Been there twenty years

“Do you remember Saturday Coffee,” our conversation begins. We do, the small cafe on Yongjia Lu that served coffee and warm sandwiches, two blocks from our last apartment in Shanghai. It was open just over a year and then disappeared. A couple’s dream of entrepreneurship hindered by the rising rents and limited clientele. Most of the time we had the place to ourselves, could get coffee and two sandwiches without any wait, which was part of the appeal. Mostly though we liked the owners, and their sandwiches. We liked living two blocks from a cafe in Shanghai.

These are the brief memories of an urban area. In San Francisco we reminisce about Hotei, our favorite Sunset ramen spot in two thousand ten, since closed. For two years we would walk the ten blocks through the early evening fog to have ramen, to be welcomed by the staff accustomed to our routine, and to enjoy the peace of Sunday before the week began. When it closed, in two thousand fourteen, Hotei joined Saturday coffee in our memories, places to be discussed nostalgically.

So much of living is about watching things end, about remembering restaurants no longer open, friends who have moved away. Rare then are the places that have endured, the corner pub, the tiny burger joint. Rare is the other side of these conversations, the acknowledgement of survival, more commonly said with reverence.

“It’s been there twenty years,” he says about the corner store. The owners are friendly, part of the neighborhood. They provide booze to the homeless and coffee to the construction crews, milk to the forgetful and egg sandwiches to the hungover. As neighborhood staples go they’re a highlight in an area that has for so long been neglected by the city. Building this reputation has taken years of opening early and closing late, of hosing off the street outside, of brushing up the trash and adapting the stock to suite the neighbors. Recently the coffee has improved, a nod to the younger generation moving in. They still play KQED and know the baseball scores.

Like Ebisu, Jenny’s Burgers, and the Little Shamrock in the inner sunset, the places that have survived are special too, even though discussing them usually involves commenting on the current state of the city rather than remembering the idealized version of our memories. Saturday Coffee, Boona 2, and a dozen other of my favorite places in Shanghai have shut in the decade since I moved away. More impressive, then, are the places that endure, the woman still cooking noodles on Wuxing Lu, Bar Constellation and People’s Seven, because they have become part of the tapestry of Shanghai by surviving.

The trick to discovering cities is to remember that they are constantly changing, that of course the things we love will disappear. Restaurants shut and neighborhoods turn over not because things are getting worse but because nothing lasts forever. We should celebrate having had those sandwiches, having lived near that bar, and tell tall tales about our luck.

And we should continue to explore, to grow and to discover. Living in a city is a gift. It is lucky to be somewhere that is alive, growing and evolving, to be somewhere that pushes us to do the same.

My new Vanmoof bicycle

Commuting lives

Years ago I wrote about my commute, on electric scooter through the neighborhoods of Shanghai.

Once again I have a similar commute, by bicycle in downtown San Francisco. It is hard to overstate what an accomplishment this is in the United States in twenty seventeen.

As Mobike overtakes the Asian cities I love, San Francisco is still caught in the death throws of the private automobile. It’s common to hear conversations about autonomous vehicles, electric bicycles, or other means of transportation, and yet so much travel, so much of commuting life relies on the private car, even if employed via an app or treated as a shared resource.

For the past few years I’ve ridden Bart & biked to work, a lengthy combination made friendly by a wonderful bike shop in Fruitvale that housed my bike on weekday evenings. Now though I am finally free, able to bike or walk, Bart or bus as I feel the need. No option takes more than twenty minutes, door to door. It’s a glorious release, a freedom I haven’t felt since Shanghai, since those scooter rides through neighborhoods I still know well and still think of often.

And so my thought these last few weeks, made happy by this gift of geography: “How much of our life is really our commute?”

Not where we work, but how we get there. Not who we work with, but who we travel along side. Not how much we are paid, but how much we pay to arrive at the office.

How much of our lives are we spending in transit, and how does it leave us?

This is the question that resonates as I pedal home down Howard Street, a decade after slipping quietly down Yongjia Lu on my electric scooter.

Free.

Conbini

My first night in Shanghai, in August of two thousand three, I wandered Nanjing East road, the pedestrian street. I was overwhelmed by China, unable to speak or read, and afraid of spending money. As I’ve written before, I ended up at a Lawson’s, the Japanese convenience store brand an island of familiarity in the flashing neon.

In some ways convenience stores are the signposts of my life in Asia. In Saitama in two thousand one I paid my cell phone bill at the AM PM down the street. In Shanghai I relied on the All Days on the corner for phone card refills, water, and directions, once I’d learned enough to ask the women who worked there where things were in the neighborhood. In both cases the convenience store, one block from my apartment, was a hub for the neighborhood and the first place to try when in need of anything.

This idea is familiar to Americans. Convenience stores dot the suburban American landscape, attached to gas stations and owned by oil companies. They feature slushy-makers and horrible coffee, and have spawned the big gulp and helped fuel the rise of Red Bull and Monster Energy. When we head out of San Francisco on a weekend we inevitably end up at one, bright exterior and interior a welcome respite from Interstate 80 and the traffic that always halts us near Vacaville.

And yet here in the city there are none. The fundamental unit of Asian life, the corner convenience store open 24/7 and featuring fax machines, hot food, liquor, milk, toiletries and basic first aid supplies, does not exist. There are bodegas, small family-run groceries, and liquor stores, each featuring some subset of the true conbini’s goods and all closing between 8 and midnight. There is no neon beacon of familiar branding, no Lawson to anchor the visitor from out of town, no central place to buy water, milk or a phone card.

Walgreens, CVS, and Duane Reade fill this niche in New York and San Francisco, the drug store turned grocery turned convenience, but they close at eleven and their wares vary incredibly by location. Out in the Richmond district of San Francisco I lived next to a Walgreens that had fresh produce and was open till midnight. In the Mission the Walgreens features toys and makeup and is, on the whole, dirtier than one would hope. I am sure the employees would agree. Down in the tourist areas of the city there are Walgreens with fresh food, with good coffee, with tourist souvenirs and a wide array of local delicacies. These stores are true centers of neighborhoods, save for the fact that their customers live at hotels, and the stores still close in the evenings. They are comforting, and frequented by visitors who need food and supplies and have no familiar options, but these stores do not provide true convenience for the residents of San Francisco.

In Bangkok a few weeks ago I would go to a 7 Eleven every day or two for extra water for our hotel room, for bandages and ointment for our cuts, and for beer for our spirits. All over the city the bright yellow orange and green sings stand out and are relied on.

I understand the downside to this kind of globalization and the dominance of single brands, and value the strange bodega in Bed Stuy where a friend and I get egg on croissants some days. The cooks are middle eastern and the clientele black, jewish, hispanic. The diversity of food and supplies there is a reminder of how special local places can be, how different than the global norm.

And yet, in San Francisco late at night, the only option are liquor stores that primarily cater to the homeless population, and have no food or household necessities. Walking home late in the evening after a long day in the sun I wonder why, and imagine a Family Mart on my corner. How useful that would be, for myself and the neighbors. How quickly it would become an institution, relied upon for shipping, mail, concert tickets, scanning, printing, or just the occasional late night hot meal. I would dearly love the cold ramen dishes Tokyo locations stock daily.

Unfortunately Family Mart peaked at nine stores in the US, all in Los Angeles, and closed them all in 2015. None were attached to gas stations.

Sad to think that convenience, in America, requires a car.

Looking out over Idabashi in Tokyo

Winding roads

In the month of March I am mostly confused about location.

In a Shanghai hotel room an old friend brings me medicine in between naps. His daughter laughs at her reflection in the mirror while we chat. I’ve been sick for days and seen little save this room in between factory visits. The company is welcome and the medicine better than my homemade solutions.

A few days later I see a super hero movie on the US naval base in Yokosuka. I’ve never been on base before and the experience is strange. Sitting in a theater having paid $2 for tickets feels both familiar and surreal. It is strange to be in Japan and yet surrounded by Americans, especially after two weeks in China. Afterwards, wandering around Idabashi with my friends, I am so grateful to be back in the suburban depths of Tokyo. Sub-urban is a claim that can only be applied to Idabashi when it is placed next to Shinjuku. In some ways the duplication of train stations, shops, conbinis and aparto towers feels like it’s own culture, a form of topography and living for which Americans have no language. Sub-urban then only in hierarchy not in density.

In Las Vegas a few days later I look out from the thirty third floor at empty patches in the city’s expansion. Whole blocks skipped, still raw desert, surrounded on all sides by cul-de-sac housing tracts. A depressing view of car culture and relative waste that I don’t know well enough to imagine living in. Or to imagine feeling trapped in.

Sitting at a bar in downtown Las Vegas arguing about transparency and expectations I realize how much of our conversations are also about location. Much of the conversation, scattered over several weeks and countries, is about cities, housing, variations of living. So too is much of our conversation about our hope for the future, and many of our questions are about how places shape people.

It is a perfect if confusing way to spend several weeks, well-suited to this site save for the lack of writing.

A large Beijing apartment building half torn down

Repetition and growth

In the summer of two thousand seven lives a boy I will remember forever.

In the echoes of experience lie good stories.

In my memory this boy boards the train to Beijing on a Friday evening. It is summer, closing in on his birthday, and the sleeper cars are mercifully air conditioned. This train was new when he first moved to China, the car interiors a spotless white. The first time he rode it, in summer of two thousand four, twelve hours to Beijing was incredible, so fast. Three years later everything feels well-used, a patina of hand prints on each door handle and section of wall surrounding. This overnight train from Shanghai was an improvement on the fourteen or more hours and hard sleeper trains of prior years, of the late nineties and early aughts. In the present day the speed is not impressive; the current high speed line runs Shanghai to Beijing in only six hours. In two thousand four twelve hours seemed fast. By two thousand seven it had become routine, and whole new ways of life had been built around the overnight sleeper’s reliability. Families in Beijing could have one parent take a job in Shanghai, commute down Sunday night, head to work Monday morning, and run the reverse on Friday. They’d stay with friends or family on week nights and be home when the kids got up Saturday.

We never know what kind of life the future will support.

In two thousand seven the boy who boards this train to Beijing is preoccupied. He throws his backpack in his berth. When the older Chinese couple in his compartment asks if they can have the bottom bunk he acquiesces without thought. Foreigners prefer top bunks, they say, and he agrees. Foreigners do. They’re happiest when able to sleep. Chinese families prefer the bottom bunks in this small four bed compartment. More social, better for eating and chatting. The boy moves his bag up high and steps back into the hallway. There are small tables and seats at intervals that fold up against the wall when not in use. He squats at one, charging his phone off the outlet beneath.

We never know what kind of life the future will support, he thinks, scrolling through email on his Blackberry. This is a new technology, his third “smartphone” but the first one that supports work email, that is paid for by a company. He has had it since May, purchased in Los Angeles, and it is his favorite device ever. On this train though it will be a weight around his weekend adventure. He is heading north to see a friend from Hawaii who is in China taking classes for the summer. Despite the weight they will have an excellent weekend.

The train leaves promptly at seven oh five pm, and the phone starts ringing shortly after. It is a woman from Indonesia, someone he has never met. She wants him to guarantee a shipment of fabric from a Chinese factory that is sitting in port in Jakarta. The shipment is valued at fifty thousand dollars. And so they debate, on the phone, as the train moves out of Shanghai headed north. Through Jiangsu they debate who is to bear the responsibility if the fabric has an issue, and why the Chinese factory that made it can or can not be trusted. Fifty thousand dollars. The fabric is to be made into dresses, for delivery to his company in the United States. There is a deadline, a ship window, and he urges her to have faith, to make the order, to pay the Chinese supplier. Again and again she asks him to personally back the shipment. They have never met. In a year he will leave this job and return to the United States. They will never meet.

The phone call drops, it is two thousand seven and he is on a high speed train. Standing in the vibrating space between cars where he’s moved to have some privacy the boy stares out the window at the Chinese countryside. Already then he knows he will never forget this evening. A boy from upstate New York, not yet twenty eight, taking the overnight train from Shanghai to Beijing, spending the whole ride arguing with a woman in Jakarta over fifty thousand dollars. How did this become his life?

The phone rings.

In two thousand sixteen I stand outside a bar beneath a highway in San Francisco. It is eleven pm on a Wednesday. The phone number on the screen is long, international. I answer it.

On the other end is a man I will never meet. He wants me to guarantee some charges on a shipment. The container is sitting in the port in Mumbai. We debate dollars. Excuses are made. Clear the cargo, I ask. Send me receipts.

I start walking. Somewhere in the next two blocks we are cut off. For the length of one red light I stand on the corner of 14th and South Van Ness staring at the phone. I am thinking of that woman in Indonesia, fifty thousand dollars, and the train ride to Beijing in two thousand seven when the phone rings again.

“Hello,” I say.

In some moments the future feels like the past, imperfectly recreated.