Building forever

Landing in Tokyo at night, the city does not seem to end. From the air lights stretch away in all directions save where the sea still intrudes. In a bus from the airport this is reinforced, no suburban gap between airport and the city it serves. Neighborhoods change, the area around Haneda giving way to the denser residential sprawl of Tokyo proper, and then micro shifts as the gaps between train stations become the only visible breaks. Like interstate exits in the US, train stations represent the loci of Tokyo, clusters of shops, neon, and light that then spreads out, a subtle Doppler effect of dissipating commercial space, until the pace accelerates before the next station, another bunch of stores and people, taxis and signs. In this pattern we move on through the city in the night.

As many have written, Tokyo feels like the future. On this evening taxi ride, just arrived from Manila and another view of a possible future, I wonder why Tokyo, more than any other city, gets this designation.

The common reasons are obvious and true. It is clean, far more than any other city of size. Efficient too, in a way Germans and Swiss can enjoy. The city is polite in service and accommodating to foreigners, in a fashion that leaves visitors impressed and eager to return.

Our bus and then taxi each pass through separate construction areas, both calmly productive at one am on the morning of a national holiday. Lights are on, workers direct traffic, and the dirt of the digging is neatly contained by cones. Tokyo is, like New York, in constant repair. And yet there are no potholes, the average street seems five years old, and the sidewalk is level, blind strips and all. How can this city be so large and so well-maintained?

The smell, stepping out of the taxi, is what I remember most. Tokyo in the rain. So different than the smell of rain in Hong Kong, a few weeks back, or Bohol last week. So different than Shanghai, Dongguan, or San Francisco’s smells, the cities I now know well. The smell is clean, to my nose, lacking pollution and not quite of the ocean in the way Bohol was.

Now, a few days later, I think that the magic of Tokyo is not in just in the trains, or the organization, or the maintenance, but in all three. The magic is found in the attention to detail on all ends of the organism that is Tokyo. From construction to use to repair and replacement, the extra measure of care can seem robotic, idyllic. Especially after the vagaries of public transit in the Bay Area, after the impenetrable morass of Manila traffic, Tokyo’s mechanical functionality can seem impossible, the cleanliness obviously forced, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Disney or Singapore.

Instead I think, it represents what could be, not what will be. It represents what people might build, if so determined as a large group. Manila and San Francisco, St. Louis and Dongguan do likewise. All that differs are the people, and the complex intermingling of abilities, desire, and willingness to work together.

In this view the future of Tokyo is both approachable and impossible, marvelous and out of reach. It’s a city to love, I think. More than anything it’s a wonderful place. Standing on the balcony of our rented apartment, looking out at the city and falling rain, it is a place I am so glad to see.

Just around the corner

On a Sunday in October we are in search of a bike shop. Between the two of us we have a bald tire and aging brakes. In 2014 we’ve increased our miles ridden, part of the transition to a single car and a Mission apartment. In exchange, bicycles that have neither needed nor recieved maintenance in years are due and deserving. Over lunch we search out a place, now an act of skimming crowd-sourced recommendations that becomes more familiar with every move. We rely on those we have never met so regularly, bus drivers and engineers, architects and grid operators, that asking for recommendations anonymously is an easy habit. It’s an exchange made more personal by profiles and star ratings for restaurants and shops, if not more important. And with each recommendation tested we become more comfortable in this, our third San Francisco neighborhood. It is a comfort built on learning, slowly, where to go for what. For bicycles this is our first try. Our last cycle shop was in the Sunset, and evolved during our time in the neighborhood, Roaring Mouse transforming into Everybody Bikes as the former moved to the Marina.

In the Richmond we did not have a local favorite, preferring the 38 and a walk to a chill ride home through Golden Gate Park most nights.

In Shanghai we had many mechanics, all over the city, wherever they were needed.

On Nanyang Lu behind Plaza 66 one evening, having gotten a flat on a broken bottle. Somewhere in the old town one night after a volleyball game when the starter on my electric scooter failed. Mostly, though, on Yongjia Lu at Yueyang Lu, a block from our last apartment. A tiny shop, really the front of a house, filled with equipment packed densly in each evening and pulled out on to the sidewalk during business hours. The man who ran it also made keys.

On these earlier searches we mostly did not have Yelp, did not rely on unknown people, save for the mechanics themselves, or other cyclists met on the street. Instead we used the bicycles themselves to explore and discover.

Like all such searches, in the Mission we are seeking both convenience and quality, focusing on a small area and hoping that our neighborhood can support the service. It can, and we find sevaral options, settling on one that is both open and near our favorite coffee shop.

Years ago I wrote about neighborhood boundaries, and familiarity. Building that knowledge again in the Mission I think of how transportation defines it, how bicycles expand it and reward casual exploration due to the low cost of going one more block, or an unfamiliar route. Without too much concern for one way streets, traffic, or parking, bicycles are better than cars in this regard. They are better than walking as well, for the limited energy expended to cover six blocks in all permutations. Or our bicycles will be, once they have brakes and tires.

We own four bicycles, though only two are available on this Sunday. The oldest, my Haro, purchased in Venice in 2006, is still in Los Angeles at a friend’s house. Having come with us from LA to Houston in 2008, to San Francisco in 2009, it returned to LA in 2011, less than perfectly suited to the wiggle and San Francisco’s hills.

The second, one of two old Peugeot frames, was damaged by a car on 19th Ave in 2010 and, though having been repaired several times, now needs a new front tire, perhaps wheel, and sits without either in our garage.

Two working bicycles then, just enough for exploration, for a quick trip to the gym and some meandiering to a new lunch spot. Just enough to take us to the edges of our neighborhood and to expand those edges. Part of learning each new portion of San Francisco or of our earlier cities is figuring out where the boundaries are, where neighborhoods end and to what distance errands can be run. In the Mission, one of San Francisco’s few flat neighborhoods, our reach is wider than it was in either the Sunset or the Richmond.

Here then, finally healthy and home long enough rebuild the center of a life that has been moved and shaken this year, we seek a bike shop, a place to repair and replace. We find our answer three blocks away, Box Dog Bikes. Checking out the bikes for sale while my brakes are replaced, I think of Roaring Mouse, and of my old resource in Shanghai, the man who opened his front doors every morning, and made keys as well as repaired bicycles. We change cities and neighborhoods, and yet seek the same assistance.

No surprise then that in each the shops are not far, around the corner and waiting to be found.

Rise above

When I was a child the Ramada Inn was one of the tallest buildings in Ithaca. Now called the Hotel Ithaca and a Holiday Inn in between, it’s a nondescript building in a city that’s gotten taller. In the early ‘90s though the tower stood out. The bulk of the hotel is a standard two story structure, but on Cayuga street there is a ten story tower with a great view of downtown. It also has a glass-walled elevator that facing north, towards the Commons and the heart of Ithaca.

Towards the end of high school I spent a lot of time in this elevator, usually late at night. As it rose above the second floor and the roofs around, Ithaca spread out. With hills and the towers of Cornell and IC on them, there are a lot of good views in Ithaca, but not many downtown or indoors. Or there didn’t used to be.

For a few years the comic book conventions were held at the Ramada, and so a couple of weekends a year I’d spend a lot of time there, helping out and wandering around. Somewhere in this time I learned about the elevator, and the view from the 10th floor. More importantly I learned that there was a side door to the tower and no one cared if I walked in and just rode the elevator up to watch the city.

So I did.

In that Chang’an hotel the first time I was surprised. From the lobby’s white lights and interior feel the change is sudden, especially at night. Glass backed, the elevator lifts through the atrium walls and out into the night. Dongguan spreads out to the hills and beyond, lit but muffled. Across the street the shopping center flashes neon and behind it apartment towers fill with the light of evening. Below, on the roof of the hotel’s lobby and restaurants, a curved pool shines from its own light. The unlit portion of the roof fades as the elevator continues upwards, immersed in the dark of the evening. Further out across the city other towers blink or beckon. Office towers darker, apartments bright, shopping brighter still. With rooms between the 10th and 15th floors, the ride is long enough to notice, and to enjoy.

Only the middle two elevators get the glass treatment. The others, for a repeat visitor, feel like a waste, metal boxes without any view. Returning, I’m glad when door 2 or 3 open. After a few days of this I tried to remember other glass elevators I know of. Long term parking at SFO. A hotel on Union Square. And that old Ramada. More, surely, but those are the ones that stand out immediately.

Wherever I go, indoors or out, I always want a better view or a higher perch. Elevators represent that, a chance for a better view, though usually not so literally as my Chang’an hotel’s four options and 50% chance. Even without a glass wall though, there’s a view implied by the building’s height, the buttons outlining just how high, a maximum number. While I’ve always wanted to check every floor, the highest one calls most clearly. I am not alone in this. Witness the world’s tallest bar, hotel, restaurant, deck, pool, and gym, each promising a view in addition to their primary function.

In Tokyo I used to enter office buildings at random, seeking ways up to a view of the city that I love. In Shanghai I started trying hotels, which often have a bar or deck at some height. The best moments, though, come with discovery of glass walls on the ride up, the feeling of leaving the earth behind.

Space elevators are going to be the most amazing things.

Downtown, by the train

For the first time in the United States we have the life we had in Asia. At great but worthwhile expense, we live downtown near the train. In San Francisco this means the Mission, and this means Bart.

Three years ago we lived in a studio in the Sunset, half a block from the N-Judah, a Muni above-ground train line. The studio was wonderful. Giant west-facing windows made for perfect light, and the neighborhood was comfortingly Asian. Rent was reasonable, even with parking, albeit double what we’d paid for a 1 bedroom in Houston scant months before. As for the train, well, proximity was often its best feature. Locals refer to the N jokingly, if at all, and avoid any reliance on it’s twisting route, which is often blocked by cars at 9th and Irving and delayed at the Duboce and Church switch to underground operation. We used it first frequently and then less so, moving to bicycle or car instead.

For years though we regretted leaving that studio, at least on Sundays. Our one bedroom in the Richmond faced east, and so lost the light early in the day. Coupled with the Cigarettes Cheaper crowd next door and the Walgreens loading bay across the street that apartment became exactly what we’d hoped to avoid: a large house with poor light, loud neighbors, and a two-car commute. Looking back now, only months removed, it seems impossible to imagine. Yet for three years we both drove an hour plus each way out of San Francisco. One north, one south, far enough to make most moves impossible for one commute or the other.

And so from the Richmond we took the bus downtown, and walked Fillmore in the night. We went to shows and to bars, but not as many. We took more cabs, and drove more often to friends’ houses.

Our move to the Richmond was built on two desires. Most importantly, a cat, which our Sunset landlord would not allow. Secondly, to have a spare room for guests, even though several had braved our studio, slept on couch or kitchen floor. The living room was useful, and allowed us to easily welcome guests from all over the world. That apartment gave us Mr. Squish, fulfilling our exact request for a cat.
As I write these words he is sprawled on the couch across from me, content in his new home, only the second he has known. He is happier, though that could be the Karlstad sofa he is lounging on, a wedding present to ourselves in a blue that matches our new house. Moving with a cat has long been a dream of ours. Taking him on our adventures, if not yet rock climbing, and watching him explore new spaces are some of our favorite moments.

Why is this apartment so much more welcoming than our old one?

The answers are easy: light, size, and location.

In three months we’ve had friends come for dinner, colleagues bring lunch, and visitors crash on that couch. We’ve walked home from baseball games and taken the train to the airport. We’ve taken the train to brunch at friends’ houses in the East Bay and to work, novelties both. In the last week neither of us drove to work for two days in a row, the first time that has happened since we moved to San Francisco.

Why is this such a change, why did we ever forgo it, and how did we know we wanted it? These questions repeat themselves to me on my walks to Bart, on my train rides home.

This is such a change because we’ve each gained at a minimum two hours of mental time each day. Four hours multiplied by five days is twenty hours a week we gained as a couple with the move. Twenty hours a week, minimum, of additional thinking, reading, and working is time almost impossible to value. Another half a work week. Another two and a half days of paid working hours. Yes, rents are higher in the Mission. Yes, getting rid of one car helped keep our expenses within a similar range. But clearly, at twenty plus hours, we were undervaluing our time, undervaluing each other.

We gave up those hours initially because we had to. We’d gotten an apartment in the Sunset as the cheapest place we could find in San Francisco proper, and a good place to start our life here from. It was. We then got jobs out of the city, in opposite directions. They were good opportunities, and so we put up with the cost in cars and miles, knowing it would not be forever. When we moved to the Richmond, we shortened my commute at Tara’s expense. We balanced traffic and distance and the desire for a cat as best we could. And still we knew it would not be forever.

How did we know what we wanted? How did we know we’d be happier in a smaller apartment within walking distance of a train line, with only one car, in a more urban environment?

Shanghai.

We have lived in dense urban environments, ridden the subway or an electric scooter to work or to school, and commuted in the dense throngs of people rare for most Americans. We have lived in those environments and thrived. We have become comfortable with the benefits of dense living, of good transportation, and of shared public space rather than large private residences.

In America these lessons are difficult to learn. Apartments in dense areas with good public transit are expensive and restricted to a handful of cities. In many, like San Francisco, they are restricted to select neighborhoods in those cities. In Shanghai, in Tokyo, in Hong Kong, these lessons are simply life. They are learned on the train to grade school and in the tiny urban apartments of university. Density is not an option but the ground rule, public transportation not a luxury but the base layer of the urban environment.

We are lucky, in San Francisco, to live downtown near the train. In Shanghai it was the only place we could live, there was no other option. In Japan before that I lived in Saitama, outside of Tokyo proper, and yet on a line that ran directly into Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya. Out of the city and yet of the city in a way rare for Americans. Able to work and shop in the global megacity and still go for a run in the mornings along the Arakawa river.

In San Francisco, in the Mission, guests from out of town drop in for single night and leave early in the morning for meetings in the Financial District, or to tour the Embarcadero. What was once an hour away by bus is ten minutes by Bart. Waiting twenty minutes or more for the N has been replaced by taking any train out of dozens on a workday morning. We often do not drive for an entire weekend, and soon for an entire work week.

Yet in many ways this feels like avoiding the problems. The N still goes 30 minutes between trains on the weekends. The Richmond is still 40 minutes from Powell by bus, an hour twenty or more from the East Bay without free transfer. That we no longer care is a symptom of the problem, and a reason public transit remains a fractured experience. In Shanghai all the trains are run as one unit. In Japan a variety of companies with huge networks work together on train time tables and station infrastructure. In San Francisco there are only three stops on Bart in residential neighborhoods.

Yet 
I no longer complain about transit in San Francisco, instead promoting Bart to arriving guests. Limited, yes, but effective, and valuable, as was my line in Saitama. These visits and easier commutes, then, are the benefits of living here. And in many ways we are at last at home in San Francisco in a way we have not felt before.

Fireflies

Discussing housing around the office lunch table one afternoon he mentions friends who purchased their house primarily for the spacious kitchen and dining area, the ability to seat 12 easily.

“We have dinner parties almost every weekend”, a colleague says. She and her husband organize, she explains, their children and families from all over the neighborhood, on warm evenings in the heat of the East Bay summer. “My husband loves to cook,” she adds, with the smile of one who does not. Her colleague grins with understanding, having survived on Asian street food for most of a decade.

“Sounds like a good time,” he says, thinking of San Francisco’s fog and the brevity of outdoor gatherings.

“It is. It’s nice, everyone in the back yard eating, the children running wild. I have a huge costume box, a trampoline, and a sprinkler.” The images come easily to mind, an American childhood in a middle class neighborhood. “And sitting there, in the dark with all my friends,” she says, “having a glass of wine and talking after the children are asleep, I look around and think this, this is what I imagined being an adult would be like.”

This is what I imagined being an adult would be like, he repeats.

Not meetings and long evenings in the office or on Skype. Not driving between appointments, running late. Those weren’t even ideas, as a child.
What had he thought life would be like, as an adult?

Sitting around a table in the evening, with the lights low and the stars out.

Having a glass of wine with friends after the children had gone inside.

Watching for meteors and laughing about the day’s adventures.

Pretty accurate, he thinks. Seems pretty much what he’d have hoped for.
Save one thing.

“Just need some fireflies,” he says.

“What?”

“Fireflies. I really miss them.”

“Oh. Yeah. Me too.”