Going somewhere

This fascination with motion is the central thing.  Travel and transit, the celebration is not of destination but of journey.  Whether on foot or on scooter, on bicycle, airplane or maglev, the undeniable appeal of going somewhere bonded with the desire to leave this place creates a sense of excitement rarely rivaled.  The main holidays, worldwide, involve some huge amount of travel, as most of the world goes to see people they are too far from the instant they are able.

Not strange then that we romanticize the means of transit, is it?  From America’s car stories to the long trail rides of cowboys, there is a love affair among us not only with the motion but with the vehicle or steed.  The spaceship, the rocket, the car, the train.

“I dream of touring like Duke Ellington
in my own railroad car,”

says Ani, and I know what she means.  Even on crowded Chinese trains, crammed in between cars and forced into standing with a half dozen smokers and a set of doors I’m not allowed to open there’s a beauty to train travel.  It is hard to write with all the rocking, though it’s possible to type, and the bathrooms overflow onto the floor. Still, if there’s somewhere I have to go domestically I’m in the queue at the station, looking for a ticket on those rails.

In Japan, I slept through my stop on the Saikyo dozens of times, one night walking home from Kawagoe, the end of the line, at almost two am.  I slipped in the door at four, glad to beat the rain, and willing to do it again the next day.  I loved living on the Saikyo line, despite its deserved notoriety for chikan and the evening salary-man-drunk-crushes.  I was happiest, in some ways, sipping canned whisky and water on the platform at Akabane, waiting for the nine twenty eight train home after a long Tuesday at work.  Five years later when I think of Tokyo I think of the trains and the views they afforded me, twenty two and curious.

The fascination with my electric scooter endured through hundreds of repairs, cracked casings, broke brakes, and pieces of it falling away month by month, exposing the bare metal beneath.  Despite being stranded one night after a dodgeball game, a mile or two from home in a strange part of town, stuck waiting on a curb in the heat of August for a man I’d woken from sleep to put in a new converter, I loved that scooter.

People asked me often, what’s it like, don’t you hate the battery, how long does it take to charge?  The answer always disappointed them: a long time, first six hours, then eight, by the end too hard to find a power outlet for that long without taking the battery out, all seventy five pounds of it, and carrying it up to my apartment, or office.  I loved it despite these things. Despite losing both rear view mirrors, cracking the headlight, destroying the sides.  Despite its horrible unwieldyness in rain, spilling me out onto the street on the white stripes of zebra crossings again and again.  Against all those things stood my freedom, the sense of wonder and invincibility, youth and daring, flying through Shanghai’s streets, staring up at buildings and pedestrians, dodging taxis and bicyclists, early in the morning for breakfast or a few beers in on the way home.  I love it, I’d answer, I can’t imagine living here without it.  And I couldn’t, the days before it a strange mishmash of other forms, all those hours crushed on the busses, or running for them.  Through all of my life in Shanghai two wheeled vehicles remain a high point. The various bicycles, Sanch’s oft-broken gas-powered scooter, and the two plastic electric ones together, granted me an entirely different city to explore.

There are similar stories, this one is not unique.  Friends who named their first cars, friends who have named their fourth, who care for them and relate tales of their personalities.  Of ships, named for as long as we can remember, with captains who would die with them, or at least consider it.  While we may be, as a culture, a people of intractability and motion, of discontent and the continual attempt at perfection, we are also a culture of worship, of object desire and anthropomorphism.  At thirteen, fresh returned from a trip to Telluride I spent all of the money in my savings, some hundreds of dollars intended for college or another grand idea, on a snowboard, fetishized and loved, given a bag hand-made for it, and stored reverently each time.  Covered in stickers and soon in scrapes and dings, the first purchase of any weight was, as it is for many of us, a means of transportation, even if a frivoulous one.

As many before I have noted, it’s not the destination but the journey that remains, years later.  I agree, even on a shrunken scale, to late night rides and complete disasters, to asking policemen for directions and pushing cars towards gas stations.

Quoted lyrics from Ani DiFranco’s ‘Self Evident’ off of her 2002 live compilation, So Much Shouting, So Much Laughter, used with appreciation.

Neighborhoods

A boy once believed that no matter how far he went, he’d still be where he was from. That this defining character set would tie him to others, to where he’d grown up, to the person that he’d grown into. Years later does he still believe these things? That the love of fall on the east coast of the United States is an overwhelming sign of good taste, and that fixing a car late at night in driving snow represents the pinnacle of perseverance? Would he still dismiss those from further afield, as though their homes hadn’t provided similar lessons?

In my mind he would not. He has grown well, aged into a person of a different place. We are no longer close, this boy and I, partially because I no longer live on the east coast of the United States. Partially because I no longer live in the United States. Partially because, as the world grows, and we into it, such qualities shrink. They shrink not in difficulty, or beauty, but in scope. Fixing a car in driving snow becomes a challenge of location. Fixing a car in the desert’s blazing sun with no habitation for dozens of miles matches it, and that recognition changes the original pride.

We are not where we are from, yet knowledge of that place explains us.

As does the sense of scope. Meeting an unknown friend in the chill heat of a Shanghai apartment where the walls seep cold into the night as the heater pumps out dry air filled with warmth, our shared location becomes an isolating factor.

“Those two are from Ithaca.”

As though that makes us the same. As though we’re both really from the same place. As though we shared the same city, and through it clothes, manner, dress. We do not. Because it is not just countries that are too large to possibly contain their population with the single adjective allowed them in popular humor.

Because countries have directions, and cities neighborhoods.

Yueyang lu is tree-lined, residential, until the bars. Yongjia lu has some shops, some restaurants, and more trees. Couples walk hand in hand and boys chase each other in and out of the school nearby. Guards watch both, and mingle in front of the Painting Institute, huddle inside their huts in chilly weather, and smoke incessantly to relieve the mind-numbing passage of time. I whisper through it in the mornings, past the fleets of women and men with their child on the rear of their bicycle for the morning lift to school before they head on to work. I slip up Yongjia, heading west, across Wulumuqi lu, past the brief block of Anting lu, to Hengshan’s bustling cacophony, busses and taxis competing with the whistle of a half-dozen crossing guards watching the five roads carefully for signs of lawlessness. Their stares and squawking whistles slap me awake, and I pause before pushing on to Gao’an, and then left up Kangping. This is the border of my neighborhood, Hengshan and Gao’an. On a map it might continue to Wanping, two blocks further west, at the edge of the park, or two blocks further north, to Huaihai or Fuxing, with their commercial bustle. East, perhaps the edge lies at Xiangyang or Shanxi, or even further, Maoming or Ruijin Er. But limits of a neighborhood are not drawn so clearly. They are shifty fleeting things of time and walking distance, of community, of school districts, of architecture, of income, of simple recognition. Xiangyang is far enough for me.

And it is with these decisions, often without thought, that we separate ourselves. So two children of New York, of the City, of the same college, of so much shared experience that to their company over diner in a small apartment in Shanghai they blend and blur, opinions overlapping, can argue, can push against the common box. Manhattan and Brooklyn are so different, they protest, and their high schools, completely different. Several others in the room agree with small nods, not necessarily of New York, but with the familiarity of past discussions, past attempts to prove their own location.

A girl, in an interview, on her home.

“Baoshan is a great place to live, a better district than Xuhui or Huangpu.”

But aren’t Xuhui and Huangpu more ‘downtown’, more convenient, her questioner wonders.

“No, Baoshan is downtown, it is the center of Shanghai.”

The fragility of her argument is made precious by her belief. Her questioner does not note Shanghai’s spherical nature, it’s circular boundaries, and it’s series of encircling rings, containing at their heart four districts, and spreading outwards. With no argument of population, nor commercial value, no mention of business districts, shopping, night life, a simple circle placed atop Shanghai’s mapped existence will reveal Baoshan’s distance from the circle’s center.

In Jintan, weeks ago, a girl wandered the street with her harmonica as the Ode to Joy found its way through her cupped fingers. The street, it’s four shops, one restaurant and two houses all mingled in a run of concrete buildings, paid her no mind. Perhaps she plays and walks each morning, in the chill of January’s end, and is a common site in this neighborhood of her birth. Along Yueyang’s shaded walks she would surprise, her clothes and accent out of place, her harmonica sure to please the foreigners who are so frequent now.

Up Xinhua lu, still rolling west, having crossed the barren spread of Huashan and touched Huaihai briefly, the neighborhood changes. From Huashan’s vacancy and Huaihai’s bus-filled rumble, Xinhua is a deep breath of space and trees again. The shops, and passers-by, are not those of Yueyang, or Yongjia. An older community, fewer foreigners, less military, more Japanese. The difference is immediate and comforting. This is where I work, this is where I eat lunch and mail letters. This street, across Dingxi lu, is being renovated, but not built up. There are but two towers, and even those are slightly at odds with the surroundings, slightly shunned by the baozi eaters cradling their dumplings on the opposite corner where the bank and steamed bun shop still stand. The tower, with its coffee shops and cell phone dealers, is the stranger, something not quite of this neighborhood, but here. So small and fragile are these distinctions, built on collective consciousness. And so hard to remember, from outside.