The restaurant downstairs

We live above the type of restaurant I used to dream of running. My inspiration came from Stella’s, a coffee shop in Cornell’s college town. To my younger self, Stella’s was the perfect place, big enough that there was always space, light enough to read and study but dark enough to feel alone. There’s a fine balance in lighting that serves both mood and need. Stella’s had a couple of tables right at the front, before the counter. These were perfect for newcomers, for those on a date and uncertain of whom they were meeting, and for the quick chat type of business meeting or project discussion. They were visible from the street, rarely occupied for long, and didn’t require engaging with any of the other clientele.

Further back there were small tables and booths. The booths, with leather benches, were coveted by those planning to remain until their paper on Cicero was complete, sometime in the spring. Those were staked, like claims, with piles of books and papers, and the occupant would be alternately deep in thought, asleep, or completely gone, having left sufficient weight, sufficient evidence of intent behind to hold their space. Other booths would be filled with noisy groups of friends, playing cards or arguing about physics. As a teenager I would hole up in one, if lucky, with a book and a journal, alternately deeply self-absorbed and totally engaged in watching the behavior of those older than myself.

Downstairs, in Hong Kong, the coffee shop is smaller, of course. There are not enough tables to occupy with books, but the three counters, one for each wall and one for the serving space, provide plenty of seating for those trying to craft startup ideas or simply surf the net from a place not their apartment. The front steps are a frequent stopping point for dog walkers, who build knowledge of one anther through their pets behavior. The staff is friendly, the coffee good, and, like Stella’s, in the evening there are cocktails and a smattering of food. In many ways it is perfect.

These types of shops are not rare now, no longer solely the providence of college towns. There are coffee shop slash bars in almost every city and town, and I’m sure I’d find a favorite in many. Even here, the cafe downstairs is a second branch, the first having opened in Central some five years back. What makes the spot special, in the end, is the title. The restaurant downstairs is the simplest of descriptions, and the most powerful. It is a statement of density, of multi-use buildings, and of accessibility. Of course the staff knows me. Of course we are regulars. We live up stairs.

This is the second time in my life I have ever lived above a restaurant. In Shanghai, Tokyo, Houston, Boston, and San Francisco, I did not. Only once, for brief summer months where I lived on a sofa in New York, has the phrase ever been true before. As with my joy at finally living downtown by the train in an American city, I am thrilled with the current situation. Walking downstairs for coffee or bread is a great reminder of exactly what Hong Kong’s density has given us, so many parts of my perfect city made real.

I’m sure eventually we won’t live above a restaurant, it’s a rarer scenario than it should be. Until then though I’ll probably keep wandering downstairs in my flip-flops looking for fresh beans, comfortable with the hours and staff, and slowly meeting the neighbors. I wish more people, and especially more Americans, could enjoy the same.

Morning hours

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

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

Rituals reshaped

Mr. Squish watches me make coffee and tea from the corner of the counter. After the electric kettle is filled and the mugs prepared, he leans his head in to the thin drip of the faucet to drink. We share the kitchen comfortably in these early mornings, moving past each other with no sounds. My eyes are barely open as we start the processes.

On alternate days I grind coffee by hand, which takes some time, while he drinks. When he is done, front paws removed from the sink one after the other, I clean his automatic feeder, which holds two days of food. While the coffee drips and tea steeps I clean his litter box, turn on the light panels, and wash my face, eyes finally fully functional. These are the moments of variation, depending on the weather. Often he will leave the counter while I am gone, returning to the living room rug or sofa to relax. On days like today, though, he stays comfortable on the counter as I take tea to Tara and coffee to my office and begin to write. On rare mornings he is still there, in the again dark kitchen, when I return to check on the second cup and clean out the grounds, his eyes closed and muscles relaxed. I leave him there, water dripping, just in case.

These are the rituals of those comfortable in their space, and a few months in we three are indeed. Our actions are familiar enough that visitors from SF would recognize them, but reconfigured for our new apartment, our new tools, and our new schedule. There are no seven am bus rides to Palo Alto in this new life, though there can be seven am Zoom calls. Mostly the mornings are our quiet hours, and we try hard not to rush them. On the best days, like today, I return to my coffee and Squish to the bed where he curls back up on Tara’s legs and starts to knead. These are the moments without stress, without further chores or tasks, and without the buzz of messages from colleagues and friends that permeate our waking hours. For a few more minutes there is nowhere else to be.

Moving is a chance to change our lives. We suddenly can revisit not just in the biggest facts of location, language, and employment, but also the smallest ones like where the coffee grinder sits in the kitchen and whether it is electric or not. These mundane changes would seem to have been possible in our old environment, and they were, yet they faced the obstacles of good enough” and works for now”. Resistance, in our daily lives, isn’t a decision not to change but the gradual accumulation of not changing, day after day. As I wrote once long ago about the impetus for starting over, habits, rather than small patches of comfort against the wind became small fences of restraint against desire” As with so many things, the echoes of who we were are the best guide to who we will be.

And so, having moved, we are again building our lives with new furniture, new haunts, and new friends. Most importantly we are rebuilding our habits with each other, trying hard to write more, to play music more, and to walk more together. The goals are good, I think: to savor the simple hours together and minimize the stressed hours apart. Mr. Squish approves of these changes, and having traveled far himself is busily building his own set of patterns in our new surroundings, glad to have so many windows, sofas, and hours of company.