Last week, I took my son on the value bus from Baltimore to New York to see his sister perform in a New York University show. We rode the bus because it is: 1) always an adventure; 2) an interesting introduction to other people's fragrant lunches; and 3) really cheap.

You see, I have this ridiculous goal of one day spending a 24-hour period in New York City and spending less than $300 - including travel, food, lodging and sightseeing. I have yet to achieve this goal, but when I do, I plan to throw a huge gala on the little dirt patch at the O'Donnell Street cutoff where you wait for the "Double Happyness" bus. You will all be invited to celebrate this feat of ingenuity and economy: water and saltines will be served.

Our trip started off just fine. We had confined our luggage to one backpack each. When I saw the ukulele's slender neck sticking out of my son's backpack, I said: "You're bringing your ukulele?"

All right, I admit it: I suppose I might have used that mother tone typically heard in the phrase: "You're wearing that?" But to my son's credit, he just nodded. And frankly, he could have brought a standing lamp, snow shovel, parrot or any other item for all I cared, as long as he was willing to haul it around.

Our bus trip was uneventful except for the initial pushing match and accompanying R-rated soundtrack of two women attempting to board at the same time. We arrived and checked into our hotel, and after some strumming of the ukulele, went to get lunch before heading to the Empire State Building.

"This looks good," I said, spying the simple word "Burgers" on a restaurant sign. But I knew I was in for trouble when the menu inside proclaimed that they served only organic, grass-fed beef. I figured the cows must have been hand-fed arugula as well, when our tab came to $33 for two burgers, fries, a milkshake and a lemonade.

Next, we waited in line to see the view from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. The ratio of waiting to viewing time was approximately 650:1. Still, it is an impressive and incredibly moving sight, mostly because of the large, invisible memorial looming where the Twin Towers used to be.

Then it was off to the evening's dance program, which was wonderful as well as wonderfully free. After the show, my daughter joined us in the hotel room, spacious as the interior of my minivan. We rose early, put on our backpacks and checked out, heading for our last sightseeing excursion: the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"Here it is," I announced proudly when we arrived, gesturing at the colossal museum as if I had created it only moments before.

"Wait a moment!" we heard behind us as we walked up the steps. This is the polite form of "Stop right there." We turned to see a uniformed museum guard.

"I see you have a musical instrument," he said.

"Yes, it's a ukulele," I offered.

"You can't take that into the museum," he said.

"Oh, we're planning to check it," I explained.

"They won't accept a ukulele," he said. "It's a conflict of interest."

Now this was unexpected. I hadn't anticipated a ukulele conflict of interest.

Sadly, the conversation moved forward in a way that revealed we had no options for checking the ukulele, prompting me to turn to my son in frustration and ask the helpful question: "Why did you bring that ukulele, anyway?"

"Don't worry about it, Mom," he said. "Let's just walk around Central Park instead."

And so we did. We had a great time. Especially when we happened upon the "Imagine" memorial, where I like to believe I briefly felt John Lennon smiling at the ukulele in my son's backpack.

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