He wanted to be here.
Just for a few days to see his grandparents this summer, like the last two summers. Just a little trip from his home in the green hills of Lafayette, California.
Just to be in Albuquerque.
Arti Shaterian is 10, a stubborn, smart, singular redhead like his grandmother, Gloria Podolny. He’s only visited twice, but that’s all he needed to decide that Albuquerque is the promised land.
For months, he had been researching, making plans and dreaming of what he hoped to do and where he hoped to eat during his visit, Podolny said.
“He was so excited about coming to Albuquerque,” she said. “His enthusiasm was infectious.”
Also infectious: COVID-19.
As the virus spread across the globe, as states shut down and travel was discouraged, the dream of Albuquerque began to fade like a mirage in the desert.
Podolny tried to let him down easy.
“Let’s keep our hopes up,” she told him during their Skype conversations.
But he knew.
And so here we are in July, vacations canceled, staycations our only resort. Arti – pronounced “RT” – is home for the duration.
But he still loves Albuquerque.
In May, he wrote an essay titled “Why You Should Go to Albuquerque!” as a school assignment, its unfeigned exuberance leaping from the page. No travel brochure could ever be as effusive in its adoration.
Podolny sent the essay to me to share with you all – not because it’s unfortunate that her grandson cannot be in Albuquerque, though it is, but because we are fortunate to be in Albuquerque.
No travel guide is complete without a discussion on cuisine, and Arti goes full Bourdain, preteen-style.
His recommendation? Blake’s Lotaburger, which he calls his “classy always-gotta-go-to.”
“Think of McDonald’s, but it’s good,” he writes. “But most importantly, they have the BEST breakfast burritos EVER. No JOKE.”
Honorable mention goes to Sonic Drive-In for its “BEAST slushies,” though he acknowledges that the ubiquitous chain is not unique to New Mexico.
Arti also praises Albuquerque’s beautiful vistas and hiking opportunities.
“There’s mild courses, hard courses, and rocks, rocks, ROCKS,” he writes, ending the sentence with more exclamation points than my old eyes can count. “And the views, well that’s a whole different story! Like San Francisco, it’s tightly packed, that can make for amazing views when you’re standing from a distance.”
Which, it should be noted, he has seen on his hikes with grandfather Mike Podolny in the foothills above Albuquerque and on family trips to the city by the bay 22 miles from his Lafayette home.
Arti’s grandmother said that one of the things he was looking forward to the most was spending time at Hinkle Family Fun Center and Cliff’s Amusement Park.
Of that, he writes “you can never go wrong.”
This year, she said, he would have finally been tall enough to ride on one of Cliff’s biggest attractions, the Rattler, a bone-shaking, stomach-dropping wooden roller coaster.
“That is not something I would be looking forward to,” she said dryly.
Alas, the Rattler isn’t rattling. Cliff’s remains closed with no opening date in sight. Summer in this city, like most cities across the country, is on hold.
And so is Arti’s trip.
“The last time I Skyped with him, he told me, ‘Grandma, I was thinking of Lotaburger today,’ ” she said.
We miss those things we took for granted not so long ago, like the juicy bite of a burger, the freedom of travel or the hug of a grandchild.
And yes, it’s irritating, frustrating, maddening that we’ve yet to kick this pandemic, yet to regain much of what had been our normal lives.
And yes, it’s easy to wish we could be anyplace else but Albuquerque. Before COVID-19, masks, Black Lives Matter and Trump to fight about, Albuquerque was among our favorite golden apples of discord. It’s too gritty, some argued. Too ugly, too mean, too crime-ridden, too bereft of chicness and culture and cool here. It’s “Breaking Bad” for real.
The grass was always so much greener on the other side for our dusty old town.
But not to a boy from the green hills of Lafayette, California.
“I love Albuquerque,” he concludes his essay. “And you can probably see why. Look up some videos, so you can decide whether or not to go. Also, their airport is really nice.”
Sometimes it takes someone from the outside to see the wonder of what has been right in front of us all the time. Sometimes it takes a child to help us adults see what we keep missing.
So here’s to next year, Arti. We’ll keep the welcome mat out for you.
I’m thinking of a Lotaburger today.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.