Seeing the future

We are rarely entirely new beings. Instead we are an echo of our parents and the examples set before us. We grow and change and age in patterns that seem unique individually but are quite in line with our species globally. We are children and then adults of a particular history, of a place and time.

I am reminded of this in the breakfast buffet of the Pullman hotel one morning in Shanghai in two thousand fifteen. A man walks past me in shorts and a black T-shirt, carrying a notebook and pen. He has a shaved head, and is perhaps forty five. I am thirty five, here for work, and still too concerned about appearances to wear T-shirts. The man wanders away though the buffet and I can barely avoid staring.

It’s rare to see one’s future self walk by so close.

He looks like I look. More, he looks like I will look, if I am still attending buffet breakfasts in Chinese hotels in ten years. The feeling of witnessing someone in the same place, with the same styles, mannerisms, and accouterment, is disconcerting. The first moments are of shock, an odd tickle on the back of the neck. After that comes a humbleness, the awareness of one’s lack of individuality. And finally, when I am standing in the elevator returning to my room, a desire to make contact, to have said something witty by way of introduction. A wish to have met myself, however strangely.

***

Three years later, at a breakfast in Dongguan, in black T-shirt with notebook, I have grown more comfortable. I no longer worry about the supplier I am going to meet in an hour. I have been swimming early in the morning, and will write a letter to a distant friend over coffee. I am more collected, more comfortable, and slightly older. My head is recently shaved, by a young man in a Shenzhen barber shop. If I encountered that future self again the recognition, I believe, would be mutual, and not just for the clothing, bald head, and habit of writing at breakfast, which I’ve possessed for years.

There is a certain comfort at being in China, at being at home on the road, that I’ve improved on these past three years. After so many trips full of urgent mornings rushing through breakfast to make the pick up schedule, after so many years of worry and email before bed, I feel more able to schedule rigorously and still breathe. It’s a skill I’ve always had but not always believed in, which led to unnecessary stress.

Since my injury in 2014 I am focused enough to rise early, to swim or exercise, and to eat little breakfast. I am able to relax enough to write at the breakfast table afterwards, and pack quickly for the scheduled departure. I am able to eat less at lunch and dinner, to work out in the evenings if that is the only option, and to make time for video calls with family.

I am older, and still on the road. Not yet forty five, but no longer thirty five. And on mornings like this one I wonder about that man in the Pullman in Shanghai. Is he still on the road as well, still meeting business partners and enjoying spartan hotel mornings?

Perhaps one day I’ll know.

Visiting weekends

On Sundays in Hong Kong the overhead walkways are covered space. At eight thirty most are taken, demarcated with twine or blankets by the early risers. These women make phone calls or read, occupying space for friends. By noon all spots will be taken and the chatter of friendship will fill these temporary cement salons. This occupation of public space is part of Hong Kong, repeated and and relatable in a way comforting to this San Francisco visitor. In my neighborhood it is streets and sidewalks that are occupied on Sundays, rather than overhead walkways, and the small sales, drinking, and disruption are rather more confrontational in nature than the collection of weekday workers FaceTiming their families. The juxtaposition is strange, and comforting. Like myself, the migrant workers of Hong Kong have only Sunday off, the sole moment of solitary peace in a foreign country. Unlike them, I spend the single day in a solitary fashion, drinking coffee, climbing, and writing in my hotel room. I am lucky to be here in the employ of a US company, to have access to discretionary funds, to have energy to explore. I do not need to carve out a section of stairwell to have private space, nor bring cardboard to pad the ground. And yet I too will FaceTime my family, I too will chat with friends similarly distant, and I too will go back to work in the evening, ready for another week of long days in a country not my own.

In some small way then I appreciate these women’s situation, their choice, however constrained, to live in this country and work hard for money they can share with a family they see only on screen. Watching them set up their places early this morning I appreciate their perseverance, their laughter, and their community. And I appreciate the culture that has employed them so willingly but also that allows them this one day a week of occupancy. The freedom to take over public spaces, in fact to appear in public spaces at all, is not taken for granted, and is not common. The fact that Hong Kong’s walkways are covered on Sundays with evidence of the city’s dependence on migrants is a reminder that public space can be shared and maintained for everyone, regardless of origin.

Closing time

“Studio closing, equipment for sale inside” says the sign, handwritten on an piece of A4 paper.

It’s a quiet end to a dream.

For more than ten years my friend has run a recording studio here, at 7th and Howard. He worked hard to make this dream a reality, by finding space, by saving money, by living in odd spaces to afford the building’s rent, by scrounging gear, by making trades and finally by meeting bands, by inviting musicians into his achievement, and helping make their dreams in exchange. He has worked odd gigs on the sides to cover expenses, and invested so much of himself in building what he hoped would continue.

Helping sort some boxes, pull down some lights, and throw out some small portion of the past ten year’s accumulation, I am glad to be here. Sad, too, of course, at the small failures. Sadder still at our approaching middle age that makes the failures real, makes us have to decide finally if this business is a life, or just a section of one. We are no longer twenty five, hoping to achieve things one day. Instead we have to look at forty and determine if where we are is where we want to be in another ten years. And if not, we have to figure out how to leave.

In a SOMA evening, the kind of breazy warmth rare to San Francisco, we carry trash cans out into the night. Bottles and cans, from clean-up crews of the week prior, are set aside for the scavengers who wait patiently at the other end of the block for us to close the door and give them space.

Inside, climbing a rickety aluminum ladder with a caution my younger self would not have shown, I remember so many other evenings like this, building or taking down, in so many strange spaces across the North East. Theaters, mostly, but also churches, bars, warehouses, and the occasional alley. In a sense, this is just one more show whose run is finished, one more set to be deconstructed in so much less time than it took to build.

Leaving later, down Howard on our bicycles in the night, I feel the post-show low too. I wonder where I’ll see my friend again, now that we’ll no longer bump into each other walking down the streets of the Mission or SOMA at odd hours. I wonder where we’ll get to build again.

And that question lets me smile, makes me happy. Because on our last parting, in Boston in two thousand one, I couldn’t forsee meeting at a friend’s house in San Francisco eight years later, to play Magic and Mario Kart again, as though nothing had changed.

Many things have, of course, and more will for both of us. Adventures are to be cherished, though. The freedom to say goodbye is hard to come by.

At the end though we don’t use that word.

“See you somewhere,” we say instead, after a hug. “Maybe Berlin.”

Trading neighbors

For years we live next to an empty building. It is not abandoned. The owners locked and secured it after having work crews strip out all interior fixtures and structure. As the sun sets over the Sutro we can see through it, just for a moment. The light comes cleanly through a space without doors or walls.

In San Francisco this kind of building is a lure, a place of few intrusions and no residents or office workers to complain. The same tents fill the sidewalk around this building for months at a time. A woman lives on a cooler in its shadow for over a year. Occasionally there are fights in front of it, or yelling matches. Low level harassment on walking by is a daily part of life. The children next door, who play on the street in the evening, do not go around the corner towards that building without larger family.

The cops sweep the street once a month, pushing everyone a few blocks over, a few blocks down. These rotations are no solutions, but they do provide quiet for a week until people begin to drift back to this building that is so clearly ignored. More frequently on our block the DPW crews come, reliable and without complaint, to pick up and sweep away the furniture, bags, clothing, and destroyed bicycle parts that are left along the fence that protects the empty building’s parking lot. These piles of random city trash are a regular scene, but their appearance is sudden. I come home one evening to three chairs and half a tent. They disappear overnight, replaced by two unmatching shoes and half a shirt. These too vanish, and the street is clean for a while. Several days later a cooler, a bag of poop, and half of a VCR arrive. The cycle continues. Sometimes outside I can hear people arguing about one or the other of the items. Eventually, always, only the bag of poop remains.

Suddenly one day in the fall of twenty sixteen the work crews arrive. They drive the large trucks of American dreams and chat outside my window before heading in to the building for work at seven thirty. They are reliable, working six days a week. They wake me up in the morning and are gone before I am home from the office. Other than the jackhammer days and the cement truck days, they are the kind of loud we can accept.

After about a month I notice the secondary benefits of these large men in hard hats and reflective vests.

I hear the window smash while drinking coffee one morning. It’s a common sound that does not grow familiar. The surprising part is what follows: yelling.

“Hey, get out of there.”
“Get the fuck out of that car.”
“Yeah you come back here.”
“Hey call the cops.”

The last is followed by the sound of booted footsteps running.

I go outside. The workmen have chased off the would-be thief and retrieved the target, a duffel bag. The car, they tell me, did not belong to any of these workers. Of course not. It is a small Toyota. Patiently the workmen wait for the police and file a report. The cops are as surprised as I was at the situation.

Break-ins grow less common on this block, as do tents. The later has as much to do with the jackhammering as anything.

This is not a story of gentrification. It is instead a story born of being woken at seven on Saturday by the cement truck’s unceasing turn and being unable to sleep again.

These shifts are not a permanent change, of course. Eventually the residents of this block will change again, to what I can not say. For now though I appreciate this rotation.

Or try to, given the noise and the hour.

Just one

Life is full of phases. Easy segmentation comes in the form of school graduations and new jobs. These moments force us out of our houses and friend circles and introduce us to entirely new groups of people. Colleagues become friends, and fellow students drift away into Facebook birthday reminders. Some times they, or we, resurface a decade later, in a different town. Usually not. And when the new job ends we leave behind most of our colleagues, save for one or two we still see outside of any office, in circumstances far divorced from the workplace that first introduced us.

Life is fully of these changes, more for some people than for others. Depending on how often we move, how many jobs we have, and how many schools we attend the number of groups we’re part of varies. The kind of interactions, though, are stable. Out of each group there will be people we connect with, people we want to hold on to when the binding circumstance drifts away.

Living in upstate New York, at Vassar, and then in Tokyo and Shanghai, my groups are varied, distant, and rarely overlap. I’m lucky to have even one friend that shares multiple locations, let alone three. Most of my friends come from one of the many jobs, one of the many frisbee teams, one of the handful of cities. People I met while working at a delivery company in Shanghai, or a teaching job in Tokyo. Like most, I have friends from middle school, high school, or college. And now, on the west coast, I know people from a couple of jobs well enough to invite them over. At least one from each.

For those of us that move frequently, that have homes in different countries, friends in different cities, that’s a good place to start: one from each. Writing letters to Seth in Singapore last week I realized how special it is, to have him remember my apartment in Tokyo, to have him know my first apartment in Shanghai, and the grass of Vassar’s quad. There are several people who I can share each set of memories with, but only one who knows all three.

Standing last night in a yard in the Oakland hills with a friend from a job in the US, meeting his wife, brother, and father for the first time, I realized he’s one of a few, of very few, that I will stay connected with from those three years driving to Petaluma every day. There are others, scattered all over the globe, people I remember and will connect with when able. But few of them will invite me over, few will I meet up with in Shanghai late on a Saturday evening when all our work is done.

One is enough, sometimes. Given how much I like change, adding someone at each stop is a good pace. Sometimes I am lucky, and a frisbee team gives me a plethora. But it’s good to find someone from each part of life, to help with my memories, and to prove that we built something over all those days together.