On location

The canal and a boat at anchor

His stand, on the corner of Livingston and Embarcadero, is high traffic only in the loosest of terms. No sidewalks reach his chosen corner. There is shade, barely, from a single tree. The corner is mostly abandoned, an old section of railroad cutting across the block has kept it from any development.

The neighborhood has kept it from any development.

Across the street, towards the bay, there is a small park, a couple of piers that seem mostly abandoned. On nice days, which is most every day in Oakland California, I take my hot dog over to one of the benches and sit watching the water, watching Alameda across the water. It’s a slow area. Usually I finish before anyone else comes by, on foot or on bicycle. Occasionally a boat passes, but not frequently. Sometimes a homeless person has a tent set up, often over towards the bridge underpass. Once, over a course of weeks, someone built a home-made boat. Every day it was different, secured to a rock by an old blue rope. One day it was gone, the owner hopefully adrift down the channel and into the bay. Away on an adventure, I imagine.

He opens the stand every morning around ten, this white haired and mustached’ man. How old is he? Fifty? Sixty? Well dressed, usually in a sweater and newsboy hat. He carefully sets up a small table and set of chairs in the shade, and ties down the tent that will give him shade. Pulling the coolers out in front he smiles at passers by, potential customers in an hour or two. At lunch time the stand is busy, sometimes five or more people in line. Construction workers in trucks order several, for the crew, driving back to a job out of sight. On hot days the table and shade are appreciated, and men cluster behind the stand, beneath the single tree, eating and avoiding too much interaction.

Like the street vendors in New York this is a migrant’s tale, if a long one. Based on Yelp and personal history, he’s been running this stand for fifteen years. I wonder how it began. Listening to him, I remember learning words for foods in Shanghai and think of him learning the English words for each condiment, each combination of meat and vegetables. I remember working in the service industry in China, happy to make money, happy to pay rent. I wonder what he thinks of this corner, of Livingston and Embarcadero. What he thinks of Oakland, and of hot dogs.

One day I’ll work up the courage to ask him.

 

Rattling bottles

On the street outside the recycle bin lid thumps open against the side of the building. It is eight pm and just beginning to get dark. Someone begins digging through the bin, pulling out cans and bottles with clangs and dings, the mechanical sounds of a practiced activity. After a while someone else joins, or tries to, and there is a brief debate, some muttering, and then casual conversation, a little too low to hear. Three floors up I sit with windows open to cool the house. Homeless and searching for income the unseen pair below have agreed not to fight over my scraps. This is life in San Francisco in the twenty first century, living in the Mission. While I was at work today someone peed on my garage door, leaving me to walk my bike around the puddle. Between my house and the Bart station one block away several people have slept and defecated in the last few days, and the street is alternately cleaned and crudely dirty.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco in twenty fifteen.

Tending our strawberry plants on the rooftop I watch the sun set over the hill while the fog rolls in, wrapping around the base of the Sutro Tower. Many days in the summer the entire tower will be engulfed by six pm, leaving the height of the hill itself a mystery, the fog pouring over and down into the Castro, into Duboce Triangle and lower Haight. The cat and I enjoy this varied weather. He sits in the doorway to the stairwell, feeling the breeze, feeling his fur ruffle after the long day alone in the hot apartment. He relishes these breezy evenings, as do I. One block away, on the rooftop of an expensive apartment complex, someone else watches the sunset too, in shorts and a hoodie. We are too far apart to even acknowledge each other. There is a similar building closer, with swimming pool on the roof, to whose inhabitants I could speak with raised voice. That nearer roof is empty though, the residents so new, the building so recently renovated that they do not venture out of doors on week days. Yet residents of all three buildings enjoy these evening views of the Bay Bridge and downtown SF to the east, Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower to the west.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco, where studios go for $3,800 a month and where 4,000 people sleep on the streets.

In many ways San Francisco is the future, with apps that summon cars and dinners and movies and so many things, with electric scooters for rent and wifi in bars. San Francisco is the future in other ways too, with no rain, with no housing, with an incredible income gap, and with a liberal urban population that did not grow up in these hilly neighborhoods.

This morning the escalator to the 16th St Bart station was out of order again. I was not surprised, there had been several pounds of trash pushing up against the bottom of it when I walked out of the station the day prior, and often that trash gets sucked in to the bottom, jamming and breaking the escalator. This trash comes from the dozens of people who spend all day in the plaza at the metro exit, homeless and searching for help. The escalator is repaired weekly, the people left to wander the streets. Later in the evening they will search for cans in the bins outside my apartment. They share, argue, and curse out the fancy cars that have started encroaching on their sleeping spots, the rooftop terraces that host parties they can barely see from the ground.

This is life in San Francisco today, forefront of the future in all regards.

Just around the corner

On a Sunday in October we are in search of a bike shop. Between the two of us we have a bald tire and aging brakes. In 2014 we’ve increased our miles ridden, part of the transition to a single car and a Mission apartment. In exchange, bicycles that have neither needed nor recieved maintenance in years are due and deserving. Over lunch we search out a place, now an act of skimming crowd-sourced recommendations that becomes more familiar with every move. We rely on those we have never met so regularly, bus drivers and engineers, architects and grid operators, that asking for recommendations anonymously is an easy habit. It’s an exchange made more personal by profiles and star ratings for restaurants and shops, if not more important. And with each recommendation tested we become more comfortable in this, our third San Francisco neighborhood. It is a comfort built on learning, slowly, where to go for what. For bicycles this is our first try. Our last cycle shop was in the Sunset, and evolved during our time in the neighborhood, Roaring Mouse transforming into Everybody Bikes as the former moved to the Marina.

In the Richmond we did not have a local favorite, preferring the 38 and a walk to a chill ride home through Golden Gate Park most nights.

In Shanghai we had many mechanics, all over the city, wherever they were needed.

On Nanyang Lu behind Plaza 66 one evening, having gotten a flat on a broken bottle. Somewhere in the old town one night after a volleyball game when the starter on my electric scooter failed. Mostly, though, on Yongjia Lu at Yueyang Lu, a block from our last apartment. A tiny shop, really the front of a house, filled with equipment packed densly in each evening and pulled out on to the sidewalk during business hours. The man who ran it also made keys.

On these earlier searches we mostly did not have Yelp, did not rely on unknown people, save for the mechanics themselves, or other cyclists met on the street. Instead we used the bicycles themselves to explore and discover.

Like all such searches, in the Mission we are seeking both convenience and quality, focusing on a small area and hoping that our neighborhood can support the service. It can, and we find sevaral options, settling on one that is both open and near our favorite coffee shop.

Years ago I wrote about neighborhood boundaries, and familiarity. Building that knowledge again in the Mission I think of how transportation defines it, how bicycles expand it and reward casual exploration due to the low cost of going one more block, or an unfamiliar route. Without too much concern for one way streets, traffic, or parking, bicycles are better than cars in this regard. They are better than walking as well, for the limited energy expended to cover six blocks in all permutations. Or our bicycles will be, once they have brakes and tires.

We own four bicycles, though only two are available on this Sunday. The oldest, my Haro, purchased in Venice in 2006, is still in Los Angeles at a friend’s house. Having come with us from LA to Houston in 2008, to San Francisco in 2009, it returned to LA in 2011, less than perfectly suited to the wiggle and San Francisco’s hills.

The second, one of two old Peugeot frames, was damaged by a car on 19th Ave in 2010 and, though having been repaired several times, now needs a new front tire, perhaps wheel, and sits without either in our garage.

Two working bicycles then, just enough for exploration, for a quick trip to the gym and some meandiering to a new lunch spot. Just enough to take us to the edges of our neighborhood and to expand those edges. Part of learning each new portion of San Francisco or of our earlier cities is figuring out where the boundaries are, where neighborhoods end and to what distance errands can be run. In the Mission, one of San Francisco’s few flat neighborhoods, our reach is wider than it was in either the Sunset or the Richmond.

Here then, finally healthy and home long enough rebuild the center of a life that has been moved and shaken this year, we seek a bike shop, a place to repair and replace. We find our answer three blocks away, Box Dog Bikes. Checking out the bikes for sale while my brakes are replaced, I think of Roaring Mouse, and of my old resource in Shanghai, the man who opened his front doors every morning, and made keys as well as repaired bicycles. We change cities and neighborhoods, and yet seek the same assistance.

No surprise then that in each the shops are not far, around the corner and waiting to be found.

They know your name

After cleaning our old place we sit with our backs against the wall of our local bar, tacos on order and Tecates in hand. It won’t be our last trip here, the Taco Shop will remain just across the park, but it won’t be our closest option late at night, after ultimate or hard days. We won’t wander down at 5 on Fridays any more for happy hour, or watch games from the back tables on Saturday afternoons. The bar staff, who know our faces if not our names, are unaware of the reason for our strange faces. They smile when we sit down and treat us well, locals who live around the corner and come in often, never when the place is packed. This is what happens when we move. As a basketball game unwinds on the TV behind the bar I remember the early times, saying goodbye to places I once knew. Places I once was known.

For that boy the differences at first felt so small. Of course no one knew his name, in those new towns. At the laundromat he watched people for hours, sitting cross legged on top of a washing machine. In nineteen ninety eight Portsmouth didn’t feel that different from Ithaca. He would get a bagel in the morning, fresh off the boat in, and walk to the laundromat. His one day ashore would be spent reading, thinking, cleaning, and talking to almost no one.

Four years later and on a day off again he would walk out of the Ebisu train station in the rain. He stopped for coffee in a shop with an English menu. Ebisu is a quiet part of Tokyo, and after coffee he would head down small streets towards the used foreign book store. Mostly English, he perused for hours until it was time to take the train home to the suburbs of Saitama. He did buy books, but that was not why he loved this store. He loved it because the staff streamed British radio, Channel 4. Standing in the tiny aisles of this shop in Tokyo he listened to traffic reports of a place he had never been. Hearing of traffic conditions and the evening weather in England he no longer felt alone in the world. The foreign feeling that so surrounded him on those week day afternoons when all of Tokyo was at work and he, with no language, was free, faded for a bit. There are so many parts of the globe, said the radio, where we are out of place, where things feel like home but are strange.

In between these two moments he lived in Maryland and Boston, Pougkeepsie and New York. He would live in Tokyo without language for another year and then Shanghai with only fragments. In each of these places he was familiar few times. In each city he started over, found a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bagel place, a bar to frequent. And in each city, with time, the staff of some establishments remembered his face, his drink. They noted his odd habit of taking a corner table and pulling out a notebook, of reading the Economist over twelve kuai worth of dumplings and twelve kuai worth of beer. They saw him sleeping over his coffee late in the afternoon instead of eating lunch at noon with the crowd. Even less frequently they knew his name, and he theirs. Knew that he would, when asked, tell stories and bring friends, recommend dishes or specific seats.

In these quiet exchanges he built something and left it behind again with each move.

And after each new beginning he woke early on a Saturday and went looking for a coffee shop in which to write.

In the Richmond in twenty twelve I begin with Japonica, on California and 17th. Just to see, just to try. Maybe in a few weeks the owner and I will know each other by sight, if not by name. Maybe a few weeks after that I will be a regular again.

The weather of things

In the steaming fog of the dumpling shop the rain outside doesn’t seem so out of place. On Irving this afternoon the sun was hidden by clouds long before it set, late now the day after the equinox. The streets have been filled with shoppers, students, families these past few days, since the sun no longer sets at five. Daylight Saving Time may be an oddity, a trick we play on ourselves with math and clocks, but it works. We are a happier people when we see the sun.

Tonight the wind came in early, fog and rain along side. No one complains, knowing deep down winter is over. Even in California the spring brings relief, and it’s tempestuous showers cause no ill will.

“This is dumpling weather,” she says. I concur. This is weather for fogged-up windows and large numbers crammed in small rooms. We take novels and drink tea, ordering in fragmented Mandarin and cherishing the hot sauce. On the way home we watch the rain, lighter now, patter on the pavement, reflecting the headlights of 19th Ave.

“This weather’s good for the Little Shamrock too,” I say, continuing our conversation about things just perfect for this weather. The self-proclaimed oldest bar in town, the Shamrock is a cozy kind of place with a fire and padded chairs, built for rainy Sundays.

“They wouldn’t do well in a sunnier neighborhood,” she says. “Too dingy.”

We cross, watching the fog sneak across the street on Irving, now fully at ground level. It is our second year here, in this weather of swirling shapes and constant drizzle that we so enjoy in part because we know where to go when the world becomes a place of damp and chill. Having learned the neighborhood grown out of the fog, we are no longer put down by it’s weight.

In Houston there were no dumpling houses like the King of Noodle, no bars like the Little Shamrock. Instead Poison Girl featured bike racks outside and a garden that was heavenly in February, perfect in November. Filled with plants and vines that snaked up and over the walls into neighboring yards, this space felt felt utterly unlike the dive bar it belonged to, and yet perfectly attached. Like the Shamrock, Poison Girl was built of it’s neighborhood, of it’s weather.

Weather is the strongest of forces, a statement that needs no proof save the news, and it shapes the places of people far more than we pretend. At Beach Bum on Boracay the drinks are built for long afternoons spent barefoot on the sand, and when storms blow they build walls of sand against the rising tide. It is an establishment made possible by the location, and then refined by weather.

To know a city, a town, a beach, then, we must embrace the weather there, be it by hiding near the fire or lolling barefoot. In San Francisco that idea has taken us most of two years to learn, here where the ocean joins the air and rolls over the land, where the fog is a member of the neighborhood, and where the best bars are cozy, the best restaurants steamy.