Three bicycle moments

He is in his fifties, hair going white at the roots, dyed almost red at the tips that whisper about behind his head. He squints into the onrushing breeze, his knuckles clenching the grips. The scooter’s square frame long ago went out of style, it’s rear compartment has been taped together and the tape cut, replaced by twine. His pants are gray, half of a suit long separated from it’s kin. Purring and puttering in parts down this leafy block, he does not move too fast for this Sunday afternoon. He stops thirty yards short of the next street, not at all for traffic’s sake. Stepping off, left leg still stiff, as though injured, he pauses, left hand still holding the bike upright. After a moment’s concentration, right foot on the ground, balance precarious with the left leg tethered so, he opens the seat compartment and rummages in. After a moment he withdraws thick black plastic frames, almost safety specs. He dons them without pause, his hair waving in the breeze. The straight leg scuffs it’s sole across the scooter, and he is off again, never once considering traffic, never once unsure of his glasses’ capacity to clarify.

She walks slightly behind the bicycle’s rear wheel, her black dress whipping against her stockings, it’s formal length strange on this wide open stretch of road. The heels of her boots clink on the pavement, a staccato counterpoint to the angle of her voice as it spikes at his back, a chisel of words outlining fault. Two steps ahead he pushes the bike, shoulders slumped in the winter jacket, slacks neatly creased. Shoes of black leather look unworn, unfit for cycling. The bike is a dull red, it’s basket black, the rear’s flat metal shows telltale signs of it’s second life as a seat. Her words slip past, around his body, sharp barbs of condemnation that match precisely the tear in her stockings, the scuff on her coat’s elbow. They walk past me like this and on for yards, the harangue common in any language, the blame, the lateness, the fine dress for a Saturday luncheon neither will make. The cold air of Pudong’s November envelopes them both, and I wish a better afternoon, some warmth and friendship, and a safe ride home at their vanishing backs.

His arms are straight outstretched, his mouth wide open, his eyes large. These are the features I notice, that convey his emotion long before I can see the source, it’s wreckage hidden by the taxi’s teal side. It was once a bike, the form clear in the mind, if not on the street. Two wheels, one now slightly less than round. Pedals, each distinct if slightly rusted. The frame itself, painted black but whipped by wind and weather, rust showing so much like moss on an old maple walnut in a clearing near the stream on my parent’s property. The handle bars are truly mangled, and I wonder at the impact. The taxi blocks my view, any indentation on the other side. Its driver stands, abashed, his arms at his side, apologetic yet uncertain in the center of the rider’s onslaught. In the taxi a girl types on her phone, explaining the delay, reassuring a boyfriend, mother, classmate. I am whisked past them, traffic picking up again, my taxi escaping the dangers that weave through our lanes on two wheels. I follow him, my head turn the only expression of sympathy I have, trapped in this steel box. Tomorrow morning I will join his side again, dodge the teal and yellow shapes, speed through intersections with hope, and be indignant when crushed, as all so at a loss must be.

Counting smiles

A city can be measured by men using many tools. Depending on their interests men use numbers of their own kind, height of structures they have built, goods they produce in this place, or wealth those goods become. Internally people use different measurements, involving trees, air quality, or beaches. Moments long passed in time become common points of local reference, creating pride, used in turn by those whose business it is to categorize the scope of human gatherings.

There are, of course, as many ways of counting as things to count, and, today, another:

Electric bikes do not sputter or put or rumble or grind. They whisper along the roadside, allowing their rider a chance to view the world in seclusion, in motion. Invulnerable to the attractions of the road I slip by those wating for the bus with but one pause: to count their smiles.

A city can be judged on size, on money, on age. A city can be judged on smiles it creates.

In the fresh light tomorrow when all have awoken at their tallest, spines uncrunched by the weight of the work week, count them in passing. I have watched the crowds of Tokyo, the masses of New York, the push of Boston, the rumble of San Francisco, the throb of London, the cacaphonous mass of Shanghai for them, I have noted their absence, their brevity, their toothless gaping.

Bangkok’s gridlock, Beijing’s smothering smog, Los Angeles’ comparisons of wealth on wheels, Hong Kong’s suited seriousness, each one just another number of smiles. One more metric to be valued or dismissed. Shanghai lingers though, it’s smiles those of self-confidence, of emergence. These voices have been heard before, in the Economist, the New York Times. Shanghai is the up and coming, the Rio of two thousand plus. Buzzword-happy and building vertical, Shanghai is claimed to be the whirlwind home to the changing times.

Not my city.

The Shanghai I know, of noodle stands and street vendors, of stalls selling stuffed animals whose names mean nothing to their pushers, is a city born of mercantile desires wrapped in lives. No one is from here, really. The Shanghai locals, their dialect a wall cutting off the rest of China, are just farmers, traders, sailors, workers, migrants, a hundred and fifty years on. This city, these people on the street, they’re just getting by, getting through, working on, passing over the dirt, the construction, the smog, the smothering traffic, the government edicts, the relocations. These people, biking next to me in the mornings, crashing into me in the evenings, interrupting me at traffic lights, commenting on my coat, my hat, my face, the cuts, the bike… they’re just living the way I’m living. They’re just smiling back at my smile.

And I count smiles.

These smiles, they’re signs of appeasement, of flirtation, of frustration prevented, and of pure joy. They’re signs of Shanghai’s gift, of this city, and the people who’ve built it, the people who survive it.

Aren’t they anywhere?

Daegu lonely

The rain pours down, splashing off cars and sidewalks, dowsing Daegu liberally with cleanliness. The lightning slits apart the faint pulse of neon that lights the street, revealing small delivery trucks cowering at stop lights. The rain’s clatter does not find it’s way indoors, falling too vertical and fierce. Rooms remain muggy despite the faintest breeze, and when it passes, hours later, they will still stink of mid-day heat. The next morning the city will slowly start to bake again, stickiness clinging to everything, and by mid-afternoon the previous day’s shower will seem an impossibility, a night time dream of vast confusion. Business men will sweat through their couplets and shirts, pace outside restaurants in a struggle to remain in the shade, to smoke, and to avoid touching one another in these brief noontime moments of solitude.

And again as evening comes the clouds will gather, the sky darken, and at eleven the lightning, the thunder, the sudden drenching will return.

I imagine Daegu always this way, not seasonal as it must be, as it should be. My four days here are alike, each evening punctuated with sudden showers, violent in their suddenness, and baking days of sweat and sunshine that discourage the thought of their re-appearance. The heat licks around cars at 1 pm, making traffic a hellhole of exhaust and granting pedestrians the disgusting certainty of swallowing that which is not air. Windows go up, go down, go up and stay, as the cars cool, as the A/C that all rely on is first blessed and then exposed, a heat-exchanger of vile proportions, creating toxic streams along these concrete roadways that will desperately need their cleansing shower to enable the daily repeat. Commuting in a city trapped by hills, the air still, the pollution lingering, below a sign that says “dye capital”, the air seems dead, though filled with energy. A combination not often found or championed.

The girl next door

For the first time in my years here, mine is not the only balcony watching the sun set. She stands next door, so close and yet alone as well. Her phone is draped around her neck, cord long and beaded. Her grey t-shirt, khaki capriis, light blue sneaks with pink laces speak to less than two decades, to fifteen, sixteen, fourteen years. She is impatient, the phone can not convey good news fast enough, her friends do not respond with proper urgency. She is not watching the sunset. But neither am I. I do not know how long she has lived here, or if she does. She may well wait for a realtor, only here to show the place, it’s two floors the mirror images of mine, it’s two other balconies a floor above vacant, like mine.

Or perhaps I imagine this bellicose disinterest in the city, superimposing long-remembered emotions from those years upon her unknown face. She watches the bikes pass, weaving in and out between the taxis, between the trucks, between the pedestrians who amble in the slow fading heat. The sun is but a flare behind the abandoned factory across the way, it’s color filling the sky with oranges, yet a swath of blue survives atop. The baking temperatures of noontime have but scant decreased, and still the city breathes again, those who hid in restaurants smoking now emerge, bags in hand, to chat and laugh with neighbors, business partners, fellow sufferers, to flag taxis, meet friends, unlock bikes, drift away. The weekend mellows out here as July ends. Tomorrow will be another month, though probably no cooler, and the summer passes. The sky shifts from blue to gray as the sun disappears, slipping behind buildings, glaring momentarily through windows, in reflections, and then gone. At some point the girl slips indoors, as quietly as she appeared.

Half an hour later she is back, lights coming on throughout the view. She is too young to smoke, her earings, dangling almost to her shoulders, sway gently towards the railing as she rests her chin on her arms, her arms on the black iron that rings the open edge of our balconies. Where does she live, if not here? What view does her room have, if not this one? The sky darkens, shifting away from the dusky gray and back to deeper blue, the clarity so appreciated after days and days of polluted ash and white.

Shanghai bustles even now, it’s relentless pace of taxis, pedestrians, bicyclists not indicating furor, simply a testimony in motion to the powers of addition, person by person, building by building, car by car, month by month, year by year.

Eighty five Damuqiao Lu blinks to life, it’s signs flickering enticements.

Survived awaking

Waking up, the faces transpose, and I realize that the woman next to me was not the woman in front of me, that the war I was fighting in my dream is not a war I wake to, here, in the cold chill of January.

That the women have changed is not shocking, five years on the horizon since that spring of anger and frustration, of sacrifice and mutual destruction. Yet, sitting in bed, warm but breathing steam out into the room, the cat tucked next to my legs beneath the layers of covers, my stomach roils, turns, tightens in step with my spine. The tingle of anticipation, discomfort, anxiety is like no other, instantly clarifying.

It’s been a long time since I woke like this, countries back, on tatami some lonely month, the dawn just breaking over Saitama. It’s been a long time since I went to work, tried to focus, with these emotions sitting in my stomach, just beneath the coating of daily need.

It’s been a long time since I woke up unable to get my head clear of problems that have long been solved. I guess that’s why I’m smarting, why I wince in the morning, and step in the shower with a hangover I didn’t create the night before.

People change, they age, they learn lessons built on sharp edges and self-entrapment. Yet the words of a fight carried out in dream, in a situation that never happened, in a world that doesn’t exist, are so tight and so true, the tension close enough that my body wakes still holding it. We do grow, and have changed, and continents have left their impacts etched on my skin for all to see, crevasses, creases, lingering flickers of confidence. Doubly disturbing then, to have it reduced to old emotions, have them wake me with their fury, have me hate them just as much as I once did and, like I once did, have no solution to their ills.

This body that I inhabit was built up over years, contains things I wish it did not, remembers moments I have forgotten, perhaps because I shouldn’t have.