Between day and night

In the fall of two thousand four two foreign boys played hacky sack in Xujiahui Park most days. They were free from worry, barely employed and frequently lost amid the whirl of Shanghai’s boom years. In clothes they had owned for years, t-shirts still from college that ended at the turn of the century, they kicked a knitted ball back and forth for hours. Gradually, as with all things, they grew better, their bodies gathering memory. They learn stalls, and behind the back saves. They were able to play for longer at a time, to control the game so that passers by did not interrupt, that the odd pedestrian unaware of their connection did not block a return. Every day they moved around the park to avoid children on rollerblades who loved the circular areas, or couples on dates who liked the secluded bench spots. Frequently they ended up near the older folks who rested near the entrance in the afternoons, a wide spread of flagstone that was transformed into a dancefloor in the early evenings. These older folks, the retired workers of pre-boom Shanghai, who had seen things the two boys from the US could not imagine, were happy to share their space. They taught the boys Mandarin, word by word.

In twenty twenty, three foreigners played ping pong in Victoria Park on most afternoons in February and March. With schools closed and all three unemployed, the tables became a meeting ground. These three were frequently joined on the other table by a group of local children, and their parents. The kids rode scooters and practiced incredible spin serves, chased each other and played games on their phones. Occasionally, when other adults used one of the two tables, they played with the foreigners, in pairs of all combinations. As always, practice made everyone better, and the daily ritual gave some anchor in a world without timetables or meetings. Ping pong also brought laughter, of poor serves or incredible returns. Occasionally the children taught the foreigners Cantonese, one word at a time.

A decade and a half later our lives have not changed so much. The cities are different, the sports and languages vary, and we age as any other. Yet the peace of spending our afternoons unemployed and in the park in a country not our own has not lessened, and the joy of being welcomed, being part of a community has greatly grown. Habits like these, small bits of exercise in public, are some of the moments we remember longest, after new jobs have come and swept away our afternoons. We are lucky, then, to re-discover them, and lucky to have this break to make them new.

New traditions

Wun Sha Gai

On our street the old couple sets out their boxes of fruit and vegetables before we wake. Today there are passion fruits and cherries along with the standard oranges, apples, and pears. On the far side from our window there is lettuce, cabbage, mushrooms and potatoes. Next door the local restaurant does a brisk business in toast, eggs, fried pork and some noodles. Up and down the street chairs and tables are set out and proprietors take in the air. It is Christmas morning and the world is quiet, but not empty.

For the first time this pattern is familiar. Unlike the year before we do not hoard groceries before the two day holiday, Christmas and Boxing Day. We are comfortable that the grocery store and fruit stand will be open. In the afternoon our neighborhood is alive, someone somewhere hammering on a tin sheet trying to fix an awning. Mostly it is the foreigners that are quiet, not visible on rooftops, their apartment windows shaded and dark. Of our local establishments only the coffee shop is closed. I am glad that they get a break, the Australians and locals who run it. Outside, on it’s steps, a couple takes photos of their Akita, lush and happy in the cooler weather.

The weather is relative, of course. Twenty one C is not exactly cold, not to these children of Colorado and New York. Not, probably, to that dog bred for northern Japan. A balmy Christmas is still new to us, and for the week leading up to it we are uncertain of the season, busy with other pursuits. Finally, though, with the Christmas tree in the building lobby and carols sung by groups in Cantonese outside our train station, we acquiesce and agree. Far from family and with many friends traveling, we spend the days quiet, reading and chatting. These are always some of my favorite days, the quiet ones at end of one year and the beginning of the next. They are time for reflection and for planning, for taking stock of growth and remembering our hopes.

In these years we barely give presents. We share a few, with friends nearby and those we encounter on our travels, or those elsewhere when inspiration strikes. Mostly though we grin at each other, carrying fruit back to our apartment in the sunlight, lucky already with what we wanted most.

New metrics

Electric Road

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I am looking for a spray bottle. It’s our anniversary, the original one, and I’ve purchased a succulent to honor it. The succulents I’d gathered over previous years got moved from San Francisco to the East Bay but not all the way here. So I sought a new one, and then flowers, and now a spray bottle to care for them. In Tin Hau this search means walking down the street, eyes open. Eventually it means a ten Hong Kong dollar purchase from a store that sells stationary, toys, and basic household supplies. Tucked in the back near scrub brushes and a cutting board I find two sizes of bottle and opt for the larger one, in bright translucent colors.

For years now we’ve been evaluating cities, measuring them against our desires and needs. From the earliest days of this site, when smiles were my underrated metric for economic growth in boomtown Shanghai, I’ve been watching places. In Houston the bicycle infrastructure, or relative dispersal of it compared to Shanghai, was what struck me. Gas stations existed on every other corner while repairing a bicycle required a mile or more of travel. This set of facts, once realized, described adequately the built environment, the preferences of locals, the density of jobs, housing, and food, and the danger of streets for pedestrians. After all, cyclists rarely cause death. And so Houston gave me a new way to consider cities, a way to review wherever came next.

In San Francisco I spent days considering elevation and microclimates, these subtle shapes of hill and weather that have huge impacts on residential desirability across the city. The fog is a force in SF, and neighborhoods are defined by their position relative to its reach. The Sunset remains affordable partially because, come evening, it is entirely within the fog bank. The rest of its affordability, or what little remains after twenty years of appreciation, is due to the lack of transit, either highway or train.

In Hong Kong for months now I’ve struggled to clarify my thinking. I like it” and It feels good” remain mediocre rationales. The cliche, while true, that we live in a city but can quickly access the mountains or ocean is not what pulled me here. Something else explains why walking home from our noodle shop in the evening makes us so happy.

And so my quest for a spray bottle. In America, a desire like this results first in an online search. In a location where travel is expensive, dangerous, and personally demanding, it’s no surprise to see delivery flourish and online shopping rise. This rise brings with it the lack of neighborhood unity due to decreased exposure to nearby residents, the failure of local small-scale retail, and the creation of a poorly paid and utterly dehumanized delivery class to take the transit risks and bear the costs. For those reasons as well as the related sedentary health effects, it isn’t a culture that appeals to me. But how to express this preference succinctly?

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I go in search of a plastic spray bottle. I walk seven blocks in eight minutes before finding one. In those seven blocks I pass three 7 Elevens, two grocery stores, one fruit stand, one vegetable stand, and countless small restaurants. I am never alone. Many of my neighbors are outside walking dogs, doing errands, chatting with friends, or coming home from work or activities. I purchase the bottle and then some sushi for dinner from a take out place. It’s a nice night. People are eating outside or in line for bubble tea near the train station. The whole city feels alive and engaged. Walking home amidst all my neighbors it strikes me: this search is a way to evaluate cities. In Hong Kong the fastest way to find something is to walk out of the house and start looking.

I remember coming home one day at the beginning of this year, not long after moving, excited with a discovery. Troye Sivan is playing in May” I said, entering the house. I saw a poster walking home.”

At the time we laughed about how learning about upcoming concerts and music releases from posters plastered on walls felt like New York in the 90’s. Now I think that for as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve learned by walking outside. That’s pretty new for me, a child of the American countryside. In rural America the fastest way to get anything, before Amazon, was to get in a car and drive 20 minutes. Walking was a good way to discover blackberries, and occasionally animals.

And so, one year in, I have a new way to evaluate cities, and a further explanation for why we love Hong Kong. What’s the fastest way to find something? It’s one more way to think about the places we inhabit, and what shapes the sense of life and community in each.

Passing through

In the foggy chill of a November San Francisco evening I head home to a place I’ve never lived. After a jet lagged day in the office, a round of mini golf with coworkers, and dinner with an old friend I am tired and full. Crossing Dolores I am also alone, in the strange way of San Francisco where ten pm sees all responsible individuals indoors save in a few tiny commercial strips. In Hong Kong there would be dozens of folk out of doors in all directions now, a level of activity not only explained by the weather.

I’m happy to be at home in the Castro this week, a neighborhood I haven’t frequented since our early years in the city a decade ago. On these recent trips I take advantage of friends’ generosity as both a cost saving measure for the current startup and a fringe benefit of the long flights. These evenings with people I now live too far from are quite a perk. We discuss old times, sharing memories of China and San Francisco in equal measure. I am often confused about bed times and vague about meals, but good conversation is not as vulnerable to displacement.

The sense of home, though, has gone. That is the starkest change, walking home across Church, or up Market past Safeway and the Churchill. I know these places, having bought thanksgiving dinner fixings at one and fancy cocktails at the other, but they are no longer part of my city. I spend a morning thinking about this as I ride Muni to work. It’s been so long that I try to swipe my Clipper card on the way out of the gates, like Bart, only to have the station attendant remind me that’s not necessary on Muni. It must have been five years since I rode it last.

And then suddenly in a text message it’s explained to me, obviously. Visiting San Francisco now is like returning to Shanghai in two thousand ten, two years or so after moving away. Everything is familiar, it still can feel like home, but it isn’t, and in some way it doesn’t. I’ll always be comfortable here, but probably never again a resident. Just like Shanghai. And the metro confusion of the Powell street Muni gates matches so well my lack of knowledge of line 10’s stops past Xujiahui in two thousand nine. These are places we know but have forgotten, or places that have changed.

On my way to the climbing gym this evening, to meet old friends and enjoy one of the largest bouldering gyms in the world for a couple of hours before my flight, I pass Chase Center, the Warriors new home. It’s a colossus, a sparkling modern money-printing facility. The last time I rode this street I could see straight through the structure. Only the girders were in place, phantoms of the future bleachers curves mirrored in their arcs.

Like all cities, San Francisco is changing. Like all people, we are changing. Many of my friends no longer live here, not in the city proper. It has only been a single year, and yet the pace of their evacuation is startling. The people I stayed with in September have fled north since that visit, a scant two months prior. I wonder how long I will have friends here at all. And then I arrive at the gym and find another friend sprawled on the mats unexpectedly. It will be a while, I realize. My five years of connections to Shanghai have still not faded, not fully. Nine years in SF will likewise not fade too fast. It’s just the sense of home that has moved on, to warmer and denser cities where my cat wanders the park and is taken out to dinner at the noodle shop.

Time now to get back there, again on this long commute.

Waiting for the train

Unuma station

Standing on a train platform outside Gifu I take stock of how far we’ve come. Far not in the sense of two about to be three trains this morning from Nagoya airport, or even the one flight from HKG prior. Nor do I mean far in that this is our fourth trip to Japan in twenty nineteen. Far in the sense I meant when I volunteered to live in the happening world.

I’ve come to recognize the burst of confusion that comes with this heightened motion. After forgetting my Guandong hotel room number twice my first trip with my last job, a whirlwind tour of sixteen suppliers in four days, I’ve become more careful. I pack lighter, of course, and with more regular repetition, to ease the memory requirements. And I try, always, to require less.

On Saturdays the train we are waiting for comes every thirty minutes, so we have some time to think. We stand on the platform in the shade and eat bread from a shop at the last train station, washing it down with tea from a vending machine. There are a few locals also waiting, though most have read the train schedule and will walk up to the platform closer to the train’s arrival. This station is of an older era, where tickets can be bought en route in cash, not just by Suica at the upstairs gates. The station is quiet save for a through train that clatters past on the center tracks without slowing. This is a diesel line and the train’s exhaust doesn’t help the heat. Early September is still warm here, though nothing like the heat of August in Tokyo.

Landing this morning in Nagoya Tokyo felt like a long time ago. Thinking back to that rooftop in Hatsudai is what started this reflection on pace. Since we were in Tokyo, the last time I wrote here, I have been to Taiwan. It was my first time in the country, seeing a Taipei night market, having lunch in the mountains to the north, and then wandered Taichung the following evening. Since we were in Tokyo I have also spent most of a week working in San Francisco, riding Jump bikes to the office and climbing gym. Since Tokyo, I’ve spent five separate days in Shenzhen and Dongguan, days of walking borders and visiting suppliers. All these places, not yet correctly memorized or considered, I’ve seen since our trip to Tokyo that is both the prior post and exactly one month ago.

Cue the happening world.

These bursts of motion come with the start of new things. Since the last unexpected end I’ve been in motion more than not, leaving behind a list of adventures that seems absurd when recounted. As my first summer in Asia since two thousand eight, I’m enjoying the luxury of short flights and high speed train rides more than long trans-Pacific loops. Yet I’ve done those too, three times since June. As records go I can’t yet tell where twenty nineteen will end in places slept, but I know how it will feel: like the blur of motion.

I still love the Shinkansen. For this boy from New York, the first Shinkansen was a miracle, something pulled fully realized out of an alternate world. Riding the new high speed rail link between Kowloon and Shenzhen at least once a week now, I appreciate it just as much. Fifteen minutes to Shenzhen rather than the previous hour is quite a change. An hour and a half direct link to Shaoguan is amazing. The speed, ease, and comfort with which we transition from place to place remains the same kind of miracle it was at eighteen. In this way it has been a gift, these past weeks, to go on a small tour of the region’s high speed rail lines. I’ve ridden Taiwan’s line from Taipei to Taichung and back. I took the China high speed rail from Hong Kong to Shanghai, and the original Shinkansen line from Osaka to Tokyo, all since July. Finishing this piece in Osaka again, I can now add the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Osaka to the list, the same line as a month prior in the opposite direction.

As with many things, it turns out the alternate world that I discovered at eighteen wasn’t some fantasy place of imagination. It was simply a country that invested in non-car transportation infrastructure. To my delight there are several such places within easy reach of our new home.

Which is the largest change from earlier moments where I felt part of the happening world. I no longer bust down broken streets in LA in a borrowed Mini, nor do I drive hours along the border highway just east of Tijuana. Instead I walk down the dusty streets of Bao’an to the new line 11 metro stop, and then transfer at Futian to the high speed rail back to Hong Kong.

There are cars, of course, like the one that will retrieve me shortly for a visit to a factory outside Osaka. Cars have not disappeared, but their role has shrunk so much in this new life. They now serve as occasional connectors between rail and factory, factory and hotel.

Living, as we do, in a world where lists of places seen and slept are a bundle of cities that do not share countries, it’s the long-term trends that stand out, not each individual place. On my second visit to this Osaka hotel I know where the subway entrances are. This summer I have been to San Francisco three times and only in cars as a means of exiting the airport or crossing the Bay Bridge. Once again the metal chariot is not gone, the age of the automobile is not over. There is a different way, though, and we’re finding it, while remaining all the while in constant motion.

Cue again the happening world.

Eyes open heart wide

Moving means everything is new and of unknown interest. As a result I spend weeks wandering with my eyes and ears open. Exploring, in the tame urban sense of it. I look out of doors, in shops, up stairs, and around corners. More than a month in, Hong Kong is as full as I’d hoped and I have no sense of the limits. Learning a new place is best done by wandering without earbuds, and without goals. Tonight, sitting on the top level of the tram heading home at golden hour, every angle looked good. Every direction provided some new detail to absorb. Bamboo scaffolding. Laundry hanging out of windows. Purple neon in the top floor of busses. Commuters watching their phones. Commuters crossing the street. People in upper story windows just getting home, and people in shops picking up things for the weekend.  All these parts of the city convey the sense of motion and depth that I love so much. There are people everywhere.

The appeal of density is a difficult thing to explain. I’ve tried for years, thinking about why fleeing the dark of rural China for Shanghai’s lights feels better than anything. Last week, on a bus back from Zhuhai to Hong Kong, I felt that pull again, that desire to be where the lights and people are. And here, on Hong Kong Island, walking home from the tram, I have made it back once again. I feel as comfortable as I can, considering I can’t yet speak Cantonese.

My wanderings are one way to enjoy the density of this city, to appreciate the variety of life, of housing, of jobs being done. Taking new routes to familiar places is a way to immerse myself in this city, to absorb as much as I can of my new home. Because eventually, as with all things, I’ll be busier, and have less time for extra steps. I’ll be focused on other things, and not remember the city I chose to live in the way I thought of it before moving. I won’t remember the Hong Kong of the past few years, where I took Sundays off after long Dongguan weeks. I might not remember the Novotel breakfasts of my business trips. Instead this city will join San Francisco, Houston, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York, Boston, and all the places I’ve lived in my memories. It will be full of friendships and struggles, the ongoing geography of real life.

Today, though, on the tram home, Hong Kong was still firmly in the realm of places I have always wanted to spend more time. And by keeping my eyes open and my mind empty, I’m trying to keep it there for as long as life will let me.

Fishing for peace

Harbor view

On the edge of a block of concrete built to support a highway, they fish. It’s Sunday, and the sun is going down on the weekend, out to our left behind the island. These concrete chunks would already be in shadow were they not perpetually so because of the highway above. In Hong Kong some shade is a good thing, and these are regular fishing spots. The fishermen, for they are all men, seem to know who sits where without any spoken interaction, which points to a long established tradition. People have been fishing these blocks on the shore of Quarry Bay for years, probably since before there were concrete blocks to fish from.

The real joy from this spot isn’t the fishing, though. It’s the water, and the view across to Kowloon, Lion Rock, and Kwun Tong. That far shore is still lit, a beautiful shimmer of golden hour glory and the bay’s moving reflection that emphasize how much Hong Kong is a city of the ocean and the mountains. And so there are photographers here too, both casual and more serious, trying to capture this light. In so many ways the city, the dense urban towers that are home to eight million people, appears the smallest part of the view. Perhaps this is why so many people are able to live so tightly; the water and mountains are often in sight and rarely out of reach.

The story of density is told frequently as a sacrifice, but rarely as a comfort. Here, watching the fishermen sit on their blocks of concrete, rods out and down and lines into the bay, less than a dozen feet from each other and mostly silent, is a reminder that company without conversation can bring peace. In many ways the stories of dense urban areas are not of individual apartments but of shared spaces. Whether Central Park in New York or along the rivers of Paris and Rome, the spaces we share are what builds the fabric of the city. In these spaces we see each other, and are not alone.

In Hong Kong as Sunday ends I am so happy to walk the shoreline and watch all those out, like me, to find some peace. Fishing, jogging, taking photos, or just wandering, we’re all here together, part of this island and this city.

Ease of operation

Looking out

We land in Hong Kong with nine checked bags, which is strangely the most efficient method of transporting the sum of our San Francisco years. Waiting for them I remember other moves, and the challenges of each. Where has the boy gone who left Tokyo with two suitcases, who did not know how to get a taxi or any RMB on landing in Shanghai? What of the boy who left Shanghai with those same two suitcases and two shipped boxes, put on 3 month China Post slow boats destined for Houston? And most of all, what does this mean for the man who has disembarked at this same gate a dozen times over the last two years, carrying a single duffel?

They are all here, these previous selves, well aware of the way we pack when trying to take everything we own on short notice. They are here, in an airport we know so well, watching me maneuver this very full cart down the slight ramp to the taxi stand. They are voices in my head asking how these bags will ever go in a small Hong Kong taxi trunk.

Moving is a test. We test our ability to let go in a way that is painful and educational. We have said goodbye to our friends, to our neighborhood, to our house, to our routines, and to our stuff. Bicycles have been moved, sold, and given away. Art, furniture, kitchen gear and more has been handed off to people who will be able to enjoy them without transporting them more than a few miles. Soon we will part with the car, the bed, and finally the apartment that we’ve loved for the past four years. Moving is an experience filled with sadness, and with uncertainty. By letting go of all these things we are able to make space for new ones, whether that means new apartments or new shoes. And by letting go of our country and our city, at least for now, we are able to discover.

In Hong Kong in early October the weather is beautiful. At seven am, as we struggle with the overloaded carts, it’s a balmy twenty eight C, the humidity not too high. Wearing pants still from the airplane we are already slightly sweaty but able to manage. And we are able to discover how our new home operates.

The fourth vehicle in the taxi queue is a van, and the driver enthusiastically helps us cram all our bags in, guitar and skateboard included. The process, which I’d been dreading since the night before, takes five minutes and then we’re on the road, both in the same car, on our way to the hotel. Having used two separate Lyft rides to get to SFO sharing the taxi is a treat. En route we realize, were we going the other way, Hong Kong to SFO, we could have checked all these bags at Central and ridden the train out to HKG with only our carry ons. From moment one Hong Kong impresses with functionality. All nine checked bags go on a cart at the hotel and are whisked away to a storage room. Moving, even with more stuff than we could carry, isn’t that bad. Two hours after landing we go for a swim in a pool overlooking the harbor, and begin to relax.

As an asthmatic one of the other challenges of moving is procuring medicine. In the US and in Japan inhalers have required a complicated dance of doctors and pharmacies. In China for so long they were available over the counter, only becoming prescription in two thousand seven. So it is with some slight trepidation that I set out to find one on our second day in Hong Kong.

I purchase one after five minutes of looking for a pharmacy in Mongkok, for $93 HKD, or $12 USD. In SF they have cost me $25 for the past two years, with good insurance. No one is quite sure how much extra the insurance company has to pay, on top of my $25. For the second time in two days I’m reminded of why we leave, why we move and challenge ourselves. Without those painful goodbyes, without the long days of packing and worrying, we would never have learned how easy moving can be, and how cheap medication can come.

These examples are mundane, and yet they’re a reminder that what seems daunting isn’t always so, and that taking risks is one way of discovering new joy.

Here then is to the next few months, which will be full of new neighborhoods and first time discoveries. They come at a high cost, one we’ve paid over years, and will bring benefits we have not yet learned to expect.

Heat rising

A friend of ours is fond of observing patterns in the movements of people. One of his favorite targets is migrations around the United States. For the most part domestic migration in the US is from cold places to warmer places, specifically from the north east and upper midwest to the south west and south east. These are not exactly new trends, nor is he the first to note them, but repetition does influence minds.

The trend I watch most closely, living inside of it as we do, is that of California as wealth pump, bringing in people, increasing their net worth, and then seeing them depart for cheaper housing, smaller towns, lower property taxes, and proximity to family. Unlike the north east, most people leaving California are not seeking better weather. As with my friend and his observations, California’s trend has been going on long before I became aware of it. We discuss them together, on occasion, because they have a similar side effect: this migration is changing the cost and tenor of the destinations. California does not just export wealth to Denver, it exports beliefs. New York and Michigan do likewise to South Carolina and Arizona. In an era where the self-sorting of Americans by political beliefs has been well explored, this is a counter tale of remixing.

And so, arriving in Austin for a wedding, I am glad to find the cranes sprouting over downtown. I am excited to see balconies on the apartment towers going up, and a dense neighborhood of bars at their feet. Bands play and cars, while present, are forced to stop for crowds of pedestrians, cycle taxis, and small electric vehicles. Near by a new hotel rises with more music in its lobby and a stylish walkway across the street to a section of creek. We wander late into the night and are never alone. So much of the city is outside and celebrating at the end of the school year, before summer truly begins. As the heat dies around nine pm, so too does the city come alive. It’s a rare sensation for those of us accustomed to San Francisco’s five pm fog and evening hoodies.

Austin still sprawls, and we spend much of our weekend in neighborhoods that are actually towns, places with names like Driftwood, Pflugerville, and Dripping. These places are accessible only by car and feature large houses and good schools. In many ways, Texas is still Texas.

Yet we are there for the wedding of someone born in Colorado, and visit friends who have moved from San Francisco and work in tech, on transit, and with future startup founders. These are people who want to bike to work or who work from home, and who care about density, sustainability, and public schools. The trends, at least this weekend, feel real. Walking past construction sites for future residential towers and seeing others just opened I am glad to see Austin rising in the heat in support.

Construction crews

Cranes and city

Out the window of my tiny Hong Kong hotel the scaffolding rises. In a wonderful match, my room is at exactly the height of the top-most floor of the buildings being built in front of this Hotel Ibis in North Point. The last time I was here, in December, the construction did not reach my room, topping out several floors below. Now I have a front row seat to the working day of a Hong Kong construction crew. They are busy today, a Saturday, having started at seven am. The buildings, a set of apartment towers along the bay, are already twenty plus stories tall, cased in the green netting so common to construction sites here. Like most their scaffolding is all bamboo, the tops of it poking out of the netting like a strange headless forest.

In the United States, in San Francisco, this would be amazing. Fifty to a hundred people that I can see, three cranes, and everything surrounded by bamboo. Here, like most of Asia, it’s just how buildings go up. Flexible, light, and resilient, the bamboo moves with the wind, though not enough to notice without tedious observation. Beyond the construction site from me lies the harbor, full of sailboats and tugboats moving past. Across the water lies the old airport, now a cruise ship terminal, and a large collection of working ships, dredgers, short haulers, and barges. Beyond that high rises stretch to the mountains. The sky is blue, though brown on the horizon just over the mountains. For Hong Kong it is a cold eighteen degrees C.

These apartments are the second phase of a project, and their identical siblings sit completed just up the road. They will block most of the wonderful views of this incredibly reasonably priced hotel, which is sad but to be expected. Nothing lasts forever, especially not budget hotel rooms in Hong Kong with full harbor views. Better to enjoy, and move on, like this construction crew. I wonder where they are from, how far they had to travel to be here at seven am on a Saturday in early March. Are they locals, or from the mainland? From a hundred yards away at twenty three storeys up they look local, and stay busy. There are few smoke breaks, few idle minutes. That isn’t to say they’re always moving, like all construction crews they wait for materials, for the crane, and have meetings to discuss the next stage at various points through out the day. Unlike Japan they wear no uniforms, instead mostly t-shirts, jeans, and hard hats. It’s a pleasant look, an almost American look. If Americans stood twenty three stories up on bamboo. If Americans built a half dozen apartment blocks at a time, in a city already full of them.

In some ways Hong Kong represents so much of my struggle with the United States, and I can’t help but see the echoes of San Francisco in the bay and mountains. That overlapping view defines much of my thinking, and the frequent bounces from one to the other reinforce the symmetry while highlighting the differences. I am here again for the weekend, sick at the end of a week spent in country, Shenzhen Dongguan Zhuhai and back in a loop of vans and trains and ferries that has given my throat little time to heal. These two days, then, are a break, a peaceful moment with a view. Breaks like this at the end of trips, as I’ve written before, are something I’ve learned, a way to come home relaxed instead of exhausted. A way to return, happy, to San Francisco and my cat.

Visiting weekends

On Sundays in Hong Kong the overhead walkways are coveted space. At eight thirty most are taken, demarcated with twine or blankets by the early risers. These women make phone calls or read, holding space for friends. By noon all spots will be filled and the chatter of friendship will echo off the walls of these temporary cement salons. This occupation of public space is part of Hong Kong, repeated and and relatable in a way comforting to this San Francisco visitor. In my Mission neighborhood it is the streets and sidewalks that are occupied on Sundays, rather than overhead walkways. The small sidewalk sales, drinking, and disruption are rather more confrontational in nature than Hong Kong’s collection of weekday workers FaceTiming their families. The juxtaposition is strange, and comforting. Like myself, the migrant workers of Hong Kong have only Sunday off. It is our sole moment of personal peace while in a foreign country. Unlike them, I spend the single day in a solitary fashion, drinking coffee, climbing, and writing in my hotel room. I am lucky to be here in the employ of a US company, to have access to discretionary funds, to have energy to explore. I do not need to carve out a section of stairwell to have private space, nor bring cardboard to pad the ground. And yet I too will FaceTime my family, I too will chat with friends similarly distant, and I too will go back to work in the evening, ready for another week of long days in a country not my own.

In some small way then I appreciate these women’s situation, their choice, however constrained, to live in this country and work hard for money they can share with a family they see only on screen. Watching them set up their places early this morning I appreciate their perseverance, their laughter, and their community. And I appreciate the culture that has employed them so willingly but also that allows them this one day a week of occupancy. The freedom to take over public spaces, in fact to appear in public spaces at all, is not taken for granted, and is not common. The fact that Hong Kong’s walkways are covered on Sundays with evidence of the city’s dependence on migrants is a reminder that public space can be shared and maintained for everyone, regardless of origin.

Conbini

My first night in Shanghai, in August of two thousand three, I wandered Nanjing East road, the pedestrian street. I was overwhelmed by China, unable to speak or read, and afraid of spending money. As I’ve written before, I ended up at a Lawson’s, the Japanese convenience store brand an island of familiarity in the flashing neon.

In some ways convenience stores are the signposts of my life in Asia. In Saitama in two thousand one I paid my cell phone bill at the AM PM down the street. In Shanghai I relied on the All Days on the corner for phone card refills, water, and directions, once I’d learned enough to ask the women who worked there where things were in the neighborhood. In both cases the convenience store, one block from my apartment, was a hub for the neighborhood and the first place to try when in need of anything.

This idea is familiar to Americans. Convenience stores dot the suburban American landscape, attached to gas stations and owned by oil companies. They feature slushy-makers and horrible coffee, and have spawned the big gulp and helped fuel the rise of Red Bull and Monster Energy. When we head out of San Francisco on a weekend we inevitably end up at one, bright exterior and interior a welcome respite from Interstate 80 and the traffic that always halts us near Vacaville.

And yet here in the city there are none. The fundamental unit of Asian life, the corner convenience store open 24/7 and featuring fax machines, hot food, liquor, milk, toiletries and basic first aid supplies, does not exist. There are bodegas, small family-run groceries, and liquor stores, each featuring some subset of the true conbini’s goods and all closing between 8 and midnight. There is no neon beacon of familiar branding, no Lawson to anchor the visitor from out of town, no central place to buy water, milk or a phone card.

Walgreens, CVS, and Duane Reade fill this niche in New York and San Francisco, the drug store turned grocery turned convenience, but they close at eleven and their wares vary incredibly by location. Out in the Richmond district of San Francisco I lived next to a Walgreens that had fresh produce and was open till midnight. In the Mission the Walgreens features toys and makeup and is, on the whole, dirtier than one would hope. I am sure the employees would agree. Down in the tourist areas of the city there are Walgreens with fresh food, with good coffee, with tourist souvenirs and a wide array of local delicacies. These stores are true centers of neighborhoods, save for the fact that their customers live at hotels, and the stores still close in the evenings. They are comforting, and frequented by visitors who need food and supplies and have no familiar options, but these stores do not provide true convenience for the residents of San Francisco.

In Bangkok a few weeks ago I would go to a 7 Eleven every day or two for extra water for our hotel room, for bandages and ointment for our cuts, and for beer for our spirits. All over the city the bright yellow orange and green sings stand out and are relied on.

I understand the downside to this kind of globalization and the dominance of single brands, and value the strange bodega in Bed Stuy where a friend and I get egg on croissants some days. The cooks are middle eastern and the clientele black, jewish, hispanic. The diversity of food and supplies there is a reminder of how special local places can be, how different than the global norm.

And yet, in San Francisco late at night, the only option are liquor stores that primarily cater to the homeless population, and have no food or household necessities. Walking home late in the evening after a long day in the sun I wonder why, and imagine a Family Mart on my corner. How useful that would be, for myself and the neighbors. How quickly it would become an institution, relied upon for shipping, mail, concert tickets, scanning, printing, or just the occasional late night hot meal. I would dearly love the cold ramen dishes Tokyo locations stock daily.

Unfortunately Family Mart peaked at nine stores in the US, all in Los Angeles, and closed them all in 2015. None were attached to gas stations.

Sad to think that convenience, in America, requires a car.

Personal monuments

Bangkok window

Now ten years and more have
Gone by

says Gary Snyder in my favorite poem. For this site and myself they have, and I can not help but consider the distance covered.

The decade has gone by in a very human fashion; it has passed in the small actions of waking, writing, and commuting that are repeated daily and in the large decisions of moving and hoping made more rarely and slowly.

Ten years ago, after fiddling with tools and styles for much of two years, inhab.it became a home. Looking back those early worries seem quixotic, and, like so much of life, the product of a different boy. Stylistically inhab.it has varied but topically so much of what I hoped to say is still here and has been brought with me from one city to the next, from one theme to the next.

In two thousand six, at the end of a long relationship, I spent hours on a balcony in Shanghai and trying to write. I had spent much of two thousand five in the same fashion, accumulating awareness of neighbor’s daily routines and a familiarity with the wonton shop across the street that sold a bowl full for two point four RMB. By the time I managed to focus on the technical side of the internet, much of my life was already changing. After years of underemployment I was finally busy. After two years in a two story apartment with three balconies and a cat I was planning to move. And after years of trying to write I was ready to share.

Ten years later, sitting on a rooftop in Bangkok, I try to remember the uncertainty and the hope of life in Shanghai in two thousand six. The writing from that year conveys so much to me now, and is exactly why I started the site. The future is always impossible to see, but looking backwards we are able to trace the pattern of our lives. In that first year of scattered posts lives a focus on people, cities, bicycles, Shanghai, and memory.

My memories of Bangkok are older than this site. They begin with arriving in two thousand four with one bag and no plans save to eventually make it back to the United States. We’d been down south in the islands for a week, enjoying the start of the relationship that would be ending two years later as this site went live. On my own on the bus into Bangkok from the airport I met some fellow backpackers who would end up taking me on midnight motorbike rides around the city, adventures I would otherwise have known little about.

In two thousand sixteen we relax on this rooftop with a pool for a week, recovering from a motorbike accident in northern Laos. Memories of those earlier trips had warned me of the risks, which I’d ignored. For a week I look out at the construction cranes that dot the skyline and enjoy the city. Much of my memory of urban Bangkok is from two thousand five, an adventure with old roommates from Tokyo. We spend a week in the south on a beach, and a few days on each end in Bangkok. My main memory is of the constant traffic, of finding a nice hotel, and of exploring stations along the one elevated train line.

In two thousand sixteen we take that same train regularly, and are as comfortable as those recently injured can be. It is a strange week, and a good one, an echo of years past in an entirely new fashion. It is as good a place as any to pass this monument to personal habit and to consider the change the past ten years have brought.

Quoted line from Gary Snyder’s December at Yase’, the final poem of his Four Poems for Robin’ published in The Back Country (1968), No Nature (1992) and The Gary Snyder Reader (1999)

Gray skies and hotel windows

Sitting twenty two stories up above Shanghai, I watch the weather and listen to music. Or rather, I look into the weather, a fog of fading white that makes tall buildings invisible only a mile away. I look down at the roofs of shorter buildings, many still under construction. I look at the wall of the nearest tower, its surface covered in the soot of years in this air.

Shanghai’s view does not surprise, though friends ask when I post photos how I, asthmatic, cope with the air. I cope like everyone does, by breathing in, breathing out, and moving forward. By focusing on what there is to do in front of me rather than what there is all around me. Instead of focusing on what there is inside all of us.

It is Sunday, and I am relishing the peace in between weeks on the move. Sometimes that is the greatest gift of hotels in foreign countries.

In May of twenty thirteen I spent a week in Tokyo for work. Living out of a perfectly-designed-for-it’s-size hotel room, I wore a suit and went to izakayas with customers in the evenings. It was the culmination of years of dreaming; suddenly I had a job that took me to one of my favorite places, that gave me a place to stay and a view that I loved. Taking the subway around the city to meetings gave me a glimpse into being a business man in a network of concrete built for them. Pouring out of Hamamatsucho station with the crowd in the evening, walking the two blocks to my room at Hotel MyStay, and taking part in the Tokyo rituals again after so long left me in a perfect mood. With enough time spent alone, work travel has a way of building an atmosphere. After three days of this compact life I was ready for company, mentally.

The National’s Trouble Will Find Me was released that third day. Letting it play in that tiny hotel room for the three days that followed gave me a fresh environment to layer the new music on, to integrate it into. The album became a soundtrack to that week, to convenience store breakfasts and late night FaceTime calls. Now, two and a half years later, a lifetime away, sitting in a hotel room twenty two stories up above Shanghai, those songs still takes me immediately back to Tokyo.

Don’t make me read your mind
You should know me better than that

My current hotel room is much larger, China not lacking space the way Tokyo does. The residents also don’t enjoy the neat confinement of items, the precise layout required to maximize utility. There are extra mirrors and more wood than strictly necessary. Outside of this room China sprawls, with more huge buildings going up to demonstrate ability rather than fill need. Driving to Ningbo last week we crossed the long bridge that spans the bay, avoiding the even longer drive around its circumference through Hangzhou. That longer circle was the only option when I traveled this route frequently by bus in 06. Reaching the far shore, the bay’s south edge, we saw a cluster of towers, maybe thirty, residential and at least twenty floors each.

What are those,” someone asked, meaning what is that town, what is that city.

No one answered. A cluster of identical buildings, they were clearly built in a single go. There was no town nearby, nothing else on the shore of the bay. Why so many apartment towers then, and why so tall? Because space is not an issue in China, and size even less. There are millions of people within an easy drive, millions more within a few hours, all seeking housing and an opportunity. This is China.

In Tokyo everything is tightly constrained, each building wrapped in between all the others. So much so that buildings are often strangely shaped, L’s or T’s or other letters, unable to be squares or circles.

Jennifer you are not the only reason
My head is boiling and my head is freezing

And I remember steaming my suit before meetings, looking in the mirror while working through my pitch for the day. Organizing my notes in the evening and lying on the bed looking out the window as night fell on the city.

Tokyo will always be with me, part of the story of this music. Or this music will always be Tokyo. Some times blending a place and a feeling, a set of songs and a mood, shapes everything we do for years. Sometimes it is just a way of etching time into our minds, deeply enough that years later we are astonished to realize how long ago that was, May of twenty thirteen.

If I stay here, trouble will find me
If I stay here, I’ll never leave

Quoted lyrics from The National’s I Should Live in Salt’, Fireproof’, and the title track off of the 2013 album Trouble Will Find Me

The changing weather

In twenty fifteen the first week of September bakes San Francisco. Several days break 90 F and fans are out of stock. In the Mission temperatures close in on 100 in the late afternoon. At work in Oakland, which is hotter than SF, everyone complains, their houses not built for such temperatures. There are few wrap-around porches in Berkeley, less air conditioning in San Francisco. Heaters for the foggy summer were our primary concern when picking apartments. Heaters and windows, to let in the scant sun.

Instead we brainstorm ways to keep our apartment, picked for its long exposure to the afternoon sun, cool for Mr. Squish. Our first tries are not successful, and we come home to clouds of black fur drifting through the still air as he tries desperately to shed some insulation. On the hottest night we bathe him, and he lounges in the water. Afterwards he wanders the apartment contentedly, wet and dripping in the evening breeze. We sleep with every window open, happy to be part of the slowly cooling city.

On Wednesday, unwilling to leave him to bake, I take him to work. We drive together across the Bay bridge and lounge in the office’s air conditioning. He is a favorite there, drifting from room to room unnoticed until he leaps onto a colleague’s desk in search of snacks. As cats go he’s calm in the face of surprises, and welcomes the adventure.

In Tahoe the weekend before the low lake level was a constant presence. We had to swim or be ferried out to the boat, and most docks were constrained to shallow-drawing vessels. Watching their skeletal structures rise so high above the water I thought of the foresight to have built this far out in the first place, and of droughts that must have come before. I thought of Shasta, already low some four years ago, and wonder if house boating would be fun still. Could we enjoy an escape in an environment so obviously lacking sustenance, so clearly in need of water?

In Tahoe we could, relaxing in the breeze coming off the lake. In San Francisco, that first week of September, we cannot. In the western portions of the city this weather is less extreme, and the ocean provides some breeze. In the Mission, flat and rarely washed clean by rain or wind, heat that endures past dark is a rare feeling. Brooklyn, a few weeks ago, was both hotter and more humid, but the stick of an East Coast summer is to be expected, and evenings out of doors stretch late as the sky cools.

And yet how quickly all weather disappears. This morning, sitting with the windows open, San Francisco is a pleasant 61 F, and Mr. Squish joins me beneath the blanket I’ve spread over my feet, glad of the cover. Neither of us can remember the week prior and our reluctance to touch. Our bodies have forgotten, holding only what they can feel at the moment.

Rattling bottles

On the street outside the recycle bin lid thumps open against the side of the building. It is eight pm and just beginning to get dark. Someone begins digging through the bin, pulling out cans and bottles with clangs and dings, the mechanical sounds of a practiced activity. After a while someone else joins, or tries to, and there is a brief debate, some muttering, and then casual conversation, a little too low to hear. Three floors up I sit with windows open to cool the house. Homeless and searching for income the unseen pair below have agreed not to fight over my scraps. This is life in San Francisco in the twenty first century, living in the Mission. While I was at work today someone peed on my garage door, leaving me to walk my bike around the puddle. Between my house and the Bart station one block away several people have slept and defecated in the last few days, and the street is alternately cleaned and crudely dirty.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco in twenty fifteen.

Tending our strawberry plants on the rooftop I watch the sun set over the hill while the fog rolls in, wrapping around the base of the Sutro Tower. Many days in the summer the entire tower will be engulfed by six pm, leaving the height of the hill itself a mystery, the fog pouring over and down into the Castro, into Duboce Triangle and lower Haight. The cat and I enjoy this varied weather. He sits in the doorway to the stairwell, feeling the breeze, feeling his fur ruffle after the long day alone in the hot apartment. He relishes these breezy evenings, as do I. One block away, on the rooftop of an expensive apartment complex, someone else watches the sunset too, in shorts and a hoodie. We are too far apart to even acknowledge each other. There is a similar building closer, with swimming pool on the roof, to whose inhabitants I could speak with raised voice. That nearer roof is empty though, the residents so new, the building so recently renovated that they do not venture out of doors on week days. Yet residents of all three buildings enjoy these evening views of the Bay Bridge and downtown SF to the east, Twin Peaks and the Sutro Tower to the west.

This is life in the Mission district of San Francisco, where studios go for $3,800 a month and where 4,000 people sleep on the streets.

In many ways San Francisco is the future, with apps that summon cars and dinners and movies and so many things, with electric scooters for rent and wifi in bars. San Francisco is the future in other ways too, with no rain, with no housing, with an incredible income gap, and with a liberal urban population that did not grow up in these hilly neighborhoods.

This morning the escalator to the 16th St Bart station was out of order again. I was not surprised, there had been several pounds of trash pushing up against the bottom of it when I walked out of the station the day prior, and often that trash gets sucked in to the bottom, jamming and breaking the escalator. This trash comes from the dozens of people who spend all day in the plaza at the metro exit, homeless and searching for help. The escalator is repaired weekly, the people left to wander the streets. Later in the evening they will search for cans in the bins outside my apartment. They share, argue, and curse out the fancy cars that have started encroaching on their sleeping spots, the rooftop terraces that host parties they can barely see from the ground.

This is life in San Francisco today, forefront of the future in all regards.

Listening after dark

Lying in bed at night I can hear so much. With eyes open after the lights are out, book down, and mind clear, I have nothing to do but listen. I hear cars on the 101, which is elevated a few blocks northeast. I hear the occasional cyclist on Minna, below my windows. The distant roar of a jet passing overhead after leaving SFO to the south. Closer, someone pushes a shopping cart down Minna, stopping every few houses. Hunting recycling. Someone yells something a block or two away, up Mission. There is no response. A siren moves, fading, in a more distant part of the city, SoMa maybe. And more 101 traffic. The aural landscape tonight is mostly highway. Mostly cars.

The light from the neighbors’ bathroom goes on, shining in through my bathroom window, both rooms sharing the same light well at the center of the building. More cars. Their light goes off. The family in the house next door is talking, a low murmur through the windows. Which stops. One person comes out into the tiny courtyard between our buildings. The thin door bangs behind them.

After a while they go back in side, having stood silently while out. Smoking? No click of lighter or sound of match.

The neighbors bathroom light goes on again. And off. Much shorter.

The cars continue on the 101 as the clock hits eleven pm. The calming background noises of the city as Wednesday ticks toward Thursday.

Time for bed.

Building forever

Landing in Tokyo at night the city does not seem to end. From the air lights stretch away in all directions save where the sea still intrudes. In a bus from the airport this is reinforced, no suburban gap between airport and the city it serves. Neighborhoods change, the area around Haneda giving way to the denser residential sprawl of Tokyo proper, and then micro shifts as the gaps between train stations become the only visible breaks. Like interstate exits in the US, train stations represent the loci of Tokyo, clusters of shops, neon, and light that then spreads out, a subtle Doppler effect of dissipating commercial space, until the pace accelerates before the next station, another bunch of stores and people, taxis and signs. In this pattern we move on through the city in the night.

As many have written, Tokyo feels like the future. On this evening taxi ride, just arrived from Manila and another view of a possible future, I wonder why Tokyo, more than any other city, gets this designation.

The common reasons are obvious and true. It is clean, far more than any other city of size. Efficient too, in a way Germans and Swiss can enjoy. The city is polite in service and accommodating to foreigners, in a fashion that leaves visitors impressed and eager to return.

Our bus and then taxi each pass through separate construction areas, both calmly productive at one am on the morning of a national holiday. Lights are on, workers direct traffic, and the dirt of the digging is neatly contained by cones. Tokyo is, like New York, in constant repair. And yet there are no potholes, the average street seems five years old, and the sidewalk is level, blind strips and all. How can this city be so large and so well-maintained?

The smell, stepping out of the taxi, is what I remember most. Tokyo in the rain. So different than the smell of rain in Hong Kong, a few weeks back, or Bohol last week. So different than Shanghai, Dongguan, or San Francisco’s smells, the cities I now know well. The smell is clean, to my nose, lacking pollution and not quite of the ocean in the way Bohol was.

Now, a few days later, I think that the magic of Tokyo is not in just in the trains, or the organization, or the maintenance, but in all three. The magic is found in the attention to detail on all ends of the organism that is Tokyo. From construction to use to repair and replacement, the extra measure of care can seem robotic or idyllic. Especially after the vagaries of public transit in the Bay Area, after the impenetrable morass of Manila traffic, Tokyo’s mechanical functionality can seem impossible, the cleanliness obviously forced, drawing the inevitable comparisons to Disney or Singapore.

Instead I think, it represents what could be, not what will be. It represents what people might build, if so determined as a large group. Manila and San Francisco, St. Louis and Dongguan do likewise. All that differs are the people, and the complex intermingling of abilities, desire, and willingness to work together.

In this view the future of Tokyo is both approachable and impossible, marvelous and out of reach. It’s a city to love, I think. More than anything it’s a wonderful place. Standing on the balcony of our rented apartment, looking out at the city and falling rain, it is a place I am so glad to see.

Just around the corner

On a Sunday in October we are in search of a bike shop. Between the two of us we have a bald tire and aging brakes. In 2014 we’ve increased our miles ridden, part of the transition to a single car and a Mission apartment. In exchange, bicycles that have neither needed nor recieved maintenance in years are due and deserving. Over lunch we search out a place, now an act of skimming crowd-sourced recommendations that becomes more familiar with every move. We rely on those we have never met so regularly, bus drivers and engineers, architects and grid operators, that asking for recommendations anonymously is an easy habit. It’s an exchange made more personal by profiles and star ratings for restaurants and shops, if not more important. And with each recommendation tested we become more comfortable in this, our third San Francisco neighborhood. It is a comfort built on learning, slowly, where to go for what. For bicycles this is our first try. Our last cycle shop was in the Sunset, and evolved during our time in the neighborhood, Roaring Mouse transforming into Everybody Bikes as the former moved to the Marina.

In the Richmond we did not have a local favorite, preferring the 38 and a walk to a chill ride home through Golden Gate Park most nights.

In Shanghai we had many mechanics, all over the city, wherever they were needed.

On Nanyang Lu behind Plaza 66 one evening, having gotten a flat on a broken bottle. Somewhere in the old town one night after a volleyball game when the starter on my electric scooter failed. Mostly, though, on Yongjia Lu at Yueyang Lu, a block from our last apartment. A tiny shop, really the front of a house, filled with equipment packed densly in each evening and pulled out on to the sidewalk during business hours. The man who ran it also made keys.

On these earlier searches we mostly did not have Yelp, did not rely on unknown people, save for the mechanics themselves, or other cyclists met on the street. Instead we used the bicycles themselves to explore and discover.

Like all such searches, in the Mission we are seeking both convenience and quality, focusing on a small area and hoping that our neighborhood can support the service. It can, and we find sevaral options, settling on one that is both open and near our favorite coffee shop.

Years ago I wrote about neighborhood boundaries, and familiarity. Building that knowledge again in the Mission I think of how transportation defines it, how bicycles expand it and reward casual exploration due to the low cost of going one more block, or an unfamiliar route. Without too much concern for one way streets, traffic, or parking, bicycles are better than cars in this regard. They are better than walking as well, for the limited energy expended to cover six blocks in all permutations. Or our bicycles will be, once they have brakes and tires.

We own four bicycles, though only two are available on this Sunday. The oldest, my Haro, purchased in Venice in 2006, is still in Los Angeles at a friend’s house. Having come with us from LA to Houston in 2008, to San Francisco in 2009, it returned to LA in 2011, less than perfectly suited to the wiggle and San Francisco’s hills.

The second, one of two old Peugeot frames, was damaged by a car on 19th Ave in 2010 and, though having been repaired several times, now needs a new front tire, perhaps wheel, and sits without either in our garage.

Two working bicycles then, just enough for exploration, for a quick trip to the gym and some meandering to a new lunch spot. Just enough to take us to the edges of our neighborhood and to expand those edges. Part of learning each new portion of San Francisco or of our earlier cities is figuring out where the boundaries are, where neighborhoods end and to what distance errands can be run. In the Mission, one of San Francisco’s few flat neighborhoods, our reach is wider than it was in either the Sunset or the Richmond.

Here then, finally healthy and home long enough rebuild the center of a life that has been moved and shaken this year, we seek a bike shop, a place to repair and replace. We find our answer three blocks away, Box Dog Bikes. Checking out the bikes for sale while my brakes are replaced, I think of Roaring Mouse, and of my old resource in Shanghai, the man who opened his front doors every morning, and made keys as well as repaired bicycles. We change cities and neighborhoods, and yet seek the same assistance.

No surprise then that in each the shops are not far, around the corner and waiting to be found.

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.

In cities we trust

Living tightly packed requires a certain trust unique to cities. In my rural home town no unfamiliar faces pull in to get gas at the Citgo. No strange children show up to play ball at the North Lansing Firehall. With an average grade of less than 100 children, everyone in the Lansing public school system knows each other, has a cousin in the grade ahead and a sister two grades below. People become part of the town’s tapestry, have kids in the school musical, coach each other’s children in little league and hang out at the lake together in the heat of August.

Living near each other in Tokyo requires forgetting where one person ends and the next begins, sacrificing self for the ability to return home on the last Saikyo line train. Stepping out in Yonohommachi in 2002 I remember most the first block, back along the train tracks, still wrapped in scents that were not my own. Beer. Sweat. Food I had not eaten. Perfume I did not purchase, or apply. For several blocks, until the streets became small and the crowds disappeared, until I passed the grapevines, I was not entirely myself, having given up my scent to the city of Tokyo.

In so many ways living in a city requires vigilance. In Ithaca in 1997 I used to leave the keys on the floor of my 1984 Volvo 240, windows rolled down to the summer heat. In San Francisco in 2014 strange sounds wake me in the night and my first instinct is to check on our Volvo, a 1997 model now, parked on the street outside. Our apartment doors, often open in Houston in 2009, are secured carefully in San Francisco, watched over by cats and by neighbors. Yet it is that trust of neighbors that persists, that grows. Because unlike in Lansing where I played ball or built tree forts with our neighbors, here we know little of each other’s lives, but watch each other’s doorways anyway. Here we are brought to trust by proximity rather than through history. We have the loose friendships of the city, temporary and without concern for the unknown. One neighbor receives keys to our apartment for a week, and we hers, on the basis of a single shared fact: that we each own a lonely feline. There is no elaborate period of getting to know each other, no shared holidays or family stories, just need, ability, and trust.

These are the relationships unique to dense urban environments, and the faith in each other I think of each time I pass my wallet and transit pass down the length of a crowded 38 bus so that someone unseen can swipe it and, hopefully, return card, wallet, and contents to me. It is the trust I repay in swiping some unseen person’s card on the panel in front of me, all of us twisted by the bus’ lurching into a human pretzel of shared motion.

The city enables

In the past year I slept in thirty five different zip codes. At an average of one every ten days, not accounting for length of stay or multiple visits, the pace of life becomes clear. San Francisco may be my home, or more accurately it may be my home base.

Thirty five is by no means a record for humans. There are those who travel daily, who work or live on multiple continents. I also do not see this as a great gift. This number of beds simply reflects a job and a kind of life. This much travel certainly does affect my connection to any place, and would anyone’s. By changing how often we are home and what we think of home when we arrive, how much we value down time anywhere as opposed to down time somewhere. Unpacking this week I threw clothes on top of clothes and went off again, if only for hours. Today I will sort them, wash them, fold them and stow the memories of where we were last week, where we were the week before.

San Francisco has all the makings of a good home base. SFO is an excellent airport with non-stop connections domestically and internationally. Situated on the edge of a continent, and on the edge of a major economy, the city gives access both deeper in to the US and farther out, to Asia, Australia and beyond. By being a port it hosts not just airplanes, but boats, ships, and the occasional train. By being a center of innovation and corporate development it receives attention from the global media, communications companies, and infrastructure investments from service providers. Because it is in California, the weather is often fair and rarely horrible.

The downsides are usually a product of that success, and occasionally of the location. Because of the weather, fog sometimes shuts down the airport and often curtails the warmth of evenings. Because of the small size and popularity, rents range from expensive to outlandish, meaning even poor dwellings are hotly contested. Because of California’s strange government the public transit, safety, and education could all be better, while taxes are high, for the US. Because of the hills, walking and biking are harder than in many places, and the clique-like nature of the various neighborhoods is enhanced. Likewise, because of the hills, cellular service varies from excellent to non-existent within a span of blocks.

Yet in some ways San Francisco feels too easy, feels too comfortable. The weather does not threaten, and while earthquakes remain a danger they are too unpredictable to guide daily life. Seasons do not have the same urgency, with summer the gloomiest time of year. Likewise the affluence of young people in this startup-fueled culture gives much of the city a surreal air, with expensive restaurants featuring wait lists two days after opening.

Still, sitting down town in the rain, waiting for a meeting, I realize the benefits of being based here, in one of the major coastal cities in the US, with excellent food and transit links, with a massive base of capital and culture, education and talent. 

It’s a good place to live. As much as I’m here, anyway.

Walking the High Line

In New York for a week at the end of October we work from coffee shops and visit old friends in the dark. Breaks like these, weeks on other coasts and other shores, keep friendships and our feel for the country alive. Yet laptops in one city are much like those in any other, in fact the same. And so on Friday afternoon we put them down and head out to see something of New York.

We end up on the High Line, which neither of us have ever seen. On the first of November Manhattan is warm and welcoming, and the other tourists likewise calm. We walk and talk, take pictures and breath the air. Across the Hudson we can see Stevens, where a cousin went. I remember looking at this view from the other side on her graduation, an event that seems both recent and forever ago.

The High Line, like the pedestrian sections of Broadway, gives me hope for cities. Gives me hope for American cities, at least, so long under siege from the automobile, the highway, the culture of divided lane no left turn. It is a small thing, this elevated railway line repurposed as a tourist path, an exploratory walkway. And yet, photographing construction from its glass sides, I think of the elevated path through Xujiahui Park, and the benefits of investing in comforts for people, rather than machines.

New York seems well, despite the challenges of being home to eight plus million. In the late fall of 2013 it seems like a city in growth mode, and the feeling of motion and life is a joy to be amidst.

Towards the end of the day we sit in a small park further south. I nap as my companion answers a work phone call. On other benches men read the newspaper and women listen to music. Despite the street and trucks scant feet away, we all relax and breathe in the last of the sunshine.

In Union Square we watch the sun set over the farmer’s market, taking pictures of the skyline. We are not alone, amidst a group of New Yorkers and tourists holding our phones skyward to capture the spectrum of colors that has stopped all of us in our tracks. The two of us are not comfortable as tourists by nature, and yet so often that is what we are, wandering through cities that are not our homes in search of new things. In a dozen trips to New York we have yet to climb the Empire State, or see the Statue of Liberty save from the plane. On this Friday, though, we wander enough to feel like visitors, mingle enough to feel at home, and are content. Lost amid the fruit stalls, hearing Chinese and French, the comfort is not of New York, but of people, of a city large enough to become lost in and large enough to produce beauty accidentally. Unbidden, I recall scooter rides through Shanghai on November Sundays six years ago. Like this we would then wander, out of doors in the sunshine with no specific destination or curfew. Those were some of our first adventures together, climbing abandoned buildings and exploring back alleys, zipping around turns on our electric scooter. There too we did not seek famous temples or specific buildings, content to wander as traffic took us, to turn where our eyes led us.

Maybe it is the smell of a city in fall, or the trees in Union Square, or the remove from the rest of our lives that brings those images back. Maybe it is simply watching each other relax and smile, or maybe it is our joy in exploration. No matter which, standing this afternoon on the deck of an old railroad above new construction, watching the workers below, we are happy and still for a moment in an otherwise well-scheduled trip.

After six years of taking our time, of exploring together, we will be married in the spring, adding one more set of promises to a long list of hopes. Standing in the New York sunshine with overlapping memories of all the cities we’ve seen together, the future looks promising.

Fleeing the dark

In a window seat on a bus from Changshu to Shanghai as the sun sets, my eyes linger on dark towers. Along side the highway buildings both finished and not form huge rectangles of black against the fading sky. These clusters of massive apartment buildings lie vacant, whole complexes of fifteen or twenty towers of thirty stories plus. They form the leading edge of Shanghai’s expansion, like the foam on a wave. Unoccupied and often incomplete they will one day be home to thousands, one day be connected to Xujiahui or Zhongshan Park by subway lines as yet unbuilt. Today they are huge monuments to investment and urbanization, massive Stonehenge-like clusters without light. From my seat on the bus, bouncing with each lane change, these dark pillars are a sign post of my journey. I am heading home, fleeing the gathering dark of China’s smaller cities for the lights, towers, restaurants, and friends of Shanghai.

Bus rides are always jarring, a series of jerks and swerves, loud and full contact. Luckily towards the front someone has begun a conversation with the driver and he no longer focuses on the horn. I appreciate their sacrifice after two hours of its sharp peals. Alongside and around us smaller cars weave, looking for openings. Occasionally to the side one of the buildings is alight, one of the towers filled with families cooking dinner. I am not alone on this flight from small town darkness, the seats surrounding are filled with old and young. Across the aisle an old man and his wife discuss their evening plans, drinking tea in glass containers they’ve brought. We are all trying to get somewhere other than Changshu, trying to make it to the big city before dinner.

This is not a new situation. For a decade now I’ve been coming home to the lights of Shanghai. By train, bus, or car, and occasionally by taxi I have fled the dark of smaller cities, of factories and rural areas for the comfort of the world’s largest city. I have fled the dark of Changzhou at two am by standing on the side of the highway and flagging down passing sleeper busses. The bus that finally stopped that night was filled to overflowing, and I sat for two and a half hours on a bucket perched atop the entrance stairs, holding myself upright on the driver’s seat. Other times I have stayed in cold hotels, unable to find a way home, trapped by work in the dark.

The desire to flee to an urban area at the approach of darkness is a strange one for me, having grown up in the countryside of upstate New York. For many years I spoke of it only briefly, uncomfortable with how quickly the desire to return to Shanghai in the evening began to sound like a fear of the dark. In many ways it is. And yet I have spent months in smaller Chinese cities and villages without this panic, without needing to flee. Somehow it is the combination of work and of having no place to sleep, of the color of the sky and the smell of the air that makes me so eager to leave. Against the burning pollution haze of afternoon becoming evening I feel far from where I belong in a way rare to someone so rarely stationary, so long removed from my childhood home. It is a feeling both unnerving and glorious.

Closer in to Shanghai’s center there are lights in most buildings, and now it is the dark that surprises. We are almost home, and the idea of human life no longer seems strange. Traffic becomes too heavy even for the horn, and the last ten kilometers threatens to take hours. I grow restless with my fellow passengers, and eager to be finished with this journey. Spotting a metro stop, one too far north for the station name to be anything familiar, a group of us asks to be let off at the corner, and are. And like that, in an instant that was actually three hours, I am back in the city, and no longer seeking light.

Remnants of previous inhabitants

As a child of the countryside I am often surprised by how many mistakes are made in cities. Not mistake of great magnitude but small mistakes of location and history. A year and a half after moving into this apartment we still receive mail intended for a photographer’s studio, a business once housed here long before. Before too the couple who preceded us, who lived in this apartment for three years. I track these mistakes, noting not their number but the variety. Amanda. Jamie, Brad. None of these names are of the couple before us, which is as far back as my knowledge stretches. For any of these to be correctly addressed would have been five years earlier. Some of these are automated mailings and probably date back to the first tech bubble, to the last century. How many of these people still live in this city, this state?

How mobile are we, and how fragile are the records of place we use daily to communicate? Fragile? Or strong in that they persist long after we’ve departed. I think of phantom contacts in my address book, names with but one piece of information, a yahoo.com email or a phone number from China. These pieces of information I know to be wrong, and yet have nothing current to replace them. I do not want to delete these once friends, once business contacts, and so they remain in my phone, reminders of past relationships I have no ability to rekindle. Like the physical mail, these connections are so easily disrupted, an account unchecked or a phone number abandoned upon moving home. Without a forwarding address, without a reporting mechanism, Yahoo will continue to accrue unread emails, and letters for people I do not know will pile at my door. Susan, specifically, will probably continue to receive birthday notices at this address long after she, and we, have moved on.

In April a hand-written Easter card to a new name arrives. I imagine someone’s grandmother addressing it in a small town on a floral vinyl table cloth. There is no return address. The small envelope is a pale yellow with a pink printed ribbon across the front. I ask each of the other three apartments about it in vain. The recipient hasn’t lived here for at least six years, which is as far back as our collective memories of this building stretch. Six years suddenly does not seem so long.

I wonder if we still get mail to our Sunset studio of a year and a half ago. Do personally addressed credit card offers still arrive at our Houston apartment? Long-lost postcards in Shanghai? Bank account statements in Tokyo? Imagining this invisible layer of the world, sadly incomplete and with reasons for return to sender’ unknown, keeps me in a gloomy mood for almost weeks.

Until one morning on her rounds the postwoman takes the Easter card away.

Shanghai again, forever

Like that, I am back. After six months of travel, work, and daily life I board an airplane, transfer, and return to Shanghai. The ritual of packing, driving to SFO, boarding, and drifting through Asiana’s in-flight movies is strangely comforting, as is the coffee in Seoul early in the morning a day later. With fast internet and quick transfers, Incheon represents a stepping stone, a brief pause to consider my final destination. And to say goodbye to the unrestricted internet, to the wider world.

The first few days on the ground in Shanghai are always a blur. PVGs strangely dark carpets, the inspection line and HSBC ATM. Baggage and the first feel of local weather. The taxi’s new route, on the middle ring road that didn’t exist when I lived here. Flashing traffic cams and billboards. In the dust of evening the outline of Pudong’s towers. And then at last, after hours in the air and in Seoul, after the strange discomfort of sleeping in jeans while seated, the tight familiar streets of Puxi and real Shanghai. Baozi and soda water or gatorade and mi xian in my old neighborhood. A SIM card from the subway station shop and divestiture of bags in a waiting apartment. Eventually a walk to a bar with old friends.

Like everyone, I have fond memories of the places I grew up. Lansing. Vassar. Boston, where I lived in 2000. New York City, on longer and shorter stays of varying life impact. Tokyo. And Shanghai. More than any, Shanghai. At 33 here I am again. Here it seems I more than anywhere return, six times in the past five years. In this city I am content to anchor on, in visits and jobs, long after I’ve moved away. Shanghai again. Forever.

I wonder so often at those who have left and not returned, gone four, five, or ten years. What would they think of the city now? Where would they look to stay, again in this rebuilt metropolis? For me the memories are thick and yet too distant. I wish we could again bowl in that strange place north of Jing’An, that we could again find solace in cheap pints in the Hut.

Two weeks later I am leaving Shanghai again but not forever. In a few hours this trip will blur into others. It will become just one more strange variation, one more series of long evening walks and quiet train rides. As for the people here, we deal and live, trade stories of our time apart and move on. More than anything we become friends and say goodbye. Over and over, to old faces and new, for a decade now.

On this trip I’ve eaten noodles with friends and taxi drivers, wandered Puxi late at night, played frisbee and seen countless factories. I’ve remembered how much Chinese I know and how much I’ve forgotten. And now I will move on in the rush of a modern life, next Monday to Miami. Shanghai will recede and new objectives arise, but the few weeks here will serve as a reminder of how good life can be when cut free from the current of every day and anchored instead in a city of 20 million that I know so well. That we, collectively, have lived in and come home to for so long.

Writing these words I look around. Pudong airport is falling apart a bit, rotting in the concrete way, in the way of dirty air and humidity, of a lack of maintenance. I’ve been here dozens of times, on the top deck of T2, getting coffee in a tucked-away spot with a view. After napping in the taxi for 45 minutes on the ride out. Out till 3, up at 7, 8. Out of the apartment at 9 and in Pudong shortly later. Early, to have time to remember.

Two weeks later the sentences I wrote on arrival perform the same magic as always, the magic that makes me write. Boston is in the news. I am making plans to return to Tokyo. And the last night in Shanghai was spent in a new bar with old friends, folk who have like myself returned again.

The bar was new but the building old, familiar. The last establishment inside those walls was the Hut of this post’s opening. It was convenient in those years, the pub behind a good friend’s apartment and a block or two from mine. Now the two of us meet in Brooklyn and reminisce about its cheap drinks and over-ripe peanuts. On my last night the new name and fancier drinks could not disguise the location. Stories of the past decade came easily to all of us.

From the heat of Miami I try to recall my earlier visits to Shanghai, since leaving in two thousand eight. Being sent to a city in a country not my own for business is an incredible opportunity, something I have always wanted. Being able to stay with friends, being trusted to plan my own travel and produce my own results, those are the perks that make it better than I had imagined, better than I’d experienced before.

And landing in Shanghai may always feel like coming home.

Perfect city

In the fog Clement is welcoming. On Sunday morning the Blue Danube is full. On the couch a scruffy man in a well-worn Giants hoodie is slouched, deep in a book-sale copy of Notes from the Underground. The couples chattering at tables on either side do not disturb his focus. Coffee in hand I push the door open, heading back out into the mist. An old chinese woman reaches to catch it’s swing. On her hand cart she has boxes of bananas, apples, and other buried things I can not see. Perfect, I think, holding the door for her. This is the kind of city I want to live in, where coffee shops are filled with sports fans reading Dostoyevsky and fresh fruit is delivered by hand.

As I head downtown on Geary early in the morning, I think about this city I love, and the city I want. Late the night before we’d sat up in the dark, four of us, discussing places to live, in the future. Friends who’d first met in Shanghai, we’ve spent time on each other’s rooftops in Hong Kong, lived separately and together in Taiwan and Japan, and are happiest imagining. Perhaps because we are surprised to suddenly find ourselves residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Still we are curious, on the move, and consider Portland, Berkeley, and Seattle as immediate American alternatives. Housing, jobs, and the inevitable hope for cultural comfort are all mentioned as criteria. Transportation, I add, thinking of my electric scooter, of Tokyo’s trains.

Downtown the fog lingers even in SoMa and I think about those criteria again, parking on Minna. 6th and Natoma is a block filled with crack addicts and homeless people, artists and those just passing through. On Sunday morning it reeks of human excrement and a spilled bag of Cheetos. It is an interesting intersection to spend time on, which I do thanks to the Boxcar theater. It is not exactly what I meant when I said, just ten minutes earlier, that San Francisco was the kind of city I wanted.

The city I imagine is dense enough to be walkable, like SoMa and much of San Francisco. Like Shanghai, where even the furthest corners of downtown Puxi are within reach on foot, if need be. In the evenings of my imagined city, long after house lights have begun to go out, after the business districts have emptied and the restaurants closed, we are able to wander home without fear in less than an hour. This implies a great density of population or a small town, implies a level of public safety, implies housing of an affordable nature in the city center. It implies nightlife, businesses, and housing constructed within sight of each other. Hong Kong has much of it, and Shanghai. San Francisco, in parts, and New York, though more thinly spread. Ithaca has this, or much of it. Why not then the small town, I wonder, what is the fascination with the megalopolii of Asia?

The answer comes instantly to a child of upstate New York. This city of fantasy has jobs to attract us, we migrants of urban desire. It has companies that value youth, or the approximation of it as we age. As cities go it is no stickler for ties. The streets of my imaginary home are narrow and highly used, filled with electric bicycles and pedestrians. Trees and curved pathways that facilitate motion rather than constant stop signs weave between the skyscrapers of the downtown. Shops and offices fill the lower floors of buildings that open to the air and to the city, that approach the pathways rather than being set back from passers by.

I return to the first aspect I’d imagined. In the evening the streets are still busy. As the lights come on people return home, busses and subways empty, and restaurants fill. In each neighborhood different scents sit in the air, and grocery stores become hubs of pre-dinner planning.

Couples whisk by on silent scooters, their jokes covered by quickly fading laughter. Runners jog past, working off the pressures of the day solo or in pairs. As the air cools and the sky slides through blues towards black birds rustle in the trees and cats, having spent the day out on the city’s grassy patches, sneak homewards in search of food.

Above the streets the office towers slowly go dark, first single rooms and then whole floors. At their base food carts ply their trade, and vegetable stalls linger for those last customers. Arms laden the well-dressed workforce heads into the subway or down the block, the quick commute of the urban household.

In my dream house, much like the real one, the wood is soft and light good. Letting the cat back in I put out the milk bottles and mail for tomorrow’s rounds, glad again that the delivery man lives on my block and shares my coffee shop, with its book-lined walls and open air grill.

The city of my dreams exists, in places, in parts. It can be found on distant islands and countries whose borders do not touch my own. On foggy mornings and wind-swept afternoons I see it here, in San Francisco, waiting for me when I am half asleep. The question of this place, of where to find our own desires, is not of how long to look or far to travel. It is of how much to invest, how deep to sink our roots, and how much to try and build.

Living in public

A long time ago I snuck out of bed late at night, awoken by a man hammering on his toilet. Climbing the stairs, my bare feet soon covered with concrete dust, I found him excavating in the new hours of the morning. Hidden in shadows and unmoving, he did not see me. After he returned inside, toilet firmly shoved against the wall, I crept back down and returned to bed. The image of that old man’s back strained in a curve beneath the thin undershirt he wore as he tugged the toilet from his apartment in the dead of night has never left me.

Living in cities we are close to each other. In Tokyo men pushed us on to trains and we riders willingly subjected ourselves to a closeness no American city, no Chinese railway, really knows. The last Saikyo line out of Shinjuku on a Saturday night remains the closest I have ever been to several hundred other people. Mosh pits of my earlier years share so little with the orderly sacrifice of intoxicated and exhausted city dwellers desperate for a lift to the suburbs.

Bouncing home on the 38 down Geary last week the bus smelled mostly of pee. Sometimes we are too close to one another. Leaving the theater two men are arguing over a woman who is wisely nowhere in sight. They attempt physical harm but are well past the point in the evening of injuring anyone save themselves. They may be well past the point in their lives.

We live densely, the ratio of person to thing higher than it perhaps ought to be. This is the miracle of cities, what makes them such fountains of energy when the weather is good. There are so many people in Shanghai that if everyone set off fireworks on one day the city would be ablaze with light, louder than TV war zones and more covered with smoke. On Chinese New Year we did, and the burning banging popping craze overwhelmed the landscape for three days. Standing in the middle of the street watching red paper flutter down in smoke so dense it obscured the skyscrapers surrounding me I reveled in it. This, I thought, is why we are here, living so close together, enduring each other’s company. So that when the time comes to celebrate, we are never alone.

In the Richmond our apartment faces the street. After years of quiet in Colorado and the Sunset we are surprised to again be part of the city. The police sirens doppler past us, waves washing over our music. At two drunks wandering home from the bar curse loudly outside our windows at people we do not know. At mid day the robotic announcements of the outbound 38 bus trickle in, a reminder of the paths outside these walls. A boy skateboards past, his hard wheels sending each break of pavement up to our ears, a morse code of our new block’s sidewalks. Hearing his success I wear my Heelys to the new coffee shop.

We are, then, back. Members of a tribe found packed together in boxes of wood and concrete, able to share each other’s lives, for better or worse, each morning and much of each night.

Sunset farewell

To each phase there comes an ending. So often these are clearly marked, irrevocable. The job ends, the visa expires.

In my memory a man of twenty six carries his one box of possessions to his scooter and heads off into the Shanghai traffic alone. From that moment forward he no longer shared a two floor apartment in a concrete building painted green. Riding along Jian Guo Lu he was silent, within and without. Carefully balancing the box and the scooter’s throttle, he drove west with only the quiet whir of the electric motor. His mind, so long divided, was almost empty with the resolution.

The first time China ended with a plane ticket, the apartment packed, some things shipped and many more abandoned. The boy, twenty four, left for Thailand and the States with no intention of returning to the land of dumplings and scooters.

College ended with a bang, one day of pomp and celebration and then the scattering, to cars and new adventures. Or to old haunts and a strange sense of solitude even among old friends.

The second time college ended with a long drive, all belongings again packed or given over. Two now, they gave bicycles to friends, chairs to neighbors, drove furniture back to the ancestral home up north. With one last wave they set out for Big Bend, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and a definitive end to Houston.

In twenty eleven nothing ended. Jobs, houses and family stayed much the same. Vacations were taken, marriages begun, and personal growth, always debatable, seemed possible. New friends were made, and new skills learned in the quiet hours. Strange beds too were slept in, more than usual but not too far afield.

Enough then. For too long stability becomes a crutch, becomes a habit that weighs down rather than an enabler of curiosity that sets free. We are comfortable here, in the Sunset, in San Francisco, in our smallest ways.

And that is why the time has come to go. With small steps first we will venture forth, to the Richmond and new housing. Our aims are larger and our vision not yet clear, but the path is calling. Over hill and ocean once again we will away.

If not just yet this morning.

HKIA

Hong Kong looks gorgeous as the sun rises. In early thanks to good wind and awake thanks to the ability to sleep anywhere, the mountains get my full attention as the light creeps down them.

People often tell me San Francisco is the most beautiful city they have ever seen. I ask them if they’ve seen Hong Kong. Because, liking one, with it’s bay and bridges, with the tricks of light from the constant clouds, with greenery plentiful and the water to reflect the sun, the other comes easily to mind. The mountains are vertiginous, rising behind the airport, rising from the sea on the smaller islands. The boats are scattered without pattern, across the water at odd distances. The buildings are tightly packed, and tall, allowing the narrow corridors of air so familiar to Asian cities, so distinctly rare elsewhere.

Hong Kong is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Three years since my last visit, I wonder why we left.

Remembering fear

Last Thursday on Irving, between 19th and 20th, a man was shot to death in front of Phở Huynh Hiep 2. PHH, as it’s known locally, if it’s known at all, is a Vietnamese place, in as much as every restaurant must seek inspiration somewhere. Despite its plate glass windows and fluorescent lights it is popular, filled daily at noon and 7. Although some swear by rival PPQ, directly across the street, I can tell no difference.

Returning to America I must remember many things, from the proper place for crossing streets to the inadvisability of discussing someone while they are standing beside me. Crosswalks are interesting artifacts, but remembering to use both them and common courtesy is part of my cultural re-assimilation.

Working in theaters in SOMA or the Tenderloin and walking home late at night, assessing danger is another.

Asia is, in most regards, a phenomenally safe place, especially as a westerner. Ask any expat in Shanghai how many times they have fallen asleep in a taxi and how many of those rides have ended poorly.  Their answer will reveal the carefree manner in which I once navigated the world. This is not to suggest taxis in San Francisco, Houston or New York are unsafe places to sleep. Rather it is a demonstration of the security and comfort that I found in Shanghai and Tokyo.

The dispute on Irving does not bring fear to me. Police were watching, and the perpetrator arrested immediately. A violent dispute between Asian gang rivals over the correct choice of phở shop is not the fear I remember, nor do I think it should be. The homeless man passed out on the steps to the Civic Center MUNI & BART station is the fear.

Is he dead?” I ask myself. And then, more disturbing, how would I know?”

Would I even notice, care, or act? I step over his sprawled form. He grunts something about money. He is not making music.

In the evening, after the show, I suggest meeting at a bar.

Should I come get you at the station? Sixth street is sketchy.” The question is not chivalrous. It is born instead of a confusion, an awareness of how much I have forgotten. Is this neighborhood safe? Should I be worried for a woman walking alone? How should I solve this problem? This is the challenge of remembering fear.

In Shanghai we would walk home across most of the city at four am, certain only of our destination. There might have been desirable neighborhoods and less acceptable ones, but there were no areas to be avoided. There were no streets filled with drunk homeless men shouting. Drunk homeless women shouting. There were, and are, injured beggars, crippled children, destitute old men, but they do nothing more than occasionally bang their money bowls into passing arms and legs. In Shanghai the largest threats are bike thieves and pick pockets.

Looking at apartments in the Tenderloin in September we marveled at their size.

The ceilings are so high!” we told each other, heads tipped back.

It is cheap,” we acknowledged. The windows were large, and the ceilings arched overhead with delicate moulding. Spacious, almost grand, it was an apartment of a forgotten style, when buildings were built for the feel of the place, rather than the number of square feet or the view or the efficiency of use. We were not blind to modern improvements such as windows that would contain heat and faucets that did not clatter when running, but there was a majesty to this old building, to that wasted corner space where the walls curved, making shelving impossible.

There were six sex workers on this block,” she said. I nodded. I was imagining telling her parents where we had moved, and their first visit. I was imagining walking home late at night, or waiting for her to. I was trying to remember how uncomfortable this should feel, how afraid I should be.

We decided the number of crack dealers and sex workers was higher than we would be comfortable with, sitting alone in the apartment waiting for the other to come home. We decided that it was not the kind of neighborhood we wanted our parents to see us living in. We decided the ceilings were pretty, but the landlord lackluster.

We moved to the Sunset, which is more Asian, more friendly, less dangerous.

A man was shot on our block.

Everywhere we go, we ask ourselves if this is a good restaurant, that a good bar, this or the other hotel a better deal. We constantly seek the places locals like, the normal, comfortable situations. We are not unique, other travelers seek this information also. It is the desire to understand, born of a suddenly obvious lack.

Returning to America after years abroad I find the challenges similar. Can I leave my bike on the street? Bring it into the bar? Take it on the train?

What is safe, and what is normal? Where are we again?

Coming home

Those words, for anyone long removed from the later, are some of the strongest.  They bring instant emotion even on a smaller scale, the words of a father on the phone at the end of the workday.  Yet they can be tainted with nervousness at longer exposures, with an underlying uncertainty of what will have changed, and whether home as we remember it still exists.

These words have a new meaning to me, these past few days.  For the first time in several months they again represent a space of my own, of our own.  We no longer rely on the incredible generosity of our friends and families, whose spare rooms and couches,  pull-out mattresses, aerobeds, and attics have sheltered us so well this summer.  The door to this apartment is opened by keys only we possess, and the bathroom will be cleaned by no one else.  There are drawbacks, the shower head slightly too low, the cabinets that do not close on their own, but they are our problems, and I relish the walk to the hardware store that will fix them.

Having mentioned already the secrets each new house presents, the opportunities to re-establish old patterns and form new habits I will only say that, in their absence, I had much missed my house keys and a place to put them.

City sounds

Some time ago I wrote about smiles as a metric for comparing places. There are other ways, as I noted then, of evaluating cities, a skill I have been practicing. While smiles and population numbers, frequency of restaurants and friendliness to cyclists are counted by their occurrence, many things are noticeable most in absence. Sounds are one such, something I evaluate early on in any relationship, wandering with no iPod or phone, no companion or destination. The true sounds of a place, though, sneak up on the inhabitant until they are integral to the location, and can only be pointed out by their absurdity, by an unaccustomed observer, or by their sudden lack.

In Saitama I would wake to the sounds of campaign trucks carting advertisements and megaphones through voting neighborhoods. They cut through the dawn, blaring promises, slogans, and, most importantly, the candidates name. Like most, I found them harsh, and not likely to induce support. In Shanghai I woke to the call of the repair man pedaling past on his three-wheeled cart, ready to fix or recycle. TV, air conditioner, microwave, washing machine, he would cry, often via recording as well. His laundry list of products fixable was more gentle than the bullish Japanese projection. In terms of bullhorn use, of recordings made predictable by repetition, residential Japan wore worse on the ears, and on the hours of morning sleep.

Shanghai had more to battle with, noises unique and unexpected, incessant and startlingly odd. Many days I woke to sounds of neighbor’s squabbles, leaning out my balcony as they swelled into neighborhood entertainment, with ten to twenty people crowded around yelling their opinion until the police arrived, or did not. Shanghai countered also with construction, on the gigantic scale of skyscraper erection and the personal scale of toilet decimation. These intruded late at night, early in the morning, and all hours in between. With drilling, banging, pounding, yelling, and the occasional rooster placed outside my door, Shanghai took Saitama easily in the noise contest. Yet despite these chaotic interactions I had not yet learned how loud an intrusion neighbors could make, how constant the interruption. Houston taught me that, in a house set far from the street, and made me miss both Shanghai’s cycling recycler and Yono’s pre-paid campaign driver. For the first time I could tell the story of the rooster morning with a face that said, well, it wasn’t so bad.

Now, again alone in a house ten thousand feet up the mountains of Colorado, I wake to other sounds. Wind and birds dominate, the only other constant the fridge’s welcome hum, far louder than I would have guessed from my memories of houses with similar machines. In cities fridges are quiet things, not banging or barking, whizzing by with sirens or yelling at each other. In the wilderness, far removed from other humans, the fridge becomes a loud acknowledgment of electricity’s presence, of machinery and civilization’s reach. Here, the only things louder are the occasional bird crashing into the window, the even rarer ring of the telephone, and the bellows of the cows that graze the hill. The only noise to conquer the house from without comes in the storms that sweep over the mountains and across North Park, lighting everything with haphazard flashes. Their coming is both beautiful and easily anticipated, and they startle not my sleep. It is not a city, and the people nearby are few. Of all things that I notice, the absence of their sounds contrasts the most.

Foot traffic

Bike packed I am back to pedestrian travel, moving at the speed of aimless amble rather than that of jogger mom or homeless cart pusher.  I no longer whip past people caught between Land Rover and coffee shop.  Instead, wearing torn jeans, battered sandals and ironic tee I am in their midst, lucky to have less rush propelling my morning and more patience for the dog walkers and the sky mumblers, whether they be bluetooth powered or other radiation fueled.  It is good to be back in Venice, which has become a home base of homelessness for me as it has always been for others.  Nine months ago I sat on these same carpets, steps and couches, my belongings in boxes from China to Houston.

Now, the Houston portion of my adventure complete, I am here again en route to somewhere I have never lived.  Venice welcomes this, her streets lined with vans and Winnebagos that reek of extended occupation. Weather-wise these blocks off the beach are an ideal spot for homelessness, and I watch the wanderers, contemplating the gradual gentrification of Venice and the changes along Rose’s sidewalks these past five years.  There are old men with the air of a previous time trapped in their scraggly beards, and a cereal bar, new and portentous, if not pre-.  The grocery’s windows remain barred and the laundry mat oddly packed mid-morning, signs that while Rose welcomes new company old inhabitants remain.

At an intersection an older women on her bicycle admonishes me as she breaks traffic laws while wearing long gloves and a wide-brimmed hat.  That wasn’t right, horrible I know, shhh,” she says, and I smile.  Telling someone was not in my plans, though it comes to be, and with coffee and bagels balanced and eyes on the surroundings instead of the vehicles I am already a traffic disaster.

Sitting at the cereal bar, several days later, I watch the old Greyhound parked across the street, trailer attached.  It has the sleek lines of the future as seen from the eighties and the curtained windows driven by the last decade’s real estate boom, where prices quintupled as gang violence fell.  The bus’ owner is invisible, though people pass our table in waves, and homeless or not is hard to say.  Is this gradual shift, where Rose loses its gang members and gains dog walkers, as momentous after all?  Fewer gun battles and more Chihuahuas, yet Venice still welcomes those of us with our belongings in our cars, as long as we have friends with more permanent residences.  Breakfast finished, we rise, and, at a clothing store down the street shop but do not buy, the difference between these two levels of homelessness a matter of friendship and attire.

It will be some time still, I think, before Rose resembles Abbot Kinney, and the Shopping Carts for Homeless program, whose product litters the sidewalks, is ironic enough for me to love.

Lived in bars

They have a good Texas jukebox,” she tells me, of the oldest bar in Houston.  And a table shaped like the state.”  The recommendation is enticing.  Sports are on TV, and a few old-timers at the bar when we wander in from the rain and out again soon after.

It’s the cheapest place in town, which is sad,” I’m told, not immediately sure where the sadness lies, in the bar’s mid-level prices or the fact that spots far dingier, bars with no building at all where the beer in coolers behind the counter and the seats under the stars or smog, have done it no better on cost.  Indoors in this cheapest of establishments a neon sign glows, bulbs along the edges blinking sporadically.  Cocktails, it says, the letters inside a giant curving arrow that points downwards and into a wall.  In the garden out back a five-foot cabbage patch kid is dwarfed by the Kool Aid Man, his body wider than I am tall.

It’s the talk of the town, that’s for sure,” a friend admits, and asks what I think.  It’s like the bars in LA I went to when I made money,” I offer.  She nods knowingly.  Well-designed, staffed by attractive people, a little industrial, big windows onto the street, not too much on the walls, no TVs.

Let’s go somewhere we can watch the game,” we say, after driving to Austin in the afternoon.  At tall wooden tables we stand, the walls open to the air, pitchers half-full, watching a few games, depending on our angle, long into the evening.

I am fond of all of these places in some way, glad they exist and happy to discover them as I re-discover America.  In Asia the very words are a concept, the American bar”.  In Shanghai they have Filipino waitresses, if one is lucky, and Chinese bartenders, and their food is mediocre and expensive.  In Tokyo they are chains, with laminated menus and soda fountains, competing with TGIF rather than local izakayas.

There are jewels everywhere, of course, and we grow fond of them in cycles, with certain groups.  In Omiya for a while there was a bar with exposed metal rafters and a cat who wandered them silently above our heads.  Eventually renovated it lost all character with the cat’s departure, and we followed the example.

Or the rocket ship, a concrete replica of a 1950’s Tom Swift craft, perched oddly atop an Omiya office building, home to a quiet space that held soft jazz and mid-90’s movie posters.  An excellent discovery, only ever occupied by the bartender and a friend of his, content to let us establish ourselves in a curve of the hull our last few months in the country.

There’s a room inside the old vault,” a friend says of a bar that was once a bank.  I am there, one chilly evening a few days later, secure in many ways.  Amid the plush leather furniture it’s easy to forget the bar’s unfinished wood and sawdust feel, or the copious amounts of vomit in the only urinal.

We’ve lived in bars and danced on tables,

Her voice is low and deep, not a thing of ambition but a fact of everywhere, played out in our lives and recommendations to new friends.

Quoted lyrics from Cat Power’s Lived in Bars’ off of 2006’s The Greatest

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.

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 unwieldiness 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 frivolous 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.

The last mile

Cities. These hubs, these networks of people, piles of houses, thousands of miles of roads. Humans able to live at complete abstraction from food production, from waste removal, from power creation. Invisible networks of wires buried, of tunnels built, of pipes laid. Yet late at night these networks become visible. Early in the am Manhattan fills with trucks, with men whose jobs, though mostly invisible, are necessary to feed the vast spread of stations where things are dispensed though not produced. Newspapers, fruit, alcohol, power, gasoline, clothing. The weather warms, and I sit in a park watching rollerblading lessons. None of us, not me, not the children stumbling in padded falls, not the teacher, closest of all, not the swarms of parents paying watching worrying laughing gossiping, have grown food for tonight’s dinner. None have made the clothes or skates they now wear.

Yet none seem concerned, this breezy Sunday afternoon. Starvation does not threaten, nor nakedness. We, after all, lie at a hub, a spout of a vast spread of human effort geared to provide. Like New York, Shanghai. Much that is sold in each is made in the same places, the goods that arrive in New York shops, in Shanghai malls, have common hands on them, far back up the chain. Only the network differs. In Manhattan, late night trucks, the gruff voices of loading docks.

On my scooter in the morning I pass a man pedaling a cart across town. 300 dozen eggs, stacked carefully, wired down. A case of beer on the back of a motorcycle. An entire city’s worth of Coca-Cola distributed by bicycle. As he pushes past a BMW I marvel at this telling difference between places. The factory, brand name, profit earning shareholder may be the same, but the last mile, this vast human network of distribution does reflect it’s place.

Counting smiles

A city can be measured by men using many tools. Depending on their interests men use numbers of their own kind, height of structures they have built, goods they produce in this place, or wealth those goods become. Internally people use different measurements, involving trees, air quality, or beaches. Moments long passed in time become common points of local reference, creating pride, used in turn by those whose business it is to categorize the scope of human gatherings.

There are, of course, as many ways of counting as things to count, and, today, another:

Electric bikes do not sputter or put or rumble or grind. They whisper along the roadside, allowing their rider a chance to view the world in seclusion, in motion. Invulnerable to the attractions of the road I slip by those wating for the bus with but one pause: to count their smiles.

A city can be judged on size, on money, on age. A city can be judged on smiles it creates.

In the fresh light tomorrow when all have awoken at their tallest, spines uncrunched by the weight of the work week, count them in passing. I have watched the crowds of Tokyo, the masses of New York, the push of Boston, the rumble of San Francisco, the throb of London, the cacaphonous mass of Shanghai for them, I have noted their absence, their brevity, their toothless gaping.

Bangkok’s gridlock, Beijing’s smothering smog, Los Angeles’ comparisons of wealth on wheels, Hong Kong’s suited seriousness, each one just another number of smiles. One more metric to be valued or dismissed. Shanghai lingers though, it’s smiles those of self-confidence, of emergence. These voices have been heard before, in the Economist, the New York Times. Shanghai is the up and coming, the Rio of two thousand plus. Buzzword-happy and building vertical, Shanghai is claimed to be the whirlwind home to the changing times.

Not my city.

The Shanghai I know, of noodle stands and street vendors, of stalls selling stuffed animals whose names mean nothing to their pushers, is a city born of mercantile desires wrapped in lives. No one is from here, really. The Shanghai locals, their dialect a wall cutting off the rest of China, are just farmers, traders, sailors, workers, migrants, a hundred and fifty years on. This city, these people on the street, they’re just getting by, getting through, working on, passing over the dirt, the construction, the smog, the smothering traffic, the government edicts, the relocations. These people, biking next to me in the mornings, crashing into me in the evenings, interrupting me at traffic lights, commenting on my coat, my hat, my face, the cuts, the bike… they’re just living the way I’m living. They’re just smiling back at my smile.

And I count smiles.

These smiles, they’re signs of appeasement, of flirtation, of frustration prevented, and of pure joy. They’re signs of Shanghai’s gift, of this city, and the people who’ve built it, the people who survive it.

Aren’t they anywhere?