Conbini

My first night in Shanghai, in August of two thousand three, I wandered Nanjing East road, the pedestrian street. I was overwhelmed by China, unable to speak or read, and afraid of spending money. As I’ve written before, I ended up at a Lawson’s, the Japanese convenience store brand an island of familiarity in the flashing neon.

In some ways convenience stores are the signposts of my life in Asia. In Saitama in two thousand one I paid my cell phone bill at the AM PM down the street. In Shanghai I relied on the All Days on the corner for phone card refills, water, and directions, once I’d learned enough to ask the women who worked there where things were in the neighborhood. In both cases the convenience store, one block from my apartment, was a hub for the neighborhood and the first place to try when in need of anything.

This idea is familiar to Americans. Convenience stores dot the suburban American landscape, attached to gas stations and owned by oil companies. They feature slushy-makers and horrible coffee, and have spawned the big gulp and helped fuel the rise of Red Bull and Monster Energy. When we head out of San Francisco on a weekend we inevitably end up at one, bright exterior and interior a welcome respite from Interstate 80 and the traffic that always halts us near Vacaville.

And yet here in the city there are none. The fundamental unit of Asian life, the corner convenience store open 24/7 and featuring fax machines, hot food, liquor, milk, toiletries and basic first aid supplies, does not exist. There are bodegas, small family-run groceries, and liquor stores, each featuring some subset of the true conbini’s goods and all closing between 8 and midnight. There is no neon beacon of familiar branding, no Lawson to anchor the visitor from out of town, no central place to buy water, milk or a phone card.

Walgreens, CVS, and Duane Reade fill this niche in New York and San Francisco, the drug store turned grocery turned convenience, but they close at eleven and their wares vary incredibly by location. Out in the Richmond district of San Francisco I lived next to a Walgreens that had fresh produce and was open till midnight. In the Mission the Walgreens features toys and makeup and is, on the whole, dirtier than one would hope. I am sure the employees would agree. Down in the tourist areas of the city there are Walgreens with fresh food, with good coffee, with tourist souvenirs and a wide array of local delicacies. These stores are true centers of neighborhoods, save for the fact that their customers live at hotels, and the stores still close in the evenings. They are comforting, and frequented by visitors who need food and supplies and have no familiar options, but these stores do not provide true convenience for the residents of San Francisco.

In Bangkok a few weeks ago I would go to a 7 Eleven every day or two for extra water for our hotel room, for bandages and ointment for our cuts, and for beer for our spirits. All over the city the bright yellow orange and green sings stand out and are relied on.

I understand the downside to this kind of globalization and the dominance of single brands, and value the strange bodega in Bed Stuy where a friend and I get egg on croissants some days. The cooks are middle eastern and the clientele black, jewish, hispanic. The diversity of food and supplies there is a reminder of how special local places can be, how different than the global norm.

And yet, in San Francisco late at night, the only option are liquor stores that primarily cater to the homeless population, and have no food or household necessities. Walking home late in the evening after a long day in the sun I wonder why, and imagine a Family Mart on my corner. How useful that would be, for myself and the neighbors. How quickly it would become an institution, relied upon for shipping, mail, concert tickets, scanning, printing, or just the occasional late night hot meal. I would dearly love the cold ramen dishes Tokyo locations stock daily.

Unfortunately Family Mart peaked at nine stores in the US, all in Los Angeles, and closed them all in 2015. None were attached to gas stations.

Sad to think that convenience, in America, requires a car.

Rainy Bangkok window

Personal monuments

“Now ten years and more have
Gone by”

says Gary Snyder in my favorite poem. For this site and myself they have, and I can not help but consider the distance covered.

The decade has gone by in a very human fashion; it has passed in the small actions of waking, writing, and commuting that are repeated daily and in the large decisions of moving and hoping made more rarely and slowly.

Ten years ago, after fiddling with tools and styles for much of two years, inhab.it became a home. Looking back those early worries seem quixotic, and, like so much of life, the product of a different boy. Stylistically inhab.it has varied but topically so much of what I hoped to say is still here and has been brought with me from one city to the next, from one theme to the next.

In two thousand six, at the end of a long relationship, I spent hours on a balcony in Shanghai and trying to write. I had spent much of two thousand five in the same fashion, accumulating awareness of neighbor’s daily routines and a familiarity with the wonton shop across the street that sold a bowl full for two point four RMB. By the time I managed to focus on the technical side of the internet, much of my life was already changing. After years of underemployment I was finally busy. After two years in a two story apartment with three balconies and a cat I was planning to move. And after years of trying to write I was ready to share.

Ten years later, sitting on a rooftop in Bangkok, I try to remember the uncertainty and the hope of life in Shanghai in two thousand six. The writing from that year conveys so much to me now, and is exactly why I started the site. The future is always impossible to see, but looking backwards we are able to trace the pattern of our lives. In that first year of scattered posts lives a focus on people, cities, bicycles, Shanghai, and memory.

My memories of Bangkok are older than this site. They begin with arriving in two thousand four with one bag and no plans save to eventually make it back to the United States. We’d been down south in the islands for a week, enjoying the start of the relationship that would be ending two years later as this site went live. On my own on the bus into Bangkok from the airport I met some fellow backpackers who would end up taking me on midnight motorbike rides around the city, adventures I would otherwise have known little about.

In two thousand sixteen we relax on this rooftop with a pool for a week, recovering from a motorbike accident in northern Laos. Memories of those earlier trips had warned me of the risks, which I’d ignored. For a week I look out at the construction cranes that dot the skyline and enjoy the city. Much of my memory of urban Bangkok is from two thousand five, an adventure with old roommates from Tokyo. We spend a week in the south on a beach, and a few days on each end in Bangkok. My main memory is of the constant traffic, of finding a nice hotel, and of exploring stations along the one elevated train line.

In two thousand sixteen we take that same train regularly, and are as comfortable as those recently injured can be. It is a strange week, and a good one, an echo of years past in an entirely new fashion. It is as good a place as any to pass this monument to personal habit and to consider the change the past ten years have brought.

 

Quoted line from Gary Snyder’s ‘December at Yase’, the final poem of his ‘Four Poems for Robin’ published in The Back Country (1968), No Nature (1992) and The Gary Snyder Reader (1999)

Gray skies and hotel windows

Sitting twenty two stories up above Shanghai, I watch the weather and listen to music. Or rather, I look into the weather, a fog of fading white that makes tall buildings invisible only a mile away. I look down at the roofs of shorter buildings, many still under construction. I look at the wall of the nearest tower, its surface covered in the soot of years in this air.

Shanghai’s view does not surprise, though friends ask when I post photos how I, asthmatic, cope with the air. I cope like everyone does, by breathing in, breathing out, and moving forward. By focusing on what there is to do in front of me rather than what there is all around me. Instead of focusing on what there is inside all of us.

It is Sunday, and I am relishing the peace in between weeks on the move. Sometimes that is the greatest gift of hotels in foreign countries.

In May of twenty thirteen I spent a week in Tokyo for work. Living out of a perfectly-designed-for-it’s-size hotel room, I wore a suit and went to izakayas with customers in the evenings. It was the culmination of years of dreaming; suddenly I had a job that took me to one of my favorite places, that gave me a place to stay and a view that I loved. Taking the subway around the city to meetings gave me a glimpse into being a business man in a network of concrete built for them. Pouring out of Hamamatsucho station with the crowd in the evening, walking the two blocks to my room at Hotel MyStay, and taking part in the Tokyo rituals again after so long left me in a perfect mood. With enough time spent alone, work travel has a way of building an atmosphere. After three days of this compact life I was ready for company, mentally.

The National’s Trouble Will Find Me was released that third day. Letting it play in that tiny hotel room for the three days that followed gave me a fresh environment to layer the new music on, to integrate it into. The album became a soundtrack to that week, to convenience store breakfasts and late night FaceTime calls. Now, two and a half years later, a lifetime away, sitting in a hotel room twenty two stories up above Shanghai, those songs still takes me immediately back to Tokyo.

“Don’t make me read your mind / You should know me better than that”

My current hotel room is much larger, China not lacking space the way Tokyo does. The residents also don’t enjoy the neat confinement of items, the precise layout required to maximize utility. There are extra mirrors and more wood than strictly necessary. Outside of this room China sprawls, with more huge buildings going up to demonstrate ability rather than fill need. Driving to Ningbo last week we crossed the long bridge that spans the bay to avoid the even longer drive around through Hangzhou that was the only option when I traveled this route frequently by bus in ’06. Reaching the far shore, the bay’s south edge, we saw a cluster of towers, maybe thirty, residential and at least twenty floors each.

“What are those,” someone asked, meaning what is that town, what is that city.

No one answered. A cluster of identical buildings, they were clearly built in a single go. There is no town there, on the shore of the bay. Why so many apartment towers then, and why so tall? Because space is not an issue, and size even less. There are millions of people within an easy drive, millions more within a few hours, all seeking housing and an opportunity. This is China.

In Tokyo everything is tightly constrained, each building wrapped in between all the others. So much so that buildings are often strangely shaped, L’s or T’s or other letters, unable to be squares or circles.

“Jennifer you are not the only reason / My head is boiling and my head is freezing”

And I remember steaming my suit before meetings, looking in the mirror working through my pitch for the day. Organizing my notes in the evening and lying on the bed looking out the window as night fell on the city.

Tokyo will always be with me, part of the story of this music. Or this music will always be Tokyo. Some times blending a place and a feeling, a set of songs and a mood, shapes everything we do for years. Sometimes it is just a way of etching time into our minds, deeply enough that years later we are astonished to realize how long ago that was, May of twenty thirteen.

“If I stay here, trouble will find me / If I stay here, I’ll never leave…”

Quoted lyrics from The National’s ‘I Should Live in Salt’, Fireproof’, and the title track off of the 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me

The changing weather

In twenty fifteen the first week of September bakes San Francisco. Several days break 90 F and fans are out of stock. In the Mission temperatures close in on 100 in the late afternoon. At work in Oakland, which is hotter than SF, everyone complains, their houses not built for such temperatures. There are few wrap-around porches in Berkeley, less air conditioning in San Francisco. Heaters for the foggy summer were our primary concern when picking apartments. Heaters and windows, to let in the scant sun.

Instead we brainstorm ways to keep our apartment, picked for its long exposure to the afternoon sun, cool for Mr. Squish. Our first tries are not successful, and we come home to clouds of black fur drifting through the still air as he tries desperately to shed some insulation. On the hottest night we bathe him, and he lounges in the water. Afterwards he wanders the apartment contentedly, wet and dripping in the evening breeze. We sleep with every window open, happy to be part of the slowly cooling city.

On Wednesday, unwilling to leave him to bake, I take him to work. We drive together across the Bay bridge and lounge in the office’s air conditioning. He is a favorite there, drifting from room to room unnoticed until he leaps onto a colleague’s desk in search of snacks. As cats go he’s calm in the face of surprises, and welcomes the adventure.

In Tahoe the weekend before the low lake level was a constant presence. We had to swim or be ferried out to the boat, and most docks were constrained to shallow-drawing vessels. Watching their skeletal structures rise so high above the water I thought of the foresight to have built this far out in the first place, and of droughts that must have come before. I thought of Shasta, already low some four years ago, and wonder if house boating would be fun still. Could we enjoy an escape in an environment so obviously lacking sustenance, so clearly in need of water?

In Tahoe we could, relaxing in the breeze coming off the lake. In San Francisco, that first week of September, we cannot. In the western portions of the city this weather is less extreme, and the ocean provides some breeze. In the Mission, flat and rarely washed clean by rain or wind, heat that endures past dark is a rare feeling. Brooklyn, a few weeks ago, was both hotter and more humid, but the stick of an East Coast summer is to be expected, and evenings out of doors stretch late as the sky cools.

And yet how quickly all weather disappears. This morning, sitting with the windows open, San Francisco is a pleasant 61 F, and Mr. Squish joins me beneath the blanket I’ve spread over my feet, glad of the cover. Neither of us can remember the week prior and our reluctance to touch. Our bodies have forgotten, holding only what they can feel at the moment.

Rattling bottles

On the street outside the recycle bin lid thumps open against the side of the building. It is eight pm and just beginning to get dark. Someone begins digging through the bin, pulling out cans and bottles with clangs and dings, the mechanical sounds of a practiced activity. After a while someone else joins, or tries to, and there is a brief debate, some muttering, and then casual conversation, a little too low to hear. Three floors up I sit with windows open to cool the house. Homeless and searching for income the unseen pair below have agreed not to fight over my scraps. This is life in San Francisco in the twenty first century, living in the Mission. While I was at work today someone peed on my garage door, leaving me to walk my bike around the puddle. Between my house and the Bart station one block away several people have slept and defecated in the last few days, and the street is alternately cleaned and crudely dirty.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco in twenty fifteen.

Tending our strawberry plants on the rooftop I watch the sun set over the hill while the fog rolls in, wrapping around the base of the Sutro Tower. Many days in the summer the entire tower will be engulfed by six pm, leaving the height of the hill itself a mystery, the fog pouring over and down into the Castro, into Duboce Triangle and lower Haight. The cat and I enjoy this varied weather. He sits in the doorway to the stairwell, feeling the breeze, feeling his fur ruffle after the long day alone in the hot apartment. He relishes these breezy evenings, as do I. One block away, on the rooftop of an expensive apartment complex, someone else watches the sunset too, in shorts and a hoodie. We are too far apart to even acknowledge each other. There is a similar building closer, with swimming pool on the roof, to whose inhabitants I could speak with raised voice. That nearer roof is empty though, the residents so new, the building so recently renovated that they do not venture out of doors on week days. Yet residents of all three buildings enjoy these evening views of the Bay Bridge and downtown SF to the east, Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower to the west.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco, where studios go for $3,800 a month and where 4,000 people sleep on the streets.

In many ways San Francisco is the future, with apps that summon cars and dinners and movies and so many things, with electric scooters for rent and wifi in bars. San Francisco is the future in other ways too, with no rain, with no housing, with an incredible income gap, and with a liberal urban population that did not grow up in these hilly neighborhoods.

This morning the escalator to the 16th St Bart station was out of order again. I was not surprised, there had been several pounds of trash pushing up against the bottom of it when I walked out of the station the day prior, and often that trash gets sucked in to the bottom, jamming and breaking the escalator. This trash comes from the dozens of people who spend all day in the plaza at the metro exit, homeless and searching for help. The escalator is repaired weekly, the people left to wander the streets. Later in the evening they will search for cans in the bins outside my apartment. They share, argue, and curse out the fancy cars that have started encroaching on their sleeping spots, the rooftop terraces that host parties they can barely see from the ground.

This is life in San Francisco today, forefront of the future in all regards.