“Hej på dig,” he said.
While “hej på dig” [hey-poh day] is not an uncommon way to say hello in Swedish, it’s one that always cracks me up because “Hej på dig” was the name of my first Swedish book in seventh grade. I – and probably thousands of Finns of my generation – can still recite the entire first chapter of the book by heart, or at least the last line, in which a dog barks in Swedish: “Vov, vov”
So, he said “hej på dig” and I laughed and when Mats Zuccarello turned around after he’d pushed some of his things aside, he laughed, too. It’s always nice to make people laugh, it makes dealing with them so much easier.
I laughed, Mats laughed, and I said hej på dig, and then we talked. At first it was in an interview format, me asking questions and Mats answering them, the gradually it turned into a chat.
It was the second time in two days that I was standing next to his stall, talking to the only Norwegian player in the NHL. I had met him after the New York Rangers practice the day before, speaking with him about life in the NHL for a feature I was working on, I had just watched him play a game, and was now trying to set up the time for a big interview when we could cover a lot of ground.
Mats had been a slippery little fellow to pin down. I’d arrived in New York on Saturday, and survived a non-storm on Monday, the day I had hoped to get to talk to him. They had had a game on Tuesday, so I gave him a day off from my pestering, and instead, I grabbed a tall latte and a copy of the New York Times, and hopped on a Metro North train to Tarrytown on Wednesday to make sure I could talk to him after the Rangers practice.
On Wednesday, he was wearing a black and neon green baseball cap, backwards, on Thursday, after the game, he was wearing a hat with shades of pink – in support of the fight against breast cancer – but the smile was the same. On Wednesday, we had agreed that we’d talk about the interview time after the game the next day.
“Why don’t you send me a text tomorrow morning, and we’ll set something up close to where I live,” he said, and then walked out of the dressing room.
“I will,” I said, but I don’t think he heard me.
I waited until 10:55 on Friday morning before I texted him.
“Name the time and place and I’ll be there,” I wrote, pressed “send” and headed out to lunch with some friends since I knew the Rangers would practice at noon which meant that he wouldn’t be back in town until about 3 pm.
After lunch, I headed downtown, towards Greenwich Village to kill some time before my meeting with Mats. I had glanced at my phone a few times during lunch, and knew that I hadn’t received anything, but I wasn’t nervous. Not yet.
At 2:20, just as I got up from the Washington Square Park subway station, and just as I had called Wife to see where she was, I got a text:
I wasn’t thrown off by the obscure reference to Paul Coffey, because I was so happy to get the message. I had no idea where Coffee Bean was, or what it was, but that didn’t matter. I called Wife to tell her I couldn’t meet up with her after all, because I was heading towards the Meatpacking District.
The only problem was: I didn’t know where it was, and even that wasn’t a problem because I did the unthinkable. I turned on data roaming on my phone and googled “coffee bean meatpacking” and found the address behind the first hit: “350 W 14th St, New York, NY”.
And then the battery on my phone died.
Now I had at least two problems:
1. I didn’t know where I was, except that I was there.
2. I didn’t know how to get to 14th street.
And had I been the worrying kind:
3. I didn’t know what time it was (but I knew the clock was ticking), and
4. There was no way for me to text Mats in case I was late (or 5. Wife for help)
I made a quick decision to simply turn around and walk back towards the subway station. On my way there, I bumped into a policeman, so I asked him for directions. He laughed and, without a word, made a big gesture with his thumb, as if he were hitch-hiking, to the other direction. I thanked him and started to walk. Fast.
Spring Street. It’s a sign, I thought, since “spring” in Swedish means “run”. Then I laughed because I thought about an episode of How I Met Your Mother in which they say “it’s a sign, man” about a sign.
I kept on walking. King Street. Houston. Downing. How much father could 14th be if the streets still weren’t numbered. Somebody once taught me that a Manhattan block is a quarter of a mile long and something something across, I remembered. But a quarter of a mile is 400 meters, so that can’t be true, I thought.
For some reason, I’ve always done math in my head when I’ve exercised. When I was a kid, I used to solve math problems on the ice, then come home and finish my homework. Now, I was trying to figure out if I’d have to run to make it to Coffee Bean in what now surely was just twenty minutes.
Leroy Street. Free association: “Fame! I’m gonna live forever”. Not if I don’t get to the meeting with Mats Zuccarello. I still wasn’t sure I was going in the right direction, so I sped up. And then I slowed down, and went inside a fashion store at Bedford and Morton. It was a tiny store, and in the back, there’s a girl with a MacBook on her lap.
“Excuse me, which way to 14th street?” I asked, trying not to sound out of breath.
“Just go right and take another right and … or wait, just keep on walking this street right here. It’s the Seventh Avenue,” she said, and turned her attention back to the computer.
I thanked her and rushed out.
Commerce St., then Barrow. Then Bleecker, Grove. I regretted having gone shopping before going to meet Zuccarello, but I grabbed the skate laces that were the handle on the bag a little tighter and I started to jog. I remembered Wayne Gretzky saying in his book that he could always count down the clock, so he’d know exactly how much time was left. I figured I still had time left, but maybe not more than ten minutes. And I wasn’t yet at 10th street, and from there it was still four blocks up, and then, who knew how many across.
I ran a little faster.
Tenth Street. I slowed down, and walked, until I saw that the next street was Charles, not 11th as I had thought and hoped. Then Perry. I started to run again, and I hated it, because I knew I’d be all sweaty when I got to Coffee Bean.
11th, then 12th. By then I was fairly confident that I’d at least find the coffee shop. Whether I’d be there on time, and whether it was the one Mats had meant was still a question mark. I ran across 13th street, and when I took a left – on a whim – on 14th street, I started to walk again. When I saw two street numbers, I deducted that I was going in the right direction.
I got to Coffee Bean, and I walked in as casually as I could. There were only a couple of people inside, and none of them was the Norwegian Hobbit. I asked the barista if she could help me charge my phone, but she wasn’t an iPhone owner. I saw a guy leaning against the wall next to the coffee bar, with a white cord plugged into the outlet so I asked him if he could help me, and he asked me whether I had an iPhone 5 or 4. I say 5, and he said his is a 4, with a different plug.
“Sorry, I totally would’ve helped you,” he told me.
I wiped some sweat off my brow and walked out to wait for Mats. I had no idea how long it took me to get there but surely he would have waited for me.
Just as I walked out, and stepped aside, I saw a familiar figure cross the street. He walked towards Coffee Bean, and when he was about twenty meters from me, he raised his hand. I waved back. But Mats hadn’t been waving at me, but instead he did that overhand high-five-turns-into-a-handshake thing with a friend of his.
I took a step back and waited.
I had all the time in the world.
They talked for a few seconds, as Mats kept walking toward the coffee shop. He stopped, and when his friend went his way, I said “hej på dig” to Mats.
I don’t think he heard that.
Footnote: The story
will be out in a couple of weeks is here.