A long time ago I snuck out of bed late at night, awoken by a man hammering on his toilet. Climbing the stairs, my bare feet soon covered with concrete dust, I found him excavating in the new hours of the morning. Hidden in shadows and unmoving, he did not see me. After he returned inside, toilet firmly shoved against the wall, I crept back down and returned to bed. The image of that old man’s back strained in a curve beneath the thin undershirt he wore as he tugged the toilet from his apartment in the dead of night has never left me.
Living in cities we are close to each other. In Tokyo men pushed us on to trains and we riders willingly subjected ourselves to a closeness no American city, no Chinese railway, really knows. The last Saikyo line out of Shinjuku on a Saturday night remains the closest I have ever been to several hundred other people. Mosh pits of my earlier years share so little with the orderly sacrifice of intoxicated and exhausted city dwellers desperate for a lift to the suburbs.
Bouncing home on the 38 down Geary last week the bus smelled mostly of pee. Sometimes we are too close to one another. Leaving the theater two men are arguing over a woman who is wisely nowhere in sight. They attempt physical harm but are well past the point in the evening of injuring anyone save themselves. They may be well past the point in their lives.
We live densely, the ratio of person to thing higher than it perhaps ought to be. This is the miracle of cities, what makes them such fountains of energy when the weather is good. There are so many people in Shanghai that if everyone set off fireworks on one day the city would be ablaze with light, louder than TV war zones and more covered with smoke. On Chinese New Year we did, and the burning banging popping craze overwhelmed the landscape for three days. Standing in the middle of the street watching red paper flutter down in smoke so dense it obscured the skyscrapers surrounding me I reveled in it. This, I thought, is why we are here, living so close together, enduring each other’s company. So that when the time comes to celebrate, we are never alone.
In the Richmond our apartment faces the street. After years of quiet in Colorado and the Sunset we are surprised to again be part of the city. The police sirens doppler past us, waves washing over our music. At two drunks wandering home from the bar curse loudly outside our windows at people we do not know. At mid day the robotic announcements of the outbound 38 bus trickle in, a reminder of the paths outside these walls. A boy skateboards past, his hard wheels sending each break of pavement up to our ears, a morse code of our new block’s sidewalks. Hearing his success I wear my Heelys to the new coffee shop.
We are, then, back. Members of a tribe found packed together in boxes of wood and concrete, able to share each other’s lives, for better or worse, each morning and much of each night.