A sunset turning rain clouds pink over Potrero hill in SF

Making do

For years we have lived temporarily in our own home. The furniture we sat on, the dressers and containers that held our clothes, and the bed in which we slept all came from craigslist encounters or friends’ departures. Some of these items were acquired when we lived in the Sunset, from 2009 to 2012, and some in the Richmond from 2012 to 2014. Only a few were found for this small set of blue rooms in the Mission, our current space.

Having moved to San Francisco in the back of a car, we held on for years to the impermanence of our possessions. These things are not what we would have chosen, we said, if starting from scratch. And yet they were, as we had done exactly that. Our car, packed in 2009 from the remnants of our Houston apartment, contained scant items: mostly clothes, no furniture. Not even, as I was reminded for years, much in the way of cookware. Only the possessions we’d count on for travel, that we’d need on the road.

In two thousand sixteen we are again on the road, but with fewer and fewer of our belongings each time. Instead friends stay in our apartment and comfort our cat in our absences, and the house does not sit empty. The cat, we hope, appreciates these visitors. As for us, we are happy to house others and to share our space. The need to welcome drives us to clean up our belongings both before and after travel. I like to leave having hidden all signs of our daily lives in closets and cupboards. The memory of rolling my futon every day in Yonohommachi, so many years ago now, drives my rituals still.

And yet we are here in San Francisco more than ever too, in a city we chose and yet never discussed remaining. Assembling Ikea furniture late last week I looked around the house, covered with boxes and wooden pieces. Two years in this small apartment is quite definitely home. I wonder if this is how the cat, now almost four,  feels, or if he wants new places and things to explore.

All this is to say we have made changes, finally. After six years we have moved past making do into making, into decorating and designing for our space. This change is not only for ourselves. Much of it is for the most common resident, our furry companion. He has a new rug, larger than his old mat, and a new hideaway to enjoy. Some part of this final set of lamps and dressers is for him as well; they are taller and with better places to perch. I always worry he will tire of these four walls, of our small home, no matter how well-appointed. I catch him some times sniffing at the front door, longing, I imagine, for summer evenings on the rooftop as the sunset lingers and Tara sings.

“Soon,” I tell him, a word that is both a promise and an acceptance of the speed of these years.

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.

Build a home

Above the Pacific on a JAL flight to Tokyo the question strikes gently. Like most moments of introspection it lingers for days, long after I have landed at Haneda and taken the monorail to a tiny business hotel in Hamamatsucho. Opening the single window to the rain and lights of evening I think of it again: Where do I love enough to settle in?

Not settle down in the traditional sense, not stop moving and become a fixture at the local pub, but settle in with property, invest in making a place more than just a passing habitation. Where is it that modifying a space to my specific interests would be feasible, as well as useful?

Out the window the roof lines slope in a particularly Japanese way, from balcony to balcony to fire escape. After all these years away it is a comforting view, this slice of Hamamatsucho I have never seen before. In the foggy evening whole floors are lit, offices and apartment building balconies. Neon from the chain restaurants and convenience stores below sparkles, wet and inviting against the gathering dark. Looking around my room, well-shaped and just large enough for the bed, I think of my old apartment in Saitama and it’s Fuji-facing balcony. A space like that, designed for minimal possessions and a place to tuck necessities away? A space like this?

A few days later in a Harajuku studio I am sure this is not enough space, nowhere to hang towels or stash bags once they are unpacked. Close though, with a tiny balcony and decent light, on a side street without too many visitors. Private and central. How much more space would I need?

In a Saitama apartment not unlike my own a decade earlier, I think this is enough, this may be too much. With two bedrooms, almost three, the tendency is to acquire things, a larger screen, a computer, a collection or two. To invest in a place like this, with balconies and room for friends, would be a call to remodel completely, move walls and consolidate closets. This is an apartment to rent, not a space to own. As I did in Yono Honmachi, I want to see inside the neighbors doors, to learn if anyone else has taken to the space like a beaver, damming and redirecting the flow of traffic in their residency.

In a hotel in Fukuoka, overlooking a river, the windows are the most important thing. They open, letting in huge gusts of weather, and run floor to ceiling, allowing in light and neon in equal measures. Across the water a parking garage, invisible in daytime sun and billboard-lit evening, shines starkly through the night, bright enough to wake those bothered by light. Power plugs are everywhere in this room, a central point of convenience, and a huge mirror guards the entryway to prep visitors for their excursions. A wooden half table slides quickly away when not in use, leaving two chairs that become a sofa in front of the windows. This is a space designed for tight occupancy from the ground up, and welcoming with its futuristic feel. For two days we enjoy each perk, save for the fridge, which has its own on off switch separate from the room’s key-card controlled power. This trick sits undiscovered until the second evening. A brand-new building, this hotel displays the benefits of designing from scratch, and impresses with the feasibility of small-space living. At least without a kitchen.

In Kagoshima, the southern end of our journey, the hotel is likewise new and completely purpose-built. With textured flooring in place of carpets, a bathroom on the outside of the building, windows to the bedroom and tiny, custom-built clothes hanging spots, it is an excellent example of re-thinking space. This is the kind of thing I’d like to do, if not exactly how. A kitchen is a challenge. The living space needs windows, and yet the bathrooms need air and light to dry. Wrapping all these separate uses into a tiny square requires compromises, requires settling on one use or another, discussing our needs.

This, here on the southern tip of mainland Japan, may not be where we decide to settle down. These islands may never be home again. But from the constant reinvention of space, from the dedication to cleanliness and the attention to detail and maintenance that ownership rewards and requires, we learn so much. We learn with every hotel and apartment, floor and bed, balcony and bathroom.

For the time is coming, one way or another. We will settle in to a space, be able to reorganize, reconstruct and utilize. Exactly where is hard to say.

Out the window in Kagoshima the rain is falling. In our tiny hotel box we look at the architecture and discuss the future. It is a wonderful break from the rest of our lives.

Homes belonging

In a span of weeks I am in a variety of homes belonging to good friends rather than landlords, occupied by owners rather than tenants. It is an exhausting tour of small neighborhoods and cities I may one day inhabit. Returned at last to our apartment north of the park in San Francisco I think mostly of the difference between here and all of those homes.

In Santa Monica to begin I have a spare key, a room and seclusion from the week day bustle. From this cool comfort I work, computer on my lap, and give thanks for the privacy, the lack of a commute. Having a home in a city not one’s own is a key step for this would-be global wanderer. Having one well situated is an even greater boon, with coffee near at hand and the airport an affordable taxi. In Santa Monica when my hosts come home I close the laptop and prepare for dinner. My Haro, pulled from the rafters of their garage, needs air and dusting, and then we are off.  For both my belongings and my body their home is a quiet spot safe from all the city, traffic, and heat.

In Portland on a Monday the house sits on a corner lot, the mulch newly laid. Gorgeous in the long days of June it is a work in progress. The bathroom sink, I am told upon entering, does not work. The kitchen sink does, and we share it each morning in between teeth brushing and work. The hole in the wall between closet and kitchen is a visual problem my friend, an architect, assures me, not a usability one. I concur, and sleep well. Bus lines are close at hand, as is a coffee shop to work from. A spare bike caries me to dinner with a huge group of friends from China. Lingering downstairs in the evening he points out planned points of improvement, the next place to repair.

In New Jersey after a long drive the houses are also under construction. One has an addition growing beside it, about to break through, and in one the downstairs is in various stages of spackle, flooring, and paint.

“Most of the electricity is done,” I’m told.

“After this room is painted it’s basically finished.”

“Tomorrow I’ll knock through the wall here for the duct work.”

These are the projects of my peers, the weekends and money sinks of couples already married, about to be, still tentative. We sit over dinner and discuss mortgages, we sit over wine and plan weddings, we bicycle to beers and talk furniture styles, long term commitments.

After this string of visits I fly home to my Fit and my kitten, to my apartment, ultimate team, and companion. In so many ways the two of us are part of the decisions of our age. We share solutions and discuss options with these friends and others, in Portland, in Montana, in St. Louis and New York.

Yet in this sphere of property, of homes belonging to those under forty we remain visitors, grateful for the spare bedrooms, bicycle options, and permanent addresses. As yet untethered by projects of such scope we elope on weekends to the Russian River, for weeks to Japan. We are settled and yet not fixed, comfortable but not permanent, and the ownership of property remains at a distance, with no clear path between.

Coming home

Those words, for anyone long removed from the later, are some of the strongest.  They bring instant emotion even on a smaller scale, the words of a father on the phone at the end of the workday.  Yet they can be tainted with nervousness at longer exposures, with an underlying uncertainty of what will have changed, and whether home as we remember it still exists.

These words have a new meaning to me, these past few days.  For the first time in several months they again represent a space of my own, of our own.  We no longer rely on the incredible generosity of our friends and families, whose spare rooms and couches,  pull-out mattresses, aerobeds, and attics have sheltered us so well this summer.  The door to this apartment is opened by keys only we possess, and the bathroom will be cleaned by no one else.  There are drawbacks, the shower head slightly too low, the cabinets that do not close on their own, but they are our problems, and I relish the walk to the hardware store that will fix them.

Having mentioned already the secrets each new house presents, the opportunities to re-establish old patterns and form new habits I will only say that, in their absence, I had much missed my house keys and a place to put them.