Last days

The seasons change, inevitably. In San Francisco the fog pours over the peaks in the afternoons, blanketing the city with a chill breeze that can only mean summer. Returning to the city from the heat of the East Bay the fog feels like a memory, and I know our time with it is ending.

I have learned that endings come from all directions. Usually they aren’t as simple as they were in two thousand four, packing up and walking out of my first Shanghai apartment with no plans and a single backpack. Often the point of departure is rather a runway built on dozens of small signals. A job ends, a boss quits, a lease expires, a visa is too difficult to renew. These moments when added together become impetus enough to overcome the comforts of a small apartment, of good light and great friends, of living downtown by the train.

“cause’ it could come out of nothing,
And hit you harder still,”

As the fall of twenty sixteen approaches, promising a few weeks of sun without fog, sun without wind, we breathe deep and prepare ourselves. The gift of seeing change coming is being able to remember the moments just before it with clarity. Riding my bicycle to work each day along Embarcadero in Oakland I watch the sky and the water. One day this will not be my commute, just like that long drive to Petaluma over the Golden Gate is no longer my commute. Like the Saikyo Line, Yong Jia Lu, and Houston’s streets, the commutes change and the past moves further behind us.

“Can you pick a point that we can choose to rewind to / Or know there’s better days ahead than behind you”

In many ways San Francisco is home. It’s not time for goodbye, not yet. For another few months the fog will roll in, we will grow older, and the call of distant shores will remain in the background. Yet in twenty sixteen the desire to go has grown powerful, and we have started planning for the end. Constant travel and a wonderful set of friends have kept us in place these past seven years, but weights can be only so heavy, and our curiosity is strong.

The cat, now four, has never lived outside this city of seven by seven miles, though he’s traveled far. He doesn’t know it, but he will love wherever comes next.

“Don’t you know what it’s like
To disappear from someone else’s life”

Leaving is a sudden thing built in stages. Moving away takes years, financing, and the will to ignore the accumulation of the first two. So in the fog of the summer of twenty sixteen I gather the last of these to me.

In two thousand seven a boy sat on his balcony in Shanghai, waiting for the storm to break. He was ready to go but not yet pushed to leave. In a half dozen months everything in his life would change.

“Can we work it out?”

For now we watch friends leave, jobs end, and people grow. We think of the future and celebrate the present. Like that boy in Shanghai, we are not yet in motion, we are waiting for the weather to break. Like that boy in Shanghai we are not packed, but we know what we’ll keep.

Post cards, books, memories, friendships.

And a furry cat.

Quoted lyrics from Gordi’s Can We Work it Out, Nothing’s as It Seems, and So Here We Are off of the 2016 EP Clever Disguise

They know your name

After cleaning our old place we sit with our backs against the wall of our local bar, tacos on order and Tecates in hand. It won’t be our last trip here, the Taco Shop will remain just across the park, but it won’t be our closest option late at night, after ultimate or hard days. We won’t wander down at 5 on Fridays any more for happy hour, or watch games from the back tables on Saturday afternoons. The bar staff, who know our faces if not our names, are unaware of the reason for our strange faces. They smile when we sit down and treat us well, locals who live around the corner and come in often, never when the place is packed. This is what happens when we move. As a basketball game unwinds on the TV behind the bar I remember the early times, saying goodbye to places I once knew. Places I once was known.

For that boy the differences at first felt so small. Of course no one knew his name, in those new towns. At the laundromat he watched people for hours, sitting cross legged on top of a washing machine. In nineteen ninety eight Portsmouth didn’t feel that different from Ithaca. He would get a bagel in the morning, fresh off the boat in, and walk to the laundromat. His one day ashore would be spent reading, thinking, cleaning, and talking to almost no one.

Four years later and on a day off again he would walk out of the Ebisu train station in the rain. He stopped for coffee in a shop with an English menu. Ebisu is a quiet part of Tokyo, and after coffee he would head down small streets towards the used foreign book store. Mostly English, he perused for hours until it was time to take the train home to the suburbs of Saitama. He did buy books, but that was not why he loved this store. He loved it because the staff streamed British radio, Channel 4. Standing in the tiny aisles of this shop in Tokyo he listened to traffic reports of a place he had never been. Hearing of traffic conditions and the evening weather in England he no longer felt alone in the world. The foreign feeling that so surrounded him on those week day afternoons when all of Tokyo was at work and he, with no language, was free, faded for a bit. There are so many parts of the globe, said the radio, where we are out of place, where things feel like home but are strange.

In between these two moments he lived in Maryland and Boston, Pougkeepsie and New York. He would live in Tokyo without language for another year and then Shanghai with only fragments. In each of these places he was familiar few times. In each city he started over, found a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bagel place, a bar to frequent. And in each city, with time, the staff of some establishments remembered his face, his drink. They noted his odd habit of taking a corner table and pulling out a notebook, of reading the Economist over twelve kuai worth of dumplings and twelve kuai worth of beer. They saw him sleeping over his coffee late in the afternoon instead of eating lunch at noon with the crowd. Even less frequently they knew his name, and he theirs. Knew that he would, when asked, tell stories and bring friends, recommend dishes or specific seats.

In these quiet exchanges he built something and left it behind again with each move.

And after each new beginning he woke early on a Saturday and went looking for a coffee shop in which to write.

In the Richmond in twenty twelve I begin with Japonica, on California and 17th. Just to see, just to try. Maybe in a few weeks the owner and I will know each other by sight, if not by name. Maybe a few weeks after that I will be a regular again.

Sweat and storms

It is July, a month filled with sweat, with uncomfortable sleep and itching eyes and with abrupt transitions from air artificially dried and cooled to air filled with water held in only by surface tension. In the afternoon the winds swirl and, on good days, the air breaks open in rain that wipes away, for a moment or ten, the dirt and slow motion malaise that creeps otherwise over everything and everyone. For fifteen minutes people scamper, as though the water poured down upon them provided power for their footsteps. With the rain’s end their pace slows again. Men become once more immobile, sitting again on steps with their shirts up, bellies bulging slightly in the posture-slackening heat.

It is two thousand and seven, and a man sits on his balcony, re-reading a work of fiction he first found a decade before, half a world away. Re-reading a book that has been quoted endlessly by friends who now live in Los Angeles, in San Diego, in New York, in London. The beer by his shoulder is cheap, and pretends to be Japanese. His feet are covered in bug bites, the sacrifice necessary for the small area of grass at the base of his building. His balcony, on the fourth floor, is not high enough to avoid them. Perhaps no balcony is.

In the coming weeks he will travel, to Beijing, and it’s famously forbidden palace of previous governments. To the wall, a barren portion long ruined, untouched by the repairmen who have installed handrails at Badaling. At least he hopes so.

It is July, two thousand and seven, and he cannot stop thinking about the same month, three years before, and a smaller room with no balcony three blocks to the west. In that room lived a boy as uncertain, as young, as anyone can be who has traveled so far. That boy packed and drank, planned and read. He sat in the sweltering heat unable to afford a decent air conditioner. His apartment, lengthy and narrow, conducted wind well from kitchen to bathroom, bedroom to desk, but did not release heat.

In the winter the same room could not store it.

That boy packed in between conferences and crisis, after working hours, of which there were few, and before late nights. His books, clothing, and prized possessions, all became cubic space in green boxes he ferried home from the post office on a scooter he’d purchased for seventy kuai, the cost of replacing it’s starter. The scooter puttered and sputtered and did neither with safety or speed. He adored the scooter for its cheapness, this boy of two thousand four, and waited constantly at corner stalls where boys far younger disassembled it’s fuel line and poured liquid through that thin rubber tube, dissolving clots, cleaning away years of accumulation. They did this same repair for less than ten kuai each time, a cost of ownership affordable even to twenty four-year old boys working twelve hours a week. Or less.

When these strangely sacrificial rituals of boxing and re-boxing were complete, and the parcels ferried back to the green storefront of China Post, he left, this boy of two thousand four. Backpack on and shoulders back, he stepped out of his apartment for the last time, locked the door, gave over the key, and wandered off, to Thailand, Malaysia, and out of sight.

Sitting on his balcony, age almost twenty eight, the man with bug-bitten feet finishes his beer and steps inside. He is not packed, he has more possessions than ever before, though they are scattered delicately across the globe; mementos of his existence given to friends, old traveling companions, and roommates.

He is not going anywhere. At least until the storm breaks.