Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.15.2: Hi, I’m Jim’s Suitcase

Is it possible that luggage can have feelings?   At least one suitcase does; one that has accumulated some “psychological baggage” along with a lot of dents, scrapes and frequent flyer miles.

Illustration by Peter Horjus

Illustration by Peter Horjus

Here I go again.   I’ve been recuperating in the back of his closet for the past few months, but I know what it means when I’m hauled out and tossed on his bed.   As usual I’m surrounded by enough clothes and lord-knows-what-else, to choke a cubic-yard steamer trunk.

What jammed baggage compartments await me, what brutal hairy arms will gleefully fling me about; what baggage carrousels will gouge my finish, and try to break off my wheels?   For me all travel is adventure travel.

Hi, I’m Jim’s suitcase.   If you’re not completely put off by the idea of reading a memoir by a piece of luggage you might end up having a different, and hopefully more sympathetic, relationship with your own suitcase.

To my knowledge no suitcase has ever written a memoir before.   I’ve hauled a lot of books for this guy, but not a single one written by, or even about a suitcase.   Hopefully this one will be found and published before I end up in a landfill, or a flea market in Ho Chin Minh City.

I’m not exaggerating.   Being an international suitcase is not without its dangers.   A garment bag I was talking to at Charles De Gaulle airport told me about a friend who was left for just two minutes on a luggage cart while her owner visited the restroom.   She was snatched up and taken out to an open field, dropped in a sandbag-bunker and blown up before the owner had finished her business.   Most people don’t consider what we go through:   we are x-rayed until we glow in the dark, aerosol cans explode in our stomachs, dogs sniff us for drugs, and homeland security inspectors rummage through us looking for everything from undeclared purchases to pornography.   A suitcase gets little respect and a lot of suspicion.

Maybe it’s news to you that a suitcase can have feelings.   Well, I do.   But sometimes I wish I didn’t, especially when I think about Valisa. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t recollect that last glimpse of her paisley cloth siding as she rode around that carrousel at JFK with more beauty and grace than any lovely bit of luggage I had ever met before.

Valisa belonged to Tammara, a very attractive ‘non-luggage’ with legs that went all the way down to the floor and a credit limit that went all the way up into the stratosphere.   In fact, that’s how Valisa came into my life.   By the time Jim’s group had arrived in Rome Tammara had already expanded her luggage from two to four pieces, and two carry-ons.

Valisa was Italian.   Tammara bought her on the via Tournabouni in Florence, right next to the shop where she bought two leather jackets.   Needless to say this impressed yours truly, who hails from a lowly discount store in San Diego.   Valisa had style, Italian style.

I first saw her when Tammara pulled her down from the luggage rack on the train from Florence to Rome and opened her up to put on a fashion shown of purchases befitting some aristocrat’s Grand Tour.   Dresses, shoes, slacks and accessories, in addition to several leather jackets filled the compartment like spring-worms from some joke box.   There had to be a couple thousand dollars worth of stuff in Valisa alone, and there were three other suitcases!   Everybody who crowded into the compartment was impressed with Tammara’s purchases; but I couldn’t take my eyes off Valisa.   We spent that night together in the same luggage rack, the beginning of a too-brief, and star-crossed romance.

I nearly lost Valisa a couple of times before we arrived back in New York.   She was left on the platform of the train station at Dover during a confused and hurried transfer from the Channel ferry, put in “Left Luggage” by a porter and not discovered for two days before she was sent up to London. Poor Valisa, she must have been terrified.

She was found just hours before our flight back to New York.   Our last night together, after a whirlwind European romance worthy of a Harlequin paperback, was in the luggage bay of a 747.   It was the only time I didn’t want a flight to end.

Valisa was about twenty suitcases ahead of me on the baggage carrousel at JFK, my view partly obscured by some golfclubs and that foul-smelling monster-sized duffel with moldy laundry that flew back with us.   I could see her designer tags and the orange yarn pompom Tammara had affixed to her handle.   Then she turned round the bend on the carousel and was gone . . . forever.

Nobody knows what happened to her.   I heard Jim on the phone a few days later when one of the group called to say that three of Tammara’s four suitcases had been kidnapped.   Valisa was one of them.   There was speculation about baggage handlers, terrorists, or thieves that use leather-jacket sniffing dogs.

Now I never see a paisley-cloth soft-sider that I don’t get choked up.

It was the loss of Valisa, in fact, that encouraged me to start my memoirs.   I needed something to distract me from thinking about her during the long days in the closet between Jim’s travels.   But first I needed to know more about my roots before I could write about my globetrotting experiences.

Luggage hasn’t exactly been a popular topic among the literati but I did learn that we have a longer history than you would think.   Did you know that the Roman name for us was “impedimenta”?   Not exactly a kindly term, but it doesn’t require any translation.   Well, I’m not so crazy about the Romans either; it was probably them that invented the concept of excessbaggage.   I figure that it was their legions—like the legions of tourist-shoppers of today—that brought along extra luggage to carry home their plunder.   The Romans went all over the known world overstuffing their luggage with plunder.   We “impedimenta” call it the “ Packs Romana”.

Thanks to the Romans, luggage never seemed to get over being regarded as ‘impediments’ to travel.   Rather than being regarded as indispensable to travel, as the ones who do all the dirty work of carrying clothing, toiletries, and things that suitcases were never designed to carry, we are blamed for wrinkling clothing, breaking things, and not adequately concealing some little bit of contraband.   We are the ones who are “overweight”; we are the ones who are “excess”, but have you ever taken a good look at some of the people we work for?

Well now it can be told.   Most people think that luggage gets lost because it’s improperly tagged, or baggage-handlers mess up.   But the great unspoken secret amongst luggage is that some suitcases are so abused, so unappreciated, so-overstuffed, that they actually mis-route themselves by exchanging baggage tags, or jumping conveyor belts.   Some suitcases will go anywhere before going back home for further mistreatment.   And, it has to be admitted, some of them take a perverse delight in knowing that their owners are fretting over their lost souvenirs and shopping plunder.

Not me, I’ve been a faithful workhorse for Jim even though he should have put me out to pasture years ago.   I’ve got more air miles on me than a DC3 from Aero Banana Republica.   I’ve also been in the bowels of enough ships, and the baggage cars of enough trains, to satisfy the wanderlust of a matched set of a dozen pieces of luggage.   And I would be retired if Jim didn’t have his quirky little obsession with seeing how long he can keep traveling with the same suitcase.

Let me explain.   The first trip I made with him after he purchased me was to Israel.   Except I got stuck in Frankfurt because our flight was late and I didn’t make the connection.   So I spent two days in a pressure chamber at the airport just so they could make sure I wasn’t carrying a bomb!   What a welcome to the fun world of foreign travel.   Then my locks were forced and I was searched when I finally got to Israel.   I felt so violated.

Since then I’ve had three wheels and one hinge replaced.   My retractable handle was sprained so badly in Spain it wouldn’t retract.   I’ve had more dents and cracks repaired by the airlines than I can count, and Jim even repaired one by screwing a six-inch metal plate over a split and spray painted it with the wrong color.   He has also bolted a fitting on me for the padlock he uses in place of my broken regular locks.   As if anyone would think there is anything of value in a suitcase so covered with torn and shredded hotel, airline, and security check stickers that it looks mummified.

So here I go again.   Jim can’t use that snobby little roll-aboard I have to share the closet with because it’s too small for this trip.   At least I won’t have to listen to it gloating about the time it flew to London in the overhead bin in “business class”.

Me?   I’ll be down there in the baggage bay, cramped and shivering, doing the unappreciated, but indispensable, work of an aging “impedimenta”.   I checked my baggage tags; we’re off to Singapore this trip.   Long ride, so I’ll have time to make some notes for my memoirs, . . . after I take a look around to see if, just maybe, there happens to be an Italian paisley-cloth soft-sider aboard.

©2001, ©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 12.08.2004)

Originally published in San Diego Writer’s Monthly , Vol. 11, No. 5,   July 2001