December 4, 2017
A fellow goes up to the airline counter and asks to be booked to Buenos Aires, Caracas, Singapore, and then Honolulu.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the agent says, “We don’t fly to any of those places.”
“Funny,” responds the traveler, “you sent my luggage to all those places the last time I flew with you.”
For anyone who travels a lot, this old joke contains a bit of truth. Luggage can sometimes be mistakenly sent to every conceivable corner of the earth. But that’s only the beginning. Luggage also gets stolen, misplaced, mistaken, damaged, and forgotten. As a traveling musician for most of my life, just about all of those things have happened to me, as well as to the fellow musicians with whom I’ve been blessed to travel and perform.
It’s bad enough, don’t you think, that I have to carry my luggage around with me, plus a bag with personal items, plus my violin case, from home to taxi to airport to taxi to hotel. But worse still, I must worry about all kinds of unfortunate things happening to my suitcase.
Waiting at the luggage area after arriving at an airport, I remember all too vividly the sinking feeling when the last of the passengers’ luggage moves down the conveyer belt and then quite unfeelingly the belt simply stops moving. But wait a minute, I want to say to this inanimate thing, you’ve forgotten my suitcase with all those indispensable things in it: my change of clothes, my toilet articles, and, most important, my concert clothes. How can I play a concert without my concert clothes?
Actually, quite easily, as I soon learned.
Walking on stage for the very first time dressed in casual rumpled clothes and scuffed street shoes rather than my usual tux, I awkwardly addressed the audience: “Ladies and gentlemen, please excuse my attire. I’ve managed to arrive here [please insert Duluth or Des Moines or Denver or DeKalb or Dallas or Dubai] in time for the concert, but unfortunately my luggage did not.” Rather than a groan of disapproval, to my surprise I received smiles, chuckles, and then applause from the audience. At that moment, I came to realize that people absolutely love when something unexpected and quite out of the ordinary occurs in the concert hall.
That’s fine for the audience, but please no more unexpected luggage surprises like the one that once happened to me in Italy. Our Guarneri String Quartet arrived in the Milan train station with an hour to kill before the continuing trip to Venice. Perfect. Time for a long dreamed of Italian espresso. Janet, wife of our cellist David Soyer, kindly offered to remain in the train with all our luggage in the next compartment while we searched for the magic brew.
The espresso was indeed dreamy, but when we finally arrived in Venice, my luggage was mysteriously gone. Working in twos, one person apparently had stood on the train platform while the other grabbed my unattended suitcase and passed it to his accomplice through the window. In this instance, however, I did not need to make my usual lost-luggage stage announcement. By chance, the director Allan Miller was in Venice filming “High Fidelity,” a documentary about the Guarneri Quartet, and scraggly clothes simply would not do. Allan took me into a high-end Italian men’s shop where I received an elegant shirt and tie, the skimpiest undershorts I’ve ever seen, and a stylish Italian suit—the “Toscanini” line—that I wear to this very day.
Ever noticed that the word “luggage” begins with “lug”? That’s what you do with luggage, of course. You lug it around. My wife, Dorothea, became so concerned about all the lugging I was doing that she went out and bought me the latest, trendiest thing: “parachute” luggage. Presumably, made out of actual parachute material, the shiny black bag she presented to me was feather light and very luggable.
Not long after, I waited at Berlin’s Tegel airport for my new, shiny, black parachute bag to come down the conveyer belt. Wouldn’t it be nice if it would be one of the first bags to arrive? If I managed to get into town early enough, a friend had promised to take me around Berlin that afternoon. Miraculously, my bag was the first to appear. Unquestioningly, I grabbed it, made my way to the hotel, threw it on the bed, and strolled out into glorious Berlin.
Only later in the afternoon did I return to the hotel in order to practice and then dress before the concert in Berlin’s Philharmonie Hall. But a most unpleasant surprise greeted me when I zipped open my new bag. In place of my own belongings were a woman’s blouses, pants, dresses, underwear, and bras—all beautifully arranged and packed. I had inadvertently taken a stranger’s identical black parachute bag instead of my own. In a panic, with less than two hours before concert time, I called Lufthansa baggage. “We have been waiting for your call,” a man on the other end of the line informed me. An equally unhappy woman was in possession of my bag filled with men’s shirts, ties, shoes, underwear, and a worn tuxedo. Within moments, a taxi with my bag was at the hotel and the driver ordered to return with the woman’s bag.
I made the concert with a half hour to spare, dressed in concert attire, and once again without having to make an embarrassing luggage speech on stage.
David Soyer once told me about a very different mistaken bag adventure. Like me, he had taken the bag to his hotel only to find when he opened it that it was not his. There were the usual men’s items inside, but on top of everything else, a small revolver. David said his heart missed a beat staring at this ominous item. Who travels with a gun? A hit man? A jealous lover? An 007-type spy? David, however, did not call the airline. Instead, he quietly took a cab with the suitcase back to the airport luggage area. There stood his identical-looking bag, alone and unattended. David looked around carefully, discreetly exchanged the bags, and returned to the hotel.
At some point, I reluctantly decided to retire my parachute bag despite its lightness. The floppy bag had no compartments and therefore demanded that things be packed in a highly organized fashion—something I failed to manage before every trip. It was time to go to a proper luggage store and buy a proper suitcase. The salesman listened attentively as I described the great amount of travel I did as a performing musician. “What you need is something pretty much indestructible, and I have the perfect item for your lifestyle,” he said.
I’ve always hated that expression: lifestyle. I don’t have a lifestyle. I have a life. What the hell is a lifestyle? But I wander.
The salesman brought out a very solid-looking black suitcase with a price tag easily twice as much as I’d ever paid before. When he saw the stricken look on my face, he smiled smugly and said, “It’s quite indestructible, you know. Shall I show you?” Without waiting for an answer, the young man placed the suitcase on the floor and began jumping up and down on it with great enthusiasm. Impressively, the bag completely held its shape. “And,” the salesman crowed triumphantly, “you have a lifetime guarantee with this amazing suitcase. Anything goes wrong, and it will be repaired free of charge.”
I bought the bag; and the salesman was right: it’s been essentially indestructible. I have traveled confidently with it for at least the last twenty years. Yes, things have occasionally gone wrong: a wheel fell off, a handle broke, a zipper clasp disappeared. But true to that salesman’s word, every time anything happened, a luggage repair shop in midtown Manhattan has restored my Fort Knox of a suitcase to its original condition both cheerfully and without charge.
That is, until last month. I began to notice that it was becoming harder and harder to close my suitcase completely. On occasion, its zipper became absolutely stuck, sometimes in a closed position with all my things inside. No problem, I thought. As I had so many times before, I headed downtown to the luggage repair shop. This time, however, the repairman examined the errant spot, shook his head sadly, and informed me that the contract with my brand of luggage had just run out. It would cost me two-hundred-and-fifty dollars to replace the zipper.
In a daze, I walked out of the repair shop, made my way to my favorite hot dog stand, and ordered a dog and a drink. As I munched, I pondered. Two-hundred-fifty dollars for a dumb zipper! Ridiculous. Still, I needed a suitcase for my “lifestyle.” This year alone, my suitcase had traveled with me to such places as the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador; Berlin, Germany; Los Angeles and San Francisco, California; Eugene, Oregon; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. What should I do? Should I repair my old luggage, my decades-long traveling companion, even at this highway robbery price, or . . .?
Suddenly, another thought entered my head. I wondered if the salesman who had jumped on my suitcase those twenty years ago was still at the original luggage shop. He would be middle-aged by now and perhaps his failing knees incapable of another demonstration, but at least he would know suitcases. Who knows, perhaps the salesman even had an apprentice in training who would be able to jump up and down on the latest in indestructible luggage for my benefit.
I downed the rest of my dog and drink, and headed for the luggage shop.
My future suitcase might be awaiting me there, ready and able to be stolen, misplaced, mistaken, damaged or forgotten. My heart missed a beat just thinking about it.
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