Unexpected life

“I live up in the back,” he says, gesturing with the lit end of his cigarette towards the red awning of Northern Tiger Kenpo. Inside, through the plate windows that are remnants of the space’s commercial origin, a dozen ten year olds pivot and punch the air in unison. Their shouts are muffled from outside, and in the afternoon light we watch their practice for a while. Clad all in white, with their belts of differing colors, they are led by a man in his forties, with the kind of solid physique, the sense of density, so suited to a martial arts instructor.

“I take care of the place, look out for it, and he lets me stay there.” His explanation comes with the self-deprecation of one who is not sure how they came to be where they are. “We’ve been friends for years, he’s helping me out.” The last matter-of-factly, un-embroidered. “It’s pretty quiet,” he tells me, cigarette almost finished. “Except when they’re training…”

“Right,” I say, as he rubs the butt out with his shoe, and picks it up again. When they’re training, from three pm to eleven or so, he is often outside, calmly watching the sidewalk here a few steps from Irving. We look to the corner, past the shoe repair and Chinese medicine place, to the corner stores and the frozen yogurt shops beyond. A young couple strolls, arm in arm, across 19th, heading east. They don’t look right to see us, one holding a cigarette butt, now crushed, and one holding two bags of groceries from 22nd Street Grocery, the Greek-owned store that sells many kinds of olives, cheese and fresh vegetables, but no meat. It is my favorite grocery store.

“It’s a good neighborhood,” I say, trying to offer something up to the silence between us, a quiet penetrated only by the vague shouts of the practice in Northern Tiger and the slap of the Chinese men up the street putting down pieces in their never-ending Xiangqi game. He nods, following my gaze up to the folding metal table set up near the curb and the three men who surround it, one in plastic sandals and leather jacket, one in suspenders, all focused most furiously on the game. They speak Cantonese, I’ve discovered, and seem to play at least six hours a day, out on the sidewalk if the weather’s willing and in the open garage if the Sunset is threatening rain.

This is our block, me and my quiet apartment building where Chelsie the cat patrols the courtyard, Northern Tiger where classes of young girls, young boys, and older men learn how to defend themselves, and the game of Chinese Chess. The man standing before me, his hair slowly gowing gray, is a part of this block, a silent watching witness, someone who nods hello and recognizes everyone. I don’t know where he’s come from, prior to the strange loft at the back of Northern Tiger, it’s contents hidden by a sheet strung up as a curtain, separating it from the worn wooden floor of the training area.

A year and a half later I wonder one day if he’s moved on. Working far to the north I no longer spend afternoons wandering slowly up and down Irving, doing groceries or laundry, buying household supplies or wine. The game of Xiangqi continues I know, it’s members still outside on warm Saturdays, seemingly unchanged by the last year. The smoking man of Tiger Kenpo though may have moved on, his arrangement always felt short term, just for a while, in his own words. Where is he now, and what does he do, what did he do before moving into the dojo by himself?

And then one evening I am walking down Irving in the warmth of an April night and I see him, almost invisible in the dark. The door to Tiger Kenpo is propped open with a wooden wedge, and the interior dark. Were it not for this man, smoking without sound beside the parked cars of 19th, it would seem abandoned. As I turn the corner, on the far side of the street, he finishes and ducks back in, latching the glass and metal door behind him and disappearing into the dark.

Where did he come from, I wonder again, and what has he done this past year, while I’ve been away most days? What does he think about his life now, lonely after the students have come and gone, after the master has taught and then packed up, changed and gotten back in his car to return home. When they have all left and the place no longer rings with rythmic shouting, when he sweeps and turns off the lights and steps outside into the night to smoke, what does he think about this block, this city?

These questions fill me, heading home again with arms laden with dinner, and I peer inside as I pass by. There is nothing to see, no lights on even up in the loft at the back. When we first met I wondered if he trained at the dojo, and how he’d met the owner. Mostly, tonight, I am happy to see him, still a part of this neighborhood, and I hope he would agree.

Becoming one city

In the first long afternoons of light the city looks strangely wide. Swinging down from the hills of Marin towards the Golden Gate it stretches out before him across the horizon from the bay to the ocean. The peninsula is painted white and green and white and green again, the overlapping colors of buildings and hills, trees and houses that remind him of the importance of topography in any representation of San Francisco. There are strange tall points, the TransAmerica building, the Hong Kong-esque apartment towers of Russian Hill, with their tiered balconies, and the oddly-large churches of Pacific Heights, of the Richmond. Coight Tower is small and almost invisible in the light, off to the left. Behind it, reaching out towards the islands and the cranes of Oakland, the Bay Bridge forms an edge to the view of this city framed by suspension towers.

San Francisco, in the right light, is capable of surprise. He is reading fiction again at pace, working through stories of this city first read long ago without the aid of geography. Revisiting his mental San Francisco now with new layers of personal history, the same way he’d obsessed over Shanghai, Tokyo, he discovers buildings and locations. To take a city out of literature and into one’s own history is a delicate act. Often the fragile place of words and imagination is lost forever, mental ties not strong enough to withstand the daily monotony of work and rent and grocery shopping. Sometimes though, on afternoons like this one, the city provides its own majesty, reminding the newly arrived that yes, here is the place of stories, a landscape of the human so varied and involved as to conjure history.

Re-reading these books about this city he is caught up in their description of bridges, of people, and of light. On the bridge now he looks towards the ocean, where the sun is setting into the fog. A freighter works its way towards him, bearing goods from Japan, heading for the port of Oakland across the bay. By the time it docks the light will have faded and the fog moved in on his home, hidden from view on the bridge by the green hills of Golden Gate Park. By the time the light fades he will have crossed the other bridge as well, exploring the train tracks across the bay, where grass fields are lit behind warehouses and beneath freeways that reach towards Cheyenne, Cleveland, New York.