Remnants of previous inhabitants

As a child of the countryside I am often surprised by how many mistakes are made in cities. Not mistake of great magnitude but small mistakes of location and history. A year and a half after moving into this apartment we still receive mail intended for a photographer’s studio, a business once housed here long before. Before too the couple who preceded us, who lived in this apartment for three years. I track these mistakes, noting not their number but the variety. Amanda. Jamie, Brad. None of these names are of the couple before us, which is as far back as my knowledge stretches. For any of these to be correctly addressed would have been five years earlier. Some of these are automated mailings and probably date back to the first tech bubble, to the last century. How many of these people still live in this city, this state?

How mobile are we, and how fragile are the records of place we use daily to communicate? Fragile? Or strong in that they persist long after we’ve departed. I think of phantom contacts in my address book, names with but one piece of information, a yahoo.com email or a phone number from China. These pieces of information I know to be wrong, and yet have nothing current to replace them. I do not want to delete these once friends, once business contacts, and so they remain in my phone, reminders of past relationships I have no ability to rekindle. Like the physical mail, these connections are so easily disrupted, an account unchecked or a phone number abandoned upon moving home. Without a forwarding address, without a reporting mechanism, Yahoo will continue to accrue unread emails, and letters for people I do not know will pile at my door. Susan, specifically, will probably continue to receive birthday notices at this address long after she, and we, have moved on.

In April a hand-written Easter card to a new name arrives. I imagine someone’s grandmother addressing it in a small town on a floral vinyl table cloth. There is no return address. The small envelope is a pale yellow with a pink printed ribbon across the front. I ask each of the other three apartments about it in vain. The recipient hasn’t lived here for at least six years, which is as far back as our collective memories of this building stretch. Six years suddenly does not seem so long.

I wonder if we still get mail to our Sunset studio of a year and a half ago. Do personally addressed credit card offers still arrive at our Houston apartment? Long-lost postcards in Shanghai? Bank account statements in Tokyo? Imagining this invisible layer of the world, sadly incomplete and with reasons for ‘return to sender’ unknown, keeps me in a gloomy mood for almost weeks.

Until one morning on her rounds the postwoman takes the Easter card away.

Squirrel tricks

There are two important parts of a home.  Having one, and what’s outside of it.  The saddest part of leaving Tokyo was not the actual leaving, but abandoning that home.  Knowing that the next time I landed in Narita two hours of train would not bring me to my doorstep makes me want to move back even now, five long years gone.  The loss of a home means not being able to welcome people to a foreign country, to an environment they know nothing about.  Finding friends at the train station, mouths agape, and leading them through winding streets to a balcony all our own is a joy that leaves uneasily.

In Shanghai these past years we welcomed guests through from all parts of the globe, travelers and those seeking homes of their own.  Some for weeks, some for scant hours until their flight out or train inwards. Simply having a space, being able to offer shelter and retreat to those far from theirs, rewards each month’s rent.  Feeling comfortable in a foreign place, be it Manhattan or Los Angeles, because someone has a place we can return to, has value without equal.

Yet it is the second aspect that draws me forward, into new cities and out of old comforts.  Sitting now facing down Rice’s manicured lawns, watching the trees sway outstretched in the sun, I am glad again of that pull.  Ensconced again in a city I was not born to the greatest gift is in each morning’s presentation of the world outside: the squirrel highway that runs past my window.  Gifts like these drive my apartment hunting mind.  Interior quality is of course preferred, but the essentials lie in window light, in vantage point, in relative location.

Like with all things, luck is of the greatest assistance.  A friend whose landlord owns another place, a relative who owns a building, a teammate’s relocation, these coincidences cannot be paid for, nor planned.  Still, their results can be evaluated by these same desires; like all homes they compete primarily on what can I walk to, what can I see.  These questions applied to the Saitama apartment of years before give out answers that reinforce my desire to return: an express stop on the Saikyo line and Mt. Fuji.  Those two things, one walkable, one seen, coupled with the ability to grant others a base from which to visit Japan, outweighed all negatives of expense and space.  In Shanghai other calculations won, usually the desire for an easy walk to anywhere overcoming view.  Too often in cities location becomes the dominant demand, the singular benefit of housing.  Too rarely does the view reward.  The squirrel highway does, with its multiple levels and fast-paced travelers.

On the second floor in a residential neighborhood, an apartment-wide swath of windows gives me panoramic views.  They are, for the most part, of trees and houses with limited sky.  I am sure they have not, despite their excellent light, entertained previous residents so much.  The property line, just behind my apartment, is demarcated by a wooden fence, some four meters tall, topped with a flat rail.  Another meter above it and parallel runs the phone line, thick tubed and taunt.  Slightly above that runs the power and cable, a weave of thinner wire and rubber that only the truly harried consider.  The top of the fence sits just above the baseline of my windows, the highest wires just below their top.  When traffic is heavy, lane changes are frequent, with those following the phone cabling often dropping down to the fence before continuing.  This highway supports a robust traffic in acorns, smaller nuts, and random bits of fruit, as well as the occasional high-speed chase.

The squirrel’s gift of full-field vision minimizes accidents, allowing for a more rapid pace than is perhaps strictly recommended at such a height.  The acrobatics involved in switching lanes are of an utterly untrained nature, and vary from the simple jump-and-hope to the more delicate hang-and-reach.  The traffic does not show any particular commuter pattern, lacking the to work and home again flows of human highways nearby.  Instead travelers scamper back and forth at all hours, often left and then right again in such quick succession that little, if anything, can have been accomplished on the tree just out of view at the edge of my property.  Perhaps the individuals are merely attempting to touch all the surfaces in a certain order and at a certain pace.  This would explain the oft-observed bound up onto the fence, sprint along its top, leap for the tree, run up and out a branch, spring for the telephone pole and dash back along the cabling to some invisible destination.

While the easy walk to campus and the convenience of other human habitats is not to be overlooked, it is safe to say that my favorite feature of this new home is the constant goings-on that occur just behind it, elevated perfectly to fit inside my wide bank of windows.  I appreciate the fence builder in a wonderful way.  The power company’s decision seems incredibly coherent, in contrast to so many of the random spools of wire nailed to posts and house corners throughout my neighborhood.  They were building a highway for squirrels, keeping them off the ground in a high-traffic area.

The best moments of this view come at off-peak hours.  While I sat quietly one September afternoon, a squirrel paused on the fence’s top board.  In no hurry he settled down, belly flat upon the wide wood.  And then, just to check, he dangled his legs and arms off of the side, paws swinging slightly in the sunlight.  Eyes watchful he lay there for a minute or more, before hopping up and sprinting off.  After several weeks of squirrel observation I laughed, amused at his peculiar antics, and returned to my work.

A few moments later motion again drew my eye, this time to the telephone line.  He was back, wiser and higher.  A moment later, in the middle of the cable’s span, he flopped down on his belly, legs out and swaying.  He lasted three minutes before another squirrel’s appearance in the tree made him scamper away.  Embarrassed to be caught relaxing in the middle of a work day.  Like myself, in so many ways, always watching this squirrel highway.