Shared eyes

They make out frantically, in the back of the taxi, her head on his lap bent back. The abandon does not startle their driver, who weaves through Shanghai’s traffic without pause. The man, baseball hat on, looks up briefly as I slip past on my scooter. The woman, face hidden in the dark of seven pm, does not move; her head is back, mouth up in an imagined gasp for air. He, window again free of my shadow, dives down to her waiting lips in my rear view. Where are they going, this couple so enraptured on Tuesday? Where have they been?

Shanghai, like any where, shifts with the lives its people. Like any people, we shift when caught up in each other. A cold ride home through quickly darkening streets becomes a soft journey barely remembered when not alone. It becomes a passel of stories swapped over the wind and horns, becomes the wait for an end that is glorious in anticipation. Likewise, old haunts long since grown repetitious suddenly provide new afternoons of shared wandering.

A conference center never finished stands several blocks south of Zhaojiabang. First discovered in two thousand three while wandering on lunch breaks from an elementary school nearby it is a mystery of Shanghai, of the Asian Financial Crisis, of some bankruptcy somewhere. Its brick and concrete structure sits astride the terminus of Feng Lin Lu and imparts a strange majesty to this neighborhood, still trapped in the repetitive architecture of China’s ’70s and ’80s, rows of short squat flats all the same. The marbled-bodied friezes on the front, strangely fixed in place before the windows, floors, and walls, which were never completed, stare out at the tree-lined avenue. A massive gate, likewise roofed in granite long before the arch was framed completely, has been walled off with blue corrugated metal opened only occasionally by the old man who lives in this complex now alone. There is no mention of the plan, intentions, builder, or the once-imagined grandeur save for a model, tucked away in a section of the surrounding construction wall, it’s glass window originally set up to inspire passers-by and now covered by sheet metal. Sneaking through the old man’s room it becomes visible from an end, an odd angle above and behind the complex. In it the ring buildings are five stories high and roofed with peaks rather than the flat structures of skeletal concrete they remain. The central hotel towers fifteen floors above the surrounding streets, it’s intricate curved entrance wide enough to drive up, it’s elevators’ glassy fronts ascending the building’s outer face, gradually rising out of the courtyard to give a view of Xuhui, of Shanghai.

This building, discovered years ago, is wrecked in the fall of two thousand seven, and only the desire to show another, to be somewhere together, to share this city, brings me back to see it crumble. Four years on the view through fresh eyes returns the joy of discovery to mine. It is two years since I climbed through the complex one Sunday in January with a friend, discussing girls and the chances of surviving them while transposing lives (his) to America. The circle is not lost on me, watching the wrecking crew pillage this gigantic complex, imagining so many parts of the life I have built here come crumbling down in that shudder, this shake. Construction in Shanghai is immediate, constant, and temporary. As if in proof of time’s passing buildings are removed from my life, buildings that contained my history here. The noodle shop of Friday lunches in two thousand three has been boarded up for years, the Out of Africa poster that hung behind the tv leans up against the half-obscured window, a small reminder to old customers. The dates I went there on are likewise lost, only peeking in to my memory occasionally as I pass in the dusk of evening, coming home from Cotton’s, from work, from intoxicating conversation.

In Hongqiao, in two thousand four, there was a noodle shop with a wooden door, carved, eight feet high and four across, of a weight made light by hinges yet massive to the touch. Often, in the cold of February, a boy and girl would sit ensconced behind it, neither entirely familiar with the menu, with the street, with each other, or with the city. They slept in an apartment furnished yet made bare by the cold and their caution, on a street whose name neither would remember. Still strung with Christmas lights Hongqiao’s streets felt empty even when packed with the rush of office workers heading home.

Writing a letter in a cafe near there in the fall of oh seven, the streets of Hongqiao have lost their mystery, and I have joined the work day lunch break.  I can no longer find that door. Has New York shifted this much in four years? Is it Shanghai that changes, or the people, or are they both the same?

I scooter up and down Fuxing, sometimes alone, sometimes not, learning new places, noticing new houses, which are often old houses suddenly discovered behind walls and trees long sheltered. Shanghai changes, as does my focus, and both of us are better for it.

On the first Sunday in December the view in all directions fades into white as the pollution descends low and encapsulates everything, like snow, cutting off sound. On Fuxing, kept warm by arms wrapped around me and slipping through the dust into invisibility, the reason I am leaving – this strangling air – strikes us both as gorgeous, and Shanghai is again a city of picturesque memory.

Fall growth

With the typhoon, everything swings about. Trees sway, leaves begin to age, droop, and fall. Seasons happen suddenly, and the heat is gone. Wind whistles through windows that have been open for months with barely a murmur.

Shanghai, though not on the sea, is of it. Buffeted by storms brewed far south and carried by currents to sweep clean the stick of summer, the city sheds the lingering stench of sweating millions. Change, like the weather, happens overnight.

Leg warmers overtake the thin netting of summer nylons, and Shanghai’s population remembers garments lost for months amid closets unopened. Coats, scarves, hats that will all become mandatory within months are suddenly fashion, perched rakishly atop cycling heads.

I spend days out of doors, never alone in the celebration. Fall, unlike Spring, is the temporary, a celebration of what is to go, rather than to come. A friend’s mantra from months back suddenly becomes a daily belief, suddenly supports a never-ending grin.

“Get it while you’ve got it.”

With a gentle step and a certain pause for admiration Shanghai does, and we do.

Tokyo, two thousand seven

From Narita, several days past the four-year anniversary of leaving it.

I lived here for two years. Those words sound strange, as the Japanese that flows out of the speakers does not impart meaning in my mind. Two years. September seventh, two thousand one to August eighteenth, two thousand three.

My plane is delayed, Singapore airlines, widely regarded as the world’s best, does not start our relationship on a high note. Forty five minutes though, “due to late arrival” is not enough to diminish my desire for the flight onwards. Narita. For two years Tokyo was home, and now it is a space I return to in transit, lost in the system, understanding that I am here for scant hours, and that my requirements are few. Electricity. Internet. The same things Pudong cannot provide, Narita overflows with. Five hundred yen for the day’s internet. A steal compared to some airports in Germany. A steal compared to Shanghai’s utter lack.

GSM cell phones still don’t work here. I will distrust the entire system on this basis a few weeks later. I will be forced to rent a phone, expensive yet foolishly trusting, a few weeks later.

Some days the whole world is filled with echoes, and the day itself cannot get through the mesh of time-lag and personal history. Tina Dickow’s voice, lilting:

“Watch my neighbors go to work and look exhausted and burned out when they get back.”

Saitama rings out of the corners of my ears, my eyes, the train station emptying it’s bicycle-stealing salarymen out into the night, free of the beer-breath-filled train. I stumble home, in these visions, grateful for the peace of that small space I rent, of that small corner of Japan I inhabit.

A dinner party in Shanghai, years later, someone’s mother commenting on taste, on patience, as the Christmas lights sparkled white, which allows them to survive year round, out of all seasonality save for this evening. Gentle splashes of light into shaded swatches of night.

“I’ve been blind, too blind to tell false from true, I’ve been so busy running I’ve never stopped to think where I was running to”

Now Tina’s voice is live, in a coffee shop in Copenhagen, and the memories are of a vacation, one May morning, sitting on the steps of a church in a Danish square, bleary-eyed and missing Korea.

The memories pile up, and only an onward push can rid them.

“But what’s a man without a past? Love him for his lies and then we try to break him down to make it last… till they come true.”

Standing on a train platform in Ueno, past midnight two weeks later, the strings of people homeward bound linger only until the doors close. Machine-purchased coffee tastes the way it did at eighteen, the way it did at twenty two. The stations change as I head east, across and then out of Tokyo’s heart. The train, a crowded mass of smells so distinct and so familiar, gives way to lonely commuters hanging from the hand-rests, gives way to solitary exits from deserted stations, to the chirp of crickets and the crunch of gravel. To a suburb of small towers, balconies creating the odd shapes of houses past. My head a swirling fog of izakaya alcohol and my heart awash in solitary gladness, I remember what I loved here, long after I’ve remembered why I left.

It’s the order that’s elusive, not the memories.

“Thank god for this beautiful view.”

Quoted lyrics from Tina Dickow/Dico’s ‘Room With a View’ off of In The Red (2004) and Tina Dico Live at the Copenhagen Jazzhouse (2007)

Sweat and storms

It is July, a month filled with sweat, with uncomfortable sleep and itching eyes and with abrupt transitions from air artificially dried and cooled to air filled with water held in only by surface tension. In the afternoon the winds swirl and, on good days, the air breaks open in rain that wipes away, for a moment or ten, the dirt and slow motion malaise that creeps otherwise over everything and everyone. For fifteen minutes people scamper, as though the water poured down upon them provided power for their footsteps. With the rain’s end their pace slows again. Men become once more immobile, sitting again on steps with their shirts up, bellies bulging slightly in the posture-slackening heat.

It is two thousand and seven, and a man sits on his balcony, re-reading a work of fiction he first found a decade before, half a world away. Re-reading a book that has been quoted endlessly by friends who now live in Los Angeles, in San Diego, in New York, in London. The beer by his shoulder is cheap, and pretends to be Japanese. His feet are covered in bug bites, the sacrifice necessary for the small area of grass at the base of his building. His balcony, on the fourth floor, is not high enough to avoid them. Perhaps no balcony is.

In the coming weeks he will travel, to Beijing, and it’s famously forbidden palace of previous governments. To the wall, a barren portion long ruined, untouched by the repairmen who have installed handrails at Badaling. At least he hopes so.

It is July, two thousand and seven, and he cannot stop thinking about the same month, three years before, and a smaller room with no balcony three blocks to the west. In that room lived a boy as uncertain, as young, as anyone can be who has traveled so far. That boy packed and drank, planned and read. He sat in the sweltering heat unable to afford a decent air conditioner. His apartment, lengthy and narrow, conducted wind well from kitchen to bathroom, bedroom to desk, but did not release heat.

In the winter the same room could not store it.

That boy packed in between conferences and crisis, after working hours, of which there were few, and before late nights. His books, clothing, and prized possessions, all became cubic space in green boxes he ferried home from the post office on a scooter he’d purchased for seventy kuai, the cost of replacing it’s starter. The scooter puttered and sputtered and did neither with safety or speed. He adored the scooter for its cheapness, this boy of two thousand four, and waited constantly at corner stalls where boys far younger disassembled it’s fuel line and poured liquid through that thin rubber tube, dissolving clots, cleaning away years of accumulation. They did this same repair for less than ten kuai each time, a cost of ownership affordable even to twenty four-year old boys working twelve hours a week. Or less.

When these strangely sacrificial rituals of boxing and re-boxing were complete, and the parcels ferried back to the green storefront of China Post, he left, this boy of two thousand four. Backpack on and shoulders back, he stepped out of his apartment for the last time, locked the door, gave over the key, and wandered off, to Thailand, Malaysia, and out of sight.

Sitting on his balcony, age almost twenty eight, the man with bug-bitten feet finishes his beer and steps inside. He is not packed, he has more possessions than ever before, though they are scattered delicately across the globe; mementos of his existence given to friends, old traveling companions, and roommates.

He is not going anywhere. At least until the storm breaks.

Whistle blow

As he holds up his hand, palm facing the oncoming traffic, yellow brim of his hat covering his eyes, the tenuous nature of his position becomes clear.

These men and women who hold traffic at bay with their white-gloved hands, day in and day out on Shanghai’s chaotic streets, inhabit a strange strata. Neither police nor street sweepers, not quite civil servants, yet not volunteers, they are paid the bare minimum and endure disasters. In torrential downpours they stand sheltered beneath swaying umbrellas anchored on the corners. In the sweat of August they hide behind sunglasses, beneath the uniformed hats. Their khaki pants are sometimes tucked into rain-boots, sometimes into dress shoes, sometimes hanging to the ground un-tailored and unfitting. They have no power save their whistle, it’s lanyard presence their baton. They give no tickets, have no higher authority to call. The police do not heed their shrill cries, and so often neither do I.

They are , these capped and uniformed whistlers, between forty and ninety, products of a China that is struggling before the tide of age. They are passed over by children who stand idly beside them, licking ice-cream, lolling from foot to foot, waiting for the light to change. Beside the children stand the cell-phone-staring masses, the bustling business men of degrees and financial mobility. Around all these rushes the never-ceasing crush of scooters, bicycles, odd machines, precisely the traffic these whistles were designed to tame. And ever more cars, overflowing small streets, jam-packing elevated highways, ignoring waves and yells, whistles and vague hand-waved persuasions.

Will this job exist in the Shanghai of 2030? Once this generation fades, and the next, with far fewer children and far grander desires, floods in to take it’s place, who will take these jobs of a dozen hours in the summer’s sweltering heat? Who will stand on curbsides swallowing exhaust and putting out noise for a few hundred kuai a week?

Will these jobs, created in the late eighties, early nineties, late nineties, after the car’s first private introduction, before the pulse of electronic sign boards indicating the average time to Xujiahui, to Zhongshan Lu, fade mysteriously into the labor shortage, into the rising economic prospects, into the disguised waste of a half century?

By the government, for the government, to organize and protect the people. To organize, protect, and employ the people. An entire generation brought up without schooling, and placed into jobs that demand nothing but arrival, persistence, and time.

“My children will have more than I did,” words not unique, both true and sad as may be anywhere. In Shanghai they are tinged with the idea, new and startling in scope, that perhaps no one will have what he had, what he has. An entire system, created with a generation’s rise, may disappear with it’s fade.