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

Biking home after work

Houston is a city built for the automobile.  Without zoning, urban centers are spawned and neglected, grow taller and are abandoned in ever-widening circles, and reclamation of the previously destitute takes far longer than in a city more constrained by geography, a New York, Boston, San Francisco.  In Houston there is no need, as long as the freeways run there is space, somewhere, out along their paths.  There is a certain snobbery, those ‘in the loop’ or out of it, but it is snobbery of the largely young towards the largely indifferent, and little comes of it.

Houston is a city of the oil industry, of NASA, and of doctors.  It is a city of the pickup truck and the SUV, where there seems to be no need to tell people to ‘buy American’ as they already have.  Chevy and GM’s woes would be invisible here save for the news, as their products outnumber their Japanese competitors in a fashion unfathomable to a boy from the north east.  This is a city where turn signals are optional, and cyclists given no quarter.

Yet there are cyclists, out among the cars, whispering by the dog walkers and joggers.  In some parts of town they are hip, the fixed-gear crowd, and passing them in whooshes on the way to Montrose’s cafes and restaurants, gear colorful and bags handmade, they could be in Greenpoint, on their way to Whisk & Ladle.  This is the part of Houston that east coast folk mention, along with the weather, when they note how they are pleasantly surprised with their lives in H-town.  These, though, are not Houston’s cyclists.

There are high schoolers with Haros and Mongooses, sitting on their pegs while spinning their handlebars idly at corners, chatting up girls in Catholic-school uniforms while pedaling backwards.  They would not be out of place in Los Angeles, though the girls would be dressed less formally, and the beach far closer.  Neither are these Houston’s cyclists, though they are of the city and, like the fixed-gear riders who push past them as they idle at stop lights, welcome in it.

Houston’s crowd slips through my neighborhood in the early evening hours, their jobs done, faces weathered, minds on their family or friends.  They work their way along the tree-lined blocks on bicycles well-used: old mountain bikes, a younger person’s BMX, a steel road bike.  They are in no hurry, postures relaxed and paths weaving.  I pass them smiling, always happy to see my neighborhood on two wheels.  They smile back, under their mustaches, knowing that we will pass each other again tomorrow.  They will be back far earlier than I will rise, though, at work at seven, cutting grass, trimming bushes, re-painting door frames and blowing leaves off expensive driveways.  They will sit behind my apartment and smoke at lunch, talking in Spanish of lives I grow more curious about each day.  This, then, is the Houston being built beneath and behind the SUV culture of those born to it.  It is a culture of those who cannot or do not own cars, and unlike New York, unlike Tokyo, they are not those who have chosen this method of transportation, but those who have been forced to two wheels.  With time, they too will purchase Ford F150’s, white and filled with lawn equipment, and pick up their friends, three to a cab carpooling to the rich neighborhoods of River Oaks, of West University.

Unlike the residents, with their helmets and lights, out for late night exercise, Houston’s other cyclists wheel through darkening neighborhoods as I do, almost impossible to see in the failing light, almost invisible socially.  Drifting through intersections ahead of BMWs and Mercedes they are a danger, and a surprise.  Yet they are also a portent of Houston’s future, as possible on two wheels as four, despite what this city was built for.

Unpacking and re

With each new home there come a hundred secrets: the ancient heater’s grate just wide enough for bathroom reading collections, the key to a gate never closed.  Like all those before it this apartment has a legacy of ghosts I do not know, people whose decisions painted these walls, put in this air conditioner, removed that socket.  Opening each closet and cupboard merely to discover their shape I can feel them a year from now, gradually giving up their contents to moving boxes.  There are so many versions of myself because there are so many houses to fill and empty.

In a box packed years before by a boy forced out of his home after graduation there lies a set of keys on a simple ring.  No label or familiar shape hints at their purpose, long abandoned and far off.  Vague recollections whisper of campus buildings and security doors, of late-night raids and back entrances.  That party thrown in a squash court, dj and tables smuggled in long after the staff had gone home, complete with disco ball and sock-footed dancers?  One of these keys, quite possibly.  Long evenings spent in offices of theaters now demolished or refurbished?  Perhaps some subset of these keys.  Missing are the electric cart keys, used one glorious night under the hot pursuit of campus security.  Those keys were singled out and passed down, so that the freedom and the danger they presented would remain available long after their original “discoverer” had gone.  This ring of nameless keys could be anything, their possibilities suggested only by memories of past abilities long lost.  Perhaps instead they open houses since vacated in cities up and down the eastern seaboard.  Or bicycle locks long made pointless by more dedicated thieves.  Uncertain as to which of these sets of keys he holds, the man tasked with sorting out this box of remnants consigns them to the trash, their history invisible and gone.

The act of settling in is really two separate reconciliations, that of the un-needed and the now necessary.  A swipe card for Shanghai’s metro system, carried for years behind the driver license, is removed and consigned to a folder of remnants.  In its place goes a shoppers card for a grocery store with an unfamiliar name.  Sifting through that folder, that box, I discover remnants kept safe for so long because of the same words.  “Maybe one day,” I say, pulling that Shanghai card from my wallet.  It settles beside my Suica from Tokyo, unused since 2003, and my gaijin card, kept as a memento rather than turned over to the authorities as I exited the country.  Sometimes I am smarter, and there is no card, my Octopus from Hong Kong passed on to a friend on his way there.  Bank cards, from Tokyo, Shanghai, Ithaca, airline cards from days of belief in frequent flier programs, bank books from countries where they mean everything, all these pieces of places have traveled with me to this new house, where they are unpacked into a dresser drawer and ignored for months.  In the summer I suspect I will pack them again, adding pieces acquired in Houston, in this apartment that shakes with the neighbors’ joy and fills with the breeze of oncoming storms.  There are badges, pins, free-drink punch cards and gift cards for coffee shops I used to bike to, or walk past, or work near.  These are replaced in my bag by the cardboard cup holders of Rice’s student Coffee house, cycled endlessly for $1 off my ninth drink.  When I leave I am sure there will be one half-punched, and one of the first decisions for the folder in our new home will be whether to keep it.

Houses hold each person’s secrets, comfortable with their inhabitants even for a short while.  The desk I write at, nailed to the wall at window height to provide a standing view, will be removed and the holes plastered over when we leave, the amount of time spent in this corner invisible to the next occupant.  Looking around, at our black chairs and wooden stools, I imagine a sofa, a television, the belongings of previous iterations.  Not particularly unique possessions to consider, yet odd uses there were, I am sure.  In this house I have secreted a pile of foreign currency, not for the financial stability but for the pleasure of discovering it when we depart, a roll of Philippine pesos, Thai baht and Korean won.  Did we pick the same hiding place for cash, those other tenants and I?  Hard to imagine, unless they too favored the spare towels closet.

Where do these choices come from, the places that feel right for each object?  Wanting them by the door I am forever moving the scissors from their home near the fridge.  When asked why I require cutting tools immediately accessible upon entry I have no answer, and they return, grudgingly, to the other drawer.  These curious habits that seem to have no ancestor may indeed be the apartment, or may be tied to some other similar kitchen I have lived in.  That idea appeals, that all these houses, which bear the marks of generations of use may likewise leave echoes on their tenants.  The secrets of each home accumulate in us, so that, moving constantly, we are shaped by the growing trail of places we no longer inhabit.

Transient in all ways

The air is what changes with seasons.  Hot and muggy in the summer, chill and dry in the winter, or hot and dry and cold and wet, the air is more than temperature, it is feel.  Sometimes these seasonal shifts bring unwelcome days spent indoors sheltering.  Sometimes they bring days with scant light, or with an abundance.  At an ultimate tournament in Copenhagen two years ago the sun set near eleven, and players lingered outside long into the evening, marveling at the gift.  In the winter the same climes are less inviting, and so, creatures of this mobile world, we depart for places less socked in with snow and ice.

It is February, the calendar tells me, though the February of my childhood memories bears no relation to these days of lively air, of sun and wind and a hint of rain, off in the distance.  It is not dry, nor hot, neither chilly nor muggy.  For these weeks Houston glows, and we take any excuse for long walks, evening strolls, and afternoons spent lazing with the windows open.  Houston may be horrible in the summer as locals claim, muggy and hot with air still and sitting on the city.  Shanghai is, five almost unbearable summers proved that, and all those with the ability flee to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Europe, North America.

An hour of flying has the carbon footprint of driving for a year, I hear.  Car-less, then, I am still no more removed from our planet’s doom than anyone else.  Let’s move to somewhere we can walk, I say, let’s move somewhere we don’t have to sit in traffic.  Let’s fly somewhere, for vacation, I say.  Let’s fly somewhere to see the world, and the hypocrisy, if true, is staggering.  Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking a year ago, I marveled at their use of air travel.  Her story of loss, brilliant in it’s clarity, was for me as much a commentary on air travel, and our shifting abilities.  She speaks of hopping up and down the California coast for dinner, on the PSA, an airline that no longer exists.  Fascinated, I look them up, finding hijackings and crashes, joy and marketing all gradually subsumed into now-bankrupt nationwide carriers.  Her stories, and their $13.50 aisle seats, belong to a different era, where airlines flew when they wanted to, or when they were full, like Chinese mini-busses do now, circling the train stations in search of passengers.

Playing ultimate yesterday with the wind blowing and sun shining, a woman told me of playing on similar days in Northern Europe.  She mentioned living in Korea, and  I told her of the tournament held yearly in Jeju, on practice fields built for the 2002 World Cup, and how the wind there blows off the ocean that lies just over the cliffs.  All our travels are comparable through wind, and all were brought back to us standing amid yesterday’s gusts.

Coming home today, I stand outside and watch this day unfold.  It is weather to bottle, says a friend, to save forever.  We cannot, of course, the only store for days like this is in our memories, which is why we tell stories, and share travel histories.  And I wonder, watching the clouds blow by in huge gusts that reach the ground so gently, whether this too is an era, and we, like Didion, will write stories of it that will astonish in thirty years, sending readers to Wikipedia and to pages kept by those who remember.  Will two hundred dollar flights to an island south of Korea for a weekend of ultimate have the same allure of the PSA, of the common since become impossible?  I consider the carbon footprint, my dislike for the automobile, and that claimed equivalent, and suspect they will.

Not quite yet, though.  A friend is coming, from New York’s ice and snow, to see these magical February Houston days, hopping down for a weekend.  He won’t be riding the smile, and it won’t cost him $13.50, but, if the weather holds and the flight is safe, the belief that our lives are special, and temporary, will be hard to shake.

Future positions

Part of the joy of travel, of moving, is learning a new common.  Moving to Shanghai and finding that bicycle traffic exceeds car.  Living there long enough to watch car start to gain, and the massive parking problem that change creates.  Moving to Houston and finding cars a minority, compared to SUVs, and the unique kind of common created by such large vehicles.  Watching young siblings of a friend play upon their parked vehicle, it affording an easier climb and better view than the purpose-built play structure in the yard.  Learning to navigate each one, until it is time to move on again, and the new place likewise surprises, lacking trains, or cars, or electric bicycles.  Realizing that what is comfortable now is not the original, but an amalgamation of each previous situation.

So often future predictions, or visions of such, are simply the application of what is already common in one place to another, with the twist of local restrictions or desires.  Cellphones are going to incorporate electronic payment systems, claims one, having been to Japan.  Transit cards will become electronic, removing the need to swipe a MetroCard in New York through the magnetic reader, claims another, having seen Hong Kong, or London, or Shanghai, or Tokyo, or…  Everyone will have a car, says the proud new Buick owner in Shanghai, knowing America.  Discerning between the potential and the possible, the future coming and the present not yet arrived, becomes an art of guessing what people want, what local infrastructure will support.

In every projection too there is the bias of personal desire.  Thus comes the vision of a wind-powered future from those with large investments in windmills.  Likewise those building massive databases of human activity suddenly see a future where every item of identification communicates location.  Passport, cell phone, car keys, payment cards, check.  There are those who seek support for admirable visions of electronic automobiles spread wide over the landscape, asking for them to be built by those who for the past seventy years have opposed such infrastructure.  But these are not the only futures built around the personal desires of those who espouse them.  There are the dreams of authors, in whose projections worlds overcrowded, over-governed, and over-built compete with those of space-faring societies that have escaped the resource limits of a single planet, of artificial intelligences that remove burdens of daily labor, and of a variety of governments that cater to a mobile population. These are all visions of a future coming, of a world we do not inhabit but should, or will, or might soon.

The beauty of these views is not that any one is perfect, or correct, or that any of them are.  The joy of learning what is common in a new place is finding fresh tools for a personal projection of what the future will hold, of where the world could be.  Because much of the future is made up of people, and the people are made up of what they imagine and desire, what they learn and acquire.  This message is paraded around by consumer advocacy groups, by giant corporations, by friends and neighbors in a variety of forms, and is true in all of them, if slightly minimized.  For the future is not a small thing, one life is not a small thing.  On moving to Japan, seven years ago, and being shown to an apartment smaller than any of the dorm rooms I had occupied the four years prior, being forced to revisit my needs and possessions, I found roommates, colleagues, friends in similar situations.

“I like the way it’s done here,” they kept saying.  About refrigerators small enough to tuck into corners that then required more frequent re-filling, from similarly smaller shops within walking distance.  About beds that were rolled up and put away in closets in the mornings to provide space for a desk and a sense of cleanliness.  About balconies on every house, for drying clothing and watching Mt. Fuji in the evening.  All these people, each moved to a new location, each discovering that what was common in Tokyo, in Saitama, was something they could live with, appreciated, and would incorporate, if able, into their own future.

There are stories like this from everywhere I have ever lived, and they blur together into nothing more than personal history, exploration and discovery.  They provide the tapestry though, the background of things I know to be common, somewhere, and can easily apply to my vision of a future.

And so, on a sunny November day in Houston I ride my tiny bicycle down tree-lined streets, arms covered in a hoodie purchased in Shanghai for its utility against very similar weather on my way to an apartment fueled only by electricity, generated mainly from wind and solar sources.   I carry a bag hand-made in Philadelphia, which holds a computer made in Taiwan and China.  And while such a listing can be displayed as a consumer badge, and is, it is also a vision of the future, of my plan for it.  The world changes every day, and the older we get the faster it seems to go, a function of both personal aging and of the era we were born to.  There are crisis and inventions, as there have always been, and our future is probably none of the grand predictions, none of the brilliant novels or simple transpositions.  The future will probably be as fragmented as today, with massive cars and extreme poverty, with starvation and luxury ocean liners.  Our choice is what common we are aiming for, what personal collection of necessary and desirable we hold dear enough to work for.

So here I am, age twenty nine, transporting myself by bicycle and airplane, communicating with laptop, cell phone and postal service, learning to appreciate and cook food common to my new location.  Uncertain whether any of these is perfect; imagining a future finely balanced out of all the visions I have seen.