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 of thought 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.

Moving

In the middle of January I return to Ithaca.  In the last year the flight has shrunk from a day to scant hours and there is no great lag, of time or spirit.  This is good, as I have come to carry heavy things, tables, books, and shelving.  The weather is of a degree I am not familiar with in recent years.  Shanghai freezes on occasion, but mostly it chills and drips, like Tokyo with worse insulation.  Houston, yesterday, touched seventy eight degrees in the scale of F, a temperature completely out of place next to the word January in the mind of a child from New York.  Still, I packed knowing the weather and am not surprised by it, shedding layers as I enter the house and pulling them on again to carry boxes and sofas out to waiting trucks and trailers.

I last saw this house in summer, the lush green of August that allows the land to flourish.  It is a decade, more, since I lived here in the winter, and the hibernation of plants and people is one forgotten thing among many.  The others come to light in boxes and odd drawers that empty into piles: give away, trash, keep and store, keep and take.  The choices for each pile are not immediately obvious as books scrounged out of local sales over years go into a box destined for a similar sale.  This is not a new process, the gradual parceling out of my childhood possessions.  Every visit for the past five years has involved some small measure of re-evaluating and re-packing.  By the end of this visit I will be down to three boxes, four, that are too heavy to fly with.

Yet slimming down my childhood collections is not why I came.  The move is not mine, the boxes left in my closet are a tiny subset of what this house has stored for so long.  The room I left them in is no longer really mine either, though it once was.  The cat that prowls the halls late at night, asking for some favor of doors opened or closed, is not the one that I woke to on school mornings, rough tongue licking my face.  My brother’s dog still ambles around the property, and I watch his aching joints, slow on the snow and ice, wondering what he will think of his new urban home.  For, children grown, my parents have little need of this yard and stream, the rolling hills that surround, and the two cars that maintain this old schoolhouse in the countryside.  Grown myself, neither do I, though all of us take our time, these last few nights, to walk the dog slowly up the hill away from traffic and houses until the stars shine bright.  As we leave with a full trailer, probably my last visit, Orion sits above the roof, each point distinct, a level of crispness we will not have such easy access to again.

We can always drive out of town to see them, my father notes.  And in that sentence is the central point.  In many ways this is a move signaling the end of our automobiles.  It is not the end of the automobile, which will endure for quite some time, entrenched both in popular culture and our own lives.  But it is an example, just one point on a curve of human motion that is swinging back to smaller circles.  Premature, perhaps, to say that the suburbs are dead, that cities like Phoenix and Houston, massive car-driven sprawls, will not continue to thrive.  They will for many years, until the oil runs out, and perhaps beyond.  Many years, I say, meaning 2030, the end-of-oil date in recent BP projections.  Yet we do not pack this house as a means of defeating the automobile, or the mobile society it spawned.  We pack this house, books and artwork, quilts and old costumes, because life is a transient thing.  Despite feelings of permanence, people inhabit each space but briefly, even those who seem to have been here forever, old History professors and groundskeepers, families with ties to the Mayflower.  We are in motion, all of us, and this house which held one family for twenty plus years was a home, but only one, as the term reveals.

In the twelve years since seventeen I have lived in fourteen other rooms, houses, or apartments.  Some of them were but brief stops, some were places where I in turn welcomed scores of visitors over the years.  The house we are packing, built more than a century ago by fathers from the neighborhood to house their children’s school, has held only a handful of families in the years since its repurposing.  We are not the first and will not be the last.  This knowledge makes it easier for me, understanding our place in the structure’s history.  It is the only home my family ever knew, all of us together, and will remain so, my brother and I long since departed.

The new house welcomes, and friends arrive from all over to help settle my parents in.  Some of them recall helping on their earlier move, all those years before, to the countryside from an apartment only a few blocks from this new house.  I remember moving around Shanghai, my last apartment in 08 near enough my first in 04 that I could return to the dumpling shop I’d favored that first freezing winter.  Despite the decades between, my parents remember the neighborhood’s appeal, as I did a world away.  They return to it and are welcomed by a dozen friends who help unload, a good sign after so long.

We are all in motion, grateful for each home in turn.

Home again

Four years later, the house looks much the same.  There are numerous improvements, small patches and big repairs, redecorations and removed annoyances, but most of it remains.  Fewer trees in some directions and more in others.  The second red maple is almost as tall as the first, though not as full.  The white trees are almost gone, though a new one rises at the edge of the dog yard.  A huge stand of cottonwoods at the end of the lawn pitched over in the winter, the base eaten away by the creek.  The dog is older, a golden retriever going silver at the end of his life.  He sleeps most days on the grass outside the front door, content to be left alone in the sun.  The cat, a wild kitten in two thousand four, is a mature hunter, constantly depositing baby squirrels, mice, and birds on the back porch as trophies.  The neighborhood, blocked by August’s rich foliage, is much the same too, farm houses that have stood for a hundred years easily enduring my lifetime.

As always, the fast changing part is the people.  Marriages, births, deaths, and movings on.  Most of the people I knew haven’t lived here in a decade, the same as myself.  Yet at every corner I remember their lives.  A childhood playmate, a middle school battery mate, a teacher I had in high school.  Their houses, if not the people themselves, remind me of the place I lived, and the person I was.  Like Shanghai had begun to be, Lansing and Ithaca are filled with memories.

I take a longer route down to the inlet park, purely for the view, and remember leaning out of windows waving as others drove me similarly.  The choice is slightly dramatic, hundreds of other trips passed this way with little to recall them to me.  In that memory are people long gone, both from me and from this planet, and the air, hot at the end of August but with the slightest inkling of fall, is similar.  We were young, or younger, and still only half sure how brief our time would be.  A decade later I smile and admire the view our parents moved here after seeing.  Their choice is still a good one.

My friends are long gone, yet they return.  Like the rock that was a planet once, our orbits are eccentric, our distance from each other and this valley varies.  So on this August afternoon I find myself playing frisbee with one of my oldest friends, looking out at the inlet between points.  Across the way is a set of trees I used to climb in on Saturdays, at an age older than the children that inhabit them currently.  Walking out along the horizontal branches, balanced above the water, I would watch this shore, its flat green grass and jogging trails.

A week later I return, not to these fields or inlet but to the city, to the hills surrounding it.  Another friend, as if from the afternoon’s damp air, appears.   Four years are suddenly bridged, I am in for a single night, he only three, and both of us then away again.  Air travel grants the most mysterious meetings, Philadelphia Houston Massachusetts Hawaii and at the crossing point of those two paths our home town, for a beer at a bar far older than either of us.

Many things have changed, it’s true, and heading back is often deceiving.  The mall looks outwardly the same but contains so few stores half is roped off in the evening.  My parents house, the only one I ever knew, is fixed mostly for a move.  The people, though, who swing far out into seas and over them, who marry dance and die, they are not at such remove as that, and can occasionally be brought back.