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.

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.