Open doors

Walking home alone in the evening, as the last of the sun falls on the Sutro tower behind me, I realize this is going to be a good memory. It’s a strange feeling, recognizing one’s future self in the present. Walking into an emotion so good it will linger is rare because it has to be. Emotions that remain strong enough to carry us years later aren’t the common ones.

Today, this evening, coffee from Four Barrel in hand, walking home in jeans and a t-shirt and listening to the neighborhood, was like that. All the street lights were just on, the sky was still bright in places but losing color, and the gate to our apartment building was shut but the door behind it open, letting out a pool of golden light onto the street to welcome me home.

Living in cities in the early years of the twenty first century is an exercise in deposition, of putting down layers of personal history on to places that are or will be famous. By that I mostly mean are or will be unaffordable. Probably it has always been like this. I know from my parent’s friends that this is what New York felt like to them in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when St. Marks was a neighborhood not a name, when apartments in Chelsea were places to live comfortably, rather than micro houses to be featured in Dwell.

Yet living in cities is in some sense always about being seen, always about being somewhere rather than nowhere, about being able to walk to neat spots rather than commute to them. And so, like in Shanghai, I am laying down memories in San Francisco that will serve me for years, long past my time here.

Biking home late last night down Howard was similarly beautiful. The weather is finally perfect San Francisco after a September heat wave. The neighborhood, fast gentrifying, was still mostly empty in the dark, and I could slip through lights without braking, without holding on to the handle bars. On a Sunday evening everyone was inside preparing for the work week. Coasting upright I could look around and remember how lucky we are to live so close to our friends, to live so close to the train, in the middle of everything.

I remember riding my electric scooter home through Shanghai’s fall thinking the same thing, thinking how lucky we were to be in the center of this giant city. We knew the whole time that Xuhui would become unaffordable in a generation, become like Manhattan, a place few live in their twenties. Being able to put down those memories before the French Concession became a global tourist hotspot, before Lamborghinis were crammed into hutong alleys, was glorious.

Cities are always like this, I think now. And so I am glad to have these memories of walking home tonight to a small house with purple lights in the windows, to a cat who waits for his dinner, and to a roof top garden that needs tending.

Listening after dark

Lying in bed at night I can hear so much. With eyes open after the lights are out, book down, and mind clear, I have nothing to do but listen. I hear cars on the 101, which is elevated a few blocks northeast. I hear the occasional cyclist on Minna, below my windows. The distant roar of a jet passing overhead after leaving SFO to the south. Closer, someone pushes a shopping cart down Minna, stopping every few houses. Hunting recycling. Someone yells something a block or two away, up Mission. There is no response. A siren moves, fading, in a more distant part of the city, SoMa maybe. And more 101 traffic. The aural landscape tonight is mostly highway. Mostly cars.

The light from the neighbors’ bathroom goes on, shining in through my bathroom window, both rooms sharing the same light well at the center of the building. More cars. Their light goes off. The family in the house next door is talking, a low murmur through the windows. Which stops. One person comes out into the tiny courtyard between our buildings. The thin door bangs behind them.

After a while they go back in side, having stood silently while out. Smoking? No click of lighter or sound of match.

The neighbors bathroom light goes on again. And off. Much shorter.

The cars continue on the 101 as the clock hits eleven pm. The calming background noises of the city as Wednesday ticks toward Thursday.

Time for bed.

Lived in bars

“They have a good Texas jukebox,” she tells me, of the oldest bar in Houston.  “And a table shaped like the state.”  The recommendation is enticing.  Sports are on TV, and a few old-timers at the bar when we wander in from the rain and out again soon after.

“It’s the cheapest place in town, which is sad,” I’m told, not immediately sure where the sadness lies, in the bar’s mid-level prices or the fact that spots far dingier, bars with no building at all where the beer in coolers behind the counter and the seats under the stars or smog, have done it no better on cost.  Indoors in this cheapest of establishments a neon sign glows, bulbs along the edges blinking sporadically.  Cocktails, it says, the letters inside a giant curving arrow that points downwards and into a wall.  In the garden out back a five-foot cabbage patch kid is dwarfed by the Kool Aid Man, his body wider than I am tall.

“It’s the talk of the town, that’s for sure,” a friend admits, and asks what I think.  “It’s like the bars in LA I went to when I made money,” I offer.  She nods knowingly.  Well-designed, staffed by attractive people, a little industrial, big windows onto the street, not too much on the walls, no TVs.

“Let’s go somewhere we can watch the game,” we say, after driving to Austin in the afternoon.  At tall wooden tables we stand, the walls open to the air, pitchers half-full, watching a few games, depending on our angle, long into the evening.

I am fond of all of these places in some way, glad they exist and happy to discover them as I re-discover America.  In Asia the very words are a concept, the “American bar”.  In Shanghai they have Filipino waitresses, if one is lucky, and Chinese bartenders, and their food is mediocre and expensive.  In Tokyo they are chains, with laminated menus and soda fountains, competing with TGIF rather than local izakayas.

There are jewels everywhere, of course, and we grow fond of them in cycles, with certain groups.  In Omiya for a while there was a bar with exposed metal rafters and a cat who wandered them silently above our heads.  Eventually renovated it lost all character with the cat’s departure, and we followed the example.

Or the rocket ship, a concrete replica of a 1950’s Tom Swift craft, perched oddly atop an Omiya office building, home to a quiet space that held soft jazz and mid-90’s movie posters.  An excellent discovery, only ever occupied by the bartender and a friend of his, content to let us establish ourselves in a curve of the hull our last few months in the country.

“There’s a room inside the old vault,” a friend says of a bar that was once a bank.  I am there, one chilly evening a few days later, secure in many ways.  Amid the plush leather furniture it’s easy to forget the bar’s unfinished wood and sawdust feel, or the copious amounts of vomit in the only urinal.

“We’ve lived in bars and danced on tables,”

Her voice is low and deep, not a thing of ambition but a fact of everywhere, played out in our lives and recommendations to new friends.

Quoted lyrics from Cat Power’s ‘Lived in Bars’ off of 2006’s The Greatest

In celebration, time

Cities are built in our minds as layers of stories, novels, photographs, brief visits. To live in them is not to dispel, but to add, not to remove, but to complement. The romantic vision of Paris still exists, after months of work-time drudgery, at another angle of view.

I moved to Shanghai on a vision and some faith. The Shanghai of my dreams had no maps, had no daily commutes. The Pearl Tower didn’t hover over the river, wrapped in pink reflections and the smoke of a thousand explosions. The small houses of the French Concession weren’t torn out and re-furbished, weren’t divided up and re-occupied. My vision, from this angle today, is hard to find. Perhaps it was of Hong Kong, or Tokyo. Perhaps it was actually of Pingyao or Changzhou. There were never this many fireworks, not on a Sunday night in early March. Not enough to have my walk home lit by hundreds from every street corner. Not a week after Chinese New Year, post vacation. Not by every employee, nor with such glee. The Shanghai I left Tokyo for was never wrapped in smoke that flashed green and red, that sparkled, that deafened with the thudding boom no smoke could shield me from.

Watching the suits roll out of Hong Kong plaza at noon on a Wednesday, out of Plaza 66 at 6 pm on a Friday, I wonder where the Shanghai I anticipated has gone. That strange land of Chinese people and mystery, of abduction so literally named that tempted me from afar.

What does New York look like to a boy growing up in Italy? In Mexico? In Bolivia? In Shanghai? What are these visions that drive us all to move across oceans, to push past distance and imagination, and what then do we find?

One night the bar is filled with collars, shirts starting to come un-tucked as Friday’s challenges recede into memory, as beer one’s grateful relief becomes beer four’s sudden enthusiasm. The pool table holds it’s own against the dart boards, the barman counsels whisky choices, Man U scores again and again in slow motion on a pirated Philipino cable channel. Outside on the balcony he’s hard to hear.

“Shanghai didn’t have any streetlights when I got here. Now everything is neat.”

The difference between the Shanghai of imagination and the city of reality coalesce around his sentence, around the bar, around the sense of order possessed by New York, London, and Hong Kong, that of money. The global city that airline customers inhabit with such ease slips over the imagined city of men on plastic stools eating at pasteboard tables outside stone houses with no running water, their jackets square cut a reminder of the ’40s, their bundled half-dozen layers a reminder of the season and the lack of insulation.

Wreathed in smoke tonight it’s hard to tell the two Shanghai’s apart. Zhaojiabang Lu is a mish-mash of explosions and quiet conversations in posh restaurants, parents taking their families out to huge meals, their servers running out the back between courses to set off crackers with the cooks. The smoke wraps the Audis as they attempt to park in multiples on the sidewalk. The smoke masks the specks of red paper and spots of ash that litter their roofs. The cigarette-selling woman stands, arms crossed and grinning at the scene, beside her friend the fruit vendor. They smile as they chat, these women who watch everything that passes on this street: weather, Audis, firecrackers, construction cranes, trees, men with axes, police.

The Shanghai of my dreams was really of someone else’s, or of fiction loosely based. My own stories of Shanghai are fragmentary, dependent on time, mood, luck, and friendship. The Shanghai of Economist editorials, of NYTimes stock rumblings, of factory openings and shipping schedules is likewise a fiction, an abstraction of the complete picture. Shanghai’s dumpling women standing in the steam mid-morning, water pouring down their faces and hair half tucked back, do share this city with the collar-popping crowd of Louis Vuitton fashion watchers, of Guandi party dancers, of dkd bouncers. My commute to work and the school child’s ride, tucked behind their parents on the scooter, are made on the same streets that Zhang Jimen’s Mercedes takes, that is then swept by hand by a blue-uniformed man who pulls his cart behind him.

Yet for everyone the moment comes, “Shanghai’s changed,” it slips out, or “I remember when we could,” or “Back when …” Our visions falter, caught up in who we’ve become, thinking that the city is likewise obsessed, that the stories are not complementary.

Somewhere in this city is a boy just arrived from a foreign country, unable to speak, uncertain of where he will live when the hotel bill comes due. Somewhere in the city is a girl writing a novel that will lure him here once translated. Somewhere in the city is a visitor preparing to leave, is a teacher preparing to travel on holiday, is a student studying unfamiliar characters, is a man renting a small place all his own.

The Shanghai I was curious about from Japan is hard to see through the smoke of enthusiastic celebration. The Shanghai of my vision, so often forgotten these intervening years, was masked with a haze of confusion, of desire, of ignorance and hope. Tonight, walking home beneath colored thunder, these cities are not as far apart as they seem. They are the same, and have always been.