Morning hours

From the window, coffee in hand, I look out onto the rooftops of Tai Hang and appreciate those who rose early. On three laundry is already hung, drifting in the eight am breeze. These are Hong Kong’s beauty days, when windows are open and the sky is clear. For a few weeks in November and most of March and April, the weather lingers on a setting between too hot and long sleeves but not much else required. It’s a time to do workouts on rooftops, or in parks, and to go on long hikes to explore abandoned villages. These pursuits will become unbearable in May, and remain so until almost the year’s end.

In these gifted weeks I try especially to rise early, to look out, and to enjoy the freedom of the weather. Squish joins me, watching pigeons and napping in the sunbeams. Soon those beams will be too hot and he will instead nap under sofas, pressed against the concrete. For now though we luxuriate in the open, and the fan blows fine fur in strange arcs as it oscillates. The sky is a clear blue, all the way to Shenzhen, a reminder of our horrid impact on it in better economic times. As always, I wish for the death of the automobile, partially for the view and partially for the noise. Seven stories up, windows open, I can hear people, their odd bangs and crashes as they open shops, unpack cartons, and unload trucks. But mostly what I hear is cars, trucks, and busses. They are wildly louder than all other activities, and a constant presence. One day children, when listening to a recording in a museum, will be astonished at the sound of internal combustion, and react in disbelief that our lives were full of such noise pollution. Until then I wait, and try to rise early to listen to the birds. Cities are full of life and animals, of course. They’re just hard to notice over the cars.

We drive the PCH

On a Tuesday morning we leave the sunless Sunset for more southerly climes. In no great rush my friend is headed to San Diego, and I to Venice, both visits brief. She is driving the country simply to do so. We are expected eventually, for dinner perhaps, but have no sense of urgency. It is July, and, as soon as we leave San Francisco’s city limits, gorgeous in California.

We take the Pacific Coast Highway, California State Route 1.

It is a rare thing, having the time to pick the route for pleasure rather than speed, and I relish it as we swing around curves and are suddenly confronted with the ocean, which lurks to our right at all times. The sharp cliffs and sandy beaches alternate for the first few hours. The road is lined with cars pulled over to take pictures and then cars pulled over so that their drivers can put on their wetsuits and get in the pictures. We talk, and look, but do not stop. We have enough pictures, I think, in our minds. I remember moving to Asia, almost a decade ago, without owning a camera, claiming to remember things. Three months later I bought one, not for my own gain, instead so that I could show those far away my Tokyo sights. Our winding trip down the PCH will be similar to those first three months, in that I do remember it but there won’t be any pictures to show, and the memories will fade on their own, with time.

When living in California it is good to travel with those who do not, as a reminder of the beauty we may have become inured to . The coastline is gorgeous, and the three hours longer that it will take us, versus Highway 5, will change nothing in our day, would only narrow the breadth of topics we cover.

It is July, and we drive along the Pacific. My companion will, by the time she reaches San Diego and the guest room that awaits, have driven the entire west coast of the United States in three days. She will have stopped, in Portland for an evening, in San Francisco for a day, in Venice for dinner. She will have seen, in one stretch, a coastline I have only seen in pieces, or from airplanes. Leading the Subaru through the winding curves of the coast just south of Mavericks I catch glimpses of the waves while she looks out the window. This is my gift to her, a few hours away from the wheel, and it is a small enough present, but in a good location. More advantageous I think than having a friend drive the bare miles of Texas or Oklahoma, where the sights are repetitive, the road less demanding.

We make good time, save for when we are standing still, and we remember things we haven’t told each other. It’s been a year since our last meeting, and nearly four since we last lived in the same city, since we last had no urgency to our actions, no pressing sense of time.

In Shanghai life was like this often. The city would open up on weekends, our responsibilities fled with Friday’s close, and we would spend afternoons on the grass at the SRFC. We would enjoy the smog of evenings from someone’s balcony, or a bar, before heading out to dinner via scooter, taxi, and bicycle.

On the Pacific Coast Highway we pass through small towns built by long-ago surfers, where there are no gas stations. We pass through coastal towns with colleges, universities to their name, filled with clusters of students here for summer classes, or who have remained to be near the beach. Later on, coming south, we pass farming towns and air bases, long dusty tracks where people race their pickups along behind us and then, rather than passing, veer into a field. Where people in Civics just off work head into town on the long stretches of highway bordered only by green.

We end up back by the ocean, winding through Malibu. I drive while she looks for multimillionaires, or their houses. It is absurd, really, to change so quickly from one to the other, from surfing collective to farming town to mansions, and we drive on without pause, hungry for dinner and friends, for a break from the road. I have only been on it one day, but the memories of road trips come back easily, and I am glad to be stopping in Los Angeles, rather than continuing on to San Diego, to New Mexico, to Texas and beyond.

In Venice we find welcome and dinner. The weather is perfect as the sun sets, warm with a breeze. As we stand on the sidewalk before the restaurant we look at each other, companions for a day, and smile. Here we are, on Abbot Kinney in Venice, a place unlike where we woke yet more unlike where we’ve been in between.

Biking home after work

Houston is a city built for the automobile.  Without zoning, urban centers are spawned and neglected, grow taller and are abandoned in ever-widening circles, and reclamation of the previously destitute takes far longer than in a city more constrained by geography, a New York, Boston, San Francisco.  In Houston there is no need, as long as the freeways run there is space, somewhere, out along their paths.  There is a certain snobbery, those in the loop’ or out of it, but it is snobbery of the largely young towards the largely indifferent, and little comes of it.

Houston is a city of the oil industry, of NASA, and of doctors.  It is a city of the pickup truck and the SUV, where there seems to be no need to tell people to buy American’ as they already have.  Chevy and GMs woes would be invisible here save for the news, as their products outnumber their Japanese competitors in a fashion unfathomable to a boy from the north east.  This is a city where turn signals are optional, and cyclists given no quarter.

Yet there are cyclists, out among the cars, whispering by the dog walkers and joggers.  In some parts of town they are hip, the fixed-gear crowd, and passing them in whooshes on the way to Montrose’s cafes and restaurants, gear colorful and bags handmade, they could be in Greenpoint, on their way to Whisk & Ladle.  This is the part of Houston that east coast folk mention, along with the weather, when they note how they are pleasantly surprised with their lives in H-town.  These, though, are not Houston’s cyclists.

There are high schoolers with Haros and Mongooses, sitting on their pegs while spinning their handlebars idly at corners, chatting up girls in Catholic-school uniforms while pedaling backwards.  They would not be out of place in Los Angeles, though the girls would be dressed less formally, and the beach far closer.  Neither are these Houston’s cyclists, though they are of the city and, like the fixed-gear riders who push past them as they idle at stop lights, welcome in it.

Houston’s crowd slips through my neighborhood in the early evening hours, their jobs done, faces weathered, minds on their family or friends.  They work their way along the tree-lined blocks on bicycles well-used: old mountain bikes, a younger person’s BMX, a steel road bike.  They are in no hurry, postures relaxed and paths weaving.  I pass them smiling, always happy to see my neighborhood on two wheels.  They smile back, under their mustaches, knowing that we will pass each other again tomorrow.  They will be back far earlier than I will rise, though, at work at seven, cutting grass, trimming bushes, re-painting door frames and blowing leaves off expensive driveways.  They will sit behind my apartment and smoke at lunch, talking in Spanish of lives I grow more curious about each day.  This, then, is the Houston being built beneath and behind the SUV culture of those born to it.  It is a culture of those who cannot or do not own cars, and unlike New York, unlike Tokyo, they are not those who have chosen this method of transportation, but those who have been forced to two wheels.  With time, they too will purchase Ford F150s, white and filled with lawn equipment, and pick up their friends, three to a cab carpooling to the rich neighborhoods of River Oaks, of West University.

Unlike the residents, with their helmets and lights, out for late night exercise, Houston’s other cyclists wheel through darkening neighborhoods as I do, almost impossible to see in the failing light, almost invisible socially.  Drifting through intersections ahead of BMWs and Mercedes they are a danger, and a surprise.  Yet they are also a portent of Houston’s future, as possible on two wheels as four, despite what this city was built for.

Months away, and back

In this other city people do not bicycle to work. They log hours of life in automobiles, invest those hours watching license plates for amusement: words paid for simply to alleviate this drone. They have made a collective decision that fifty dollars per person would benefit everyone by giving some form of humor to the mindless jerk and roll of stop and go freeways.

But this is not the difference that surprises. Los Angeles is a city built on the automobile, and we are all aware of the ramifications. That is, we are growing aware of the ramifications. That is, we are still hopelessly inconsiderate of the impact. A sixth grade class, full of boisterous cheer at their opportunity to ignore textbooks, all with their hands raised, desperate to answer.

The worst problem in Shanghai is the traffic.”

I think the pollution is the biggest problem.”

There are too many cars.”

Sixth grade. My next sentences are predictably icy, the strange lack of remorse that age and clarity bring.

Raise your hand if your family has a car.” Three hands out of thirty six.

Raise your hand if you want your family to have a car.” Thirty six hands out of thirty six, with one tentatively slow.

We are not different. The failings are repeated, the desires are mirrored. The time spent in automobiles is not a difference of desire, but a lack of time. In five years, the situation will be mirrored on both sides of the Pacific. Those who contest that statement contest only the number of years, not the fact.

No, the difference that provokes is the one that wakes me each morning, asleep on a leather couch that may not really be, that is green and welcoming, for the first week, and then becomes a strange combination of place to collapse and position to avoid.

The difference is light.

Shanghai is a city built upwards in leaps, towered with an enthusiasm seldom seen by man. It is built of concrete, and of steel, solid rock, sand. These are not items of comfort, they are items of quantity, of ability, of speed, and of cost. These are apartment blocks, yet the concerns of the living are attached last, afterthoughts, minor inconveniences their tenants will suffer through for the next decade, or two. Heating, the entire building a cement shape with no insulation, no space in the walls save for water and electricity, is bolted on to each apartment individually, small blocks to transfer energy out when hot, in when cold. They litter the sides of every building, frequently upgraded, moved, readjusted, individually purchased. The purpose of these buildings is to shelter, not to house. To cover, not to hold. Water pipes are run without thought of pressure, electricity without thought of human use. One line runs to the ceiling center in each room, one ends near the door, one on the far wall, and out. Any further adjustment requires chiseling through the wall and then patching, destroying the cement that is in all cases already too fragile. Too much sand, an irony in a city sinking slowly into it.

In Los Angeles, in Venice, by the beach, I sleep on the sofa of an apartment that is not, for it once was a house. This second floor may have been a deck, half exposed, later walled in when the internal stairs were removed. This is a building built for a family, converted to house three. It is wood, and it creaks in the wind, or when the neighbors start dancing again. It is softer, and warmer, and full of light. The walls are windows, open in the sunshine, sheltered by blinds in the night. The sunlight that wakes me could do so from any direction, my sleeping position visible from any side of the building. In Shanghai’s apartment tower each room gets one window, no more. This does not mean wall space is wasted, but that each apartment has so little of it that faces outwards. That each apartment is a cave, a container, stacked to the sky.

This is not a new surprise. New York knows it, Tokyo and Hong Kong as well. But the strange darkness of my apartment without electricity, even in the longest summer, now has a starker contrast, the well-lit afternoons in Venice, even on the shortest day.

It is a lack of windows, and a lack of wood, both small items that speak to speed, money, and numbers, rather than craft, people, and the desire to inhabit a space full of light.