The Friday morning after Thanksgiving, I meet my girlfriend at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. She’s a runaway like me.
I bring my overnight bag. She brings hers. I’m a sophomore at Yale in the first graduating class to admit women. And she’s a freshman at Vassar in the first graduating class to admit men.
I met her two months ago at a Vassar mixer. She danced like a pro. I found her attractive and a gifted storyteller. She read Latin and Greek. By the end of the mixer, I knew her SAT verbal scores. They were higher than mine. I also learned that back home in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she got paid to be a go-go dancer in a cage, dancing at private parties to help raise money for charity. We saw each other the next weekend at Yale. She stayed at the Taft Hotel near campus. We spent more weekends at Yale than at Vassar.
By Thanksgiving, we have private nicknames for each other. She calls me Chamlet. She pronounces it Shamlet, so it rhymes with Hamlet, her favorite Shakespearean antihero. I call her Freelove, because the name was popular with her Puritan family, especially back when her sixth great-grandfather wrote “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
At the Plaza, she introduces me to her family from Ohio. We drink “nooners” in her grandparents’ ninth-floor suite overlooking Central Park. We all have lunch in an alcove off the Edwardian Room on the first floor. Her aunts and uncles take turns telling stories with an amusing or surprising twist. Her grandparents ask me to tell the last story, right after my girlfriend finishes hers. While others speak, I narrow my list of potential stories to these three: “The Roommate,” “The Summer Vacation,” and “The Runaway.”
“The Roommate” focuses on my roommate from Oberlin, Ohio. Every Sunday at exactly 2:00 p.m., his parents call the black rotary phone sitting on the mantel of the fireplace in the living room of our two-bedroom, four-person suite. He makes sure he is always there at 2:00 p.m. to answer. He doesn’t want his parents to know that he lives off campus in his girlfriend’s apartment. On Saturday nights in October and November, my Vassar girlfriend slept over in the bunk above mine, in the bed my Ohio roommate never occupied. My girlfriend liked this arrangement much better than staying at the Taft Hotel. I did, too.
“The Summer Vacation” story started in June. I worked as a construction cost estimator for a member of the Long Island Builders Institute. When the job ended in August, another one of my three roommates drove to Long Island to pick me up. We picked up our roommate in Ohio on the way to Chicago. We stayed with a classmate who was a community activist for the summer. His side job was helping to organize the antiwar protests at the Democratic National Convention. We arrived the day the protests began, just before dusk. Helicopter spotlights targeted us from above Michigan Avenue. The pilots fired tear gas canisters as we stood in the crowds below. Some couldn’t breathe and they dropped to the ground. At ground level, the gas was less dense. They could breathe again. Others ran. They tripped over fallen friends. In Grant Park, thousands of us chanted, “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” Television cameras captured our community activist classmate being bloodied by the nightstick of a Chicago policeman. The news cameras stopped rolling at 9:00 p.m. The protest abruptly ended. TV networks edited their footage in time for the national nightly news. By 10:00 p.m., we were back in our classmate’s apartment watching coverage of the protest. We shared a few beers and a few joints. On television, our community activist’s bloody head wound looked much more serious than it was. He was glad he looked bad. The whole world was watching.
My third story, “The Runaway,” is about me leaving home when I was a child. The story is very dark. Sometimes I heard it retold by relatives at parties. Their version was more like a comedy than the tragedy I remembered. Either way, it was a good story to tell.
As I wait my turn, I listen to my girlfriend tell her parable about the prodigal daughter. When she is four years old, the ice cream man stops his truck in front of her house. She asks her mother to buy a Fudgsicle for her. Her mother says no because it’s too close to dinnertime. My girlfriend goes up to her room. She starts packing her overnight bag. Since she can’t have a Fudgsicle, she decides to leave Shaker Heights and run away to New York. She loves her Kay Thompson books about the girl named Eloise who lives with her family in the penthouse of the Plaza Hotel. Eloise gets anything she wants, whenever she wants it. My girlfriend grabs her packed overnight bag and runs away to the Plaza Hotel in New York. She doesn’t get far. She circles the block around her house. She can’t cross the street because her parents taught her not to cross by herself. A neighbor spots her standing on the corner with her overnight bag. The neighbor calls my girlfriend’s mother. Her mother then picks her up at the neighbor’s house. My girlfriend is made to unpack her bag, hang everything up, and put everything away, as if nothing happened. But something does happen. Her mother buys her a Fudgsicle the next day when the ice cream man returns and her mother promises to take her on a trip to the Plaza Hotel on her tenth birthday.
After my girlfriend’s story, her grandparents politely clap. Their granddaughter gets up from the table. She walks over and gives both grandparents a big hug. She thanks them for helping make possible all nine of her trips to the Plaza. Then she asks me to tell my story. After the Plaza staff serves all of us a light dessert of lemon squares, I decide to tell the dark version of “The Runaway.”
Grown-ups say I went missing and I am a runaway, but that’s not what happened. I spent most of the day directly across the street from my house. I was playing, running, jumping and splashing, with dozens of kids in the big wading pool in the small park on 164th Street in Queens. No one told me or my parents that before there was a park, dozens of kids were buried in unmarked graves—mostly sick kids, poor kids, and lost and missing kids—as I run, jump, and splash over their unmarked graves.
My mom puts me to bed early. She tells me that my sisters will be my babysitters for two hours. She and my dad will be visiting my aunt and uncle six blocks away. With my eyes closed, I nod my head. Yes, I understand.
My sisters watch the Ed Sullivan Show. My mother and father return home after two hours. My sisters say everything is fine. My mother heads to my bedroom. My father goes to the kitchen. My mother shouts, “Our baby’s gone!” My father runs to my bedroom. They don’t panic. My sisters help them search the house, the yard, and the pool. They don’t find me.
My father is an FDNY first responder. The kitchen becomes his command post. When he walks into the kitchen, it looks like the scene of a break-in, or worse. Maybe a kidnapping. The kitchen door to the outside is open. The kitchen table is askew. The chair by the open door is knocked over. But my father tells my mother that this is no break-in. It’s a break-out. My father calls the NYPD to report that I have run away. He is more sad than mad. He knows from FDNY experience there’s a chance he may never see me again. At least not alive.
I remember waking up and wanting to be with my mother and father at my aunt’s house. In early summer, it’s still light at eight o’clock at night. To get to my aunt’s house, I need to cross a busy street with a traffic light. I worry about what to do without a grown-up to help me cross. The light changes twice. A pretty lady says, “I can help you cross the street.” We cross the street hand in hand, just like I do with my mother. The lady asks, “How about an ice cream?” I say, “Okay.” She takes me into a pub. Her husband is the owner. She sits me down on top of the bar. A waitress asks if I would like ice cream. I say, “Any flavor is fine.” My mother taught me to say that. My mother thinks kids who ask, “What flavors do you have?” sound like spoiled brats. The pub owner’s wife melts when she hears my response. She says to her husband, “This one is so polite.” Then with a big smile, she winks at her husband and says, “Finders keepers, losers weepers.”
At that moment, I didn’t know the pub owner and his wife had no children. I didn’t know his wife wanted to keep me. I didn’t know the pub owner had difficulty convincing his wife that they should call the police. I didn’t know that the police would take me to the New York Foundling hospital at Third Avenue and East Sixty-ninth Street in Manhattan. I didn’t know that within minutes of being admitted to the Foundling, examined for signs of abuse, and then released, I would be smothered with hugs and kisses by my mother and father.
It’s the kind of day a four-year-old like me has no trouble remembering.
My girlfriend’s grandfather stands up. He toasts both of us for our stories about the four-year-old runaways who eventually find each other. After lunch, her grandparents speak with us for a few moments. Her grandmother graduated from Vassar. Her grandfather from Yale. Her grandmother asks her if the Taft Hotel is still open. Her granddaughter says, “Yes, it’s still nice, and I’ve stayed there too.” Her grandmother smiles in approval, then quickly changes the subject.
Later, we go for a horse and carriage ride in Central Park with my girlfriend’s parents. Her father boasts about his frugality and all the money he saves by having his only child mow the lawn, wash the cars, and clean the roof gutters. I’m the only one who notices that he seriously undertips the carriage driver, so I give the driver a few extra bucks when nobody’s looking. My girlfriend’s parents go back to the hotel to nap. We walk to the art galleries on West Fifty-Seventh Street. One gallery shows the work of my art professor. He paints still-life oil paintings from memory, without looking at props or photos. Each painting is like a memoir without words.
We freshen up back at the hotel. We meet with her family for cocktails at 6:00 p.m. in her grandparents suite. Then, her family goes to a Broadway show and we go dancing. Her uncle hands me some unexpected extra cash as we leave. I thank him for being so generous. My girlfriend says he’s more like an older brother than an uncle.
Tina Turner’s thirtieth birthday concert and dance party at the Electric Circus sells out. Flush with unexpected funds, we buy two scalped tickets. Tina Turner sings and dances nonstop. At the end of the concert, she has multiple encores. In her finale, Tina invites women who love to dance to come join her. She performs “Shake a Tail Feather.” My girlfriend and the other women who volunteer have the unrestrained energy of caged dancers set free. As my girlfriend dances, I can’t take my eyes off her. I tell her she has never danced better.
“Funny you should say that,” she says. “When you went to the restroom, a choreographer asked me to audition for the touring version of his Broadway show. The show is Hair. It’s a hit. He gave me his card. I didn’t say no.” My girlfriend might be serious about running away to join a traveling show.
The late-night elevator man at the Plaza Hotel takes us from the lobby up to the ninth floor. My girlfriend and I exit the elevator. We walk down the empty corridor to our separate rooms. We’ve been together for two months. Our rendezvous at the Plaza is winding down.
Most runaways never find the people or places they search for, but we’re not most runaways.