Been there twenty years

“Do you remember Saturday Coffee,” our conversation begins. We do, the small cafe on Yongjia Lu that served coffee and warm sandwiches, two blocks from our last apartment in Shanghai. It was open just over a year and then disappeared. A couple’s dream of entrepreneurship hindered by the rising rents and limited clientele. Most of the time we had the place to ourselves, could get coffee and two sandwiches without any wait, which was part of the appeal. Mostly though we liked the owners, and their sandwiches. We liked living two blocks from a cafe in Shanghai.

These are the brief memories of an urban area. In San Francisco we reminisce about Hotei, our favorite Sunset ramen spot in two thousand ten, since closed. For two years we would walk the ten blocks through the early evening fog to have ramen, to be welcomed by the staff accustomed to our routine, and to enjoy the peace of Sunday before the week began. When it closed, in two thousand fourteen, Hotei joined Saturday coffee in our memories, places to be discussed nostalgically.

So much of living is about watching things end, about remembering restaurants no longer open, friends who have moved away. Rare then are the places that have endured, the corner pub, the tiny burger joint. Rare is the other side of these conversations, the acknowledgement of survival, more commonly said with reverence.

“It’s been there twenty years,” he says about the corner store. The owners are friendly, part of the neighborhood. They provide booze to the homeless and coffee to the construction crews, milk to the forgetful and egg sandwiches to the hungover. As neighborhood staples go they’re a highlight in an area that has for so long been neglected by the city. Building this reputation has taken years of opening early and closing late, of hosing off the street outside, of brushing up the trash and adapting the stock to suite the neighbors. Recently the coffee has improved, a nod to the younger generation moving in. They still play KQED and know the baseball scores.

Like Ebisu, Jenny’s Burgers, and the Little Shamrock in the inner sunset, the places that have survived are special too, even though discussing them usually involves commenting on the current state of the city rather than remembering the idealized version of our memories. Saturday Coffee, Boona 2, and a dozen other of my favorite places in Shanghai have shut in the decade since I moved away. More impressive, then, are the places that endure, the woman still cooking noodles on Wuxing Lu, Bar Constellation and People’s Seven, because they have become part of the tapestry of Shanghai by surviving.

The trick to discovering cities is to remember that they are constantly changing, that of course the things we love will disappear. Restaurants shut and neighborhoods turn over not because things are getting worse but because nothing lasts forever. We should celebrate having had those sandwiches, having lived near that bar, and tell tall tales about our luck.

And we should continue to explore, to grow and to discover. Living in a city is a gift. It is lucky to be somewhere that is alive, growing and evolving, to be somewhere that pushes us to do the same.

Closing time

“Studio closing, equipment for sale inside” says the sign, handwritten on an piece of A4 paper.

It’s a quiet end to a dream.

For more than ten years my friend has run a recording studio here, at 7th and Howard. He worked hard to make this dream a reality, by finding space, by saving money, by living in odd spaces to afford the building’s rent, by scrounging gear, by making trades and finally by meeting bands, by inviting musicians into his achievement, and helping make their dreams in exchange. He has worked odd gigs on the sides to cover expenses, and invested so much of himself in building what he hoped would continue.

Helping sort some boxes, pull down some lights, and throw out some small portion of the past ten year’s accumulation, I am glad to be here. Sad, too, of course, at the small failures. Sadder still at our approaching middle age that makes the failures real, makes us have to decide finally if this business is a life, or just a section of one. We are no longer twenty five, hoping to achieve things one day. Instead we have to look at forty and determine if where we are is where we want to be in another ten years. And if not, we have to figure out how to leave.

In a SOMA evening, the kind of breazy warmth rare to San Francisco, we carry trash cans out into the night. Bottles and cans, from clean-up crews of the week prior, are set aside for the scavengers who wait patiently at the other end of the block for us to close the door and give them space.

Inside, climbing a rickety aluminum ladder with a caution my younger self would not have shown, I remember so many other evenings like this, building or taking down, in so many strange spaces across the North East. Theaters, mostly, but also churches, bars, warehouses, and the occasional alley. In a sense, this is just one more show whose run is finished, one more set to be deconstructed in so much less time than it took to build.

Leaving later, down Howard on our bicycles in the night, I feel the post-show low too. I wonder where I’ll see my friend again, now that we’ll no longer bump into each other walking down the streets of the Mission or SOMA at odd hours. I wonder where we’ll get to build again.

And that question lets me smile, makes me happy. Because on our last parting, in Boston in two thousand one, I couldn’t forsee meeting at a friend’s house in San Francisco eight years later, to play Magic and Mario Kart again, as though nothing had changed.

Many things have, of course, and more will for both of us. Adventures are to be cherished, though. The freedom to say goodbye is hard to come by.

At the end though we don’t use that word.

“See you somewhere,” we say instead, after a hug. “Maybe Berlin.”

Three business tactics

Answering the phone while driving back from the factory to his office, weaving in and out of the oncoming lane to pass trucks and cyclists, his voice shifts. At thirty eight he is a man of no small stature, having already begun to gain the bulk of those well-fed into their later years. The change then, from light-toned questioning with the windows down to this deep-voiced adult, who refers to others as Little so-and-so, comes easily from his body. This voice, devised for business and for those unknown, is not a personal invention. It is a ritual, a method of establishing seniority, sincerity, importance. He questions the faceless caller without pause for several minutes, half in one lane half in another. As the phone clicks off he shifts back to a more gentle set of sounds, but the switch is not as quick. His first sentence begins severe, in this voice of habit, and then becomes a joke, a secret shared between friends.
It is this voice he will use the next day to tell me about the factory’s complaints, about the difficulties they face, and the strictness of my standards. His voice will tell me this is business, that it is his job to say these things, and I will nod, agreeing. Nothing will change.

Without words he pulls the pack, red with golden lettering, from his bag, slicing the plastic wrap from it with a long nail. As he pushes the top open he extends it, though he knows I do not smoke. As I dismiss the offer he swings around to its true target, the third party at our small lunch table, who accepts gladly. He then takes one himself, and procuring lighter from some pocket lights them both. As they inhale he sets them neatly on the table, lighter on top of cigarettes, a deftly handled social calling. He looks at me, then, slowly exhaling, before eyeing his cigarette carefully. The third man puffs away, grateful for the break in conversation.
“You still don’t smoke,” he says.
“No.”
“Neither do I.”

“This weekend we will go to a bar,” he says, “it’s just that I’ve been so busy.” I nod. “I’ve barely had any alcohol at all this week myself,” he continues, “too much work, too tired.” I sympathize. The week has been long, lots of driving and meeting, waiting and watching, but that is not what we are talking about. We have spent hours together, driving around in the patchwork of our shared language, and they are long hours, filled with uncertainties and re-thought opinions. But I agree, if that’s how it happens.
“I haven’t been to a bar in so long,” he says. Two days before he’d admitted that he didn’t understand them, and never went. His wife, across the room, does not look enthusiastic.
“Me neither,” I say. It’s true. We leave it like this, sipping tea and waiting for a phone call.
“Do you even go to bars?” he asks after a minute, as though the idea were new.