The trip had been months in the making but it began, for me — this Great Father-Son Sampling of West Coast golf, fast food and prospective institutions of higher learning — on the outdoor deck at Trafalgar, a British-themed pub perched high above the heart of Hong Kong’s Central district.
This was April 2013. In less than 8 hours’ time, I would board a plane bound for Los Angeles, where, after 12 more hours in the air, I would meet my son, Silas, and set out for the hinterlands of California. Accordingly, I had arranged to conclude the business portion of my journey among several colleagues at Trafalgar, all of us indulging in several of the Brit-derived pleasures for which modern Canton is famous. These centered on pints of Boddington’s, Scotch eggs and Premier League football — beamed to us live from London, Sunderland and Liverpool via satellite, then projected in turn onto the walls of neighboring buildings on Lockhart Street, in images 10 feet tall.
At approximately 23:00 local time, this night before my departure, a text came through from my wife, the fair Sharon, with whom I had been trading mildly anxious communications all evening. This was to be expected. She was poised to put her first-born on a plane, by himself, from one coast to the other where, God willing and stars aligned, I would meet up with the 16-year-old man/child and resume custodial responsibilities.
However, this particular text brought to the fore a new, altogether different level of anxiety. It read, “I’ve been reading our son’s phone…”
I put my pint glass down. Reflexively, I shared this introductory snippet with my mates at Trafalgar, one of whom, quite rightly, remarked that nothing particularly good is liable to follow that sort of opener.
The essay here shares the details of a trip taken almost 10 years ago, and so it’s a modest exercise in nostalgia — for the teenage son who is today fully grown, and for the international travel we could once undertake without a second thought. Leaving Hong Kong on a plane used to be the most seamless, worry-free exercise on Planet Earth. The Central district of Hong Kong was once equipped with a train station that didn’t merely whisk travelers 30 minutes out of town to the city’s gleaming-new, island airport, one of the busiest in the world. Hong Kongers had also been so canny as to install airline check-in counters at the train station, in Central HK, so that travel to said airport might be conducted only with the luggage one carries on. The idea of this practical technology being deployed in an American city, even now, remains as far-fetched as Utah state senators forfeiting their right to carry concealed weapons on the floor of their legislature.
Today, the check-in apparatus at Central station sits dormant and, according to my HK friends, a bit ghostly. Beijing’s 2019 anti-democratic crackdown, then a pandemic, changed everything. Hong Kong’s famous bar district at Lan Kwai Fong has been shuttered, the entire Special Administrative Region utterly isolated. In 2019, HKG — one of the most efficient, elegant and busy airports in the world — witnessed 71.3 million arrivals. In 2021, the total was 1.3 million. On a single day in January 2022, an HK friend reported to me, 139 people arrived there.
Back in 2013, not even the legacy of so many smooth, creamy pints of Boddington’s got in the way of my orderly egress from Hong Kong. After passing through Central, leaving my bags to the fates there, and stopping for a bite in the United Club before boarding, I slept like a baby on the 12-hour flight to L.A. Because there is nothing that two Ambien and a glass of wine won’t cure, dull, and slip gently into a time-shrinking simulacrum of sleep.
I could see the boy sauntering in my direction from a great distance away, down the endless, straightaway sidewalk outside the International Terminal at LAX. We had traded texts upon our near-simultaneous landings, so I knew to expect him — and where. Even so, it’s disarming to view one’s full-grown son slowly walking one’s way, in such an out-of-context location, slowly magnifying in size with every step he takes, like a blond, gangly, clean-shaven, unseated Omar Sharif slowly traveling toward me from a far-off urban-desert horizon.
Could this be the fresh-faced kid my wife had outed the night before as a sex and drug fiend?
That’s not fair, not to him nor her. But the information she’d gleaned from his phone, rightly or wrongly, had included various and sundry information re. his high school girlfriend, their expressions of love/lust, and directions to iniquitous party hideaways in around our small southern Maine community. Was this boy still a virgin? If not, was he practicing safer sex than his dad had at the same tender age? Was he (to paraphrase my own betrothed) respecting this young woman?
“You need to have a long talk with your son about responsibility,” Sharon had texted me, in conclusion, that night on the deck at Trafalgar. With six days, four rounds of golf, five college visits and several hundred miles in the car together, she was right in declaring, “You should have plenty of opportunity.”