Trading neighbors

For years we live next to an empty building. It is not abandoned. The owners locked and secured it after having work crews strip out all interior fixtures and structure. As the sun sets over the Sutro we can see through it, just for a moment. The light comes cleanly through a space without doors or walls.

In San Francisco this kind of building is a lure, a place of few intrusions and no residents or office workers to complain. The same tents fill the sidewalk around this building for months at a time. A woman lives on a cooler in its shadow for over a year. Occasionally there are fights in front of it, or yelling matches. Low level harassment on walking by is a daily part of life. The children next door, who play on the street in the evening, do not go around the corner towards that building without larger family.

The cops sweep the street once a month, pushing everyone a few blocks over, a few blocks down. These rotations are no solutions, but they do provide quiet for a week until people begin to drift back to this building that is so clearly ignored. More frequently on our block the DPW crews come, reliable and without complaint, to pick up and sweep away the furniture, bags, clothing, and destroyed bicycle parts that are left along the fence that protects the empty building’s parking lot. These piles of random city trash are a regular scene, but their appearance is sudden. I come home one evening to three chairs and half a tent. They disappear overnight, replaced by two unmatching shoes and half a shirt. These too vanish, and the street is clean for a while. Several days later a cooler, a bag of poop, and half of a VCR arrive. The cycle continues. Sometimes outside I can hear people arguing about one or the other of the items. Eventually, always, only the bag of poop remains.

Suddenly one day in the fall of twenty sixteen the work crews arrive. They drive the large trucks of American dreams and chat outside my window before heading in to the building for work at seven thirty. They are reliable, working six days a week. They wake me up in the morning and are gone before I am home from the office. Other than the jackhammer days and the cement truck days, they are the kind of loud we can accept.

After about a month I notice the secondary benefits of these large men in hard hats and reflective vests.

I hear the window smash while drinking coffee one morning. It’s a common sound that does not grow familiar. The surprising part is what follows: yelling.

“Hey, get out of there.”
“Get the fuck out of that car.”
“Yeah you come back here.”
“Hey call the cops.”

The last is followed by the sound of booted footsteps running.

I go outside. The workmen have chased off the would-be thief and retrieved the target, a duffel bag. The car, they tell me, did not belong to any of these workers. Of course not. It is a small Toyota. Patiently the workmen wait for the police and file a report. The cops are as surprised as I was at the situation.

Break-ins grow less common on this block, as do tents. The later has as much to do with the jackhammering as anything.

This is not a story of gentrification. It is instead a story born of being woken at seven on Saturday by the cement truck’s unceasing turn and being unable to sleep again.

These shifts are not a permanent change, of course. Eventually the residents of this block will change again, to what I can not say. For now though I appreciate this rotation.

Or try to, given the noise and the hour.

Just one

Life is full of phases. Easy segmentation comes in the form of school graduations and new jobs. These moments force us out of our houses and friend circles and introduce us to entirely new groups of people. Colleagues become friends, and fellow students drift away into Facebook birthday reminders. Some times they, or we, resurface a decade later, in a different town. Usually not. And when the new job ends we leave behind most of our colleagues, save for one or two we still see outside of any office, in circumstances far divorced from the workplace that first introduced us.

Life is fully of these changes, more for some people than for others. Depending on how often we move, how many jobs we have, and how many schools we attend the number of groups we’re part of varies. The kind of interactions, though, are stable. Out of each group there will be people we connect with, people we want to hold on to when the binding circumstance drifts away.

Living in upstate New York, at Vassar, and then in Tokyo and Shanghai, my groups are varied, distant, and rarely overlap. I’m lucky to have even one friend that shares multiple locations, let alone three. Most of my friends come from one of the many jobs, one of the many frisbee teams, one of the handful of cities. People I met while working at a delivery company in Shanghai, or a teaching job in Tokyo. Like most, I have friends from middle school, high school, or college. And now, on the west coast, I know people from a couple of jobs well enough to invite them over. At least one from each.

For those of us that move frequently, that have homes in different countries, friends in different cities, that’s a good place to start: one from each. Writing letters to Seth in Singapore last week I realized how special it is, to have him remember my apartment in Tokyo, to have him know my first apartment in Shanghai, and the grass of Vassar’s quad. There are several people who I can share each set of memories with, but only one who knows all three.

Standing last night in a yard in the Oakland hills with a friend from a job in the US, meeting his wife, brother, and father for the first time, I realized he’s one of a few, of very few, that I will stay connected with from those three years driving to Petaluma every day. There are others, scattered all over the globe, people I remember and will connect with when able. But few of them will invite me over, few will I meet up with in Shanghai late on a Saturday evening when all our work is done.

One is enough, sometimes. Given how much I like change, adding someone at each stop is a good pace. Sometimes I am lucky, and a frisbee team gives me a plethora. But it’s good to find someone from each part of life, to help with my memories, and to prove that we built something over all those days together.

The canal and a boat at anchor

On location

His stand, on the corner of Livingston and Embarcadero, is high traffic only in the loosest of terms. No sidewalks reach his chosen corner. There is shade, barely, from a single tree. The corner is mostly abandoned, an old section of railroad cutting across the block has kept it from any development.

The neighborhood has kept it from any development.

Across the street, towards the bay, there is a small park, a couple of piers that seem mostly abandoned. On nice days, which is most every day in Oakland California, I take my hot dog over to one of the benches and sit watching the water, watching Alameda across the water. It’s a slow area. Usually I finish before anyone else comes by, on foot or on bicycle. Occasionally a boat passes, but not frequently. Sometimes a homeless person has a tent set up, often over towards the bridge underpass. Once, over a course of weeks, someone built a home-made boat. Every day it was different, secured to a rock by an old blue rope. One day it was gone, the owner hopefully adrift down the channel and into the bay. Away on an adventure, I imagine.

He opens the stand every morning around ten, this white haired and mustached’ man. How old is he? Fifty? Sixty? Well dressed, usually in a sweater and newsboy hat. He carefully sets up a small table and set of chairs in the shade, and ties down the tent that will give him shade. Pulling the coolers out in front he smiles at passers by, potential customers in an hour or two. At lunch time the stand is busy, sometimes five or more people in line. Construction workers in trucks order several, for the crew, driving back to a job out of sight. On hot days the table and shade are appreciated, and men cluster behind the stand, beneath the single tree, eating and avoiding too much interaction.

Like the street vendors in New York this is a migrant’s tale, if a long one. Based on Yelp and personal history, he’s been running this stand for fifteen years. I wonder how it began. Listening to him, I remember learning words for foods in Shanghai and think of him learning the English words for each condiment, each combination of meat and vegetables. I remember working in the service industry in China, happy to make money, happy to pay rent. I wonder what he thinks of this corner, of Livingston and Embarcadero. What he thinks of Oakland, and of hot dogs.

One day I’ll work up the courage to ask him.

 

A Chicago view

The distance of friendship

In Chicago the air is crisp and the skies gray. For a boy from upstate New York it’s welcoming weather here at the end of November. Sitting in an apartment window overlooking a park I watch bundled locals walk their dogs. At this time of year dog walking is dependent on the owner’s patience, the time of day, and the amount of clothing. A man stands with his arms wrapped around his torso waiting as his pet squats along a fence. A different man stands with his hands in his pockets as his dog sprints back and forth in the caged area. The animal is ecstatic to be freed from the apartment. The man less so, obviously missing heating and insulation.

In the morning though the light is beautiful and Chicago feels like a city. I visit East Coast establishments like Dunkin’ Donuts and mingle with construction workers and doctors. We are here for a friend’s wedding, for a celebration. The days on either side serve as a peaceful break from the rest of our lives.

The celebration and the evenings out are a reminder of the power of friendship and the challenges of distance. So many of the friends here, like so many friends everywhere, met in college or high school. Now all in their thirties these bonds are a reminder of who they were and who they are, friends who can recall early driving mishaps and the lack of cleanliness of college apartments. Friends like these aren’t a necessity, of course. Spending time with those who know us and who have known us is always a luxury. The further we move and the more frequently, the rarer such evenings become. In some ways that’s the best part of weddings, bringing together a group of people who know each other so well and who have shared so much.

On the flight home, far too early in the morning after a late night of deep conversation, I think about how much of our travel is dedicated to maintaining friendships. When asked about our plans or our vacations it’s the location or the specific adventures that we recall, Tokyo’s busy trains or the relaxed feel of Los Angeles. Yet in both cases, in most cases, it’s friends that have taken us there, and friends we will return for. Having moved so often and met so many people their conversation is what I miss, and so much of what brings me to the airport so frequently. Without planes, without sleeping in so many different zip codes each year, those friendships would fade.

The sad truth is they fade anyway. Visiting can not replace living down the street or in the next room. Time spent catching up can’t replace time spent doing, making new memories. This, finally, is teaching me the sacrifice of being constantly on the move, constantly searching for another place to discover. Because for every new person we meet and place we feel comfortable there’s another we have to work to hold on to. Too many messages I write say that we’ll “try to visit this year” instead of “see you tomorrow.”

All this is of course the complaints of the truly fortunate. Given both opportunity and means to travel it is easy to complain about their challenges. Gifted with friends far and wide it is easy to complain about their distance, rather than celebrate their quality. Yet standing in a group of friends who have known each other at least a decade and currently live within a five mile radius is a poignant reminder of the virtues of staying close.

Landing in San Francisco reminds me that I am wrong. The city is warm and inviting. We bicycle to the gym and back in the sunshine. A friend from college, fifteen years ago now, texts to say taking care of our cat was no problem. Another Vassar friend messages about meeting up soon, and a friend in London, whom I met in Japan, writes with book advice. These interactions, all brief and all electronic, make me smile. Because this is why it’s possible to maintain friendships across so many years and so many miles, despite moving houses and countries: we are so rarely truly out of reach.

Which is a good reminder for a week filled with love and Thanksgiving.

Fireflies

Discussing housing around the office lunch table one afternoon he mentions friends who purchased their house primarily for the spacious kitchen and dining area, the ability to seat 12 easily.

“We have dinner parties almost every weekend”, a colleague says. She and her husband organize, she explains, their children and families from all over the neighborhood, on warm evenings in the heat of the East Bay summer. “My husband loves to cook,” she adds, with the smile of one who does not. Her colleague grins with understanding, having survived on Asian street food for most of a decade.

“Sounds like a good time,” he says, thinking of San Francisco’s fog and the brevity of outdoor gatherings.

“It is. It’s nice, everyone in the back yard eating, the children running wild. I have a huge costume box, a trampoline, and a sprinkler.” The images come easily to mind, an American childhood in a middle class neighborhood. “And sitting there, in the dark with all my friends,” she says, “having a glass of wine and talking after the children are asleep, I look around and think this, this is what I imagined being an adult would be like.”

This is what I imagined being an adult would be like, he repeats.

Not meetings and long evenings in the office or on Skype. Not driving between appointments, running late. Those weren’t even ideas, as a child.
What had he thought life would be like, as an adult?

Sitting around a table in the evening, with the lights low and the stars out.

Having a glass of wine with friends after the children had gone inside.

Watching for meteors and laughing about the day’s adventures.

Pretty accurate, he thinks. Seems pretty much what he’d have hoped for.
Save one thing.

“Just need some fireflies,” he says.

“What?”

“Fireflies. I really miss them.”

“Oh. Yeah. Me too.”