Living in public

A long time ago I snuck out of bed late at night, awoken by a man hammering on his toilet. Climbing the stairs, my bare feet soon covered with concrete dust, I found him excavating in the new hours of the morning. Hidden in shadows and unmoving, he did not see me. After he returned inside, toilet firmly shoved against the wall, I crept back down and returned to bed. The image of that old man’s back strained in a curve beneath the thin undershirt he wore as he tugged the toilet from his apartment in the dead of night has never left me.

Living in cities we are close to each other. In Tokyo men pushed us on to trains and we riders willingly subjected ourselves to a closeness no American city, no Chinese railway, really knows. The last Saikyo line out of Shinjuku on a Saturday night remains the closest I have ever been to several hundred other people. Mosh pits of my earlier years share so little with the orderly sacrifice of intoxicated and exhausted city dwellers desperate for a lift to the suburbs.

Bouncing home on the 38 down Geary last week the bus smelled mostly of pee. Sometimes we are too close to one another. Leaving the theater two men are arguing over a woman who is wisely nowhere in sight. They attempt physical harm but are well past the point in the evening of injuring anyone save themselves. They may be well past the point in their lives.

We live densely, the ratio of person to thing higher than it perhaps ought to be. This is the miracle of cities, what makes them such fountains of energy when the weather is good. There are so many people in Shanghai that if everyone set off fireworks on one day the city would be ablaze with light, louder than TV war zones and more covered with smoke. On Chinese New Year we did, and the burning banging popping craze overwhelmed the landscape for three days. Standing in the middle of the street watching red paper flutter down in smoke so dense it obscured the skyscrapers surrounding me I reveled in it. This, I thought, is why we are here, living so close together, enduring each other’s company. So that when the time comes to celebrate, we are never alone.

In the Richmond our apartment faces the street. After years of quiet in Colorado and the Sunset we are surprised to again be part of the city. The police sirens doppler past us, waves washing over our music. At two drunks wandering home from the bar curse loudly outside our windows at people we do not know. At mid day the robotic announcements of the outbound 38 bus trickle in, a reminder of the paths outside these walls. A boy skateboards past, his hard wheels sending each break of pavement up to our ears, a morse code of our new block’s sidewalks. Hearing his success I wear my Heelys to the new coffee shop.

We are, then, back. Members of a tribe found packed together in boxes of wood and concrete, able to share each other’s lives, for better or worse, each morning and much of each night.

They know your name

After cleaning our old place we sit with our backs against the wall of our local bar, tacos on order and Tecates in hand. It won’t be our last trip here, the Taco Shop will remain just across the park, but it won’t be our closest option late at night, after ultimate or hard days. We won’t wander down at 5 on Fridays any more for happy hour, or watch games from the back tables on Saturday afternoons. The bar staff, who know our faces if not our names, are unaware of the reason for our strange faces. They smile when we sit down and treat us well, locals who live around the corner and come in often, never when the place is packed. This is what happens when we move. As a basketball game unwinds on the TV behind the bar I remember the early times, saying goodbye to places I once knew. Places I once was known.

For that boy the differences at first felt so small. Of course no one knew his name, in those new towns. At the laundromat he watched people for hours, sitting cross legged on top of a washing machine. In nineteen ninety eight Portsmouth didn’t feel that different from Ithaca. He would get a bagel in the morning, fresh off the boat in, and walk to the laundromat. His one day ashore would be spent reading, thinking, cleaning, and talking to almost no one.

Four years later and on a day off again he would walk out of the Ebisu train station in the rain. He stopped for coffee in a shop with an English menu. Ebisu is a quiet part of Tokyo, and after coffee he would head down small streets towards the used foreign book store. Mostly English, he perused for hours until it was time to take the train home to the suburbs of Saitama. He did buy books, but that was not why he loved this store. He loved it because the staff streamed British radio, Channel 4. Standing in the tiny aisles of this shop in Tokyo he listened to traffic reports of a place he had never been. Hearing of traffic conditions and the evening weather in England he no longer felt alone in the world. The foreign feeling that so surrounded him on those week day afternoons when all of Tokyo was at work and he, with no language, was free, faded for a bit. There are so many parts of the globe, said the radio, where we are out of place, where things feel like home but are strange.

In between these two moments he lived in Maryland and Boston, Pougkeepsie and New York. He would live in Tokyo without language for another year and then Shanghai with only fragments. In each of these places he was familiar few times. In each city he started over, found a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bagel place, a bar to frequent. And in each city, with time, the staff of some establishments remembered his face, his drink. They noted his odd habit of taking a corner table and pulling out a notebook, of reading the Economist over twelve kuai worth of dumplings and twelve kuai worth of beer. They saw him sleeping over his coffee late in the afternoon instead of eating lunch at noon with the crowd. Even less frequently they knew his name, and he theirs. Knew that he would, when asked, tell stories and bring friends, recommend dishes or specific seats.

In these quiet exchanges he built something and left it behind again with each move.

And after each new beginning he woke early on a Saturday and went looking for a coffee shop in which to write.

In the Richmond in twenty twelve I begin with Japonica, on California and 17th. Just to see, just to try. Maybe in a few weeks the owner and I will know each other by sight, if not by name. Maybe a few weeks after that I will be a regular again.