Worth remembering

“Tokyo,” I answer. The question was where I’d like to turn 40. Of course Tokyo.

Our lives are brief windows into the world, and we manage only a smidgeon of the possible. Places learned when young remain outsized in memory, our early experiences more important, larger, than recent events. So, of course, Tokyo.

The first time I saw it, the week before my 18th birthday, Tokyo was already changing my life. That trip, a gift from a family friend, was my first real glimpse of the world outside the US, and enabled me to say yes to the post-college move back, at 22.

Turning 40 is an excuse to gather people to a city I love, to celebrate something both personal and utterly universal. Mostly, it’s a way to remember that boy turning 18 here, reading the Stand and operating with limited language. A week in Tokyo without goals, with no objectives or destinations, is an invitation to the deluge of memories from birthdays in two thousand two and three, turning 23 and 24. I remember, scant days before arriving, how I used to give presents to those who came to my birthdays, Bilbo Baggins style. And so I do, picking out small things that I love about Japan for each guest. It’s an excuse to wander Tokyu Hands, to consider who is coming, and to consider where we are.

I am lucky this time, and so many people have agreed to join us, from San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, New York, and Singapore. As these friends gather to our rented apartment I am shocked at the joy each arrival brings. Shocked not because I didn’t expect to be joyful but because I hadn’t understood in the planning stages how *much* joy sharing Tokyo with these people would bring. For this boy born in the rural hills of the US North East, Tokyo remains the perfect city. It combines incredible transportation with utter foreignness, huge crowded centers with quiet side streets. More than any place I know, Tokyo rewards wandering, with small shops, shrines, and beauty scattered across an urban tapestry of such scale as to be infinite. Tokyo, in many ways, is proof of what humans can build, as opposed to what we so often do.

On this trip we rent bicycles for the first time and reap the rewards of this most human scale of transportation, meandering from Hatsudai to Naka Meguro on small streets and through new neighborhoods. We bike to Shimo Kitazawa and back and are immediately lost. These kind of odd adventures are enjoyable only on bicycle, with the ability to cover large distances, stop easily, and never be too tired to manage one more side street.

As a way to welcome a new decade the week is perfect, filled with old friends and new memories. Seth takes us for whisky at the New York Bar that once housed Bill Murray, a foray inaccessible in our early twenties. A large group of us have drinks at the tiny 10cc, enjoying newfound comfort in a neighborhood that intimidated the younger version of myself. We stand on the rooftop of our apartment and watch Mt. Fuji as the sun sets. We take the Yurikamome line back over the rainbow bridge from Odaiba and Toyosu, artificial lands of the late boom now comfortably part of the present day. We eat in Ginza and Ikebukuro, in Harajuku and Hatsudai, together and separately. Some discover crem brûlée shaved ice and others revel in okonomiyaki, and no one goes hungry. Mostly we wander far and wide, on foot and by train, in the best fashion of unplanned vacation.

Watching my friends spend the week sharing their favorite parts of Tokyo and discovering new treasures is the best kind of present, one that makes my heart bigger. At the end of the week, on the Narita Express, I watch the skyline drift past and try to lock down all the memories, to remember each day, sure that I will forget the joy too quickly. Mostly though I think of the boy who once turned eighteen here, and who first took this train.

He would be so happy to know that at forty he will share Tokyo with his friends.

Hideaway

Honne's first HK show

We leave the show in the first wave, our seats having been towards the back. It’s Thursday evening, and the crowd is eager to head home. For the first few blocks we walk with other concert goers, and there is the joyful buzz of those who have just left a very loud, very shared experience. These are the same people who’d waited for an hour beforehand in a line that stretched to three sides of the block. Everyone is smiling.

The farther we walk, headed to the metro, the more dispersed that crowd and that shared event becomes. And then suddenly we are waiting for a light and the buzz is gone. We can feel it immediately, no longer being surrounded by the shared experience. 

“None of these people were at the show,” my partner says. She’s right, just from a glance around. The man in a suit beside us is clearly on his way home from work, or hopefully from post-work dinner. The couple next to him might have been at the show save for the giant Nike shopping bag which hints at a different evening. To my left there is an older man in flipflops, not the typical attire for a Honne concert. In the Hong Kong way of things we have left the sphere of the show but are not alone. For the next two blocks to the MTR we enjoy this feeling, of being part of the dense crowd of a Mongkok Thursday, anonymous and in motion.

The joy of density is so much in its acceptance. People can be anything in New York, Tokyo, Shanghai, or Hong Kong not because each family, each company accepts anything, but because collectively there is space for everything in the anonymity of the crowd. Because tens of thousands of people are out in Mongkok on a Thursday, the two thousand from our concert blend in and go their separate ways without much disturbance. The opening doors of MacPherson Stadium are not a flood into emptiness but a large splash into a running river, a momentary blip on a moving surface.

Later, typing this up on a rainy Sunday I am reminded of the game I played our first months here. At any time of day I would head to the window and count the people visible on the street below. Even at the odd hours of the jet lagged, two or four am, I could usually spot ten people from our 7th floor window. These observations brought me such joy, and reminded me that once again we lived in a city where everyone was alive and awake.

On Thursday after the show we continued home, trading one train for another until the crowds finally thinned as we walk from the station. Ours is a quiet one, and we encountered only thirty or forty people on our ten minute walk home. This slow separation from frenzied crowd to calm apartment was a good way to say goodbye to an event, our first concert in Hong Kong.

Open doors

Walking home alone in the evening, as the last of the sun falls on the Sutro tower behind me, I realize this is going to be a good memory. It’s a strange feeling, recognizing one’s future self in the present. Walking into an emotion so good it will linger is rare because it has to be. Emotions that remain strong enough to carry us years later aren’t the common ones.

Today, this evening, coffee from Four Barrel in hand, walking home in jeans and a t-shirt and listening to the neighborhood, was like that. All the street lights were just on, the sky was still bright in places but losing color, and the gate to our apartment building was shut but the door behind it open, letting out a pool of golden light onto the street to welcome me home.

Living in cities in the early years of the twenty first century is an exercise in deposition, of putting down layers of personal history on to places that are or will be famous. By that I mostly mean are or will be unaffordable. Probably it has always been like this. I know from my parent’s friends that this is what New York felt like to them in the late 70’s and early 80’s, when St. Marks was a neighborhood not a name, when apartments in Chelsea were places to live comfortably, rather than micro houses to be featured in Dwell.

Yet living in cities is in some sense always about being seen, always about being somewhere rather than nowhere, about being able to walk to neat spots rather than commute to them. And so, like in Shanghai, I am laying down memories in San Francisco that will serve me for years, long past my time here.

Biking home late last night down Howard was similarly beautiful. The weather is finally perfect San Francisco after a September heat wave. The neighborhood, fast gentrifying, was still mostly empty in the dark, and I could slip through lights without braking, without holding on to the handle bars. On a Sunday evening everyone was inside preparing for the work week. Coasting upright I could look around and remember how lucky we are to live so close to our friends, to live so close to the train, in the middle of everything.

I remember riding my electric scooter home through Shanghai’s fall thinking the same thing, thinking how lucky we were to be in the center of this giant city. We knew the whole time that Xuhui would become unaffordable in a generation, become like Manhattan, a place few live in their twenties. Being able to put down those memories before the French Concession became a global tourist hotspot, before Lamborghinis were crammed into hutong alleys, was glorious.

Cities are always like this, I think now. And so I am glad to have these memories of walking home tonight to a small house with purple lights in the windows, to a cat who waits for his dinner, and to a rooftop garden that needs tending.

Listening after dark

Lying in bed at night I can hear so much. With eyes open after the lights are out, book down, and mind clear, I have nothing to do but listen. I hear cars on the 101, which is elevated a few blocks northeast. I hear the occasional cyclist on Minna, below my windows. The distant roar of a jet passing overhead after leaving SFO to the south. Closer, someone pushes a shopping cart down Minna, stopping every few houses. Hunting recycling. Someone yells something a block or two away, up Mission. There is no response. A siren moves, fading, in a more distant part of the city, SoMa maybe. And more 101 traffic. The aural landscape tonight is mostly highway. Mostly cars.

The light from the neighbors’ bathroom goes on, shining in through my bathroom window, both rooms sharing the same light well at the center of the building. More cars. Their light goes off. The family in the house next door is talking, a low murmur through the windows. Which stops. One person comes out into the tiny courtyard between our buildings. The thin door bangs behind them.

After a while they go back in side, having stood silently while out. Smoking? No click of lighter or sound of match.

The neighbors bathroom light goes on again. And off. Much shorter.

The cars continue on the 101 as the clock hits eleven pm. The calming background noises of the city as Wednesday ticks toward Thursday.

Time for bed.

Lived in bars

“They have a good Texas jukebox,” she tells me, of the oldest bar in Houston.  “And a table shaped like the state.”  The recommendation is enticing.  Sports are on TV, and a few old-timers at the bar when we wander in from the rain and out again soon after.

“It’s the cheapest place in town, which is sad,” I’m told, not immediately sure where the sadness lies, in the bar’s mid-level prices or the fact that spots far dingier, bars with no building at all where the beer in coolers behind the counter and the seats under the stars or smog, have done it no better on cost.  Indoors in this cheapest of establishments a neon sign glows, bulbs along the edges blinking sporadically.  Cocktails, it says, the letters inside a giant curving arrow that points downwards and into a wall.  In the garden out back a five-foot cabbage patch kid is dwarfed by the Kool Aid Man, his body wider than I am tall.

“It’s the talk of the town, that’s for sure,” a friend admits, and asks what I think.  “It’s like the bars in LA I went to when I made money,” I offer.  She nods knowingly.  Well-designed, staffed by attractive people, a little industrial, big windows onto the street, not too much on the walls, no TVs.

“Let’s go somewhere we can watch the game,” we say, after driving to Austin in the afternoon.  At tall wooden tables we stand, the walls open to the air, pitchers half-full, watching a few games, depending on our angle, long into the evening.

I am fond of all of these places in some way, glad they exist and happy to discover them as I re-discover America.  In Asia the very words are a concept, the “American bar”.  In Shanghai they have Filipino waitresses, if one is lucky, and Chinese bartenders, and their food is mediocre and expensive.  In Tokyo they are chains, with laminated menus and soda fountains, competing with TGIF rather than local izakayas.

There are jewels everywhere, of course, and we grow fond of them in cycles, with certain groups.  In Omiya for a while there was a bar with exposed metal rafters and a cat who wandered them silently above our heads.  Eventually renovated it lost all character with the cat’s departure, and we followed the example.

Or the rocket ship, a concrete replica of a 1950’s Tom Swift craft, perched oddly atop an Omiya office building, home to a quiet space that held soft jazz and mid-90’s movie posters.  An excellent discovery, only ever occupied by the bartender and a friend of his, content to let us establish ourselves in a curve of the hull our last few months in the country.

“There’s a room inside the old vault,” a friend says of a bar that was once a bank.  I am there, one chilly evening a few days later, secure in many ways.  Amid the plush leather furniture it’s easy to forget the bar’s unfinished wood and sawdust feel, or the copious amounts of vomit in the only urinal.

“We’ve lived in bars and danced on tables,”

Her voice is low and deep, not a thing of ambition but a fact of everywhere, played out in our lives and recommendations to new friends.

Quoted lyrics from Cat Power’s ‘Lived in Bars’ off of 2006’s The Greatest