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.”

In cities we trust

Living tightly packed requires a certain trust unique to cities. In my rural home town no unfamiliar faces pull in to get gas at the Citgo. No strange children show up to play ball at the North Lansing Firehall. With an average grade of less than 100 children, everyone in the Lansing public school system knows each other, has a cousin in the grade ahead and a sister two grades below. People become part of the town’s tapestry, have kids in the school musical, coach each other’s children in little league and hang out at the lake together in the heat of August.

Living near each other in Tokyo requires forgetting where one person ends and the next begins, sacrificing self for the ability to return home on the last Saikyo line train. Stepping out in Yonohommachi in 2002 I remember most the first block, back along the train tracks, still wrapped in scents that were not my own. Beer. Sweat. Food I had not eaten. Perfume I did not purchase, or apply. For several blocks, until the streets became small and the crowds disappeared, until I passed the grapevines, I was not entirely myself, having given up my scent to the city of Tokyo.

In so many ways living in a city requires vigilance. In Ithaca in 1997 I used to leave the keys on the floor of my 1984 Volvo 240, windows rolled down to the summer heat. In San Francisco in 2014 strange sounds wake me in the night and my first instinct is to check on our Volvo, a 1997 model now, parked on the street outside. Our apartment doors, often open in Houston in 2009, are secured carefully in San Francisco, watched over by cats and by neighbors. Yet it is that trust of neighbors that persists, that grows. Because unlike in Lansing where I played ball or built tree forts with our neighbors, here we know little of each other’s lives, but watch each other’s doorways anyway. Here we are brought to trust by proximity rather than through history. We have the loose friendships of the city, temporary and without concern for the unknown. One neighbor receives keys to our apartment for a week, and we hers, on the basis of a single shared fact: that we each own a lonely feline. There is no elaborate period of getting to know each other, no shared holidays or family stories, just need, ability, and trust.

These are the relationships unique to dense urban environments, and the faith in each other I think of each time I pass my wallet and transit pass down the length of a crowded 38 bus so that someone unseen can swipe it and, hopefully, return card, wallet, and contents to me. It is the trust I repay in swiping some unseen person’s card on the panel in front of me, all of us twisted by the bus’ lurching into a human pretzel of shared motion.

The nicest people

On a flight from El Paso to Phoenix I hear of these elusive folk. They live in Lubbock, I am told, and serve the greatest steak. The whole town, it seems, is filled with them, kind and compassionate to strangers, traveling businessmen. The revelation isn’t surprising, I’ve had other close encounters.

On the next flight, Phoenix to San Francisco, the topic comes up again unbidden. In Detroit, I hear, despite the conditions, that the nicest people have arrived again, in fact won’t leave. They are the friendly folk who work hard to keep the city functioning.

What is it about these people, I do not ask, that makes them the world’s nicest? This is a familiar question to me, something I wonder of hot dog stands, burger joints, and ice cream parlors: how is this world ranking calculated? Where is the committee?

On a flight from Salt Lake to Portland I learn of small towns far beneath us, home to people I’ll probably never meet. They are filled, I am told, with gentle, compassionate neighbors who are kind to passers by.

In Salt Lake I hear of the strangers who pile in to town for a Megadeth show, coming from the wilderness in camo and tattoos, in pickup trucks and Hummers. In much of a month of traveling it is one of the few moments of distaste I encounter. Despite our differences it seems that we are creatures of great love, of appreciation for the places we do not live and their inhabitants.

And yet under the weight of repetition I realize I have these conversations mostly with those who have just left the place we discuss, or who are from there. In neither case would they settle in these towns of kindness. What does this say about our tolerance, that we speak well of Lubbock, of El Paso, of Greeley as long as the wheels are up.

As long as we’re able to get out one flight earlier on Thursday, back to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, we can be kind.

As for myself, I think of the people of Ithaca often, of Lansing, and my old home town. Waitresses, cooks, business owners, farmers, and neighbors there who represent the place to me. I think of those long since reduced to Facebook photos and birthday greetings, to the occasional memory. Are they too the nicest people Would they be who I spoke of on the plane, sharing with a stranger after a successful sales meeting, on the way home to my family? Or is the story instead of a place visited only briefly, with surprising kindness true or not? Is nice the only word we have to describe those we can not fathom, folk we have no knowledge of how to be?

This later I suspect is the truth of these airborne conversations. The people of Lubbock may indeed be the world’s nicest, as promoted. More likely though they are simply people, a collection of lives tied loosely to some inhabitable ground by a series of mostly unrelated accidents that befell their ancestors. The same as Lansing, the same as Phoenix or San Francisco.

With the seemingly-agreed-upon exception of New York, the world’s nicest people appear as we depart their town, a product of memory and heightened emotion. As the ground approaches and the conversation in each shared row of seats falters, these people recede from our consciousness. By the time we’ve reached our cars, taxis, and trains the nicest folk we’ve ever met are no more real than the conversation that spawned them, some thirty thousand feet above the ground.

Small job, big world

In a photo from decades ago two men hang over the prow of a large ship, painting it while under way. In white t-shirts and dark pants, some twenty feet below the deck, they eptiomize so much of the world to me. Long after the source of the photo has disappeared, I see them, tiny figures against the hulk of steel and the spread of the ocean below. They are two men with a regular job, a task of understandable skill if special magnitude and place. Painting, on a hot summer day, a giant expanse of metal.

Painting a giant expanse of metal while dangling from it, alone, in motion, at sea. As with everything, the addition of context zooms the lens to overwhelming scale.

This sense of scale, of the undertsandably human against the largness of the world, is what pulls me to climb buildings, to hike hills, and to travel, no matter the destination. I find this feeling staring out at Tokyo from the top of a skyscraper in western Shinjuku, standing atop a hill in Santa Cruz, approaching or departing from any airport. The feel of the view pulling back is the sensation I love most.

For the last several months my favorite source for it has been Nat Geo Found, a collection of old images from National Geographic’s archives. Spanning the world, the last hundred and twenty five years, and a huge variety of lives, this collection gives rise to a view of the world that is not simple, or lonely. Instead it shows, without claim to own, how amazing and how diverse, how rich and how personal all our lives are. Widely available, easily accessible, the site is a reminder to me too of how wonderful the internet is, and how much I appreciate this access, unthinkable only decades ago.

Standing in front of a group of friends last week explaining in a few moments why I spend so much time in small factories and border cities, I applied the miracle of Google Maps to the problem, isolating a factory and zooming out to reveal the location. Sitting high on a mesa in the desert, this building has no glass for windows, only holes, and the workers alternately sweat and freeze, depending on the season. And yet seeing it from space, though it draws gasps, will never have the same staggering touch as standing on the edge of the plateau, staring out across the empty landscape. Being there, a tiny single human in the middle of a huge expanse, trapped with others by circumpstance and employment, brings a sense of fragility, and of amazement. That sense, found in the monumental stacks of shipping containers in Shenzhen, in the winding canyons of Colorado, and at the edge of the Pacific on all sides, is reason enough to keep going, to find jobs that take me further out of the city I inhabit.

Like those two men painting their ship, so precariously alone in the ocean and yet part of something larger, understandable from a wider view.

Three California moments

The gloves are old and wool, well-worn but not used up. He pulls them on carefully, one finger at a time. It is May in San Francisco, a calm sixty seven. No one else on the street wears gloves, hat, or scarf. T-shirts are out, and people bicycle past with pant legs rolled high. Spring in this western part of the city is far warmer than July. The man himself is unremarkable, white and forty, an unbuttoned dress shirt over a nondescript tee. Gloves finally on he steps forward into the booth, to a device likewise out of place, and picks up the receiver. For a moment he pauses, holding it in his gloved left hand, change at the ready in his right, and eyes the street, left and right.

In his overalls and boots the plumber is a distinct figure. Tool belt mostly empty he stands outside the office building, logo on his chest matching the logo on the van parked at the curb. At seven forty am on a Wednesday the parking lot hidden by the van is slowly filling. The plumber is not old, not yet forty. He is on the phone, one hand holding the cell to his ear. And he is seriously pissed off, the other hand gesturing in line with his speech. Strings of expletives follow each other, giving whomever is on the other end scant space for response. As he curses the plumber paces back and forth in front of the entrance. Lawyers and accountants on their way in, suits neat and coffees in hand, sidestep him with eyes averted, made timid by his rage.

In Starbucks the door swings open repeatedly, new visitors letting the chill wind of an autumn afternoon in. At one of the tables by the door a middle-aged Asian man is folding cardboard. His table is covered with tools for the project, tape, scissors, and the other half of his box. In the middle of the table lies his project, a square black plastic shape bearing its manufacturer’s logo. Toshiba. As he folds the next strip of cardboard over, creating a tight fold around the laptop’s body, the source of his cardboard too becomes evident. Domino’s. For twenty minutes more he fusses with the flaps, taping and refolding, until the laptop is completely encased. Satisfied, he sits back, studying his work. Domino’s on the outside silicon on the inside. The door opens again, gusts fluttering the cardboard scraps that litter his table. He has not removed his coat.