Winding roads

Looking out over Idabashi in Tokyo

In the month of March I am mostly confused about location.

In a Shanghai hotel room an old friend brings me medicine in between naps. His daughter laughs at her reflection in the mirror while we chat. I’ve been sick for days and seen little save this room in between factory visits. The company is welcome and the medicine better than my homemade solutions.

A few days later I see a super hero movie on the US naval base in Yokosuka. I’ve never been on base before and the experience is strange. Sitting in a theater having paid $2 for tickets feels both familiar and surreal. It is strange to be in Japan and yet surrounded by Americans, especially after two weeks in China. Afterwards, wandering around Idabashi with my friends, I am so grateful to be back in the suburban depths of Tokyo. Sub-urban is a claim that can only be applied to Idabashi when it is placed next to Shinjuku. In some ways the duplication of train stations, shops, conbinis and aparto towers feels like it’s own culture, a form of topography and living for which Americans have no language. Sub-urban then only in hierarchy not in density.

In Las Vegas a few days later I look out from the thirty third floor at empty patches in the city’s expansion. Whole blocks skipped, still raw desert, surrounded on all sides by cul-de-sac housing tracts. A depressing view of car culture and relative waste that I don’t know well enough to imagine living in. Or to imagine feeling trapped in.

Sitting at a bar in downtown Las Vegas arguing about transparency and expectations I realize how much of our conversations are also about location. Much of the conversation, scattered over several weeks and countries, is about cities, housing, variations of living. So too is much of our conversation about our hope for the future, and many of our questions are about how places shape people.

It is a perfect if confusing way to spend several weeks, well-suited to this site save for the lack of writing.

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.

Time away

In a shop on Rue de la Roquette a man buys white peonies. They are in bloom and smell excellent. He intents to purchase five and ends up with ten. On the table of their rooftop apartment, next to the balcony doors, ten is a good number. He doesn’t mind the earlier linguistic confusion. It is that kind of week.

In the mornings they wander the Seine in cloudy weather. In afternoons they eat lunch on the balcony, often at four, and nap in the sun until six. They read, and write, and talk about the last eight years. Sometimes, after a bottle of wine, they talk about the next eight. Mostly though those conversations involve work, peripherally, and so are avoided. They look at photos of a year previous and celebrate health. A year prior they weren’t aware how hard things would get. Now they are both healing, both able to run, and both thinking of the future as a gift rather than challenge. Twenty fourteen at last seems lucky in the late afternoon light, and they can reminisce without tears.

Let’s leave them here, on this rooftop in Paris, for a while.

Rise above

When I was a child the Ramada Inn was one of the tallest buildings in Ithaca. Now called the Hotel Ithaca and a Holiday Inn in between, it’s a nondescript building in a city that’s gotten taller. In the early ‘90s though the tower stood out. The bulk of the hotel is a standard two story structure, but on Cayuga street there is a ten story tower with a great view of downtown. It also has a glass-walled elevator that facing north, towards the Commons and the heart of Ithaca.

Towards the end of high school I spent a lot of time in this elevator, usually late at night. As it rose above the second floor and the roofs around, Ithaca spread out. With hills and the towers of Cornell and IC on them, there are a lot of good views in Ithaca, but not many downtown or indoors. Or there didn’t used to be.

For a few years the comic book conventions were held at the Ramada, and so a couple of weekends a year I’d spend a lot of time there, helping out and wandering around. Somewhere in this time I learned about the elevator, and the view from the 10th floor. More importantly I learned that there was a side door to the tower and no one cared if I walked in and just rode the elevator up to watch the city.

So I did.

In that Chang’an hotel the first time I was surprised. From the lobby’s white lights and interior feel the change is sudden, especially at night. Glass backed, the elevator lifts through the atrium walls and out into the night. Dongguan spreads out to the hills and beyond, lit but muffled. Across the street the shopping center flashes neon and behind it apartment towers fill with the light of evening. Below, on the roof of the hotel’s lobby and restaurants, a curved pool shines from its own light. The unlit portion of the roof fades as the elevator continues upwards, immersed in the dark of the evening. Further out across the city other towers blink or beckon. Office towers darker, apartments bright, shopping brighter still. With rooms between the 10th and 15th floors, the ride is long enough to notice, and to enjoy.

Only the middle two elevators get the glass treatment. The others, for a repeat visitor, feel like a waste, metal boxes without any view. Returning, I’m glad when door 2 or 3 open. After a few days of this I tried to remember other glass elevators I know of. Long term parking at SFO. A hotel on Union Square. And that old Ramada. More, surely, but those are the ones that stand out immediately.

Wherever I go, indoors or out, I always want a better view or a higher perch. Elevators represent that, a chance for a better view, though usually not so literally as my Chang’an hotel’s four options and 50% chance. Even without a glass wall though, there’s a view implied by the building’s height, the buttons outlining just how high, a maximum number. While I’ve always wanted to check every floor, the highest one calls most clearly. I am not alone in this. Witness the world’s tallest bar, hotel, restaurant, deck, pool, and gym, each promising a view in addition to their primary function.

In Tokyo I used to enter office buildings at random, seeking ways up to a view of the city that I love. In Shanghai I started trying hotels, which often have a bar or deck at some height. The best moments, though, come with discovery of glass walls on the ride up, the feeling of leaving the earth behind.

Space elevators are going to be the most amazing things.

Downtown, by the train

For the first time in the United States we have the life we had in Asia. At great but worthwhile expense, we live downtown near the train. In San Francisco this means the Mission, and this means Bart.

Three years ago we lived in a studio in the Sunset, half a block from the N-Judah, a Muni above-ground train line. The studio was wonderful. Giant west-facing windows made for perfect light, and the neighborhood was comfortingly Asian. Rent was reasonable, even with parking, albeit double what we’d paid for a 1 bedroom in Houston scant months before. As for the train, well, proximity was often its best feature. Locals refer to the N jokingly, if at all, and avoid any reliance on it’s twisting route, which is often blocked by cars at 9th and Irving and delayed at the Duboce and Church switch to underground operation. We used it first frequently and then less so, moving to bicycle or car instead.

For years though we regretted leaving that studio, at least on Sundays. Our one bedroom in the Richmond faced east, and so lost the light early in the day. Coupled with the Cigarettes Cheaper crowd next door and the Walgreens loading bay across the street that apartment became exactly what we’d hoped to avoid: a large house with poor light, loud neighbors, and a two-car commute. Looking back now, only months removed, it seems impossible to imagine. Yet for three years we both drove an hour plus each way out of San Francisco. One north, one south, far enough to make most moves impossible for one commute or the other.

And so from the Richmond we took the bus downtown, and walked Fillmore in the night. We went to shows and to bars, but not as many. We took more cabs, and drove more often to friends’ houses.

Our move to the Richmond was built on two desires. Most importantly, a cat, which our Sunset landlord would not allow. Secondly, to have a spare room for guests, even though several had braved our studio, slept on couch or kitchen floor. The living room was useful, and allowed us to easily welcome guests from all over the world. That apartment gave us Mr. Squish, fulfilling our exact request for a cat.

As I write these words he is sprawled on the couch across from me, content in his new home, only the second he has known. He is happier, though that could be the Karlstad sofa he is lounging on, a wedding present to ourselves in a blue that matches our new house. Moving with a cat has long been a dream of ours. Taking him on our adventures, if not yet rock climbing, and watching him explore new spaces are some of our favorite moments.

Why is this apartment so much more welcoming than our old one?

The answers are easy: light, size, and location.

In three months we’ve had friends come for dinner, colleagues bring lunch, and visitors crash on that couch. We’ve walked home from baseball games and taken the train to the airport. We’ve taken the train to brunch at friends’ houses in the East Bay and to work, novelties both. In the last week neither of us drove to work for two days in a row, the first time that has happened since we moved to San Francisco.

Why is this such a change, why did we ever forgo it, and how did we know we wanted it? These questions repeat themselves to me on my walks to Bart, on my train rides home.

This is such a change because we’ve each gained at a minimum two hours of mental time each day. Four hours multiplied by five days is twenty hours a week we gained as a couple with the move. Twenty hours a week, minimum, of additional thinking, reading, and working is time almost impossible to value. Another half a work week. Another two and a half days of paid working hours. Yes, rents are higher in the Mission. Yes, getting rid of one car helped keep our expenses within a similar range. But clearly, at twenty plus hours, we were undervaluing our time, undervaluing each other.

We gave up those hours initially because we had to. We’d gotten an apartment in the Sunset as the cheapest place we could find in San Francisco proper, and a good place to start our life here from. It was. We then got jobs out of the city, in opposite directions. They were good opportunities, and so we put up with the cost in cars and miles, knowing it would not be forever. When we moved to the Richmond, we shortened my commute at Tara’s expense. We balanced traffic and distance and the desire for a cat as best we could. And still we knew it would not be forever.

How did we know what we wanted? How did we know we’d be happier in a smaller apartment within walking distance of a train line, with only one car, in a more urban environment?

Shanghai.

We have lived in dense urban environments, ridden the subway or an electric scooter to work or to school, and commuted in the dense throngs of people rare for most Americans. We have lived in those environments and thrived. We have become comfortable with the benefits of dense living, of good transportation, and of shared public space rather than large private residences.

In America these lessons are difficult to learn. Apartments in dense areas with good public transit are expensive and restricted to a handful of cities. In many, like San Francisco, they are restricted to select neighborhoods in those cities. In Shanghai, in Tokyo, in Hong Kong, these lessons are simply life. They are learned on the train to grade school and in the tiny urban apartments of university. Density is not an option but the ground rule, public transportation not a luxury but the base layer of the urban environment.

We are lucky, in San Francisco, to live downtown near the train. In Shanghai it was the only place we could live, there was no other option. In Japan before that I lived in Saitama, outside of Tokyo proper, and yet on a line that ran directly into Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Shibuya. Out of the city and yet of the city in a way rare for Americans. Able to work and shop in the global megacity and still go for a run in the mornings along the Arakawa river.

In San Francisco, in the Mission, guests from out of town drop in for single night and leave early in the morning for meetings in the Financial District, or to tour the Embarcadero. What was once an hour away by bus is ten minutes by Bart. Waiting twenty minutes or more for the N has been replaced by taking any train out of dozens on a workday morning. We often do not drive for an entire weekend, and soon for an entire work week.

Yet in many ways this feels like avoiding the problems. The N still goes 30 minutes between trains on the weekends. The Richmond is still 40 minutes from Powell by bus, an hour twenty or more from the East Bay without free transfer. That we no longer care is a symptom of the problem, and a reason public transit remains a fractured experience. In Shanghai all the trains are run as one unit. In Japan a variety of companies with huge networks work together on train time tables and station infrastructure. In San Francisco there are only three stops on Bart in residential neighborhoods.

Yet 
I no longer complain about transit in San Francisco, instead promoting Bart to arriving guests. Limited, yes, but effective, and valuable, as was my line in Saitama. These visits and easier commutes, then, are the benefits of living here. And in many ways we are at last at home in San Francisco in a way we have not felt before.