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.

Once with effort

The rafters of the factory are open steel beams that support electrical cords for lighting and duct work for air conditioning. In Juarez the summer’s heat is oppressive, and I admire the size of the ventilation.

In a factory in Jinshan years ago, my dress clothes sticking to me in Shanghai’s miserable July, I worried about the workers spending most of their lives in a huge room cooled only by a half dozen refrigerator-sized units. During quality inspections our group would take turns standing in front of their whirring fans, visitors and managers alike. The sewers made no such moves, their bodies grown used to the weather.

The duct work in Juarez is a sign of care for employees, and an acknowledgment of the city’s position in the high desert. It is windy and cold in the winter and still and hot in the summer. Ventilation is a sign of corporate compassion. This factory’s concrete shell, handed down from company to company for decades, has been modified by each successive inhabitant to cope with the challenge of keeping many hands in motion regardless of season. In one corner of the ceiling, by the offices, colored fabric has been hung, green and blue nylon stretched between beams to create a false roof of bold shades. Years earlier, by the look of the fabric, bright but dusty. Dirt has settled around the holes where the edges are lashed to the rafters. These bold lengths of nylon were the start of a grand project never advanced, too expensive or otherwise unsuccessful.

Didn’t insulate well,” is the answer, when I ask. An idea now abandoned. A Saturday’s work still hanging there, no more and no less.

The feeling of nostalgia, of loss, and of having missed the moment of energy strikes me repeatedly in factories. So many of the places I see are not at their peak, will never again be. Buildings that once were new and well-maintained, filled with workers and a sense of energy, now have dirty floors and piles of discarded machinery and material along the sides. The detritus of daily operational demands so often overwhelms anyone’s ability to plan and to improve.

Sitting in an office above a different factory the sense of time passed is all around me. In one corner there’s a small bar custom-built for this space and used to entertain customers. It is covered with books and samples, and the wall paper on its front is peeling and dusty. In another corner a shirt and tie hang, the sign of a true workaholic, someone who slept at the office and needed a spare for the next day. Neither have been used in months, but hang anyway, a memory of hours no longer required. The memory of a younger man. I wish I’d seen that entertainer, that host. I wish I could see this office used in the way it was built to be.

All around us are reminders of projects done with purpose, accomplished by an effort no longer easy to imagine. In San Francisco the Sutro Baths are one such, ruined by fire and weather on the edge of the Pacific. Now the moss-covered foundation serves as a monument to what people were able to build at the turn of the last century.

In the rock gym hang pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, or more specifically photos of men walking the clusters of cables that would become the bridge. They stand without safety gear, working high above the mouth of the bay in what must have been an incredibly cold and windy position. Outside the gym’s huge windows the bridge dominates the view, a structure of too large a scope to have been built by individual hands.

Our own houses have these remnants too, fixtures installed, cabinets built, labor invested. On moving out we realize these projects were done in the early days, before we became too busy and too tired, while we still had energy and hope for the new place. Sometimes they represent the work of inhabitants before us whose energies remain unknown. Who built this shelf, we ask, or why did they wall off the Murphy bed, the kitchen door? Likewise the gym’s carefully manufactured rock walls cling to the interior of a space built for the military a hundred years before. The repurposing of old structures built with effort long forgotten is easily visible in the Presidio, and yet continues everywhere.

Indoors at the back of another factory there is a cafe awning where workers were once served food. Long closed it is covered in dust and machinery blocks the entrance. On my visit the cafe is hard to spot. Workers avoid that end of the building, a sad reminder that the business is not what it was and that no one can return it to glory. Ducking through the plastic strips that line the shop floor’s entrance I wonder what this factory sounded like when the cafe was filled at lunch hour, when the dedicated cook served one and all.

This is the way of every life, I think, pulling away in my rental car. We build and hope, we give up, we create, and we abandon. It is the story of growing old, and a reminder that our actions are temporary, our energy finite, and our time brief.

On my next visit to Juarez the colored fabric is gone, and new white panelling reaches half way across the vast space. In my absence someone has restarted the project, has put new energy in to the old building. There is a future here, and room for growth. Here people are not yet abandoning, not yet growing old.

I smile as the owner shows me the new lunch room, built by hand off the back of the main floor from cinder block and concrete. Complete with its own AC and bright colored paint it is a sign to the workers that things are improving, that the future still shines. After so long seeing factories in gradual decline I am excited to be supporting this growth. The owner is loud and cheerful as he leads the tour. We are both happy to invest in these people, this place. We can build something here, we can make this small piece of the world better than before.

We have energy and time.

Casual deletion

Arriving at PVG towards the end of August I am immediately covered in sweat. The merino hoodie that sheltered me high above the Pacific has no use in this city of clouds and dust. Shanghai welcomes me with the need for a shower, with a new banking fee, and with an entire new ring road from airport to city.

It seems I start every visit the same way, exclaiming that Shanghai has changed. Why do I not feel this way landing at JFK, or at HKIA, at SFO, NRT or LAX?

As the fastest-moving place on the planet for the last fifteen years, Shanghai’s shift should come as no surprise to this once resident. And, on my third visit since departure, finally, it does not. Instead it comes with sadness born of empty storefronts that once housed comforting restaurants, once held a tiny shop curated by an owner for whom the space represented a life’s dream. In fact the list, when organized, represents a comprehensive naming of places once frequented by a boy on an electric scooter.

Shanghai has gotten richer, has purchased the yellow Lamborghini that sits on Wuxing Lu, a block from my first apartment. Shanghai now works in Ermenegildo Zegna offices, on the 50th floor of a building in Lujiazui.

The changes are not all so individually grand yet overwhelm in their completeness. The basement of Metro City in Xujiahui is no longer filled with hundreds of booths selling semi-pirated electronics. Instead Carl’s Jr offers the same food they do anywhere, an entirely new entrant into the China fast food scene. Likewise some of the boom of two thousand eight has been swept away. A huge two-story shop launched as the flagship of a nationwide chain, the Chinese version of Threadless’, has been so completely overwritten that I am not now sure where it stood on a street of identical single-story storefronts.

The shop of two Chinese hip hop lovers who sold me my Taiwanese mesh back cap with its image of a Japanese yogurt drink-bearing scooter could have been replaced by any one of a dozen small jewelry shops, each featuring a single bored middle-aged woman as attendant. These shops might be owned by a single diamond conglomerate, itself using the multitude of fronts to run well-controlled experiments on which dress on the mannequin in the window attracts more customers.

What is it about humans that makes them copy each other so carefully? We truly are social creatures, and at some seventeen million, Shanghai is a test bed for our tendency towards duplication.

A fancy bakery opened my last year here is not only closed but has had all of its signage poorly redone in Chinese English at least once, demonstrating a now-failed attempt to copy the original in between. Three short years later and my friend, taking time off from work to write as I once did, says he is going to a cafe.

I used to write in Boona 2, on Fuxing,” I offer, remembering my favorite cafe, bustling on weekends and with plentiful power outlets.

That’s been closed for years,” he says, I write in the cafe that replaced it, absolutely horrible but constantly empty.”

I shake my head at the improvement, and wonder about the financials of such a switch.

My roommate’s motorcycle, left in our basement garage in two thousand eight as we fled, which had remained in its dark corner on my visits in two thousand nine, and ten, is gone. Who now rides that machine which he once slid so gracefully through an intersection beneath Yan’an, the weight of both it and him skidding on his MacBook’s aluminum chassis? I look for it as I wander the French concession, wondering whether those scrapes would be recognizable, and how much it was sold for.

We are temporary creatures, maintained by our habits and effort.  All signs of our passing will one day be erased.