Shanghai again, together

We land at Terminal 2 some eleven years since our last shared departure. In between Shanghai has been a touch point and frequent destination, but only for myself.

Shanghai is a city of change, where the list of bars and restaurants that have closed is daunting. Most of the places we knew in two thousand seven and eight are gone. Most of the places that opened after we left have likewise disappeared. The subway has blossomed, from four incomplete lines to more than a dozen. Entire entertainment districts have grown, become popular, and then been closed by the government. Apartments have gotten more expensive but also more numerous, and there are new cool neighborhoods far beyond what was our circle of frequency.

I have been lucky, taking in these changes over the course of the intervening decade, on work trips that lasted days and weeks. Since two thousand eight I’ve been paid for probably four months of time in Shanghai, though none since 2016. There are still changes that surprise me, every time I land. Taking them all in at once is daunting, and I watch Tara wander, eyes wide with uncertainty. Is this the corner we walked to so frequently? Is this our grocery store? Which way did we go to get from one apartment to the other, in those early days?

There are moments of joy too, in this adventure. The stalls attached to Zhongshan Park station, which had always been a home of odds and ends, now feature local designers, and better food. The connecting Carrefour features the same broad array of goods but under better lighting and with a cleaner sense of organization. The old apartment building is still standing, and the convenience stores nearby are far better than the old Kwik. We eat dumplings and meat pancakes for $3, and wander the neighborhood in the morning heat. Zhongshan Park itself is pretty, and filled with dancers. Of the Faithless concert that brought us there together for the first time, well, we have memories.

On Yueyang Lu we wander beneath the green leaves of Shanghai July, happy to see how much good the intervening decade has done for the foliage. These streets have always been a special part of Shanghai, a gift of foresight that keeps out the worst of the summer heat. Along Zhaojiabang Lu and throughout much of the city, efforts to spread the feeling of the French Concession’s tree-lined roads have paid off. “The trees are so big now,” we remark to each other again and again. So often, in this greenest season, it’s impossible to see tall landmarks scant blocks away, not just in our old neighborhoods but all over the city.

Tree growth more than anything is the lingering lesson of these ten years. Buildings have gone up and become accepted. Businesses have come and gone. People too. Subways have been built so far out that the borders of the city are difficult to determine. All these efforts, though, are overshadowed by how green the city has become, at least in the summer. As we leave, walking up the stairway to our plane from the Pudong tarmac, we know the trees are what we will remember from this visit in twenty nineteen.

A decade is a long time to a person, or to a couple. A decade is a long time for our careers. Eleven years ago we knew so little of what we would become, and where that would take us. And we did not appreciate enough the small saplings being placed all over Shanghai.

A decade, it turns out, is a long time for the small trees planted along Zhaojiabang. Long enough to grow tall and dense, to separate one side of the street from the other, and to quiet the noise and improve the air. Long enough to make the city a better place.

Out late

In the evening Fillmore is a strange conduit. From Lower Haight it runs downhill to the McDonalds on Golden Gate in all senses. In the drive-through the rims are more important than the car, and a former self recognizes the mood. In Poughkeepsie in the year two thousand we’d walk to a drive-through like this. Open all hours, unlike the interior, it served fifty nine cent cheeseburgers on Tuesdays. In the dark we’d surprise the staff, catch them chatting to each other. Without headlights we were invisible, though rarely quiet.

“Twelve cheeseburgers,” we’d request, having pushed the button and counted our change. Some days twenty five.

In San Francisco at two am I wonder what the staff of this McDonalds would say to a walk-up drive-through customer. And I wonder how much cheeseburgers cost on Tuesdays.

Fillmore heads up again, into a neighborhood of concert halls and Karaoke boxes, of Asian chains and bars I’ve never heard of anyone going to. Jazz and hip hop alternate, and on the corner women in shiny dresses complain about their heels to men in suits. Other groups of women complain about men to their friends in similarly spiked shoes. The men wait for cars, or wait in their cars, stereos adding to the neighborhood’s dull background throb. To the right a Panda Express sign winks out, the last workers shutting down.

Up still farther Fillmore runs into Geary, destroying any pretense of the small livable avenue. On the corners sit The Fillmore, famed venue to moderate stars of a likable nature. Ani will be back later this year the posters tell me. I will be in Shanghai. Opposite an establishment called the Boom Boom Room sounds correctly named. This is the end of my walk, this is where the 38 stops on its way out of downtown towards my foggy neighborhood.

Here at the top a hill and of Fillmore’s rise, just west of Geary’s peak, we wait for the bus and watch women doing likewise try to avoid the bus stop’s permanent tenants. Each time here I wonder about the Boom Boom Room, which doesn’t seem unappealing. At two am the club may perhaps have worn out the evening’s excitement, covered it up with cheap vodka, and pushed it out with continuous beats. I ponder this and watch silently, content to let the dapper post-club crew make large of their status as the most appealing conversation in the vicinity. A woman in heels is grateful for their attention. Behind her the man who’d been extolling his history with the piano shoves off, slightly too hard, from the bus stop’s shelter and staggers into the wall. From its exterior decoration the Boom Boom Room’s brick is accustom to this treatment.

On the bus out I am surrounded with chatter and games, the joy of the evening made mobile in small groups of friends. I hear stories of skateboards and girls, I hear stories of boys and first dates. The city is alive on late night busses, everyone slowly separating out into the neighborhoods of quiet housing, separating at the end of the evening.

This, I think, my companion asleep on my shoulder, is why we live in a city, why we love walking home late at night. Because we aren’t alone, and our stories may not be the best.