Summer evenings

In the summer on the east coast the heat oppresses. Sticky and uncomfortable friends shower often and drape themselves as they sit, careful not to touch any of their limbs together. In Colorado the heat is likewise merciless, but dry. Everyone carries water with them, into stores, cars and the wilderness. We gather near trees, wishing their shade extended still further, that we had planted more. It is a time, in both places, of some adventures and some lethargy.

This is not the magic of summer though, not the hours we will wish for when winter again is upon us. Those hours, the precocious gift, comes after five, after eight, after ten pm, when the sun sets and the world cools, even if but slightly. These are the magic hours, when whole towns are out of doors, awake and together. When sidewalks fill and laughter can be heard from blocks away. Neighbors chat, dogs sniff, and children chase each other on foot and bicycle.  It is a treasure, this comfort in the darkness, and a memory that will carry us through long winters and short days.

In Colorado for the weekend it is the evenings that most satisfy. Like Arizona a few weeks earlier, the gift of summer is after the sun sinks in the sky. In small towns on the east coast the magic hour is after the sky has grown dark, when the heat is within, rather than without. Then the entire town comes out of doors at last, together in the dark. For me, now, living where July means a lack of blue sky and August wear a jacket to work, each summer evening is a treasure. Throughout the summer I find them in strange cities, in Ithaca, in Collingswood, in Portland, Lake Havasu and Fort Collins. Each time they surprise me, an unexpected gift.

Cities of accident

Ciduad Juarez is dusty and chill. In the long sunlight of the middle of November I stand in the courtyard to warm myself. Behind a chain link fence topped with razor wire a small canal separates the yard from the street beyond and the houses that line it. The canal is built of cinder block, and the water that runs through it is a trickle winding its way through piles of leaves and rubbish. Off to the right it continues out of sight, running between the road and this strange strip of quiet land, behind factories and hotels. Left it ducks behind the concrete building I have emerged from and continues on to the main road, disappearing beneath it into a culvert.

The break yard has several beat up office chairs, two dusty concrete benches, and the remnants of someone’s lunch, a crumpled wrapper and a can of soda. In the lazy afternoon light it looks deserted for decades rather than hours.

Yangzhou looks like a Chinese city. The generalization is a particular one, born of identical train stations, hotels, party buildings and apartment blocks. The first groups of these towers, built five years ago, have terraces and are six stories high, walk ups with nice gardens now slowly being converted into parking. Row upon row of these, identical, were built all over China before each tenant had an automobile or aspired to one. The ponds were initially stocked with koi, a few of which remain. The leaves on the landscaped shrubs and trees are covered with the dirt that settles the air, coal dust carried for miles. Balconies likewise, which remind me of mine in Shanghai that had to be cleaned weekly to be habitable. The sidewalks that wind beside the buildings in each of these complexes are almost completely parked over with VW’s and Audi’s, Buick’s and local brands, mostly black, mostly sedans. This is a Chinese city in two thousand twelve, new towers, new subways, new streets still rising while the old wear fast.

Yangzhou looks familiar after passing Wuxi, Suzhou, Changzhou, Zhenjiang on the train. I am here on a Friday morning, my second trip in a week. Across the Yangtze on a ferry from Zhenjiang, Yangzhou was probably a unique place when I first moved to this country.

These are the cities of accident. They are places I never intended to visit, let alone return to. They have renown spots and local problems, neither of which I will spend much time on. Instead I will visit rooms of concrete where large numbers of people gather to make physical objects for humans they will never meet. It is an odd trade at this level, the view of globalization both immediately present and impossible to understand, far beyond the horizon.

In the late summer the courtyard in Juarez has been spruced up, flowering trees and new chairs. Some space has been cleared beneath the largest tree for the lunch table, which looks both more recently wiped and more regularly used. The air still has the desert’s distinct dryness and the sun lurks overhead, ready to subordinate those out of doors too long. I am happy to see the changes, the growth that is born of daily efforts to improve rather than sudden wealth and dictated construction.

I wonder what Yangzhou will look like when I see it next. I do not know when that will be.  No matter the date there will not, I suspect, have been a change as great as that from bicycle to car, of a million people suddenly learning to drive. As far as China goes my time there was perfect, coincided with the wave. All else is bonus, extra time on set.

The ferry was a gift today, I tell myself in the mirror of the G train back to Shanghai. Until this week I had never been on a boat on the Yangtze. I had never been on a working boat in China, nor had it been on my list.

Sometimes the road, rather than the destination, is the day’s gift. Flowers in the Juarez break yard, road crews building by hand in Yangzhou. These are cities I am lucky to see, to know, and to watch change, even if only small patches in brief moments of time alone.