The weather of things

In the steaming fog of the dumpling shop the rain outside doesn’t seem so out of place. On Irving this afternoon the sun was hidden by clouds long before it set, late now the day after the equinox. The streets have been filled with shoppers, students, families these past few days, since the sun no longer sets at five. Daylight Saving Time may be an oddity, a trick we play on ourselves with math and clocks, but it works. We are a happier people when we see the sun.

Tonight the wind came in early, fog and rain along side. No one complains, knowing deep down winter is over. Even in California the spring brings relief, and it’s tempestuous showers cause no ill will.

“This is dumpling weather,” she says. I concur. This is weather for fogged-up windows and large numbers crammed in small rooms. We take novels and drink tea, ordering in fragmented Mandarin and cherishing the hot sauce. On the way home we watch the rain, lighter now, patter on the pavement, reflecting the headlights of 19th Ave.

“This weather’s good for the Little Shamrock too,” I say, continuing our conversation about things just perfect for this weather. The self-proclaimed oldest bar in town, the Shamrock is a cozy kind of place with a fire and padded chairs, built for rainy Sundays.

“They wouldn’t do well in a sunnier neighborhood,” she says. “Too dingy.”

We cross, watching the fog sneak across the street on Irving, now fully at ground level. It is our second year here, in this weather of swirling shapes and constant drizzle that we so enjoy in part because we know where to go when the world becomes a place of damp and chill. Having learned the neighborhood grown out of the fog, we are no longer put down by it’s weight.

In Houston there were no dumpling houses like the King of Noodle, no bars like the Little Shamrock. Instead Poison Girl featured bike racks outside and a garden that was heavenly in February, perfect in November. Filled with plants and vines that snaked up and over the walls into neighboring yards, this space felt felt utterly unlike the dive bar it belonged to, and yet perfectly attached. Like the Shamrock, Poison Girl was built of it’s neighborhood, of it’s weather.

Weather is the strongest of forces, a statement that needs no proof save the news, and it shapes the places of people far more than we pretend. At Beach Bum on Boracay the drinks are built for long afternoons spent barefoot on the sand, and when storms blow they build walls of sand against the rising tide. It is an establishment made possible by the location, and then refined by weather.

To know a city, a town, a beach, then, we must embrace the weather there, be it by hiding near the fire or lolling barefoot. In San Francisco that idea has taken us most of two years to learn, here where the ocean joins the air and rolls over the land, where the fog is a member of the neighborhood, and where the best bars are cozy, the best restaurants steamy.

Finding work

He sits easy all day, on a wooden stool barely half a foot high. His arms hang over his knees, back bent sharp in the blue shirt and dirty gray hat. In front of him there is a tub of water, the kind oft used for oil changes, red and plastic. The color has faded mightily but red it is. In the bottom of the water money sparkles, mostly one mao pieces, yi jiao, ten to a kuai. They are silver, and so light that they drift when he puts his hand in. There are a few five mao, wu jiao pieces, larger and gold, but no kuai, no rmb, no yuan, too valuable they are fished out immediately and pocketed. There’s an old bike pump, black with wooden handle, next to the shabby tree that’s one of a series along the road. This isn’t the old part of the city, so the tree is only about ten feet high, not so thick. The dirt around it is covered in spit and grease and mud, no grass. The sign behind him reads 自行车修理, zi xing che xiu li, bicycle repair place, and there are some locks for sale, their cases bound with wire to a peg board. For five kuai he’ll fix a tire, the cost of the patch only a kuai or two. Labor is cheap, there’s another guy two blocks down. This is 上海, Shanghai, and everyone needs their bike fixed. This is 上海 and it’s easy to find people good with their hands.

In Houston I go twelve blocks to find a repair shop, and I am lucky, it is often further, and they charge me twelve dollars. This is Houston, and getting a bicycle fixed isn’t usually an on the way to work necessity.

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.

Foot traffic

Bike packed I am back to pedestrian travel, moving at the speed of aimless amble rather than that of jogger mom or homeless cart pusher.  I no longer whip past people caught between Land Rover and coffee shop.  Instead, wearing torn jeans, battered sandals and ironic tee I am in their midst, lucky to have less rush propelling my morning and more patience for the dog walkers and the sky mumblers, whether they be bluetooth powered or other radiation fueled.  It is good to be back in Venice, which has become a home base of homelessness for me as it has always been for others.  Nine months ago I sat on these same carpets, steps and couches, my belongings in boxes from China to Houston.

Now, the Houston portion of my adventure complete, I am here again en route to somewhere I have never lived.  Venice welcomes this, her streets lined with vans and Winnebagos that reek of extended occupation. Weather-wise these blocks off the beach are an ideal spot for homelessness, and I watch the wanderers, contemplating the gradual gentrification of Venice and the changes along Rose’s sidewalks these past five years.  There are old men with the air of a previous time trapped in their scraggly beards, and a cereal bar, new and portentous, if not pre-.  The grocery’s windows remain barred and the laundry mat oddly packed mid-morning, signs that while Rose welcomes new company old inhabitants remain.

At an intersection an older women on her bicycle admonishes me as she breaks traffic laws while wearing long gloves and a wide-brimmed hat.  “That wasn’t right, horrible I know, shhh,” she says, and I smile.  Telling someone was not in my plans, though it comes to be, and with coffee and bagels balanced and eyes on the surroundings instead of the vehicles I am already a traffic disaster.

Sitting at the cereal bar, several days later, I watch the old Greyhound parked across the street, trailer attached.  It has the sleek lines of the future as seen from the eighties and the curtained windows driven by the last decade’s real estate boom, where prices quintupled as gang violence fell.  The bus’ owner is invisible, though people pass our table in waves, and homeless or not is hard to say.  Is this gradual shift, where Rose loses its gang members and gains dog walkers, as momentous after all?  Fewer gun battles and more Chihuahuas, yet Venice still welcomes those of us with our belongings in our cars, as long as we have friends with more permanent residences.  Breakfast finished, we rise, and, at a clothing store down the street shop but do not buy, the difference between these two levels of homelessness a matter of friendship and attire.

It will be some time still, I think, before Rose resembles Abbot Kinney, and the Shopping Carts for Homeless program, whose product litters the sidewalks, is ironic enough for me to love.

Circus of cats

A year ago I sat on a rooftop in Hong Kong and watched the cats roam Sheung Wan’s streets from far above as the day’s heat soaked back out of the concrete towers and into the sky.  In Houston this last month I have watched them again, how they prowl and play once evening approaches, content out of doors once the sun has fled.  In this complex of houses become apartments there are many, of all colors and temperaments.  With time, patience and an interest in their doings, we become familiar with one another.

Winnie, longer-haired orange and sleek, a rescue from Galveston who spent ten days on a rooftop post Hurricane Ike, is the new king.  The tufts of fur behind his ears attract attention, and he spends the evenings on his brick doorstep, content to watch others antics in the fading heat.

Magic, skinny young and short-haired black, chases a bullfrog into the shrubs, wild-eyed and bounding.  Winnie waits a moment and then ambles after, as though curious to see what Magic would do with this strange-sounding beast.  Unimpressed he slinks back to his stoop, and ten minutes later Magic is sitting on the wooden bench licking his paws, the bullfrog forgotten.

“How long do their memories last?” a friend wonders, sitting outside on the patio furniture watching a large orange and white cat flirt with Winnie, lured by his low profile and huge ear tufts.  “Do they remember each other or just vague impressions, do they know people or just where they are fed?”  None of us know the answer, and in the perfect warmth of ten pm no one moves to discover it.  Instead we speculate on their behavior, watching Boo Boo, an indoors-only Siamese mix with light blue eyes who has come to the window, his fur pressing through the screen as he watches Winnie and these people.

Milo is the old man of the neighborhood, in time here if not in years.  His family has cut a cat door into the building entrance, dignifying his comings and goings beyond meowing for a helping hand.  Yet he is uneasy as the population swells, Winnie’s arrival followed by another smaller orange and white, and then a black and white hunter, a grey tiger indoor cat, and more.  Milo eyes them from a tree across the street that only he seems able to climb. Finding him there one evening I think he remembers a less-crowded block, where he could prowl behind shrubs by his lonesome.

How long is a cat’s memory, we asked. Packing this apartment, with it’s squirrel highway and it’s windows, with it’s odd hiding places, I wonder instead how long is the memory of a place?  Will Winnie remember us when we leave?  Milo?  This apartment?  How long until no one remembers us standing here in the fading light, seeking out the hunters where they stalked behind the bushes?

The black and white, name unknown, chases a lizard as we pack the car, dropping it’s squirming body from mouth to pavement only to bound upon it again as it races away across the pavement.  It is a favorite activity, the lizards numerous and slow in the morning heat before all things retreat to shade near noon.  They do not remember, I think, these small creatures that flee vertically, climbing the brick out of the reach of Milo’s claws.  This apartment has no memory, save that of holes and scrapes, of hangars left in closets and marks where the dresser touched the wall.  Like the lizards it will be here tomorrow, no outward sign of vacancy.

How long do even we remember, though, haughty in our questioning of cats?  Hong Kong, a year ago, has already begun to fade, and this apartment too will be shrunk down, condensed to a smattering of images, like those cats seen from rooftops and visits from old friends.  We move on, inhabiting one place after another, confident in our memories, though less durable than these walls and their scars.  Maybe Magic will wonder where we’ve gone, lying mid-driveway in the morning light where we used both to watch the mail arrive.

For a little while so will I.