This is how it happened:
The K-8 the son attended and the daughter is now finishing has this affinity for school trips, starting in fourth grade. I think the state sort of follows something similar: Sacramento, outdoor ed, and so forth, but I'm not certain whether they are mandatory. I don't get the impression they are, though at the kids' school, it pretty much works out that way.
Three years ago, the son embarked on the eighth grade trip which was to go to Washington, D.C. and NYC. The trip cost something like $2,500 for five days and was to include meals, transportation, side trips, entrance fees, etc. Try to imagine my fury when it transpired that accomodation was putting 4 teenage boys in a room with 2 beds. That meals largely consisted of food court pizza. That they spent most of their time sitting on a bus. To top it off, the son got home with hives so severe that he almost ended up in the ER (I gave him a large dose of Benadryl and an hour for it to take effect...which blessedly it did).
Slightly less than 2 years later, I took the entire family to DC (which happens to be my hometown) for close to the same price, and they stayed at the Willard and never once ate pizza. And they saw just about everything the city had to offer (including some of my relatives, who are a show unto themselves).
At that point, I made the daughter an offer: skip the DC trip and I'd take her to New York that week. She can't stand the school trips anyway, and she jumped at the chance to go to New York.
Which is how we ended up at JFK last Monday night.
The driver arrived at the airport as arranged, and we packed the luggage into the car and headed toward Manhattan. Slowly, as there was construction everywhere, and then the driver tore willy-nilly through residential neighborhoods, trying to avoid the jammed expressway.
The daughter sat, wide-eyed, absorbing all she saw: row houses and locked gates, fire escapes and tunnels, at last lighting up as she finally caught sight of the Empire State Building in the distance. And I couldn't help but smile.
My New York was the New York of books: Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, Portrait of Jenny, and later, after I'd visited New York the first time, Shirley Jackson's short stories. Growing up in a desert, bereft of culture, I voraciously and vicariously consumed Harriet's Upper Eastside childhood: a world of the weird and the wacky, a world of resources and resourcefulness. And really, an egg cream? I desperately wanted to try one.
And Claudia and Jamie Kincaid? Even at 7, when I first read From the Mixed Up Files..., I knew that there was more than a little of Claudia in me. I was bored, too, and underappreciated, but more to the point, I had a tremendous talent for organization and I was frequently told I was bossy. Face it, it does follow on, a bit. Especially when one is 7. Or nine. Or 11. And bored. And I loved museums, even at such a young age. I cherished the sense of history, the dim lighting, the feeling of otherness. (In yet another childhood favorite, Eleanor Cameron's The Court of the Stone Children, I could deeply relate to Nina's desire to "be something in a museum.") So the idea of running away and living in a museum undetected was tremendously appealing. As was the kids' resourcefulness. And of course, the Automat and the UN and cat statues with earrings.
The daughter, too, had an idea of New York. I'm not sure exactly what it was, but I know that a good deal of it revolved around From the Mixed Up Files... because she and the son loved it every bit as much as I did, and possibly highest on her list of things to do was to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Which we did. Twice.
But that first night, I just watched the play of light on her face as the car pulled up at our hotel, mere feet from the center of Times Square.
Go listen to some good music: "Pilgrimage" from the album Days of Open Hand by Suzanne Vega. By the time I first visited the Met in the mid-1980s, it had changed a good deal from the time that From the Mixed Up Files... was written. This go round, it had changed even more, and I found it difficult to approve. For the record, I've yet to try an egg cream, and Horn and Hardart's has long since disappeared.