Across the city

On Sundays in San Francisco we bike to the beach. In earlier years it was a shorter ride, from the Sunset or Richmond. Now though we are distant enough from the ocean’s effects that the weather is unpredictable. I take long sleeves and a hat, and want both. Seven short miles, several elevation changes, and the variances of fog make for a strange ride.

At Baker Beach the fog swirls around the Golden Gate, hiding both it and Marin from view. We play at the water’s edge and enjoy the peace of the Pacific.

On the way home I pedal up through the Richmond to a coffee shop I used to frequent with the cat. The owner is happy to see me and I her, and we chat for a while while she closes up shop for the day. Leaving her I ride past our old house and see the new residents unpacking their car from a weekend away. I remember those days, two cars and so much time on the road.

Into Golden Gate Park and the scene changes, families on rollerblades and bicycles dominate the closed road. It’s a peaceful place, the car-free park on a Sunday, somewhere to exercise and wander without fear. Every time I am here I wonder what the entire city would be like without automobiles.

Down to the Panhandle I find at last the remenants of Bay to Breakers, the city-wide run turned street party. Hundreds of people in costumes fill the small stretch of park that reaches east into the city. They are drunk and celebrating, mostly oblivious to the bikers sliding past. I remember partying here, playing games with friends, cartwheels and rope climbing. Years ago now.

Out of the park and down into lower Haight I slide, finding more parents visiting their children, more folk walking their dogs. It’s a nice section of the city, Divisadero to Duboce Triangle, and I do not pedal hard, content to roll downhill and listen to snatches of conversations, slivers of people’s afternoons.

Out on to Market, into the heat of the eastern part of the city, and I am almost home. So many more cars, so much more traffic. Families now walk with coffee still, late in the day. Homeless people start to appear, wandering or pushing carts.

Down the side route by the 101 entrance I duck, and suddenly, after so long and so many different scenes, I am back in my own, on Valencia, past Zeitgeist, into the urban heat of the city. It’s comforting and less peaceful, an urban mishmash of Lyft drivers and those looking for fancy dinner spots.

Me? I slide through to my garage, to my windows that let in breeze on two sides of the house and my cat who naps in the sunbeams.

A city is best discovered on bike, and home again at last I think of all the different neighborhoods, all the different lives we’ve slipped through, me and my new Van Moof, on our trip to the ocean and back, taking in memories of this city that will hold us over till the next weekend.

Future positions

Part of the joy of travel, of moving, is learning a new common.  Moving to Shanghai and finding that bicycle traffic exceeds car.  Living there long enough to watch car start to gain, and the massive parking problem that change creates.  Moving to Houston and finding cars a minority, compared to SUVs, and the unique kind of common created by such large vehicles.  Watching young siblings of a friend play upon their parked vehicle, it affording an easier climb and better view than the purpose-built play structure in the yard.  Learning to navigate each one, until it is time to move on again, and the new place likewise surprises, lacking trains, or cars, or electric bicycles.  Realizing that what is comfortable now is not the original, but an amalgamation of each previous situation.

So often future predictions, or visions of such, are simply the application of what is already common in one place to another, with the twist of local restrictions or desires.  Cellphones are going to incorporate electronic payment systems, claims one, having been to Japan.  Transit cards will become electronic, removing the need to swipe a MetroCard in New York through the magnetic reader, claims another, having seen Hong Kong, or London, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or…  Everyone will have a car, says the proud new Buick owner in Shanghai, knowing America.  Discerning between the potential and the possible, the future coming and the present not yet arrived, becomes an art of guessing what people want, what local infrastructure will support.

In every projection too there is the bias of personal desire.  Thus comes the vision of a wind-powered future from those with large investments in windmills.  Likewise those building massive databases of human activity suddenly see a future where every item of identification communicates location.  Passport, cell phone, car keys, payment cards, check.  There are those who seek support for admirable visions of electronic automobiles spread wide over the landscape, asking for them to be built by those who for the past seventy years have opposed such infrastructure.  But these are not the only futures built around the personal desires of those who espouse them.  There are the dreams of authors, in whose projections worlds overcrowded, over-governed, and over-built compete with those of space-faring societies that have escaped the resource limits of a single planet, of artificial intelligences that remove burdens of daily labor, and of a variety of governments that cater to a mobile population. These are all visions of a future coming, of a world we do not inhabit but should, or will, or might soon.

The beauty of these views is not that any one is perfect, or correct, or that any of them are.  The joy of learning what is common in a new place is finding fresh tools for a personal projection of what the future will hold, of where the world could be.  Because much of the future is made up of people, and the people are made up of what they imagine and desire, what they learn and acquire.  This message is paraded around by consumer advocacy groups, by giant corporations, by friends and neighbors in a variety of forms, and is true in all of them, if slightly minimized.  For the future is not a small thing, one life is not a small thing.  On moving to Japan, seven years ago, and being shown to an apartment smaller than any of the dorm rooms I had occupied the four years prior, being forced to revisit my needs and possessions, I found roommates, colleagues, friends in similar situations.

“I like the way it’s done here,” they kept saying.  About refrigerators small enough to tuck into corners that then required more frequent re-filling, from similarly smaller shops within walking distance.  About beds that were rolled up and put away in closets in the mornings to provide space for a desk and a sense of cleanliness.  About balconies on every house, for drying clothing and watching Mt. Fuji in the evening.  All these people, each moved to a new location, each discovering that what was common in Tokyo, in Saitama, was something they could live with, appreciated, and would incorporate, if able, into their own future.

There are stories like this from everywhere I have ever lived, and they blur together into nothing more than personal history, exploration and discovery.  They provide the tapestry though, the background of things I know to be common, somewhere, and can easily apply to my vision of a future.

And so, on a sunny November day in Houston I ride my tiny bicycle down tree-lined streets, arms covered in a hoodie purchased in Shanghai for its utility against very similar weather on my way to an apartment fueled only by electricity, generated mainly from wind and solar sources.   I carry a bag hand-made in Philadelphia, which holds a computer made in Taiwan and China.  And while such a listing can be displayed as a consumer badge, and is, it is also a vision of the future, of my plan for it.  The world changes every day, and the older we get the faster it seems to go, a function of both personal aging and of the era we were born to.  There are crisis and inventions, as there have always been, and our future is probably none of the grand predictions, none of the brilliant novels or simple transpositions.  The future will probably be as fragmented as today, with massive cars and extreme poverty, with starvation and luxury ocean liners.  Our choice is what common we are aiming for, what personal collection of necessary and desirable we hold dear enough to work for.

So here I am, age twenty nine, transporting myself by bicycle and airplane, communicating with laptop, cell phone and postal service, learning to appreciate and cook food common to my new location.  Uncertain whether any of these is perfect; imagining a future finely balanced out of all the visions I have seen.

Shared eyes

They make out frantically, in the back of the taxi, her head on his lap bent back. The abandon does not startle their driver, who weaves through Shanghai’s traffic without pause. The man, baseball hat on, looks up briefly as I slip past on my scooter. The woman, face hidden in the dark of seven pm, does not move; her head is back, mouth up in an imagined gasp for air. He, window again free of my shadow, dives down to her waiting lips in my rear view. Where are they going, this couple so enraptured on Tuesday? Where have they been?

Shanghai, like any where, shifts with the lives its people. Like any people, we shift when caught up in each other. A cold ride home through quickly darkening streets becomes a soft journey barely remembered when not alone. It becomes a passel of stories swapped over the wind and horns, becomes the wait for an end that is glorious in anticipation. Likewise, old haunts long since grown repetitious suddenly provide new afternoons of shared wandering.

A conference center never finished stands several blocks south of Zhaojiabang. First discovered in two thousand three while wandering on lunch breaks from an elementary school nearby it is a mystery of Shanghai, of the Asian Financial Crisis, of some bankruptcy somewhere. Its brick and concrete structure sits astride the terminus of Feng Lin Lu and imparts a strange majesty to this neighborhood, still trapped in the repetitive architecture of China’s ’70s and ’80s, rows of short squat flats all the same. The marbled-bodied friezes on the front, strangely fixed in place before the windows, floors, and walls, which were never completed, stare out at the tree-lined avenue. A massive gate, likewise roofed in granite long before the arch was framed completely, has been walled off with blue corrugated metal opened only occasionally by the old man who lives in this complex now alone. There is no mention of the plan, intentions, builder, or the once-imagined grandeur save for a model, tucked away in a section of the surrounding construction wall, it’s glass window originally set up to inspire passers-by and now covered by sheet metal. Sneaking through the old man’s room it becomes visible from an end, an odd angle above and behind the complex. In it the ring buildings are five stories high and roofed with peaks rather than the flat structures of skeletal concrete they remain. The central hotel towers fifteen floors above the surrounding streets, it’s intricate curved entrance wide enough to drive up, it’s elevators’ glassy fronts ascending the building’s outer face, gradually rising out of the courtyard to give a view of Xuhui, of Shanghai.

This building, discovered years ago, is wrecked in the fall of two thousand seven, and only the desire to show another, to be somewhere together, to share this city, brings me back to see it crumble. Four years on the view through fresh eyes returns the joy of discovery to mine. It is two years since I climbed through the complex one Sunday in January with a friend, discussing girls and the chances of surviving them while transposing lives (his) to America. The circle is not lost on me, watching the wrecking crew pillage this gigantic complex, imagining so many parts of the life I have built here come crumbling down in that shudder, this shake. Construction in Shanghai is immediate, constant, and temporary. As if in proof of time’s passing buildings are removed from my life, buildings that contained my history here. The noodle shop of Friday lunches in two thousand three has been boarded up for years, the Out of Africa poster that hung behind the tv leans up against the half-obscured window, a small reminder to old customers. The dates I went there on are likewise lost, only peeking in to my memory occasionally as I pass in the dusk of evening, coming home from Cotton’s, from work, from intoxicating conversation.

In Hongqiao, in two thousand four, there was a noodle shop with a wooden door, carved, eight feet high and four across, of a weight made light by hinges yet massive to the touch. Often, in the cold of February, a boy and girl would sit ensconced behind it, neither entirely familiar with the menu, with the street, with each other, or with the city. They slept in an apartment furnished yet made bare by the cold and their caution, on a street whose name neither would remember. Still strung with Christmas lights Hongqiao’s streets felt empty even when packed with the rush of office workers heading home.

Writing a letter in a cafe near there in the fall of oh seven, the streets of Hongqiao have lost their mystery, and I have joined the work day lunch break.  I can no longer find that door. Has New York shifted this much in four years? Is it Shanghai that changes, or the people, or are they both the same?

I scooter up and down Fuxing, sometimes alone, sometimes not, learning new places, noticing new houses, which are often old houses suddenly discovered behind walls and trees long sheltered. Shanghai changes, as does my focus, and both of us are better for it.

On the first Sunday in December the view in all directions fades into white as the pollution descends low and encapsulates everything, like snow, cutting off sound. On Fuxing, kept warm by arms wrapped around me and slipping through the dust into invisibility, the reason I am leaving – this strangling air – strikes us both as gorgeous, and Shanghai is again a city of picturesque memory.