Walking the High Line

In New York for a week at the end of October we work from coffee shops and visit old friends in the dark. Breaks like these, weeks on other coasts and other shores, keep friendships and our feel for the country alive. Yet laptops in one city are much like those in any other, in fact the same. And so on Friday afternoon we put them down and head out to see something of New York.

We end up on the High Line, which neither of us have ever seen. On the first of November Manhattan is warm and welcoming, and the other tourists likewise calm. We walk and talk, take pictures and breath the air. Across the Hudson we can see Stevens, where a cousin went. I remember looking at this view from the other side on her graduation, an event that seems both recent and forever ago.

The High Line, like the pedestrian sections of Broadway, gives me hope for cities. Gives me hope for American cities, at least, so long under siege from the automobile, the highway, the culture of divided lane no left turn. It is a small thing, this elevated railway line repurposed as a tourist path, an exploratory walkway. And yet, photographing construction from its glass sides, I think of the elevated path through Xujiahui Park, and the benefits of investing in comforts for people, rather than machines.

New York seems well, despite the challenges of being home to eight plus million. In the late fall of 2013 it seems like a city in growth mode, and the feeling of motion and life is a joy to be amidst.

Towards the end of the day we sit in a small park further south. I nap as my companion answers a work phone call. On other benches men read the newspaper and women listen to music. Despite the street and trucks scant feet away, we all relax and breathe in the last of the sunshine.

In Union Square we watch the sun set over the farmer’s market, taking pictures of the skyline. We are not alone, amidst a group of New Yorkers and tourists holding our phones skyward to capture the spectrum of colors that has stopped all of us in our tracks. The two of us are not comfortable as tourists by nature, and yet so often that is what we are, wandering through cities that are not our homes in search of new things. In a dozen trips to New York we have yet to climb the Empire State, or see the Statue of Liberty save from the plane. On this Friday, though, we wander enough to feel like visitors, mingle enough to feel at home, and are content. Lost amid the fruit stalls, hearing Chinese and French, the comfort is not of New York, but of people, of a city large enough to become lost in and large enough to produce beauty accidentally. Unbidden, I recall scooter rides through Shanghai on November Sundays six years ago. Like this we would then wander, out of doors in the sunshine with no specific destination or curfew. Those were some of our first adventures together, climbing abandoned buildings and exploring back alleys, zipping around turns on our electric scooter. There too we did not seek famous temples or specific buildings, content to wander as traffic took us, to turn where our eyes led us.

Maybe it is the smell of a city in fall, or the trees in Union Square, or the remove from the rest of our lives that brings those images back. Maybe it is simply watching each other relax and smile, or maybe it is our joy in exploration. No matter which, standing this afternoon on the deck of an old railroad above new construction, watching the workers below, we are happy and still for a moment in an otherwise well-scheduled trip.

After six years of taking our time, of exploring together, we will be married in the spring, adding one more set of promises to a long list of hopes. Standing in the New York sunshine with overlapping memories of all the cities we’ve seen together, the future looks promising.

Fleeing the dark

In a window seat on a bus from Changshu to Shanghai as the sun sets, my eyes linger on dark towers. Along side the highway buildings both finished and not form huge rectangles of black against the fading sky. These clusters of massive apartment buildings lie vacant, whole complexes of fifteen or twenty towers of thirty stories plus. They form the leading edge of Shanghai’s expansion, like the foam on a wave. Unoccupied and often incomplete they will one day be home to thousands, one day be connected to Xujiahui or Zhongshan Park by subway lines as yet unbuilt. Today they are huge monuments to investment and urbanization, massive Stonehenge-like clusters without light. From my seat on the bus, bouncing with each lane change, these dark pillars are a sign post of my journey. I am heading home, fleeing the gathering dark of China’s smaller cities for the lights, towers, restaurants, and friends of Shanghai.

Bus rides are always jarring, a series of jerks and swerves, loud and full contact. Luckily towards the front someone has begun a conversation with the driver and he no longer focuses on the horn. I appreciate their sacrifice after two hours of its sharp peals. Alongside and around us smaller cars weave, looking for openings. Occasionally to the side one of the buildings is alight, one of the towers filled with families cooking dinner. I am not alone on this flight from small town darkness, the seats surrounding are filled with old and young. Across the aisle an old man and his wife discuss their evening plans, drinking tea in glass containers they’ve brought. We are all trying to get somewhere other than Changshu, trying to make it to the big city before dinner.

This is not a new situation. For a decade now I’ve been coming home to the lights of Shanghai. By train, bus, or car, and occasionally by taxi I have fled the dark of smaller cities, of factories and rural areas for the comfort of the world’s largest city. I have fled the dark of Changzhou at two am by standing on the side of the highway and flagging down passing sleeper busses. The bus that finally stopped that night was filled to overflowing, and I sat for two and a half hours on a bucket perched atop the entrance stairs, holding myself upright on the driver’s seat. Other times I have stayed in cold hotels, unable to find a way home, trapped by work in the dark.

The desire to flee to an urban area at the approach of darkness is a strange one for me, having grown up in the countryside of upstate New York. For many years I spoke of it only briefly, uncomfortable with how quickly the desire to return to Shanghai in the evening began to sound like a fear of the dark. In many ways it is. And yet I have spent months in smaller Chinese cities and villages without this panic, without needing to flee. Somehow it is the combination of work and of having no place to sleep, of the color of the sky and the smell of the air that makes me so eager to leave. Against the burning pollution haze of afternoon becoming evening I feel far from where I belong in a way rare to someone so rarely stationary, so long removed from my childhood home. It is a feeling both unnerving and glorious.

Closer in to Shanghai’s center there are lights in most buildings, and now it is the dark that surprises. We are almost home, and the idea of human life no longer seems strange. Traffic becomes too heavy even for the horn, and the last ten kilometers threatens to take miles. I grow restless with my fellow passengers, and eager to be finished with this journey. Spotting a metro stop, one too far north for the station name to be anything familiar, a group of us asks to be let off at the corner, and are. And like that, in an instant that was actually three hours, I am back in the city, and no longer seeking light.