California drives

On a Wednesday in November I drive north along the 101 in the middle of the day. It’s been years since I’ve seen the north bay during work hours. In Novato I get the car washed at a place I used to go only before 9 am, on my way in. The crowds surprise me, mostly older people chatting about books and signing cards for the troops. I am the only person under fifty not busy washing cars.

In Petaluma I drop the car off for brief repairs. I’m happy to see the town for a few hours. It’s a place I liked being familiar with. Of course things have changed, some for the better. There’s a combination roaster and coffee shop a block from the tire place, where before there was nothing. The clientele is young and engrossed in their work.

The Fit’s repairs are a minor thing, worth the adventure on this rare day off mid-week. The ride mostly makes me think of the three years of commuting, forty miles each way, from the western parts of San Francisco. Living downtown now heading north is far less convenient. So much of our life then was about proximity to the Golden Gate and comfort in the fog. The new zipper pylons on the bridge surprise me, though they shouldn’t. The truck that moves them was an internet sensation when it debuted, replacing the men leaning off the back of a pickup that had done the job for years. I was always impressed with their ability, slotting each pylon home while in motion, hanging down into traffic. I wonder what they do now. Their skill, calm coordination amidst moving automobiles, seems both widely applicable and of limited concrete value.

The passage of time is shocking at specific intervals. We purchased this Fit five years ago, for this specific commute. Five years, three of them making this drive, have passed since that first fall of automobile-based discovery. Owning a car was such a large step in becoming American, age 31, fourteen years after I’d sold my Volvo for spending money on my first trip to Japan.

Now, commuting by bicycle and train, I often comment on how glad I am not to drive every day, not to be stuck in traffic regularly. But this commute, forty miles up the 101, was how I learned to be American again. Seeing the dry hills on a Wednesday in November is a good way to keep hold of those memories.

Scotland

It is October, and we drive the M90 north through the tiny Kingdom of Fife. Though it’s home to the home of golf we have miles to go and do not linger. Having rented a car with incredible acceleration we pass rather rapidly, overtaking slower vehicles in mild terror on their left. Right.

In fact Scotland is to the north of our lives. After our first weekend in Edinburgh every step we take in Scotland is further north than either of us have ever been.  We realize this on a beach facing the North Sea in Banff. It’s a tiny town not terribly far south, latitude wise, of Juneau Alaska. October is past half done and the sunshine and warmth are a gift to our travels. The roads are dry and skies clear, and we visit castles leaving our jackets in the car.

We are on an adventure again, to the last new place we have plans to learn in twenty twelve. It is an entire country in a week, another island nation and a few more old fiends. We adventure by car and train and foot. We see castles in the mornings and oceans at sunset. We see snow in the first light of dawn and lochs by the last. We wander with little in the way of plan from east coast to west, from Edinburgh to Inverness, Aberdeen to Portree and Mallaig.

Scotland is a country of rolling hills and steep cliffs, of lakes that stretch long through valleys, and fields of furry cows tucked into the gaps. It is a country of trains and lorries, beer, cider, and whisky. More than anything it is a country of kind people, from the strangers who help us with our flat to the two NFL fans who sit opposite us on the train south, excited by the opportunity to see the St. Louis Rams play the New England Patriots in London. They drink Budweiser, like Nickelback, and work in the oil industry in Aberdeen. Like everyone we meet they are the kind of direct polite that surprises sarcastic Americans, mocking each other yet kind to passers by.

Much of the week we reside in a cottage on the grounds of a castle in the hills south west of Inverness. It is the kind of accommodation hard to imagine prior to arrival, half fantasy and half luxury, found by a friend. For, like our trip to Japan, Scotland is an adventure with old friends, and the four of us spend each evening building a fire, cooking together, discussing the future, and telling stories of the past. Here at last is someone who was there when I fell off the bridge in Saitama, who walked me home scraped and in shock. Here’s someone who remembers standing on the stairwell in Kawaguchi between English classes, looking out at the city with the exhausted and uncurious eyes of a resident. It’s been years since our last meeting, in Amsterdam after Italy won the World Cup, and we are old enough now to cherish each evening together.

Scotland, like Japan, like any nation, is far too much to encapsulate in a week of travel, though we try. Mostly it is a chance to adventure, to challenge ourselves by learning new things together. It is a way to remember how we met, if not where, and why we are always on the move. Walking on the dam that holds back Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin we think of James Bond, of the beauty of nature, and of the perseverance of humans in exploring, mapping, and building on so much of this globe.

The first morning in Edinburgh we look at each other, wide-eyed with jet lag and the joy of discovery, and remember. Five years ago in Shanghai, riding an electric scooter together and discovering new districts, new routes home late at night. In Scotland five years later the scooter is an Audi, rented for the week. The look in our eyes though is familiar, as we stand on top of Arthur’s Seat, a little winded from the climb. Five years seems both impossibly long and never enough. Twenty twelve may have brought Japan, Scotland, and old friends, but the world is wide and there are always more of you to see.

Limited visibility

The feet of the Sutro Tower are planted in the ground, its tips lost in the clouds.

“I have limited visibility on this,” he says. His voice crackles with the static of a VoIP connection from an unnamed location. Looking out at the marina in the dense fog of a Petaluma morning, I nod. Limited visibility is something we’ve grown used to in Northern California.

Coming over the bridge in the morning the water is clear out to the horizon, towards Japan and Taiwan. To the right Angel Island and Alcatraz look like good spots for lunch, and I promise myself again to get to both of them. I will. They’re not far, just over the hill, out in the bay. From my house though they are invisible, beyond the park, beyond the hills. My house has limited visibility.

“I only have another seventy years, at most,” she says, as we walk down Irving on the clearest of Sundays. On my tiptoes I could see the ocean. “That’s all I’ll get to see,” she tells me. “I want to see more of it, I want to see it all.” She is reading a book about the far future, where the phrase ‘the world’ has to be clarified with a name, because there are many.

“Limited visibility.” It comes out under my breath, lips almost unmoving.

“I won’t ever know,” she says, and that ends the conversation the way only a horizon can.

“What do you hear?” I ask my consultant, who could be in Panama, or Dubai. Sometimes he is, and sometimes he tells me so. Usually I don’t ask, because it’s better, in a world where I can’t see the highway that crosses the river just north of the marina, to pretend he’s in San Francisco high up on a hill. Nearby, with better visibility.

“They have no schedule,” he says, and the fault is clean, not belonging to either of us. Like the fog.

When I drive north in the mornings, after the bridge, there is a clear spot, several miles of sunshine. I watch the oncoming traffic for headlights on or off that speak of Petaluma’s weather far ahead. By mile fifteen mine are often on too, an indication of how long I’ll be on this road, that the sunshine is not my destination.

I wonder at those who have fought, over years, for small changes. The right to serve without lying, the right to vote, the freedom to believe. The freedom to move, or to settle down and stay. I marvel again at the building of cathedrals, the dedication to any goal, real or ideal, that will only be true at the end of a lifetime.

Fighting like that, the gradual protest and continual argument that keeps those in power honest and allows, when the truth at last becomes obvious to all, the world to move forward, seems perhaps the hardest thing. This is the truth of the future though, and what growing up means: when the day comes, and it will, it will not be for us. The idea makes me weary.

“This problem has continued for much of this decade,” an email I get about San Francisco transit problems begins, my eyes skimming as I delete it.

After less than two years here I have purchased a car. I did not fight for decades, though I still give money to the cause, still give time.

Perhaps I am yet fighting. Perhaps I will still be, at the end of this decade. Or maybe mass transit will have flourished here, and the future come. In Shanghai the subway now covers the city, and trains spread out to cover the country. These are my ways of saying the future does come, and is worth working towards. These are my ways of saying that we may not see what we so long to, but that isn’t all that matters.

These are ways of growing up.

Driving back across the bridge one afternoon, after giving my grandfather his first computer, the air is thick and the sun, setting over the hills by the ocean, litters everything with pink. That light might be made tangible by a place is an amazing idea, and is so much of this city. The Transamerica pyramid cuts through the mist, its sharp edges fighting to remain distinct.

On top of the hill the Sutro Tower’s base is shrouded in fog. Hundreds of feet up its points catch the last true rays of sun and leap forwards, shadows writ large on the pink clouds far out over the Castro.  Their streaks are colossal reminders of how much we can build, given time, and how beautiful it can be in the right weather.

Interviewing cities

In the transient weather of June we drive west with a mission of some beauty.  We are interviewing cities, searching out a new habitat before a new home.  Houston, which had sheltered us these past months, will do no longer, the daily temperatures too frequently in the triple digits of the Fahrenheit scale.

Interviewing cities is a complex act, easily demonstrated by asking anyone about their favorite, or their home town.  Out come adjectives in streams, beautiful, vibrant, alive, tiny, boring, progressive, hot, leisurely.  Adjectives alone do not suffice, layered over with evaluations of the housing market and job prospects.  “Cozy means tiny,” we are told, and “quaint means old and possibly broken.”  “Oh I love this apartment, I’d stay if I could find work,” says a man moving to Alaska for its prospects.  “Well the money is alright,” says another friend of his work, which is a remark as dense as a Craigslist apartment ad.  Translated over a beer and into my ears, it means “I’d rather do something else.”

The picture, though, is less shady, as we have chosen June so as to see places at their best.  Exactly as we moved to Houston in September, to feel the heat and welcome the gorgeous winter, so do we visit the west coast now, allowing the warnings of gloomy Februaries to bounce off of us in the sunshine.  “This is the best weather yet this year,” we hear, in more than one location, and shrug.  To inhabit a new place is to both accept unknown flaws as they emerge and continue to celebrate the reasons we had for arriving.

“You are lucky,” a friend says, “it’s not many people who get to chose a place they like to live.”

These words follow us for days on the long stretches of I-5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, between there and Portland, and back.  On I-80, heading again East to Colorado, we consider them.  “I could live anywhere,” we both say, independently, and the truth is out.  There are, we know, excellent reasons for inhabiting every place, as we have heard for Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sacramento and Seattle.  Even Houston, which we have resolutely left, casts a certain charm from it’s position on the Gulf Coast.  Perhaps, with our homeless stature, we grow easier to please, able to imagine ourselves any place with a bed, or without.  Yet in each location our interview follows the same pattern, rigorous.  We scout friends’ apartments, are escorted to bars, restaurants and grocery stores, and then are cut loose, to discover what we will in the longest days of the year.  Walking, car parked and bicycle boxed, we bounce from back streets to river and ocean, from expensive districts to ones even more so.  By interviewing cities we are trying to discover what sort of people they hold, and what beauty.  At the end of most days, footsore and un-fed, we have found people worth watching and people worth meeting, and neighborhoods we’d like another month in, or five.  Though we have limited our search to a few of the nation’s most liberal urban blocks, the feeling which overwhelms us as we drive is of the world’s scale, and the small choices that make up our lives.

“Moved here figuring on one year, maybe a couple.  Been here fourteen, and well, yeah, just look at it,” says a friend of a friend.  He speaks of San Francisco, though the echo I hear is of the world, and of living.

Biking home after work

Houston is a city built for the automobile.  Without zoning, urban centers are spawned and neglected, grow taller and are abandoned in ever-widening circles, and reclamation of the previously destitute takes far longer than in a city more constrained by geography, a New York, Boston, San Francisco.  In Houston there is no need, as long as the freeways run there is space, somewhere, out along their paths.  There is a certain snobbery, those ‘in the loop’ or out of it, but it is snobbery of the largely young towards the largely indifferent, and little comes of it.

Houston is a city of the oil industry, of NASA, and of doctors.  It is a city of the pickup truck and the SUV, where there seems to be no need to tell people to ‘buy American’ as they already have.  Chevy and GM’s woes would be invisible here save for the news, as their products outnumber their Japanese competitors in a fashion unfathomable to a boy from the north east.  This is a city where turn signals are optional, and cyclists given no quarter.

Yet there are cyclists, out among the cars, whispering by the dog walkers and joggers.  In some parts of town they are hip, the fixed-gear crowd, and passing them in whooshes on the way to Montrose’s cafes and restaurants, gear colorful and bags handmade, they could be in Greenpoint, on their way to Whisk & Ladle.  This is the part of Houston that east coast folk mention, along with the weather, when they note how they are pleasantly surprised with their lives in H-town.  These, though, are not Houston’s cyclists.

There are high schoolers with Haros and Mongooses, sitting on their pegs while spinning their handlebars idly at corners, chatting up girls in Catholic-school uniforms while pedaling backwards.  They would not be out of place in Los Angeles, though the girls would be dressed less formally, and the beach far closer.  Neither are these Houston’s cyclists, though they are of the city and, like the fixed-gear riders who push past them as they idle at stop lights, welcome in it.

Houston’s crowd slips through my neighborhood in the early evening hours, their jobs done, faces weathered, minds on their family or friends.  They work their way along the tree-lined blocks on bicycles well-used: old mountain bikes, a younger person’s BMX, a steel road bike.  They are in no hurry, postures relaxed and paths weaving.  I pass them smiling, always happy to see my neighborhood on two wheels.  They smile back, under their mustaches, knowing that we will pass each other again tomorrow.  They will be back far earlier than I will rise, though, at work at seven, cutting grass, trimming bushes, re-painting door frames and blowing leaves off expensive driveways.  They will sit behind my apartment and smoke at lunch, talking in Spanish of lives I grow more curious about each day.  This, then, is the Houston being built beneath and behind the SUV culture of those born to it.  It is a culture of those who cannot or do not own cars, and unlike New York, unlike Tokyo, they are not those who have chosen this method of transportation, but those who have been forced to two wheels.  With time, they too will purchase Ford F150’s, white and filled with lawn equipment, and pick up their friends, three to a cab carpooling to the rich neighborhoods of River Oaks, of West University.

Unlike the residents, with their helmets and lights, out for late night exercise, Houston’s other cyclists wheel through darkening neighborhoods as I do, almost impossible to see in the failing light, almost invisible socially.  Drifting through intersections ahead of BMWs and Mercedes they are a danger, and a surprise.  Yet they are also a portent of Houston’s future, as possible on two wheels as four, despite what this city was built for.