Learning a place comes with the gift of discovery that fades with time. Finding for the first time, after months in-country, whole blocks of cheese in a supermarket beneath Xujiahui. That simple event – something Americans must first learn to be impressed by – changed our whole day. This discovery of cheese: gouda, cheddar, swiss, more, required bread, wine, and the park. Sitting in an apartment in Brooklyn now, years later, the sudden joy returns to me in other disguises.
I copy keys after asking around, discovering bicycle shops and long-time locksmiths in the same morning. Afterwards, squatting up against a wall Chinese style, with a bagel and coffee, I remember where this glow comes from. It comes from discovering anew things once taken for granted. On Yongjia Lu there is a man with a key machine. He fixes bicycles, patches tires, sells locks, repairs chains. If asked he drags the key copier out onto the street, and digs through the rack of locks hanging on the wall for an extension cord, battered and covered in grease. He turns the machine on and starts matching the grooves with a blank, by hand. Sometimes the keys do not work, when his eyes guess wrong and his fingers fail to spot the error. Usually they are fine, shiny and new, replacing those broken on beer bottle futility or packed up along with sleeping bags by friends on their way out of town.
In Park Slope the locksmith takes four minutes for a task for which I expect an hour and much of the neighborhood to stop in for something in the interim. I am surprised, having just settled in to a long article, and hunt for change, quarters and dimes feeling unfamiliar in my pockets. The surprise is of old things forgotten yet familiar in their sudden discovery. For the first time Brooklyn feels like Shanghai feels like Los Angeles, as I wander them all in search of things I once knew.
Sitting in a bar one evening a year before, fresh off a plane and bewildered by time lag, I scanned the beer list for something exotic, something I hadn’t had in ages, and good. Baseball was on the television, teams and a language I was familiar with, and the breeze blew in the open doorway. The bartender came back with two bottles, one for me and one for the man next to me, pushing them at us across the wood and moving on. The other customer might have been older, or not. He grabbed the Tsingtao and tipped it towards me, saying something about good beer and something about the Yankees. I clinked bottles, Sierra Nevada Pale, and drank, like him discovering something. Again.