California drives

On a Wednesday in November I drive north along the 101 in the middle of the day. It’s been years since I’ve seen the north bay during work hours. In Novato I get the car washed at a place I used to go only before 9 am, on my way in. The crowds surprise me, mostly older people chatting about books and signing cards for the troops. I am the only person under fifty not busy washing cars.

In Petaluma I drop the car off for brief repairs. I’m happy to see the town for a few hours. It’s a place I liked being familiar with. Of course things have changed, some for the better. There’s a combination roaster and coffee shop a block from the tire place, where before there was nothing. The clientele is young and engrossed in their work.

The Fit’s repairs are a minor thing, worth the adventure on this rare day off mid-week. The ride mostly makes me think of the three years of commuting, forty miles each way, from the western parts of San Francisco. Living downtown now heading north is far less convenient. So much of our life then was about proximity to the Golden Gate and comfort in the fog. The new zipper pylons on the bridge surprise me, though they shouldn’t. The truck that moves them was an internet sensation when it debuted, replacing the men leaning off the back of a pickup that had done the job for years. I was always impressed with their ability, slotting each pylon home while in motion, hanging down into traffic. I wonder what they do now. Their skill, calm coordination amidst moving automobiles, seems both widely applicable and of limited concrete value.

The passage of time is shocking at specific intervals. We purchased this Fit five years ago, for this specific commute. Five years, three of them making this drive, have passed since that first fall of automobile-based discovery. Owning a car was such a large step in becoming American, age 31, fourteen years after I’d sold my Volvo for spending money on my first trip to Japan.

Now, commuting by bicycle and train, I often comment on how glad I am not to drive every day, not to be stuck in traffic regularly. But this commute, forty miles up the 101, was how I learned to be American again. Seeing the dry hills on a Wednesday in November is a good way to keep hold of those memories.

Gray skies and hotel windows

Sitting twenty two stories up above Shanghai, I watch the weather and listen to music. Or rather, I look into the weather, a fog of fading white that makes tall buildings invisible only a mile away. I look down at the roofs of shorter buildings, many still under construction. I look at the wall of the nearest tower, its surface covered in the soot of years in this air.

Shanghai’s view does not surprise, though friends ask when I post photos how I, asthmatic, cope with the air. I cope like everyone does, by breathing in, breathing out, and moving forward. By focusing on what there is to do in front of me rather than what there is all around me. Instead of focusing on what there is inside all of us.

It is Sunday, and I am relishing the peace in between weeks on the move. Sometimes that is the greatest gift of hotels in foreign countries.

In May of twenty thirteen I spent a week in Tokyo for work. Living out of a perfectly-designed-for-it’s-size hotel room, I wore a suit and went to izakayas with customers in the evenings. It was the culmination of years of dreaming; suddenly I had a job that took me to one of my favorite places, that gave me a place to stay and a view that I loved. Taking the subway around the city to meetings gave me a glimpse into being a business man in a network of concrete built for them. Pouring out of Hamamatsucho station with the crowd in the evening, walking the two blocks to my room at Hotel MyStay, and taking part in the Tokyo rituals again after so long left me in a perfect mood. With enough time spent alone, work travel has a way of building an atmosphere. After three days of this compact life I was ready for company, mentally.

The National’s Trouble Will Find Me was released that third day. Letting it play in that tiny hotel room for the three days that followed gave me a fresh environment to layer the new music on, to integrate it into. The album became a soundtrack to that week, to convenience store breakfasts and late night FaceTime calls. Now, two and a half years later, a lifetime away, sitting in a hotel room twenty two stories up above Shanghai, those songs still takes me immediately back to Tokyo.

“Don’t make me read your mind / You should know me better than that”

My current hotel room is much larger, China not lacking space the way Tokyo does. The residents also don’t enjoy the neat confinement of items, the precise layout required to maximize utility. There are extra mirrors and more wood than strictly necessary. Outside of this room China sprawls, with more huge buildings going up to demonstrate ability rather than fill need. Driving to Ningbo last week we crossed the long bridge that spans the bay to avoid the even longer drive around through Hangzhou that was the only option when I traveled this route frequently by bus in ’06. Reaching the far shore, the bay’s south edge, we saw a cluster of towers, maybe thirty, residential and at least twenty floors each.

“What are those,” someone asked, meaning what is that town, what is that city.

No one answered. A cluster of identical buildings, they were clearly built in a single go. There is no town there, on the shore of the bay. Why so many apartment towers then, and why so tall? Because space is not an issue, and size even less. There are millions of people within an easy drive, millions more within a few hours, all seeking housing and an opportunity. This is China.

In Tokyo everything is tightly constrained, each building wrapped in between all the others. So much so that buildings are often strangely shaped, L’s or T’s or other letters, unable to be squares or circles.

“Jennifer you are not the only reason / My head is boiling and my head is freezing”

And I remember steaming my suit before meetings, looking in the mirror working through my pitch for the day. Organizing my notes in the evening and lying on the bed looking out the window as night fell on the city.

Tokyo will always be with me, part of the story of this music. Or this music will always be Tokyo. Some times blending a place and a feeling, a set of songs and a mood, shapes everything we do for years. Sometimes it is just a way of etching time into our minds, deeply enough that years later we are astonished to realize how long ago that was, May of twenty thirteen.

“If I stay here, trouble will find me / If I stay here, I’ll never leave…”

Quoted lyrics from The National’s ‘I Should Live in Salt’, Fireproof’, and the title track off of the 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me

Open doors

Walking home alone in the evening, as the last of the sun falls on the Sutro tower behind me, I realize this is going to be a good memory. It’s a strange feeling, recognizing one’s future self in the present. Walking into an emotion so good it will linger is rare because it has to be. Emotions that remain strong enough to carry us years later aren’t the common ones.

Today, this evening, coffee from Four Barrel in hand, walking home in jeans and a t-shirt and listening to the neighborhood, was like that. All the street lights were just on, the sky was still bright in places but losing color, and the gate to our apartment building was shut but the door behind it open, letting out a pool of golden light onto the street to welcome me home.

Living in cities in the early years of the twenty first century is an exercise in deposition, of putting down layers of personal history on to places that are or will be famous. By that I mostly mean are or will be unaffordable. Probably it has always been like this. I know from my parent’s friends that this is what New York felt like to them in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when St. Marks was a neighborhood not a name, when apartments in Chelsea were places to live comfortably, rather than micro houses to be featured in Dwell.

Yet living in cities is in some sense always about being seen, always about being somewhere rather than nowhere, about being able to walk to neat spots rather than commute to them. And so, like in Shanghai, I am laying down memories in San Francisco that will serve me for years, long past my time here.

Biking home late last night down Howard was similarly beautiful. The weather is finally perfect San Francisco after a September heat wave. The neighborhood, fast gentrifying, was still mostly empty in the dark, and I could slip through lights without braking, without holding on to the handle bars. On a Sunday evening everyone was inside preparing for the work week. Coasting upright I could look around and remember how lucky we are to live so close to our friends, to live so close to the train, in the middle of everything.

I remember riding my electric scooter home through Shanghai’s fall thinking the same thing, thinking how lucky we were to be in the center of this giant city. We knew the whole time that Xuhui would become unaffordable in a generation, become like Manhattan, a place few live in their twenties. Being able to put down those memories before the French Concession became a global tourist hotspot, before Lamborghinis were crammed into hutong alleys, was glorious.

Cities are always like this, I think now. And so I am glad to have these memories of walking home tonight to a small house with purple lights in the windows, to a cat who waits for his dinner, and to a roof top garden that needs tending.

Twelve paws

For a few moments tonight, in the heat of a late San Francisco evening, our entire family was in the tub.

On hot days we fill it with cold water, just an inch or two to cool the feet. It’s a cheap means of refreshment. We leave it like this all day, and frequent it between projects. Sometimes we catch each other standing quietly in the tub in the dark reading something on our phones. This is modern life, combining fast internet and rising temperatures.

Today, relaxing at home on the first weekend of the off season, we taught Mr. Squish our trick. As cats go he’s comfortable in water, a result of taking baths twice a month since he was very small. In hot weather he minds them less, the drying process being a benefit rather than a hassle. Today he took a cold shower, a more recent discovery. He padded around in the simulated rain quite content for a full five minutes before deciding he was done.

And so this evening in our dark apartment, lit only by the purple LED christmas lights that we are certain cause no heat, we all stood for a few moments in the tub, twelve paws together in the cool water. The humans crouched to put their hands in too, and the cat sniffed at their faces. After a first aborted try Mr. Squish seemed to understand. He waited patiently with us until the chill seeped up his legs and into his body.

It’s a good way to spend a Sunday together, I think: lying on the floor in front of the fan and then standing in the bathtub. And then standing, slightly damp, in front of the fan, eight dripping sets of prints leading from one to the other.

The changing weather

In twenty fifteen the first week of September bakes San Francisco. Several days break 90 F and fans are out of stock. In the Mission temperatures close in on 100 in the late afternoon. At work in Oakland, which is hotter than SF, everyone complains, their houses not built for such temperatures. There are few wrap-around porches in Berkeley, less air conditioning in San Francisco. Heaters for the foggy summer were our primary concern when picking apartments. Heaters and windows, to let in the scant sun.

Instead we brainstorm ways to keep our apartment, picked for its long exposure to the afternoon sun, cool for Mr. Squish. Our first tries are not successful, and we come home to clouds of black fur drifting through the still air as he tries desperately to shed some insulation. On the hottest night we bathe him, and he lounges in the water. Afterwards he wanders the apartment contentedly, wet and dripping in the evening breeze. We sleep with every window open, happy to be part of the slowly cooling city.

On Wednesday, unwilling to leave him to bake, I take him to work. We drive together across the Bay bridge and lounge in the office’s air conditioning. He is a favorite there, drifting from room to room unnoticed until he leaps onto a colleague’s desk in search of snacks. As cats go he’s calm in the face of surprises, and welcomes the adventure.

In Tahoe the weekend before the low lake level was a constant presence. We had to swim or be ferried out to the boat, and most docks were constrained to shallow-drawing vessels. Watching their skeletal structures rise so high above the water I thought of the foresight to have built this far out in the first place, and of droughts that must have come before. I thought of Shasta, already low some four years ago, and wonder if house boating would be fun still. Could we enjoy an escape in an environment so obviously lacking sustenance, so clearly in need of water?

In Tahoe we could, relaxing in the breeze coming off the lake. In San Francisco, that first week of September, we cannot. In the western portions of the city this weather is less extreme, and the ocean provides some breeze. In the Mission, flat and rarely washed clean by rain or wind, heat that endures past dark is a rare feeling. Brooklyn, a few weeks ago, was both hotter and more humid, but the stick of an East Coast summer is to be expected, and evenings out of doors stretch late as the sky cools.

And yet how quickly all weather disappears. This morning, sitting with the windows open, San Francisco is a pleasant 61 F, and Mr. Squish joins me beneath the blanket I’ve spread over my feet, glad of the cover. Neither of us can remember the week prior and our reluctance to touch. Our bodies have forgotten, holding only what they can feel at the moment.