Building forever

Landing in Tokyo at night, the city does not seem to end. From the air lights stretch away in all directions save where the sea still intrudes. In a bus from the airport this is reinforced, no suburban gap between airport and the city it serves. Neighborhoods change, the area around Haneda giving way to the denser residential sprawl of Tokyo proper, and then micro shifts as the gaps between train stations become the only visible breaks. Like interstate exits in the US, train stations represent the loci of Tokyo, clusters of shops, neon, and light that then spreads out, a subtle Doppler effect of dissipating commercial space, until the pace accelerates before the next station, another bunch of stores and people, taxis and signs. In this pattern we move on through the city in the night.

As many have written, Tokyo feels like the future. On this evening taxi ride, just arrived from Manila and another view of a possible future, I wonder why Tokyo, more than any other city, gets this designation.

The common reasons are obvious and true. It is clean, far more than any other city of size. Efficient too, in a way Germans and Swiss can enjoy. The city is polite in service and accommodating to foreigners, in a fashion that leaves visitors impressed and eager to return.

Our bus and then taxi each pass through separate construction areas, both calmly productive at one am on the morning of a national holiday. Lights are on, workers direct traffic, and the dirt of the digging is neatly contained by cones. Tokyo is, like New York, in constant repair. And yet there are no potholes, the average street seems five years old, and the sidewalk is level, blind strips and all. How can this city be so large and so well-maintained?

The smell, stepping out of the taxi, is what I remember most. Tokyo in the rain. So different than the smell of rain in Hong Kong, a few weeks back, or Bohol last week. So different than Shanghai, Dongguan, or San Francisco’s smells, the cities I now know well. The smell is clean, to my nose, lacking pollution and not quite of the ocean in the way Bohol was.

Now, a few days later, I think that the magic of Tokyo is not in just in the trains, or the organization, or the maintenance, but in all three. The magic is found in the attention to detail on all ends of the organism that is Tokyo. From construction to use to repair and replacement, the extra measure of care can seem robotic, idyllic. Especially after the vagaries of public transit in the Bay Area, after the impenetrable morass of Manila traffic, Tokyo’s mechanical functionality can seem impossible, the cleanliness obviously forced, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Disney or Singapore.

Instead I think, it represents what could be, not what will be. It represents what people might build, if so determined as a large group. Manila and San Francisco, St. Louis and Dongguan do likewise. All that differs are the people, and the complex intermingling of abilities, desire, and willingness to work together.

In this view the future of Tokyo is both approachable and impossible, marvelous and out of reach. It’s a city to love, I think. More than anything it’s a wonderful place. Standing on the balcony of our rented apartment, looking out at the city and falling rain, it is a place I am so glad to see.

Downtown, by the train

For the first time in the United States we have the life we had in Asia. At great but worthwhile expense, we live downtown near the train. In San Francisco this means the Mission, and this means Bart.

Three years ago we lived in a studio in the Sunset, half a block from the N-Judah, a Muni above-ground train line. The studio was wonderful. Giant west-facing windows made for perfect light, and the neighborhood was comfortingly Asian. Rent was reasonable, even with parking, albeit double what we’d paid for a 1 bedroom in Houston scant months before. As for the train, well, proximity was often its best feature. Locals refer to the N jokingly, if at all, and avoid any reliance on it’s twisting route, which is often blocked by cars at 9th and Irving and delayed at the Duboce and Church switch to underground operation. We used it first frequently and then less so, moving to bicycle or car instead.

For years though we regretted leaving that studio, at least on Sundays. Our one bedroom in the Richmond faced east, and so lost the light early in the day. Coupled with the Cigarettes Cheaper crowd next door and the Walgreens loading bay across the street that apartment became exactly what we’d hoped to avoid: a large house with poor light, loud neighbors, and a two-car commute. Looking back now, only months removed, it seems impossible to imagine. Yet for three years we both drove an hour plus each way out of San Francisco. One north, one south, far enough to make most moves impossible for one commute or the other.

And so from the Richmond we took the bus downtown, and walked Fillmore in the night. We went to shows and to bars, but not as many. We took more cabs, and drove more often to friends’ houses.

Our move to the Richmond was built on two desires. Most importantly, a cat, which our Sunset landlord would not allow. Secondly, to have a spare room for guests, even though several had braved our studio, slept on couch or kitchen floor. The living room was useful, and allowed us to easily welcome guests from all over the world. That apartment gave us Mr. Squish, fulfilling our exact request for a cat.

As I write these words he is sprawled on the couch across from me, content in his new home, only the second he has known. He is happier, though that could be the Karlstad sofa he is lounging on, a wedding present to ourselves in a blue that matches our new house. Moving with a cat has long been a dream of ours. Taking him on our adventures, if not yet rock climbing, and watching him explore new spaces are some of our favorite moments.

Why is this apartment so much more welcoming than our old one?

The answers are easy: light, size, and location.

In three months we’ve had friends come for dinner, colleagues bring lunch, and visitors crash on that couch. We’ve walked home from baseball games and taken the train to the airport. We’ve taken the train to brunch at friends’ houses in the East Bay and to work, novelties both. In the last week neither of us drove to work for two days in a row, the first time that has happened since we moved to San Francisco.

Why is this such a change, why did we ever forgo it, and how did we know we wanted it? These questions repeat themselves to me on my walks to Bart, on my train rides home.

This is such a change because we’ve each gained at a minimum two hours of mental time each day. Four hours multiplied by five days is twenty hours a week we gained as a couple with the move. Twenty hours a week, minimum, of additional thinking, reading, and working is time almost impossible to value. Another half a work week. Another two and a half days of paid working hours. Yes, rents are higher in the Mission. Yes, getting rid of one car helped keep our expenses within a similar range. But clearly, at twenty plus hours, we were undervaluing our time, undervaluing each other.

We gave up those hours initially because we had to. We’d gotten an apartment in the Sunset as the cheapest place we could find in San Francisco proper, and a good place to start our life here from. It was. We then got jobs out of the city, in opposite directions. They were good opportunities, and so we put up with the cost in cars and miles, knowing it would not be forever. When we moved to the Richmond, we shortened my commute at Tara’s expense. We balanced traffic and distance and the desire for a cat as best we could. And still we knew it would not be forever.

How did we know what we wanted? How did we know we’d be happier in a smaller apartment within walking distance of a train line, with only one car, in a more urban environment?

Shanghai.

We have lived in dense urban environments, ridden the subway or an electric scooter to work or to school, and commuted in the dense throngs of people rare for most Americans. We have lived in those environments and thrived. We have become comfortable with the benefits of dense living, of good transportation, and of shared public space rather than large private residences.

In America these lessons are difficult to learn. Apartments in dense areas with good public transit are expensive and restricted to a handful of cities. In many, like San Francisco, they are restricted to select neighborhoods in those cities. In Shanghai, in Tokyo, in Hong Kong, these lessons are simply life. They are learned on the train to grade school and in the tiny urban apartments of university. Density is not an option but the ground rule, public transportation not a luxury but the base layer of the urban environment.

We are lucky, in San Francisco, to live downtown near the train. In Shanghai it was the only place we could live, there was no other option. In Japan before that I lived in Saitama, outside of Tokyo proper, and yet on a line that ran directly into Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya. Out of the city and yet of the city in a way rare for Americans. Able to work and shop in the global megacity and still go for a run in the mornings along the Arakawa river.

In San Francisco, in the Mission, guests from out of town drop in for single night and leave early in the morning for meetings in the Financial District, or to tour the Embarcadero. What was once an hour away by bus is ten minutes by Bart. Waiting twenty minutes or more for the N has been replaced by taking any train out of dozens on a workday morning. We often do not drive for an entire weekend, and soon for an entire work week.

Yet in many ways this feels like avoiding the problems. The N still goes 30 minutes between trains on the weekends. The Richmond is still 40 minutes from Powell by bus, an hour twenty or more from the East Bay without free transfer. That we no longer care is a symptom of the problem, and a reason public transit remains a fractured experience. In Shanghai all the trains are run as one unit. In Japan a variety of companies with huge networks work together on train time tables and station infrastructure. In San Francisco there are only three stops on Bart in residential neighborhoods.

Yet 
I no longer complain about transit in San Francisco, instead promoting Bart to arriving guests. Limited, yes, but effective, and valuable, as was my line in Saitama. These visits and easier commutes, then, are the benefits of living here. And in many ways we are at last at home in San Francisco in a way we have not felt before.

Limited visibility

The feet of the Sutro Tower are planted in the ground, its tips lost in the clouds.

“I have limited visibility on this,” he says. His voice crackles with the static of a VoIP connection from an unnamed location. Looking out at the marina in the dense fog of a Petaluma morning, I nod. Limited visibility is something we’ve grown used to in Northern California.

Coming over the bridge in the morning the water is clear out to the horizon, towards Japan and Taiwan. To the right Angel Island and Alcatraz look like good spots for lunch, and I promise myself again to get to both of them. I will. They’re not far, just over the hill, out in the bay. From my house though they are invisible, beyond the park, beyond the hills. My house has limited visibility.

“I only have another seventy years, at most,” she says, as we walk down Irving on the clearest of Sundays. On my tiptoes I could see the ocean. “That’s all I’ll get to see,” she tells me. “I want to see more of it, I want to see it all.” She is reading a book about the far future, where the phrase ‘the world’ has to be clarified with a name, because there are many.

“Limited visibility.” It comes out under my breath, lips almost unmoving.

“I won’t ever know,” she says, and that ends the conversation the way only a horizon can.

“What do you hear?” I ask my consultant, who could be in Panama, or Dubai. Sometimes he is, and sometimes he tells me so. Usually I don’t ask, because it’s better, in a world where I can’t see the highway that crosses the river just north of the marina, to pretend he’s in San Francisco high up on a hill. Nearby, with better visibility.

“They have no schedule,” he says, and the fault is clean, not belonging to either of us. Like the fog.

When I drive north in the mornings, after the bridge, there is a clear spot, several miles of sunshine. I watch the oncoming traffic for headlights on or off that speak of Petaluma’s weather far ahead. By mile fifteen mine are often on too, an indication of how long I’ll be on this road, that the sunshine is not my destination.

I wonder at those who have fought, over years, for small changes. The right to serve without lying, the right to vote, the freedom to believe. The freedom to move, or to settle down and stay. I marvel again at the building of cathedrals, the dedication to any goal, real or ideal, that will only be true at the end of a lifetime.

Fighting like that, the gradual protest and continual argument that keeps those in power honest and allows, when the truth at last becomes obvious to all, the world to move forward, seems perhaps the hardest thing. This is the truth of the future though, and what growing up means: when the day comes, and it will, it will not be for us. The idea makes me weary.

“This problem has continued for much of this decade,” an email I get about San Francisco transit problems begins, my eyes skimming as I delete it.

After less than two years here I have purchased a car. I did not fight for decades, though I still give money to the cause, still give time.

Perhaps I am yet fighting. Perhaps I will still be, at the end of this decade. Or maybe mass transit will have flourished here, and the future come. In Shanghai the subway now covers the city, and trains spread out to cover the country. These are my ways of saying the future does come, and is worth working towards. These are my ways of saying that we may not see what we so long to, but that isn’t all that matters.

These are ways of growing up.

Driving back across the bridge one afternoon, after giving my grandfather his first computer, the air is thick and the sun, setting over the hills by the ocean, litters everything with pink. That light might be made tangible by a place is an amazing idea, and is so much of this city. The Transamerica pyramid cuts through the mist, its sharp edges fighting to remain distinct.

On top of the hill the Sutro Tower’s base is shrouded in fog. Hundreds of feet up its points catch the last true rays of sun and leap forwards, shadows writ large on the pink clouds far out over the Castro.  Their streaks are colossal reminders of how much we can build, given time, and how beautiful it can be in the right weather.

Problems with Translink/Clipper Card

Translink, recently renamed Clipper, is a contactless payment system for transit companies in the Bay Area.  It is theoretically usable on Bart, Muni, and for bridge tolls.  This seems at first to be a great idea.  Similar cards are in use in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, and London, and work very well.

Unfortunately, San Francisco, sitting at the heart of the US tech industry, did not simply deploy one of these solutions.  Instead, they hired someone new, who gradually developed a system with the capabilities of those already in place elsewhere. This process was slow and involved many intermediate steps that would have been uneccessary had the city merely looked abroad before starting.

The first problem with Translink/Clipper is that the machines used to load value onto a card are only available in the downtown stations.  This means that a user with no value on their card at a non-downtown station has to pay cash fare, ride downtown, and then load their card.

The second problem is that the value adding machines are incredibly slow.  This slowness is due to their use of a dial-up modem to communicate with the Clipper computer network and perform credit/debit card checks.  A dial-up modem in the year 2010 for brand new machines installed in the heart of America’s tech industry seems not only stupid, but absurd.  Each transaction takes upwards of four minutes, and may fail if the dial-up connection isn’t established the first time.

To circumvent (not solve) these two problems, Clipper provides a service called Auto Load, where by the user can input a credit/debit card on their site and associate it with a Clipper card and money will be automatically added to the card when its value drops below $10.  This means the user does not need to go downtown or use those slow machines, though it does not remove the 72 hour transaction processing time, which is due to the fact that all trains do not dock every day, so their onboard terminals may not be updated for 72 hours and they may incorrectly reflect the card’s balance until then.  This is a problem only solvable if each terminal was networked, rather than only the downtown stations, which presents, I imagine, a significant cost barrier.  Thus the 72 hour transaction time is unavoidable.

However, the Clipper site is not without flaws.  First of all, it does not send out receipt emails for purchases.  Instead it sends out a generic email stating that “You attempted some action with the Clipper website that will take 72 hours to process.”  This avoids claiming a successful process when none has yet taken place, but also doesn’t tell the user what the action was.  Also, when the 72 hours have elapsed, the user is not notified if their transaction was successful or not, and are not given any receipt of charges in either case.  This means that, without re-checking the site, the user has no way of knowing what Clipper has done.

Should the transaction fail and the card not be loaded with money, the user will not be able to board a train.  And here in lies the real failure of the Clipper system.  There is no solution to this problem.  The staff in the station can not do anything about Clipper cards.  The online phone support staff can not do anything without a 72 hour delay.  The only solution is to either use the slow value add machines if at a downtown station, thus forgoing the entire Auto Load feature, or purchase a physical ticket, proceed to a location with internet, log on to the site, check value, try again to add value, and wait for 72 hours.  If this fails or succeeds no email or notification will be sent.

In Clipper San Francisco finally has some semblance of a modern contact-less payment system.  However, because the city hired a third party to build one from scratch rather than purchasing one that had already been deployed, the system is slow, opaque to the user and completely unresponsive to support calls.  Because it has never been tested in a different city the residents of San Francisco are forced to deal with the growing pains of a company that does not consider the transit rider its priority, and whose computer systems are woefully behind the times.  Dial-up, 72 hour transaction processing, and no email confirmation of purchases are reminders of 1995 rather than parts of a modern contact-less payment system.

Hopefully Clipper will improve, because the city has invested in it without considering better options, and residents are now forced to live with that choice.

Going somewhere

This fascination with motion is the central thing.  Travel and transit, the celebration is not of destination but of journey.  Whether on foot or on scooter, on bicycle, airplane or maglev, the undeniable appeal of going somewhere bonded with the desire to leave this place creates a sense of excitement rarely rivaled.  The main holidays, worldwide, involve some huge amount of travel, as most of the world goes to see people they are too far from the instant they are able.

Not strange then that we romanticize the means of transit, is it?  From America’s car stories to the long trail rides of cowboys, there is a love affair among us not only with the motion but with the vehicle or steed.  The spaceship, the rocket, the car, the train.

“I dream of touring like Duke Ellington
in my own railroad car,”

says Ani, and I know what she means.  Even on crowded Chinese trains, crammed in between cars and forced into standing with a half dozen smokers and a set of doors I’m not allowed to open there’s a beauty to train travel.  It is hard to write with all the rocking, though it’s possible to type, and the bathrooms overflow onto the floor. Still, if there’s somewhere I have to go domestically I’m in the queue at the station, looking for a ticket on those rails.

In Japan, I slept through my stop on the Saikyo dozens of times, one night walking home from Kawagoe, the end of the line, at almost two am.  I slipped in the door at four, glad to beat the rain, and willing to do it again the next day.  I loved living on the Saikyo line, despite its deserved notoriety for chikan and the evening salary-man-drunk-crushes.  I was happiest, in some ways, sipping canned whisky and water on the platform at Akabane, waiting for the nine twenty eight train home after a long Tuesday at work.  Five years later when I think of Tokyo I think of the trains and the views they afforded me, twenty two and curious.

The fascination with my electric scooter endured through hundreds of repairs, cracked casings, broke brakes, and pieces of it falling away month by month, exposing the bare metal beneath.  Despite being stranded one night after a dodgeball game, a mile or two from home in a strange part of town, stuck waiting on a curb in the heat of August for a man I’d woken from sleep to put in a new converter, I loved that scooter.

People asked me often, what’s it like, don’t you hate the battery, how long does it take to charge?  The answer always disappointed them: a long time, first six hours, then eight, by the end too hard to find a power outlet for that long without taking the battery out, all seventy five pounds of it, and carrying it up to my apartment, or office.  I loved it despite these things. Despite losing both rear view mirrors, cracking the headlight, destroying the sides.  Despite its horrible unwieldyness in rain, spilling me out onto the street on the white stripes of zebra crossings again and again.  Against all those things stood my freedom, the sense of wonder and invincibility, youth and daring, flying through Shanghai’s streets, staring up at buildings and pedestrians, dodging taxis and bicyclists, early in the morning for breakfast or a few beers in on the way home.  I love it, I’d answer, I can’t imagine living here without it.  And I couldn’t, the days before it a strange mishmash of other forms, all those hours crushed on the busses, or running for them.  Through all of my life in Shanghai two wheeled vehicles remain a high point. The various bicycles, Sanch’s oft-broken gas-powered scooter, and the two plastic electric ones together, granted me an entirely different city to explore.

There are similar stories, this one is not unique.  Friends who named their first cars, friends who have named their fourth, who care for them and relate tales of their personalities.  Of ships, named for as long as we can remember, with captains who would die with them, or at least consider it.  While we may be, as a culture, a people of intractability and motion, of discontent and the continual attempt at perfection, we are also a culture of worship, of object desire and anthropomorphism.  At thirteen, fresh returned from a trip to Telluride I spent all of the money in my savings, some hundreds of dollars intended for college or another grand idea, on a snowboard, fetishized and loved, given a bag hand-made for it, and stored reverently each time.  Covered in stickers and soon in scrapes and dings, the first purchase of any weight was, as it is for many of us, a means of transportation, even if a frivoulous one.

As many before I have noted, it’s not the destination but the journey that remains, years later.  I agree, even on a shrunken scale, to late night rides and complete disasters, to asking policemen for directions and pushing cars towards gas stations.

Quoted lyrics from Ani DiFranco’s ‘Self Evident’ off of her 2002 live compilation, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, used with appreciation.