suitcase, now with a $10 price increase. $109 was still a bearable sacrifice (though less magical), but again I opted not to do it. My philosophy of self-reward still needed work; all of the hours I had been putting into my craft as a modern dance accompanist, under sometimes difficult conditions, probably needed to be acknowledged with a nice gift, but I didn’t buy it – now smarting that I had missed the lower price.
My last views of the bag in the Crouch & Fitzgerald window had it at $119, then $149, after which it disappeared. I went into the store, now smaller and mid-block, and inquired about the bag. “I think they stopped making them,” was the response from a salesman.
I felt a great sadness that a short-term fear had permanently cost me the chance to own a brand-new replacement for the old suitcase, which would have represented a kind of renewal, given lost memories and the lost people within them.
Years passed again. I had opened my first bank account in New York at Citibank – at the time the friendliest bank I encountered as a new arrival. Chase, Chemical Bank, and Manufacturers Hanover Trust had shown less interest in me, so it was Citi that won my vast original holdings of $345. The location was 1 Park Avenue, near my first sublet, and I always liked the address. One day, probably 13 years after opening the account, I found that my banking card was not working. I called the customer service number and was told to visit my home branch where the card would be reset. Now living Uptown, I took the Subway to the West Side and decided to walk across town to the bank branch.
The route I chose took me through a dense neighborhood of old Garment District office buildings. It was a Saturday, so the area was abandoned – very quiet. I walked toward a building that was being gutted for renovation. Its tell-tale enormous bin was the size of a truck and sat astride the sidewalk, brimming with detritus, pieces of plaster, wood, furniture, and a mound of crushed interior. Atop that was a brown canvas and leather suitcase. As soon as I glanced at it – just above eye-level – I knew what it was. I pulled it down. The bag was zippered and undamaged, save for a small indentation that suggested something had lain on top of it for a time. I unzipped the main compartment and found two ribbons in the clean bag, still tied down in ironed bows as if from the factory. I looked aloft to see if any of Alan Funt’s cameras were looking down. Was this a setup from the divine universe? Perhaps so. The bag was the very same one I had seen at Crouch and Fitzgerald and was now mine.
Proudly, I walked the rest of the way to the Citibank branch with my suitcase, where I was treated well and came home with a working banking card, still astounded at my celestial connection from the day. On later trips to visit my father, I carried a bag in each hand, and we were both amazed.
Our wishes transmit beyond ourselves, but which wishes? I guess they are the true longings for little connections and the things which really mean something to our souls. Go ahead; buy it now.
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What an enchanting account! James, you write so elegantly and have a monumental gift for storytelling. Thank you for this gift.
Beautiful story, well told. Well done!