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.

One year

With regularity the days go by. The anniversary dates of first job offers, visa approvals, leaving parties, and flights all roll past as the summer ends and September begins. Now in October the memories are of our busy first days of house hunting, my last weeks of packing our San Francisco apartment, and those first few weeks in our Hong Kong home.

Mr. Squish doesn’t seem to remember arriving in a pee-soaked state one year before, having traveled farther than most cats ever do. Or maybe he does, but the trauma of that memory and the loss of his SF rooftop are not moments he chooses to commemorate. It can be hard to tell. Either way he naps under the red sofa in the afternoon heat and sprints around the house in the dark with the comfort of a cat familiar with his surroundings. This move may have taken him away from cool weather and the Mission rooftop, but it has given him air conditioning, a variety of rooms to nap in, and the company of a work from home human. I like to think he’s satisfied.

As for the humans, our memories are as fragile as ever. I remember biking home from long days at the office in SF, up hill into the wind, and wondering where we would live next, and how long it would take to get there. A year later I can answer the question, but not remember the urgency with which it was asked.

I don’t want a vacation, I want a new life,” I used to say.

It took more than a year to get one, and while I think often of how lucky we are to be in Hong Kong, the anniversary of the move is as good a time as any to reflect. This morning I do some light shopping in our neighborhood, for my sick partner. The shopping list is not long: avocados and passion fruit from the old couple’s street stand two blocks down. This fruit and vegetable stand, visible from our window, was a major perk of the apartment when we first saw it a year ago. A year later we’re frequent customers and were correct to value it. After that comes sourdough bread, from the coffee shop downstairs. This was a bit of luck, as the coffee shop opened in December, after our lease was signed. It serves wine and cheese in the evening, coffee in the morning, and whole beans and sourdough bread in between. Few establishments, opening directly downstairs, would have both signaled gentrification and fit my work from home routine as well. Last on the shopping list, of course, is some dong lai cha, iced milk tea. In the past year we’ve tried almost all of the small street restaurants and corner breakfast shops in the immediate vicinity, and have favorites for almost every type of dish. This tea, from the slippery egg place, is by far the best, and so a special sick day request.

Living somewhere, as opposed to visiting, is the art of learning a place deeply, enough to have a routine, and also of becoming part of the routine of others. At each of these stops I am no longer a stranger, if not exactly a local. At the small noodle shop I visit first, for myself, I’m by now a regular, if one who orders few things and understands little Cantonese. A year in though I’ve started to learn, and will get better.

A year in a place is both a long time and not. This year has been enough to make friends and change jobs, it’s been enough to become part of established social groups and to start new ones. A year though, as I first realized in Tokyo, is not long enough to really know much, or to have explored everything. In some ways a year is no time at all. And so, starting the second year of our lease, becoming comfortable in each of our second jobs here, looking back makes me happy. We’ve come a long way from those last weeks in San Francisco, from our one bedroom in the Mission. We’re settled, and home, in this new city.

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.

Across the city

On Sundays in San Francisco we bike to the beach. In earlier years it was a shorter ride, from the Sunset or Richmond. Now though we are distant enough from the ocean’s effects that the weather is unpredictable. I take long sleeves and a hat, and want both. Seven short miles, several elevation changes, and the variances of fog make for a strange ride.

At Baker Beach the fog swirls around the Golden Gate, hiding both it and Marin from view. We play at the water’s edge and enjoy the peace of the Pacific.

On the way home I pedal up through the Richmond to a coffee shop I used to frequent with the cat. The owner is happy to see me and I her, and we chat for a while while she closes up shop for the day. Leaving her I ride past our old house and see the new residents unpacking their car from a weekend away. I remember those days, two cars and so much time on the road.

Into Golden Gate Park and the scene changes, families on rollerblades and bicycles dominate the closed road. It’s a peaceful place, the car-free park on a Sunday, somewhere to exercise and wander without fear. Every time I am here I wonder what the entire city would be like without automobiles.

Down to the Panhandle I find at last the remenants of Bay to Breakers, the city-wide run turned street party. Hundreds of people in costumes fill the small stretch of park that reaches east into the city. They are drunk and celebrating, mostly oblivious to the bikers sliding past. I remember partying here, playing games with friends, cartwheels and rope climbing. Years ago now.

Out of the park and down into lower Haight I slide, finding more parents visiting their children, more folk walking their dogs. It’s a nice section of the city, Divisadero to Duboce Triangle, and I do not pedal hard, content to roll downhill and listen to snatches of conversations, slivers of people’s afternoons.

Out on to Market, into the heat of the eastern part of the city, and I am almost home. So many more cars, so much more traffic. Families now walk with coffee still, late in the day. Homeless people start to appear, wandering or pushing carts.

Down the side route by the 101 entrance I duck, and suddenly, after so long and so many different scenes, I am back in my own, on Valencia, past Zeitgeist, into the urban heat of the city. It’s comforting and less peaceful, an urban mishmash of Lyft drivers and those looking for fancy dinner spots.

Me? I slide through to my garage, to my windows that let in breeze on two sides of the house and my cat who naps in the sunbeams.

A city is best discovered on bike, and home again at last I think of all the different neighborhoods, all the different lives we’ve slipped through, me and my new Van Moof, on our trip to the ocean and back, taking in memories of this city that will hold us over till the next weekend.

Trading neighbors

For years we live next to an empty building. It is not abandoned. The owners locked and secured it after having work crews strip out all interior fixtures and structure. As the sun sets over the Sutro we can see through it, just for a moment. The light comes cleanly through a space without doors or walls.

In San Francisco this kind of building is a lure, a place of few intrusions and no residents or office workers to complain. The same tents fill the sidewalk around this building for months at a time. A woman lives on a cooler in its shadow for over a year. Occasionally there are fights in front of it, or yelling matches. Low level harassment on walking by is a daily part of life. The children next door, who play on the street in the evening, do not go around the corner towards that building without larger family.

The cops sweep the street once a month, pushing everyone a few blocks over, a few blocks down. These rotations are no solutions, but they do provide quiet for a week until people begin to drift back to this building that is so clearly ignored. More frequently on our block the DPW crews come, reliable and without complaint, to pick up and sweep away the furniture, bags, clothing, and destroyed bicycle parts that are left along the fence that protects the empty building’s parking lot. These piles of random city trash are a regular scene, but their appearance is sudden. I come home one evening to three chairs and half a tent. They disappear overnight, replaced by two unmatching shoes and half a shirt. These too vanish, and the street is clean for a while. Several days later a cooler, a bag of poop, and half of a VCR arrive. The cycle continues. Sometimes outside I can hear people arguing about one or the other of the items. Eventually, always, only the bag of poop remains.

Suddenly one day in the fall of twenty sixteen the work crews arrive. They drive the large trucks of American dreams and chat outside my window before heading in to the building for work at seven thirty. They are reliable, working six days a week. They wake me up in the morning and are gone before I am home from the office. Other than the jackhammer days and the cement truck days, they are the kind of loud we can accept.

After about a month I notice the secondary benefits of these large men in hard hats and reflective vests.

I hear the window smash while drinking coffee one morning. It’s a common sound that does not grow familiar. The surprising part is what follows: yelling.

Hey, get out of there.”

Get the fuck out of that car.”

Yeah you come back here.”

Hey call the cops.”

The last is followed by the sound of booted footsteps running.

I go outside. The workmen have chased off the would-be thief and retrieved the target, a duffel bag. The car, they tell me, did not belong to any of these workers. Of course not. It is a small Toyota. Patiently the workmen wait for the police and file a report. The cops are as surprised as I was at the situation.

Break-ins grow less common on this block, as do tents. The later has as much to do with the jackhammering as anything.

This is not a story of gentrification. It is instead a story born of being woken at seven on Saturday by the cement truck’s unceasing turn and being unable to sleep again.

These shifts are not a permanent change, of course. Eventually the residents of this block will change again, to what I can not say. For now though I appreciate this rotation.

Or try to, given the noise and the hour.

Chocolate cake

Chocolate cake

A few doors down the street a folding sign sits on the sidewalk most days. In witty messages it suggests that passers by stop in for some dessert, for some chocolate. The jokes vary with the weather.

This shop, opened about a year ago, is part of the rapid gentrification of the neighborhood. Without question, the shift from $2 tacos to $2 chocolates is predicated on the gifts of rapidly rising incomes and shifting demographics. This change comes with the displacement that is making the Mission district of San Francisco a battle ground for policy folk of all flavors. Bicycle advocates, transit advocates, NIMBY folk, working class locals, service providers, and the ever increasing influx of people from all over the world.

The inviting sign exists entirely within this larger sphere. Yet for each passer by it exists for just one moment on this otherwise quiet block of 15th Street. And in that moment is where it shines, where the day’s joke about dessert has the chance to make us laugh, regardless of the greater context. All that matters in that moment is how clever the author was on any particular morning.

Walking home past that shop last night I was surprised to see it completely full, every seat taken and people standing indoors and out, enjoying strange confectionary pleasures. Surprised because this block of 15th Street is relatively quiet; There are no other commercial properties. And surprised because chocolates for a minimum of $2 is a specific market.

More than surprised though, I was happy. Because the women who opened this shop, who work endless hours in its stainless kitchen, have built something that brings joy. They have brought a new source of happiness into the world with their baking and confectionary, with their renovated storefront and their jokey sign, that did not exist before.

Listening to the laughter from inside as I walk past on a Saturday evening, I am reminded how much better we can make the world, through hard work, for other people.

Winding roads

Idabashi view

In the month of March I am mostly confused about location.

In a Shanghai hotel room an old friend brings me medicine in between naps. His daughter laughs at her reflection in the mirror while we chat. I’ve been sick for days and seen little save this room in between factory visits. The company is welcome and the medicine better than my homemade solutions.

A few days later I see a super hero movie on the US naval base in Yokosuka. I’ve never been on base before and the experience is strange. Sitting in a theater having paid $2 for tickets feels both familiar and surreal. It is strange to be in Japan and yet surrounded by Americans, especially after two weeks in China. Afterwards, wandering around Idabashi with my friends, I am so grateful to be back in the suburban depths of Tokyo. Sub-urban is a claim that can only be applied to Idabashi when it is placed next to Shinjuku. In some ways the duplication of train stations, shops, conbinis and aparto towers feels like it’s own culture, a form of topography and living for which Americans have no language. Sub-urban then only in hierarchy not in density.

In Las Vegas a few days later I look out from the thirty third floor at empty patches in the city’s expansion. Whole blocks skipped, still raw desert, surrounded on all sides by cul-de-sac housing tracts. A depressing view of car culture and relative waste that I don’t know well enough to imagine living in. Or to imagine feeling trapped in.

Sitting at a bar in downtown Las Vegas arguing about transparency and expectations I realize how much of our conversations are also about location. Much of the conversation, scattered over several weeks and countries, is about cities, housing, variations of living. So too is much of our conversation about our hope for the future, and many of our questions are about how places shape people.

It is a perfect if confusing way to spend several weeks, well-suited to this site save for the lack of writing.

On location

The Alameda Tidal Canal

His stand, on the corner of Livingston and Embarcadero, is high traffic only in the loosest of terms. No sidewalks reach his chosen corner. There is shade, barely, from a single tree. The corner is mostly abandoned, an old section of railroad cutting across the block has kept it from any development.

The neighborhood has kept it from any development.

Across the street, towards the bay, there is a small park, a couple of piers that seem mostly abandoned. On nice days, which is most every day in Oakland California, I take my hot dog over to one of the benches and sit watching the water, watching Alameda across the water. It’s a slow area. Usually I finish before anyone else comes by, on foot or on bicycle. Occasionally a boat passes, but not frequently. Sometimes a homeless person has a tent set up, over towards the bridge underpass. Once, over a course of weeks, someone built a home-made boat. Every day it was different, secured to a rock by an old blue rope. One day it was gone, the owner hopefully adrift down the channel and into the bay. Away on an adventure, I imagine.

He opens the stand every morning around ten, this white haired and mustached man. How old is he? Fifty? Sixty? He is well-dressed, usually in a sweater and newsboy hat. He carefully sets up a small table and set of chairs in the shade, and ties down the tent that will give him shade. Pulling the drink coolers out in front he smiles at passers by, potential customers in an hour or two. At lunch time the stand is busy, sometimes five or more people in line. Construction workers in trucks order several, for the crew, driving back to a job out of sight. On hot days the table and shade are appreciated, and men cluster behind the stand, beneath the single tree, eating and avoiding too much interaction.

Like the street vendors in New York this is a migrant’s tale, if a long one. Based on Yelp and personal history, he’s been running this stand for fifteen years. I wonder how it began. Listening to him, I remember learning words for foods in Shanghai and think of him learning the English words for each condiment, each combination of meat and vegetables. I remember working in the service industry in China, happy to make money, happy to pay rent. I wonder what he thinks of this corner, of Livingston and Embarcadero. I wonder what he thinks of Oakland, and of hot dogs.

One day I’ll work up the courage to ask him.

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.

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.

They know your name

After cleaning our old place we sit with our backs against the wall of our local bar, tacos on order and Tecates in hand. It won’t be our last trip here, the Taco Shop will remain just across the park, but it won’t be our closest option late at night, after ultimate or hard days. We won’t wander down at 5 on Fridays any more for happy hour, or watch games from the back tables on Saturday afternoons. The bar staff, who know our faces if not our names, are unaware of the reason for our strange faces. They smile when we sit down and treat us well, locals who live around the corner and come in often, never when the place is packed. This is what happens when we move. As a basketball game unwinds on the TV behind the bar I remember the early times, saying goodbye to places I once knew. Places I once was known.

For that boy the differences at first felt so small. Of course no one knew his name, in those new towns. At the laundromat he watched people for hours, sitting cross legged on top of a washing machine. In nineteen ninety eight Portsmouth didn’t feel that different from Ithaca. He would get a bagel in the morning, fresh off the boat in, and walk to the laundromat. His one day ashore would be spent reading, thinking, cleaning, and talking to almost no one.

Four years later and on a day off again he would walk out of the Ebisu train station in the rain. He stopped for coffee in a shop with an English menu. Ebisu is a quiet part of Tokyo, and after coffee he would head down small streets towards the used foreign book store. Mostly English, he perused for hours until it was time to take the train home to the suburbs of Saitama. He did buy books, but that was not why he loved this store. He loved it because the staff streamed British radio, Channel 4. Standing in the tiny aisles of this shop in Tokyo he listened to traffic reports of a place he had never been. Hearing of traffic conditions and the evening weather in England he no longer felt alone in the world. The foreign feeling that so surrounded him on those week day afternoons when all of Tokyo was at work and he, with no language, was free, faded for a bit. There are so many parts of the globe, said the radio, where we are out of place, where things feel like home but are strange.

In between these two moments he lived in Maryland and Boston, Pougkeepsie and New York. He would live in Tokyo without language for another year and then Shanghai with only fragments. In each of these places he was familiar few times. In each city he started over, found a coffee shop, a laundromat, a bagel place, a bar to frequent. And in each city, with time, the staff of some establishments remembered his face, his drink. They noted his odd habit of taking a corner table and pulling out a notebook, of reading the Economist over twelve kuai worth of dumplings and twelve kuai worth of beer. They saw him sleeping over his coffee late in the afternoon instead of eating lunch at noon with the crowd. Even less frequently they knew his name, and he theirs. Knew that he would, when asked, tell stories and bring friends, recommend dishes or specific seats.

In these quiet exchanges he built something and left it behind again with each move.

And after each new beginning he woke early on a Saturday and went looking for a coffee shop in which to write.

In the Richmond in twenty twelve I begin with Japonica, on California and 17th. Just to see, just to try. Maybe in a few weeks the owner and I will know each other by sight, if not by name. Maybe a few weeks after that I will be a regular again.

The weather of things

In the steaming fog of the dumpling shop the rain outside doesn’t seem so out of place. On Irving this afternoon the sun was hidden by clouds long before it set, late now the day after the equinox. The streets have been filled with shoppers, students, families these past few days, since the sun no longer sets at five. Daylight Saving Time may be an oddity, a trick we play on ourselves with math and clocks, but it works. We are a happier people when we see the sun.

Tonight the wind came in early, fog and rain along side. No one complains, knowing deep down winter is over. Even in California the spring brings relief, and it’s tempestuous showers cause no ill will.

This is dumpling weather,” she says. I concur. This is weather for fogged-up windows and large numbers crammed in small rooms. We take novels and drink tea, ordering in fragmented Mandarin and cherishing the hot sauce. On the way home we watch the rain, lighter now, patter on the pavement, reflecting the headlights of 19th Ave.

This weather’s good for the Little Shamrock too,” I say, continuing our conversation about things just perfect for this weather. The self-proclaimed oldest bar in town, the Shamrock is a cozy kind of place with a fire and padded chairs, built for rainy Sundays.

They wouldn’t do well in a sunnier neighborhood,” she says. Too dingy.”

We cross, watching the fog sneak across the street on Irving, now fully at ground level. It is our second year here, in this weather of swirling shapes and constant drizzle that we so enjoy in part because we know where to go when the world becomes a place of damp and chill. Having learned the neighborhood grown out of the fog, we are no longer put down by it’s weight.

In Houston there were no dumpling houses like the King of Noodle, no bars like the Little Shamrock. Instead Poison Girl featured bike racks outside and a garden that was heavenly in February, perfect in November. Filled with plants and vines that snaked up and over the walls into neighboring yards, this space felt felt utterly unlike the dive bar it belonged to, and yet perfectly attached. Like the Shamrock, Poison Girl was built of it’s neighborhood, of it’s weather.

Weather is the strongest of forces, a statement that needs no proof save the news, and it shapes the places of people far more than we pretend. At Beach Bum on Boracay the drinks are built for long afternoons spent barefoot on the sand, and when storms blow they build walls of sand against the rising tide. It is an establishment made possible by the location, and then refined by weather.

To know a city, a town, a beach, then, we must embrace the weather there, be it by hiding near the fire or lolling barefoot. In San Francisco that idea has taken us most of two years to learn, here where the ocean joins the air and rolls over the land, where the fog is a member of the neighborhood, and where the best bars are cozy, the best restaurants steamy.

Neighborhoods

A boy once believed that no matter how far he went, he’d still be where he was from. That this defining character set would tie him to others, to where he’d grown up, to the person that he’d grown into. Years later does he still believe these things? That the love of fall on the east coast of the United States is an overwhelming sign of good taste, and that fixing a car late at night in driving snow represents the pinnacle of perseverance? Would he still dismiss those from further afield, as though their homes hadn’t provided similar lessons?

In my mind he would not. He has grown well, aged into a person of a different place. We are no longer close, this boy and I, partially because I no longer live on the east coast of the United States. Partially because I no longer live in the United States. Partially because, as the world grows, and we into it, such qualities shrink. They shrink not in difficulty, or beauty, but in scope. Fixing a car in driving snow becomes a challenge of location. Fixing a car in the desert’s blazing sun with no habitation for dozens of miles matches it, and that recognition changes the original pride.

We are not where we are from, yet knowledge of that place explains us.

As does the sense of scope. Meeting an unknown friend in the chill heat of a Shanghai apartment where the walls seep cold into the night as the heater pumps out dry air filled with warmth, our shared location becomes an isolating factor.

Those two are from Ithaca.”

As though that makes us the same. As though we’re both really from the same place. As though we shared the same city, and through it clothes, manner, dress. We do not. Because it is not just countries that are too large to possibly contain their population with the single adjective allowed them in popular humor.

Because countries have directions, and cities neighborhoods.

Yueyang lu is tree-lined, residential, until the bars. Yongjia lu has some shops, some restaurants, and more trees. Couples walk hand in hand and boys chase each other in and out of the school nearby. Guards watch both, and mingle in front of the Painting Institute, huddle inside their huts in chilly weather, and smoke incessantly to relieve the mind-numbing passage of time. I whisper through it in the mornings, past the fleets of women and men with their child on the rear of their bicycle for the morning lift to school before they head on to work. I slip up Yongjia, heading west, across Wulumuqi lu, past the brief block of Anting lu, to Hengshan’s bustling cacophony, busses and taxis competing with the whistle of a half-dozen crossing guards watching the five roads carefully for signs of lawlessness. Their stares and squawking whistles slap me awake, and I pause before pushing on to Gao’an, and then left up Kangping. This is the border of my neighborhood, Hengshan and Gao’an. On a map it might continue to Wanping, two blocks further west, at the edge of the park, or two blocks further north, to Huaihai or Fuxing, with their commercial bustle. East, perhaps the edge lies at Xiangyang or Shanxi, or even further, Maoming or Ruijin Er. But limits of a neighborhood are not drawn so clearly. They are shifty fleeting things of time and walking distance, of community, of school districts, of architecture, of income, of simple recognition. Xiangyang is far enough for me.

And it is with these decisions, often without thought, that we separate ourselves. So two children of New York, of the City, of the same college, of so much shared experience that to their company over diner in a small apartment in Shanghai they blend and blur, opinions overlapping, can argue, can push against the common box. Manhattan and Brooklyn are so different, they protest, and their high schools, completely different. Several others in the room agree with small nods, not necessarily of New York, but with the familiarity of past discussions, past attempts to prove their own location.

A girl, in an interview, on her home.

Baoshan is a great place to live, a better district than Xuhui or Huangpu.”

But aren’t Xuhui and Huangpu more downtown’, more convenient, her questioner wonders.

No, Baoshan is downtown, it is the center of Shanghai.”

The fragility of her argument is made precious by her belief. Her questioner does not note Shanghai’s spherical nature, it’s circular boundaries, and it’s series of encircling rings, containing at their heart four districts, and spreading outwards. With no argument of population, nor commercial value, no mention of business districts, shopping, night life, a simple circle placed atop Shanghai’s mapped existence will reveal Baoshan’s distance from the circle’s center.

In Jintan, weeks ago, a girl wandered the street with her harmonica as the Ode to Joy found its way through her cupped fingers. The street, it’s four shops, one restaurant and two houses all mingled in a run of concrete buildings, paid her no mind. Perhaps she plays and walks each morning, in the chill of January’s end, and is a common site in this neighborhood of her birth. Along Yueyang’s shaded walks she would surprise, her clothes and accent out of place, her harmonica sure to please the foreigners who are so frequent now.

Up Xinhua lu, still rolling west, having crossed the barren spread of Huashan and touched Huaihai briefly, the neighborhood changes. From Huashan’s vacancy and Huaihai’s bus-filled rumble, Xinhua is a deep breath of space and trees again. The shops, and passers-by, are not those of Yueyang, or Yongjia. An older community, fewer foreigners, less military, more Japanese. The difference is immediate and comforting. This is where I work, this is where I eat lunch and mail letters. This street, across Dingxi lu, is being renovated, but not built up. There are but two towers, and even those are slightly at odds with the surroundings, slightly shunned by the baozi eaters cradling their dumplings on the opposite corner where the bank and steamed bun shop still stand. The tower, with its coffee shops and cell phone dealers, is the stranger, something not quite of this neighborhood, but here. So small and fragile are these distinctions, built on collective consciousness. And so hard to remember, from outside.