Off hours

The kind of quiet Monday I last enjoyed in the spring sneaks up on me. I rise early and make coffee, acknowledging the cat by leaving the sink tap dripping for a bit. He prefers to drink running water with quick laps of that tiny pink tongue, and I prefer to let him. In the dark of the kitchen we make space for each other, me pouring boiling water over grounds and him two paws down in the sink, two paws up on the counter, making tiny splashing sounds.

We retire to the office once the coffee is done, where I scrub emails and reach out to factory staff to plan visits later in the week. It’s too early for them to be on site yet, and in an hour I’ve accomplished enough to pause until they reply. The cat and I wake Tara with tea and move to the sunroom to read the news and lie on the rug until she arrives. We read and she plays the guitar for a bit until the neighborhood is fully risen. These minutes of morning together are likewise a gift of this kind of Monday, and we appreciate them. Quite often one or the other of us is traveling, is at the train station early or the airport even earlier, and there is none of this shared peace, reading while the children next door leave for school.

After a while the neighborhood is awake, children out and office workers likewise. The shops open and deliveries start to arrive, and Tara departs for work, a short bus ride or walk. Again this commute is a gift of our life here. No longer are the bus rides an hour plus of private shuttles down the peninsula. As she leaves I set the robot vacuum to work, appeasing the cat with a high perch safe from the trundling commotion. He accepts this reluctantly, and naps while I follow up with the responses arriving from factory staff and US teammates. These colleagues are conducting a ritual I know so well, that of the Sunday evening email scrub to prepare for the week. It’s a part of life I have left behind in my journey to the future. In return I now work Saturday mornings, a few hours of quiet catch up on the end of the US work week. These hours are a fair trade, as they overlap with some factories sixth working day. I’m happier with this schedule, trading Friday dinner time emails in the US for Saturday morning ones, letting Tara sleep in while I chase shipping documents and wire transfers. There’s an unspoken rule in this exchange, a pact we all mostly keep: one day a week without email. Saturday in the US and Sunday in Asia are sacred, a shared time for everything else in our lives. One day a week of peace. And as a result the last quarter of my weekend sometimes comes, strangely, on Mondays.

So it is that afternoons like this Monday, where replies trickle in and there is no specific urgency to any situation, sneak up on me, for they are not planned. Instead, upon realizing myself so gifted I head to the gym or to the grocery store. Occasionally I write, or nap with the cat. Days like this are rare. Last week on Monday I was on a 7 am flight to Taiwan. The week before I was already in Japan. The week before that I was already in San Francisco. More than a month, I think, since the last of these quiet mornings with the cat. And so I relax and appreciate the gift of living once again in the future, in UTC+8, and working at least partially in the past.

Temporary crossings

Looking at the river

We have a gift, in technology, that is transforming our memories. When I began writing, years before this site, the idea of a personal photographic history was a distant vision. Digital cameras were a poorly performing luxury and cellular connections barely able to convey data. I would not own access to either for another half dozen years.

Unsurprisingly the memories of my first trip abroad have a vague feel and possibly apocryphal characteristics. Much of human history has the same quirks. I have always taken the year of my birth as a blessing, lucky to have grown up before self-documentation. Not before documentation, as parents still took photos and recorded far too many Christmas presents being opened, but before the constant self-editing of ones’ personal digital history. And yet cloud backups and quickly accessible photo streams are a gift of another kind, bringing our memories out of the fog of uncertainty and into the concrete in an entirely new way.

They do not, however, constitute the whole truth, something for which I am grateful. There will still be stories told without evidence, and poorly lit photos that do not clearly prove that we were there that night. At least not without consulting the location metadata.

What we do have is the ability to remember a specific day, return to it, and share the remnants of it with new people, or with old friends. We have the ability to instantly look up the last time we saw someone, or the last time we took a photo, at least.

And so it is that I can find the image I remember in a mater of moments. He stands on the deck of a ferry in the bright light of October sun. We are headed across the Yangtze river to a new factory. This was the good kind of trip, all of us excited to see what we would build together. The travel still felt exploratory and joyful. We all laughed and enjoyed the ferry that day, a place none of us had ever expected to see.

Three months later I would be back, on the worst kind of quick turn quality control visit. I would cross this river on this same ferry, or one of four identical vessels. I would spend several days in the cold of Yangzhou and then fly to Tokyo to present my solutions, to apologize, and to wear a suit. That would be the last time we met in person, me apologizing to him and then us both apologizing to a mutual customer. It was an unpleasant occasion at the end of the year. We were both tired, then, exhausted from the compromises of supporting a failing business model. A little more than a month into the new year I changed jobs, and left that industry and that world behind.

The truth is there aren’t many people to tell, few people I know who ever met him, and fewer still I still speak to. Instead I sift through photos of my times in Tokyo, of his trip to Petaluma, and of our factory visits in China. The best ones I send to his colleague, in case they capture moments he does not have. I share the memories I have available, especially of the good days. It’s all I can think of to do.

Seeing the future

We are rarely entirely new beings. Instead we are an echo of our parents and the examples set before us. We grow and change and age in patterns that seem unique individually but are quite in line with our species globally. We are children and then adults of a particular history, of a place and time.

I am reminded of this in the breakfast buffet of the Pullman hotel one morning in Shanghai in two thousand fifteen. A man walks past me in shorts and a black T-shirt, carrying a notebook and pen. He has a shaved head, and is perhaps forty five. I am thirty five, here for work, and still too concerned about appearances to wear T-shirts. The man wanders away though the buffet and I can barely avoid staring.

It’s rare to see one’s future self walk by so close.

He looks like I look. More, he looks like I will look, if I am still attending buffet breakfasts in Chinese hotels in ten years. The feeling of witnessing someone in the same place, with the same styles, mannerisms, and accouterment, is disconcerting. The first moments are of shock, an odd tickle on the back of the neck. After that comes a humbleness, the awareness of one’s lack of individuality. And finally, when I am standing in the elevator returning to my room, a desire to make contact, to have said something witty by way of introduction. A wish to have met myself, however strangely.


Three years later, at a breakfast in Dongguan, in black T-shirt with notebook, I have grown more comfortable. I no longer worry about the supplier I am going to meet in an hour. I have been swimming early in the morning, and will write a letter to a distant friend over coffee. I am more collected, more comfortable, and slightly older. My head is recently shaved, by a young man in a Shenzhen barber shop. If I encountered that future self again the recognition, I believe, would be mutual, and not just for the clothing, bald head, and habit of writing at breakfast, which I’ve possessed for years.

There is a certain comfort at being in China, at being at home on the road, that I’ve improved on these past three years. After so many trips full of urgent mornings rushing through breakfast to make the pick up schedule, after so many years of worry and email before bed, I feel more able to schedule rigorously and still breathe. It’s a skill I’ve always had but not always believed in, which led to unnecessary stress.

Since my injury in 2014 I am focused enough to rise early, to swim or exercise, and to eat little breakfast. I am able to relax enough to write at the breakfast table afterwards, and pack quickly for the scheduled departure. I am able to eat less at lunch and dinner, to work out in the evenings if that is the only option, and to make time for video calls with family.

I am older, and still on the road. Not yet forty five, but no longer thirty five. And on mornings like this one I wonder about that man in the Pullman in Shanghai. Is he still on the road as well, still meeting business partners and enjoying spartan hotel mornings?

Perhaps one day I’ll know.

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.

Closing time

Studio closing, equipment for sale inside” says the sign, handwritten on an piece of A4 paper.

It’s a quiet end to a dream.

For more than ten years my friend has run a recording studio here, at 7th and Howard. He worked hard to make this dream a reality, by finding space, by saving money, by living in odd spaces to afford the building’s rent, by scrounging gear, by making trades and finally by meeting bands, by inviting musicians into his achievement, and helping make their dreams in exchange. He has worked odd gigs on the sides to cover expenses, and invested so much of himself in building what he hoped would continue.

Helping sort some boxes, pull down some lights, and throw out some small portion of the past ten year’s accumulation, I am glad to be here. Sad, too, of course, at the small failures. Sadder still at our approaching middle age that makes the failures real, makes us have to decide finally if this business is a life, or just a section of one. We are no longer twenty five, hoping to achieve things one day. Instead we have to look at forty and determine if where we are is where we want to be in another ten years. And if not, we have to figure out how to leave.

In a SOMA evening, the kind of breazy warmth rare to San Francisco, we carry trash cans out into the night. Bottles and cans, from clean-up crews of the week prior, are set aside for the scavengers who wait patiently at the other end of the block for us to close the door and give them space.

Inside, climbing a rickety aluminum ladder with a caution my younger self would not have shown, I remember so many other evenings like this, building or taking down, in so many strange spaces across the North East. Theaters, mostly, but also churches, bars, warehouses, and the occasional alley. In a sense, this is just one more show whose run is finished, one more set to be deconstructed in so much less time than it took to build.

Leaving later, down Howard on our bicycles in the night, I feel the post-show low too. I wonder where I’ll see my friend again, now that we’ll no longer bump into each other walking down the streets of the Mission or SOMA at odd hours. I wonder where we’ll get to build again.

And that question lets me smile, makes me happy. Because on our last parting, in Boston in two thousand one, I couldn’t forsee meeting at a friend’s house in San Francisco eight years later, to play Magic and Mario Kart again, as though nothing had changed.

Many things have, of course, and more will for both of us. Adventures are to be cherished, though. The freedom to say goodbye is hard to come by.

At the end though we don’t use that word.

See you somewhere,” we say instead, after a hug. Maybe Berlin.”

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.

Just one

Life is full of phases. Easy segmentation comes in the form of school graduations and new jobs. These moments force us out of our houses and friend circles and introduce us to entirely new groups of people. Colleagues become friends, and fellow students drift away into Facebook birthday reminders. Some times they, or we, resurface a decade later, in a different town. Usually not. And when the new job ends we leave behind most of our colleagues, save for one or two we still see outside of any office, in circumstances far divorced from the workplace that first introduced us.

Life is fully of these changes, more for some people than for others. Depending on how often we move, how many jobs we have, and how many schools we attend the number of groups we’re part of varies. The kind of interactions, though, are stable. Out of each group there will be people we connect with, people we want to hold on to when the binding circumstance drifts away.

Living in upstate New York, at Vassar, and then in Tokyo and Shanghai, my groups are varied, distant, and rarely overlap. I’m lucky to have even one friend that shares multiple locations, let alone three. Most of my friends come from one of the many jobs, one of the many frisbee teams, one of the handful of cities. People I met while working at a delivery company in Shanghai, or a teaching job in Tokyo. Like most, I have friends from middle school, high school, or college. And now, on the west coast, I know people from a couple of jobs well enough to invite them over. At least one from each.

For those of us that move frequently, that have homes in different countries, friends in different cities, that’s a good place to start: one from each. Writing letters to Seth in Singapore last week I realized how special it is, to have him remember my apartment in Tokyo, to have him know my first apartment in Shanghai, and the grass of Vassar’s quad. There are several people who I can share each set of memories with, but only one who knows all three.

Standing last night in a yard in the Oakland hills with a friend from a job in the US, meeting his wife, brother, and father for the first time, I realized he’s one of a few, of very few, that I will stay connected with from those three years driving to Petaluma every day. There are others, scattered all over the globe, people I remember and will connect with when able. But few of them will invite me over, few will I meet up with in Shanghai late on a Saturday evening when all our work is done.

One is enough, sometimes. Given how much I like change, adding someone at each stop is a good pace. Sometimes I am lucky, and a frisbee team gives me a plethora. But it’s good to find someone from each part of life, to help with my memories, and to prove that we built something over all those days together.

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.

The distance of friendship

Chicago view

In Chicago the air is crisp and the skies gray. For a boy from upstate New York it’s welcoming weather here at the end of November. Sitting in an apartment window overlooking a park I watch bundled locals walk their dogs. At this time of year dog walking is dependent on the owner’s patience, the time of day, and the amount of clothing. A man stands with his arms wrapped around his torso waiting as his pet squats along a fence. A different man stands with his hands in his pockets as his dog sprints back and forth in the caged area. The animal is ecstatic to be freed from the apartment. The man less so, obviously missing heating and insulation.

In the morning though the light is beautiful and Chicago feels like a city. I visit East Coast establishments like Dunkin’ Donuts and mingle with construction workers and doctors. We are here for a friend’s wedding, for a celebration. The days on either side serve as a peaceful break from the rest of our lives.

The celebration and the evenings out are a reminder of the power of friendship and the challenges of distance. So many of the friends here, like so many friends everywhere, met in college or high school. Now all in their thirties these bonds are a reminder of who they were and who they are, friends who can recall early driving mishaps and the lack of cleanliness of college apartments. Friends like these aren’t a necessity, of course. Spending time with those who know us and who have known us is always a luxury. The further we move and the more frequently, the rarer such evenings become. In some ways that’s the best part of weddings, bringing together a group of people who know each other so well and who have shared so much.

On the flight home, far too early in the morning after a late night of deep conversation, I think about how much of our travel is dedicated to maintaining friendships. When asked about our plans or our vacations it’s the location or the specific adventures that we recall, Tokyo’s busy trains or the relaxed feel of Los Angeles. Yet in both cases, in most cases, it’s friends that have taken us there, and friends we will return for. Having moved so often and met so many people their conversation is what I miss, and so much of what brings me to the airport so frequently. Without planes, without sleeping in so many different zip codes each year, those friendships would fade.

The sad truth is they fade anyway. Visiting can not replace living down the street or in the next room. Time spent catching up can’t replace time spent doing, making new memories. This, finally, is teaching me the sacrifice of being constantly on the move, constantly searching for another place to discover. Because for every new person we meet and place we feel comfortable there’s another we have to work to hold on to. Too many messages I write say that we’ll try to visit this year” instead of see you tomorrow.”

All this is of course the complaints of the truly fortunate. Given both opportunity and means to travel it is easy to complain about their challenges. Gifted with friends far and wide it is easy to complain about their distance, rather than celebrate their quality. Yet standing in a group of friends who have known each other at least a decade and currently live within a five mile radius is a poignant reminder of the virtues of staying close.

Landing in San Francisco reminds me that I am wrong. The city is warm and inviting. We bicycle to the gym and back in the sunshine. A friend from college, fifteen years ago now, texts to say taking care of our cat was no problem. Another Vassar friend messages about meeting up soon, and a friend in London, whom I met in Japan, writes with book advice. These interactions, all brief and all electronic, make me smile. Because this is why it’s possible to maintain friendships across so many years and so many miles, despite moving houses and countries: we are so rarely truly out of reach.

Which is a good reminder for a week filled with love and Thanksgiving.

Fireflies

Discussing housing around the office lunch table one afternoon he mentions friends who purchased their house primarily for the spacious kitchen and dining area, the ability to seat 12 easily.

We have dinner parties almost every weekend”, a colleague says. She and her husband organize, she explains, their children and families from all over the neighborhood, on warm evenings in the heat of the East Bay summer. “My husband loves to cook,” she adds, with the smile of one who does not. Her colleague grins with understanding, having survived on Asian street food for most of a decade.

Sounds like a good time,” he says, thinking of San Francisco’s fog and the brevity of outdoor gatherings.

It is. It’s nice, everyone in the back yard eating, the children running wild. I have a huge costume box, a trampoline, and a sprinkler.” The images come easily to mind, an American childhood in a middle class neighborhood. “And sitting there, in the dark with all my friends,” she says, having a glass of wine and talking after the children are asleep, I look around and think this, this is what I imagined being an adult would be like.”

This is what I imagined being an adult would be like, he repeats.

Not meetings and long evenings in the office or on Skype. Not driving between appointments, running late. Those weren’t even ideas, as a child.

What had he thought life would be like, as an adult?

Sitting around a table in the evening, with the lights low and the stars out.

Having a glass of wine with friends after the children had gone inside.

Watching for meteors and laughing about the day’s adventures.

Pretty accurate, he thinks. Seems pretty much what he’d have hoped for.

Save one thing.

Just need some fireflies,” he says.

What?”

Fireflies. I really miss them.”

Oh. Yeah. Me too.”

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 nicest people

On a flight from El Paso to Phoenix I hear of these elusive folk. They live in Lubbock, I am told, and serve the greatest steak. The whole town, it seems, is filled with them, kind and compassionate to strangers, traveling businessmen. The revelation isn’t surprising, I’ve had other close encounters.

On the next flight, Phoenix to San Francisco, the topic comes up again unbidden. In Detroit, I hear, despite the conditions, that the nicest people have arrived again, in fact won’t leave. They are the friendly folk who work hard to keep the city functioning.

What is it about these people, I do not ask, that makes them the world’s nicest? This is a familiar question to me, something I wonder of hot dog stands, burger joints, and ice cream parlors: how is this world ranking calculated? Where is the committee?

On a flight from Salt Lake to Portland I learn of small towns far beneath us, home to people I’ll probably never meet. They are filled, I am told, with gentle, compassionate neighbors who are kind to passers by.

In Salt Lake I hear of the strangers who pile in to town for a Megadeth show, coming from the wilderness in camo and tattoos, in pickup trucks and Hummers. In much of a month of traveling it is one of the few moments of distaste I encounter. Despite our differences it seems that we are creatures of great love, of appreciation for the places we do not live and their inhabitants.

And yet under the weight of repetition I realize I have these conversations mostly with those who have just left the place we discuss, or who are from there. In neither case would they settle in these towns of kindness. What does this say about our tolerance, that we speak well of Lubbock, of El Paso, of Greeley, as long as the wheels are up.

As long as we’re able to get out one flight earlier on Thursday, back to Phoenix, Los Angeles, Dallas, San Francisco, we can be kind.

As for myself, I think of the people of Ithaca often, of Lansing, and my old home town. Waitresses, cooks, business owners, farmers, and neighbors there who represent the place to me. I think of those long since reduced to Facebook photos and birthday greetings, to the occasional memory. Are they too the nicest people? Would they be who I spoke of on the plane, sharing with a stranger after a successful sales meeting, on the way home to my family? Or is the story instead of a place visited only briefly, with surprising kindness true or not? Is nice the only word we have to describe those we can not fathom, folk we have no knowledge of how to be?

This later I suspect is the truth of these airborne conversations. The people of Lubbock may indeed be the world’s nicest, as promoted. More likely though they are simply people, a collection of lives tied loosely to some inhabitable ground by a series of mostly unrelated accidents that befell their ancestors. The same as Lansing, the same as Phoenix or San Francisco.

With the seemingly-agreed-upon exception of New York, the world’s nicest people appear as we depart their town, a product of memory and heightened emotion. As the ground approaches and the conversation in each shared row of seats falters, these people recede from our consciousness. By the time we’ve reached our cars, taxis, and trains the nicest folk we’ve ever met are no more real than the conversation that spawned them, some thirty thousand feet above the ground.

Small job, big world

In a photo from decades ago two men hang over the prow of a large ship, painting it while under way. In white t-shirts and dark pants, some twenty feet below the deck, they eptiomize so much of the world to me. Long after the source of the photo has disappeared, I see them, tiny figures against the hulk of steel and the spread of the ocean below. They are two men with a regular job, a task of understandable skill if special magnitude and place. Painting, on a hot summer day, a giant expanse of metal.

Painting a giant expanse of metal while dangling from it, alone, in motion, at sea. As with everything, the addition of context zooms the lens to overwhelming scale.

This sense of scale, of the undertsandably human against the largness of the world, is what pulls me to climb buildings, to hike hills, and to travel, no matter the destination. I find this feeling staring out at Tokyo from the top of a skyscraper in western Shinjuku, standing atop a hill in Santa Cruz, approaching or departing from any airport. The feel of the view pulling back is the sensation I love most.

For the last several months my favorite source for it has been Nat Geo Found, a collection of old images from National Geographic’s archives. Spanning the world, the last hundred and twenty five years, and a huge variety of lives, this collection gives rise to a view of the world that is not simple, or lonely. Instead it shows, without claim to own, how amazing and how diverse, how rich and how personal all our lives are. Widely available, easily accessible, the site is a reminder to me too of how wonderful the internet is, and how much I appreciate this access, unthinkable only decades ago.

Standing in front of a group of friends last week explaining in a few moments why I spend so much time in small factories and border cities, I applied the miracle of Google Maps to the problem, isolating a factory and zooming out to reveal the location. Sitting high on a mesa in the desert, this building has no glass for windows, only holes, and the workers alternately sweat and freeze, depending on the season. And yet seeing it from space, though it draws gasps, will never have the same staggering touch as standing on the edge of the plateau, staring out across the empty landscape. Being there, a tiny single human in the middle of a huge expanse, trapped with others by circumpstance and employment, brings a sense of fragility, and of amazement. That sense, found in the monumental stacks of shipping containers in Shenzhen, in the winding canyons of Colorado, and at the edge of the Pacific on all sides, is reason enough to keep going, to find jobs that take me further out of the city I inhabit.

Like those two men painting their ship, so precariously alone in the ocean and yet part of something larger, understandable from a wider view.

Three California moments

The gloves are old and wool, well-worn but not used up. He pulls them on carefully, one finger at a time. It is May in San Francisco, a calm sixty seven. No one else on the street wears gloves, hat, or scarf. T-shirts are out, and people bicycle past with pant legs rolled high. Spring in this western part of the city is far warmer than July. The man himself is unremarkable, white and forty, an unbuttoned dress shirt over a nondescript tee. Gloves finally on he steps forward into the booth, to a device likewise out of place, and picks up the receiver. For a moment he pauses, holding it in his gloved left hand, change at the ready in his right, and eyes the street, left and right.

In his overalls and boots the plumber is a distinct figure. Tool belt mostly empty he stands outside the office building, logo on his chest matching the logo on the van parked at the curb. At seven forty am on a Wednesday the parking lot hidden by the van is slowly filling. The plumber is not old, not yet forty. He is on the phone, one hand holding the cell to his ear. And he is seriously pissed off, the other hand gesturing in line with his speech. Strings of expletives follow each other, giving whomever is on the other end scant space for response. As he curses the plumber paces back and forth in front of the entrance. Lawyers and accountants on their way in, suits neat and coffees in hand, sidestep him with eyes averted, made timid by his rage.

In Starbucks the door swings open repeatedly, new visitors letting the chill wind of an autumn afternoon in. At one of the tables by the door a middle-aged Asian man is folding cardboard. His table is covered with tools for the project, tape, scissors, and the other half of his box. In the middle of the table lies his project, a square black plastic shape bearing its manufacturer’s logo. Toshiba. As he folds the next strip of cardboard over, creating a tight fold around the laptop’s body, the source of his cardboard too becomes evident. Domino’s. For twenty minutes more he fusses with the flaps, taping and refolding, until the laptop is completely encased. Satisfied, he sits back, studying his work. Domino’s on the outside silicon on the inside. The door opens again, gusts fluttering the cardboard scraps that litter his table. He has not removed his coat.

Scotland

It is October, and we drive the M90 north through the tiny Kingdom of Fife. Though it’s home to the home of golf we have miles to go and do not linger. Having rented a car with incredible acceleration we pass rather rapidly, overtaking slower vehicles in mild terror on their left. Right.

In fact Scotland is to the north of our lives. After our first weekend in Edinburgh every step we take in Scotland is further north than either of us have ever been.  We realize this on a beach facing the North Sea in Banff. It’s a tiny town not terribly far south, latitude wise, of Juneau Alaska. October is past half done and the sunshine and warmth are a gift to our travels. The roads are dry and skies clear, and we visit castles leaving our jackets in the car.

We are on an adventure again, to the last new place we have plans to learn in twenty twelve. It is an entire country in a week, another island nation and a few more old fiends. We adventure by car and train and foot. We see castles in the mornings and oceans at sunset. We see snow in the first light of dawn and lochs by the last. We wander with little in the way of plan from east coast to west, from Edinburgh to Inverness, Aberdeen to Portree and Mallaig.

Scotland is a country of rolling hills and steep cliffs, of lakes that stretch long through valleys, and fields of furry cows tucked into the gaps. It is a country of trains and lorries, beer, cider, and whisky. More than anything it is a country of kind people, from the strangers who help us with our flat to the two NFL fans who sit opposite us on the train south, excited by the opportunity to see the St. Louis Rams play the New England Patriots in London. They drink Budweiser, like Nickelback, and work in the oil industry in Aberdeen. Like everyone we meet they are the kind of direct polite that surprises sarcastic Americans, mocking each other yet kind to passers by.

Much of the week we reside in a cottage on the grounds of a castle in the hills south west of Inverness. It is the kind of accommodation hard to imagine prior to arrival, half fantasy and half luxury, found by a friend. For, like our trip to Japan, Scotland is an adventure with old friends, and the four of us spend each evening building a fire, cooking together, discussing the future, and telling stories of the past. Here at last is someone who was there when I fell off the bridge in Saitama, who walked me home scraped and in shock. Here’s someone who remembers standing on the stairwell in Kawaguchi between English classes, looking out at the city with the exhausted and uncurious eyes of a resident. It’s been years since our last meeting, in Amsterdam after Italy won the World Cup, and we are old enough now to cherish each evening together.

Scotland, like Japan, like any nation, is far too much to encapsulate in a week of travel, though we try. Mostly it is a chance to adventure, to challenge ourselves by learning new things together. It is a way to remember how we met, if not where, and why we are always on the move. Walking on the dam that holds back Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhoin we think of James Bond, of the beauty of nature, and of the perseverance of humans in exploring, mapping, and building on so much of this globe.

The first morning in Edinburgh we look at each other, wide-eyed with jet lag and the joy of discovery, and remember. Five years ago in Shanghai, riding an electric scooter together and discovering new districts, new routes home late at night. In Scotland five years later the scooter is an Audi, rented for the week. The look in our eyes though is familiar, as we stand on top of Arthur’s Seat, a little winded from the climb. Five years seems both impossibly long and never enough. Twenty twelve may have brought Japan, Scotland, and old friends, but the world is wide and there are always more of you to see.

The morning rush hour

Each morning on Clement the street wakes in a certain rhythm. The coffee shops open, first to walking traffic and then cars. The busses begin to run more frequently, passengers accumulating at each stop in waves to match their arrivals. Food trucks begin deliveries, first to super markets and corner stores, and then, a few hours later, to restaurants and cafes. At nine the meters turn on, and commerce commences, quarters deposited and spots filled in neat rows rather than parked across by trucks. The garbage has come and gone and now staff haul the empty bins back in to restaurants and start their prep work.

It is these early hours that fascinate with repetition, each day played out much the same, each morning an echo of those past. To return, after a year or two, would be to see the same folk, the same shops opened by the same staff. The man who delivers pigs, cut in half, to the Chinese grocery still hops from the tall truck with a hog on each shoulder, still swings them onto the tables with the same gusto. Before his arrival an old man sits on the bench in front of the restaurant next door, waiting and watching. Though a smoker he does not yet, as though still waking up. Instead he crosses his legs and uncrosses them, watching busses and cyclists pass between the steady stream of commuter cars. He lives on this street, in a house somewhere behind it, and spends each morning watching the progression of service vehicles to joggers, school children to shoppers. He watches my arrival, coffee purchase and departure. Clement street is part of his life, and he part of it, his patient eyes proof that not everyone need hurry.

On a brisk morning in late October another city hustles. Seven thirty on a Wednesday and Dunkin’ Donuts is packed. The man holding sway in the center is wearing a witch’s hat and a long wig. This is Chicago, on Halloween, and the wind is sharp but not blustery. The remnants of Hurricane Sandy stormed through the day before, chopping Lake Michigan into muddy froth near the shore. In the Loop, at the heart of down town, the sense of motion is energizing. In great coats and business attire each person on the street outside the hotel has purpose and the sense of urgency that comes with big city routine. These blocks are filled with overhead trains and the honking of taxis, and coffee shops on each corner do the brisk business of rush hour. This is their peak, unmatched by the ten am break or noon lunch. From seven to eight forty five there are lines to the door at the Starbucks, the Caribou, the Dunkin’ and the McDonald’s, all within one full block. This is urban America, and it shows, the chains dominating by prioritizing efficiency and recognition.

As an east coast native the pace is thrilling, and some part of me is excited by Dunkin’ Donuts, a chain that dominates New York but has no presence in California. The experience at seven thirty, all interactions precisely packaged and refined through endless repetition, bears just enough similarity to my normal routine on Clement to be understood: the act of buying coffee. Outside of the Blue Danube the Chinese man sits on the bench of Burma Superstar, waiting for his friend to arrive and offer him a cigarette. After that ritual they will chat and watch the grocery store’s opening, where the pigs are delivered, and then wander off down the block, disappearing from the street. In Chicago a city employee sweeps trash from the gutter, and workers in suits file in to tall office towers.

Mornings, in cities, on week days, are studies in practice, in shared space and short time frames. Comfort comes in the form of a well-executed routine, a perfectly timed bus, a well-made coffee acquired with speed. The differences between places are not so vast, and yet, underneath, in the pace and dress is the place.

Clement’s feel, easy and welcoming, with random pedestrians and old residents, is that of home, of comfort and connection. Downtown Chicago’s rushed pace and commuter nature gives it the rare sense of the truly metropolitan, with no homes, few locals and small, pre-outlined exchanges done in incredible volume. More than anything it feels like New York, a rare thing in America. For a few days I’m glad to swap one routine for another, and even more to know both.

Afloat

Stepping off the plane the weather is calm as always, by the beach and exceedingly early. I woke even earlier, to fog and a chill wind, my car covered with tiny droplets. Waiting for friends by the curb the clear skies and lack of humidity feel wonderful, a gentle weather that to me is Los Angeles.

Stepping out of the car some four hours later the heat assaults. Within seconds I begin to sweat and my companions make sounds of awe at the change. The amazement is not purely at the temperature, but at how great a change four hours could bring. Distance is a tricky thing, surprising when encountered suddenly. Our brains, I think, evolved to walk, to travel slowly through such shifts as I saw that morning. From fog, wind, and persistent damp to the relaxed 70° F of Southern California, to the open desert, the barren rock filled with heat accepted and re-radiated. Shorts, I think, and sandals. Both are in my shoulder bag, carried on to my morning flight in anticipation. They were too much to ask my brain at four am, waking chilly in the 52° F of San Francisco. We were born to acclimate gradually, to walk over a mountain range and see the sea rather than to land suddenly in the East Coast’s stifling humidity after a restless night’s sleep seated in an air conditioned tube of metal.

My companions are likewise overwhelmed, and we spend the afternoon, the two days following, alternating between AC and water. This seems to be how lives are lived in Arizona, as most vehicles tow boats and the lake, the Wal*Mart, are filled in the afternoon. Our home for the weekend, a sixty foot behemoth, offers us both air conditioning and water with ease if not grace. Trying to start the grill for an early dinner my friend is quickly drenched in his own sweat, his wool Dodgers cap a burden in its authenticity. Fire, while necessary for cooking beef, is not something to linger near when the ambient temperature ticks over 115° F.

For three days this lake is our playground, this boat our castle. Filled with food and friends from across the country, it is all we need. Together we float and swim. We learn, from each other and the world, how to drive large vehicles and leap from cliffs. We work together to tie up on beaches and dive through inner tubes. As the sky cools we are alone on the shore, and sit high on the boat watching the sun. It sets behind the mountains, splashing the lake with pinks and oranges as speedboats rip past heading home. Tied up on a small island we linger on the top deck, no longer forced into the AC or water. Our topics grow serious, brains finally cool enough to process. Business school and marriage, families, jobs and houses. Later, in the dark, we set off fireworks, spin fire, and tell stories. We speak of experiences we will never have again, of first encounters and the strange adventures that have brought us here, across miles and years. It is a weekend to celebrate our friend, his growth and a new phase we know he’s ready for. That we are ready for.

On our last morning, all of us slowly waking to the sun, I walk across our small island and swim to the shore. The cliffs, so inviting the day before, look wonderful in the fresh light. With a couple other early risers I climb, pause for the view, and jump.

Airborne for a full second not a single thought goes through my head. Below, having hit the deep cold water and pulled my way back up, I feel complete. My muscles and brain are weary, and awake. Finally, after hundreds of miles and hours of travel, I have removed myself from the world. Alone with this small circle of friends, on this small circle of water, there is nowhere more to go, nowhere else to be.

At least until after breakfast.

Glimpses of Shanghai

When the day is done

I meet a friend in front of Jing’an temple. Looking around at the intersection I recognize no buildings save the one behind me that names this intersection, ancient and partially re-built in concrete decades before. Towers of glass and neon spring out of corners that once held parks, that once held nothing. My friend finds me looking lost in one of the city’s most familiar places. I hold tight to the back of his scooter as we speed down Nanjing Lu, dodging police and taxis with equal caution.

And I lay me down

I am sick in the afternoon at the edge of a grass field, almost to the river, almost to the sea. A man on a bicycle outside the fence who is watching the soccer game behind me pretends not to notice my squatting form. I appreciate the gesture. My stomach turns. On the way home I am sick on the Nanbei Gaojia, out the taxi window in the sun. Traffic, moving at a brisk walk, politely does not crowd our cab, and I am grateful. Home again on a friend’s borrowed couch I hunker down with Gatorade and warm blankets. A day goes by as I heal.

I think about the day we had

I visit new shopping complexes with old friends, talking of change and plans. I have one constant thought, that we have grown up from the youth who first learned this city’s streets. The streets too have matured, and this old block now recreates a Shanghai that once was and yet has never been. Microbreweries occupy lane houses recreated to a degree Disney would be proud of. In my first days back I hear tales of rental car adventures and clear explanations of domestic regulations on electric engines. One did not exist eight years ago and the other was obtuse, unintelligible. Deep local knowledge, smart phones, and an ever-improving sense of business characterize all my meetings. We are no longer English teachers and Shanghai is no longer the edge of the world. Friends who once saved for bicycles have offices and employees, worry about adoption rates and customer growth metrics. Vacations are no longer home for Christmas with parent’s help but to Hokkaido, to Cambodia. Indonesia, I hear twice in the same week, is the new wild west.

After all, I’m married to the wandering star

Quoted lyrics from Polica’s Wandering Star’ off of 2011’s Give You the Ghost. Incredible live version available on Youtube here.

Slow boat

Two or three days a week he reads the paper out of doors, no matter the weather.  Perched at one of the tables overlooking the water, he drinks coffee out of a battered plastic mug. With a duct-taped handle, it is big enough to have come from a gas station, years before. Sometimes he acknowledges other customers, hustling in and out of the cafe’s warmth. Other days he is engrossed in tiny print, the paper held close in front of his eyes.

Wide brimmed hat and overalls on, he is always dressed for warmth. Sometimes he wears a puffy jacket, the kind that goes past the waist. Sometimes only a sweater, though with layers beneath.

The cafe owners know everyone’s story, from the office workers to the dock hands. They know the sheriff whose skiff has a special motorized lift, the lawyer whose wife took the house in the divorce and who now lives on his boat. They must know the story of this man, in his layers reading the newspaper, strangely cordial with the dentist and men in suits that also occupy these tables in warmer weather.

His beard is white and big, bristly and a little wavy. Not thick and curly, broom like, each fiber having a visible strength. Beneath the hat and above the beard his cheeks are weathered, eyes hard to read. A lot of time out of doors, they say.

My home doesn’t have a motor,” he tells a passer by one day, indicating one of the boats in the marina in front of him. I just cast off and sit back, pretty soon I’m on my way somewhere.”

Some weeks he’s not there. Adrift somewhere down river, I imagine, on the long windy course to the bay.

Casual deletion

Arriving at PVG towards the end of August I am immediately covered in sweat. The merino hoodie that sheltered me high above the Pacific has no use in this city of clouds and dust. Shanghai welcomes me with the need for a shower, with a new banking fee, and with an entire new ring road from airport to city.

It seems I start every visit the same way, exclaiming that Shanghai has changed. Why do I not feel this way landing at JFK, or at HKIA, at SFO, NRT or LAX?

As the fastest-moving place on the planet for the last fifteen years, Shanghai’s shift should come as no surprise to this once resident. And, on my third visit since departure, finally, it does not. Instead it comes with sadness born of empty storefronts that once housed comforting restaurants, once held a tiny shop curated by an owner for whom the space represented a life’s dream. In fact the list, when organized, represents a comprehensive naming of places once frequented by a boy on an electric scooter.

Shanghai has gotten richer, has purchased the yellow Lamborghini that sits on Wuxing Lu, a block from my first apartment. Shanghai now works in Ermenegildo Zegna offices, on the 50th floor of a building in Lujiazui.

The changes are not all so individually grand yet overwhelm in their completeness. The basement of Metro City in Xujiahui is no longer filled with hundreds of booths selling semi-pirated electronics. Instead Carl’s Jr offers the same food they do anywhere, an entirely new entrant into the China fast food scene. Likewise some of the boom of two thousand eight has been swept away. A huge two-story shop launched as the flagship of a nationwide chain, the Chinese version of Threadless’, has been so completely overwritten that I am not now sure where it stood on a street of identical single-story storefronts.

The shop of two Chinese hip hop lovers who sold me my Taiwanese mesh back cap with its image of a Japanese yogurt drink-bearing scooter could have been replaced by any one of a dozen small jewelry shops, each featuring a single bored middle-aged woman as attendant. These shops might be owned by a single diamond conglomerate, itself using the multitude of fronts to run well-controlled experiments on which dress on the mannequin in the window attracts more customers.

What is it about humans that makes them copy each other so carefully? We truly are social creatures, and at some seventeen million, Shanghai is a test bed for our tendency towards duplication.

A fancy bakery opened my last year here is not only closed but has had all of its signage poorly redone in Chinese English at least once, demonstrating a now-failed attempt to copy the original in between. Three short years later and my friend, taking time off from work to write as I once did, says he is going to a cafe.

I used to write in Boona 2, on Fuxing,” I offer, remembering my favorite cafe, bustling on weekends and with plentiful power outlets.

That’s been closed for years,” he says, I write in the cafe that replaced it, absolutely horrible but constantly empty.”

I shake my head at the improvement, and wonder about the financials of such a switch.

My roommate’s motorcycle, left in our basement garage in two thousand eight as we fled, which had remained in its dark corner on my visits in two thousand nine, and ten, is gone. Who now rides that machine which he once slid so gracefully through an intersection beneath Yan’an, the weight of both it and him skidding on his MacBook’s aluminum chassis? I look for it as I wander the French concession, wondering whether those scrapes would be recognizable, and how much it was sold for.

We are temporary creatures, maintained by our habits and effort.  All signs of our passing will one day be erased.

Friends grow

We have known each other now long enough to miss change. In the odd hours of the morning in an Astoria diner the differences between two thousand one and two thousand eleven are difficult to pinpoint. I still open my creamer with my teeth, my companion still orders both pancakes and eggs, orange juice and coffee. We chatter about the events of the day and then wander home to sleep as the sky grows light. We are no longer amazed to be in New York, but to be in New York is still amazing. Like that truth the differences between twenty one and thirty one are from most angles difficult to see.

Sitting on floors these last few weeks, in kitchens on the Vassar campus, in living rooms of Brooklyn, and bedrooms of Santa Monica, I watch the people I have known now almost fifteen years and rejoice. For in the details of their expressions, in the things they known now instead of speculate on, and in the places they have been rather than dreamed of, they are precious to me.

At twenty two I told myself we all needed space, needed time, to develop individually. It was equal parts hope and fear, born of being so new to the world of adults. This past month, traveling through places of old memory and homes of those whose friendships have survived the space they were given, I am glad to be proven right, if not necessarily by myself. In some way we did, do all need time, out on our own with only the world to teach us. We need space in which to grow true, to become the people we would rather be.

Making these changes happen may not require the distance I gave us in my twenties, for the changes are gradual and easily dismissed, or simply unnoticed. More than degrees or jobs the ways people grow are small things of confidence and wisdom and they require patience to see, as well as time to make themselves known. Perhaps then what we need is trust in each other that we are trying to do better, and calm moments on the kitchen floor to become aware of how we have grown.

Unexpected life

I live up in the back,” he says, gesturing with the lit end of his cigarette towards the red awning of Northern Tiger Kenpo. Inside, through the plate windows that are remnants of the space’s commercial origin, a dozen ten year olds pivot and punch the air in unison. Their shouts are muffled from outside, and in the afternoon light we watch their practice for a while. Clad all in white, with their belts of differing colors, they are led by a man in his forties, with the kind of solid physique, the sense of density, so suited to a martial arts instructor.

I take care of the place, look out for it, and he lets me stay there.” His explanation comes with the self-deprecation of one who is not sure how they came to be where they are. We’ve been friends for years, he’s helping me out.” The last matter-of-factly, un-embroidered. It’s pretty quiet,” he tells me, cigarette almost finished. Except when they’re training…”

Right,” I say, as he rubs the butt out with his shoe, and picks it up again. When they’re training, from three pm to eleven or so, he is often outside, calmly watching the sidewalk here a few steps from Irving. We look to the corner, past the shoe repair and Chinese medicine place, to the corner stores and the frozen yogurt shops beyond. A young couple strolls, arm in arm, across 19th, heading east. They don’t look right to see us, one holding a cigarette butt, now crushed, and one holding two bags of groceries from 22nd Street Grocery, the Greek-owned store that sells many kinds of olives, cheese and fresh vegetables, but no meat. It is my favorite grocery store.

It’s a good neighborhood,” I say, trying to offer something up to the silence between us, a quiet penetrated only by the vague shouts of the practice in Northern Tiger and the slap of the Chinese men up the street putting down pieces in their never-ending Xiangqi game. He nods, following my gaze up to the folding metal table set up near the curb and the three men who surround it, one in plastic sandals and leather jacket, one in suspenders, all focused most furiously on the game. They speak Cantonese, I’ve discovered, and seem to play at least six hours a day, out on the sidewalk if the weather’s willing and in the open garage if the Sunset is threatening rain.

This is our block, me and my quiet apartment building where Chelsie the cat patrols the courtyard, Northern Tiger where classes of young girls, young boys, and older men learn how to defend themselves, and the game of Chinese Chess. The man standing before me, his hair slowly gowing gray, is a part of this block, a silent watching witness, someone who nods hello and recognizes everyone. I don’t know where he’s come from, prior to the strange loft at the back of Northern Tiger, it’s contents hidden by a sheet strung up as a curtain, separating it from the worn wooden floor of the training area.

A year and a half later I wonder one day if he’s moved on. Working far to the north I no longer spend afternoons wandering slowly up and down Irving, doing groceries or laundry, buying household supplies or wine. The game of Xiangqi continues I know, it’s members still outside on warm Saturdays, seemingly unchanged by the last year. The smoking man of Tiger Kenpo though may have moved on, his arrangement always felt short term, just for a while, in his own words. Where is he now, and what does he do, what did he do before moving into the dojo by himself?

And then one evening I am walking down Irving in the warmth of an April night and I see him, almost invisible in the dark. The door to Tiger Kenpo is propped open with a wooden wedge, and the interior dark. Were it not for this man, smoking without sound beside the parked cars of 19th, it would seem abandoned. As I turn the corner, on the far side of the street, he finishes and ducks back in, latching the glass and metal door behind him and disappearing into the dark.

Where did he come from, I wonder again, and what has he done this past year, while I’ve been away most days? What does he think about his life now, lonely after the students have come and gone, after the master has taught and then packed up, changed and gotten back in his car to return home. When they have all left and the place no longer rings with rythmic shouting, when he sweeps and turns off the lights and steps outside into the night to smoke, what does he think about this block, this city?

These questions fill me, heading home again with arms laden with dinner, and I peer inside as I pass by. There is nothing to see, no lights on even up in the loft at the back. When we first met I wondered if he trained at the dojo, and how he’d met the owner. Mostly, tonight, I am happy to see him, still a part of this neighborhood, and I hope he would agree.

Get out of this country

Without this trip I’d have broken my streak,” he says. We are standing barefoot on the world’s finest sand, Red Horse in hand, watching the sun light up the ocean and clouds as it sinks. I do not need the streak explained.

How many years?” I ask.

Five.” A good number, half of the last decade. We watch the sun set, toes sifting the beach. World’s finest, in this case, is not an abstract label of quality applied by the local tourism board. Rather it is a measure of size, grain for grain. Though this island may not truly be the world’s anything a survey of our group reveals experience on the beaches of five continents, and none finer. Surrounded by friends, a few steps from the shade of buildings and trees, we are wrapped in the color of the approaching evening. The water is warmer than the air and the days are still long at the beginning of December.

What does this city have to offer me?
Everyone else thinks it’s the bee’s knees.

My friend does not mention that, in his streak of five years, he has learned a smattering of Mandarin and become fluent in German. He doesn’t mention that he has made hundreds of friends, or how these years have changed his approach to work, to housing, and to vacations. He doesn’t have to.

On the beach we toss a frisbee around without urgency. This white plastic disc has brought us all together, in Asia, in the US. It has kept us close through moves and new countries, jobs and relationships. Yet this week it is simply a toy, to be brought out and put away, to be organized around and kept track of. Because the people are here already, they do not need to be assembled. The people and the sunsets and the sand and the water, and life feels complete.

Let’s hit the road dear friend of mine

Five years is enough time. It is time enough for our home nation to change presidents, for economic growth to reveal its cyclical nature, and for us all to settle down, at least a little. Five years ago we lived in the same city, and we played the same game. Years later we again live in the same city, and still play this game. Most everything else has changed. The language we speak daily has changed, as have our jobs. We’ve left behind belongings and gained new apartments, stomping grounds and teammates. We’ve left behind a lot of frisbees.

Let’s get out of this country

she sings and we agree. At least once a year, for as long as we can manage it, for five years or ten. As twenty ten grows short we smile at each other, having kept our streaks alive. Over the ocean the sun drops into the water, leaving pink echoes in the sky. We are lucky to be sharing a city again in San Francisco, and lucky to be standing here again on Boracay.

Quoted lyrics from Camera Obscura’s Let’s Get Out of This Country” off of the 2006 album of the same name

The topography of people

People have two kinds of geography. The first, outwardly invisible, is that of their history in the world. The house they grew up in, cities where they’ve worked. Geography like this can be shared but is hard to learn, residing as it does in memory, in emotions tied to shades of light and times of year. This geography is the hook that songs sink in to, and perfumes. In this version of my geography We Walk the Same Line” will always be a Kawaguchi evening near Christmas, the park cold and empty save for the glow of white bulbs strung over dark grass and bare trees. I was alone, and can describe the evening, but can not take anyone there. A visitor to the place I recall would find it different, would indeed create their own separate version of that park and city, adding to a different set of maps. The geography of memory is permanently intangible.

The second kind is a more physical topography. It can not be shared but is easy to learn, for it is layered onto each person by the world. In the scar beneath my right eye lies a story of an ultimate tournament in Hong Kong, and in my crooked nose the story of a child’s repeated foolishness. These stories require extraction, questions, to understand, but only sight to discover. Unlike the geography of where we’ve been, the geography of what has happened to us can become familiar to another.  Our geography can be learned by anyone we let close enough to touch.

We are all vaguely aware of each other’s old injuries, of the recurring impact of the years and places we have managed to survive. Likewise we know that most people in most cities have a different birth place, a history of travel and a rationale for each move. The learning of each kind is what differs so, an interesting separation. Who knows both parts of us, who cares to and who even could? How many sets of geography and of personal history do we have space for in our heads, or on our bodies?

We drive the PCH

On a Tuesday morning we leave the sunless Sunset for more southerly climes. In no great rush my friend is headed to San Diego, and I to Venice, both visits brief. She is driving the country simply to do so. We are expected eventually, for dinner perhaps, but have no sense of urgency. It is July, and, as soon as we leave San Francisco’s city limits, gorgeous in California.

We take the Pacific Coast Highway, California State Route 1.

It is a rare thing, having the time to pick the route for pleasure rather than speed, and I relish it as we swing around curves and are suddenly confronted with the ocean, which lurks to our right at all times. The sharp cliffs and sandy beaches alternate for the first few hours. The road is lined with cars pulled over to take pictures and then cars pulled over so that their drivers can put on their wetsuits and get in the pictures. We talk, and look, but do not stop. We have enough pictures, I think, in our minds. I remember moving to Asia, almost a decade ago, without owning a camera, claiming to remember things. Three months later I bought one, not for my own gain, instead so that I could show those far away my Tokyo sights. Our winding trip down the PCH will be similar to those first three months, in that I do remember it but there won’t be any pictures to show, and the memories will fade on their own, with time.

When living in California it is good to travel with those who do not, as a reminder of the beauty we may have become inured to . The coastline is gorgeous, and the three hours longer that it will take us, versus Highway 5, will change nothing in our day, would only narrow the breadth of topics we cover.

It is July, and we drive along the Pacific. My companion will, by the time she reaches San Diego and the guest room that awaits, have driven the entire west coast of the United States in three days. She will have stopped, in Portland for an evening, in San Francisco for a day, in Venice for dinner. She will have seen, in one stretch, a coastline I have only seen in pieces, or from airplanes. Leading the Subaru through the winding curves of the coast just south of Mavericks I catch glimpses of the waves while she looks out the window. This is my gift to her, a few hours away from the wheel, and it is a small enough present, but in a good location. More advantageous I think than having a friend drive the bare miles of Texas or Oklahoma, where the sights are repetitive, the road less demanding.

We make good time, save for when we are standing still, and we remember things we haven’t told each other. It’s been a year since our last meeting, and nearly four since we last lived in the same city, since we last had no urgency to our actions, no pressing sense of time.

In Shanghai life was like this often. The city would open up on weekends, our responsibilities fled with Friday’s close, and we would spend afternoons on the grass at the SRFC. We would enjoy the smog of evenings from someone’s balcony, or a bar, before heading out to dinner via scooter, taxi, and bicycle.

On the Pacific Coast Highway we pass through small towns built by long-ago surfers, where there are no gas stations. We pass through coastal towns with colleges, universities to their name, filled with clusters of students here for summer classes, or who have remained to be near the beach. Later on, coming south, we pass farming towns and air bases, long dusty tracks where people race their pickups along behind us and then, rather than passing, veer into a field. Where people in Civics just off work head into town on the long stretches of highway bordered only by green.

We end up back by the ocean, winding through Malibu. I drive while she looks for multimillionaires, or their houses. It is absurd, really, to change so quickly from one to the other, from surfing collective to farming town to mansions, and we drive on without pause, hungry for dinner and friends, for a break from the road. I have only been on it one day, but the memories of road trips come back easily, and I am glad to be stopping in Los Angeles, rather than continuing on to San Diego, to New Mexico, to Texas and beyond.

In Venice we find welcome and dinner. The weather is perfect as the sun sets, warm with a breeze. As we stand on the sidewalk before the restaurant we look at each other, companions for a day, and smile. Here we are, on Abbot Kinney in Venice, a place unlike where we woke yet more unlike where we’ve been in between.

Presidio housing

Tell me the story of your house again,” he says, standing in the hallway with his head tilted back so his eyes can encompass the stairwell, balustrades of aged wood brown against the railing’s white.

The woman who found it used to sneak in here, years ago when everything was abandoned and run down,” his companion says, looking up as well. Her eyes though do not see the freshly-painted walls, the painting of a knot as a leaf, an intricate puzzle three feet wide in blues and greys that fills one wall. She sees instead the stairwell as it was on her introduction to the house, with huge ferns in pots along the steps, their fronds draping down so that the space seemed filled with green and living.

How did she find it?” he asks, his voice full of wonder at this woman who had entered abandoned buildings and eventually made them home.

I think she used to explore, a bunch of people did. Until a few years ago everything here was empty, all this renovation, every building used to be abandoned.” She sweeps her arm about them as she speaks, encompassing the house, street, and whole Presidio. It was spooky then.” It is now, he thinks, looking out the living room’s tall windows to where the fog creeps through the trees. On this Saturday in early September the hour is indistinguishable, five am or two pm, the house encased completely in a shroud of moisture.

How many rooms? People?” He asks the questions to bring them back to the concrete, away from the eerie feeling of being worlds away from the city, from the other people he knows in this state. She looks again out the window and then, before answering, leads him out of the living room, its couches in no danger of touching, and into the dining room, with a long oak table several inches thick. It is a place for banquets, and a raging fire to ward off the approach of night.

Twenty two, counting bathrooms and the attic and all that. There are ten of us now. There were eight, when I moved in, but now we’re at ten.” Her sentence is inclusive, communal. He is surprised at the numbers, not because of their size, some sense of which he has already grasped, but by the cleanliness, the emptiness. The porch had shown signs of occupancy, a magazine and a cigarette pack, and the mudroom likewise, shoes and a few jackets, a safari hat. The interior, though, mirrors the woods outside, empty and with no horizon, rooms stretching onwards, hallways and a kitchen, more doors. The stairwell, living room, and dining room are not just empty but uncluttered, as though they were always so. The silence, balanced against the huge artwork, the neat spacing of the three couches, the table’s oak expanse, give the house an almost museum quality. Perhaps it is just the tour, he thinks, and followed his host into the hallway, past spare refrigerators and a chart of chores.

Here’s one bathroom, and the kitchen,” she gestures. The kitchen is massive, three walls lined with white countertop, cabinets everywhere, and another refrigerator, double wide. And these are the back stairs. They were the servants stairs, before.” That single word, before”, penetrates his brain with visions of this house as a families, as the home of children, and their attendants. This makes the scale if not more understandable then at least supported, given cause other than as this vast monument to the Presidio’s separation and strangeness.

The second floor is mostly bedrooms, with a couple baths,” she tells him, as they wind up the carpeted stairs. Like the rest of the house the carpet is immaculate and the walls white. He walks three steps down the second floor hallway, a bathroom on either side. In front the corridor is lined with doors, all closed, and he retreats. At the far end he could just glimpse the end of the rail leading down into the front stairwell and their entrance.

How long have you lived here?” He wishes the awe was not so apparent in his voice.

Three years,” she says with a smile, and he knows then how much she loves giving this tour, hearing her friend’s amazement. I’m the only one left from when I moved in, everyone else is gone.” In a sense, he thinks, it is her house, despite someone else’s name on the original lease, despite the ownership by the Federal Government, despite the claim forever on it by the woman who had first explored it as an abandoned shell.

This is amazing,” he says, as they climb out of the stairwell and into the attic. It’s every surface is covered with sheets, with cloths, prints and solids, all bright colors tacked up in a patchwork, so that the effect is-

-This is our tripped-out party secret surprise room,” she offers, leading him up. The floor has been covered with rugs of all textures and colors, a collection of soft things underfoot that re-enforces the welcoming, cavelike nature of the space, with it’s slanting ceiling that reflects the house’s steep roof. There are a few beds up here,” she says, indicating one in the corner, and another around a bend that must be the living room’s fireplace, far below. This is where guests stay, or anyone, really. It’s our extra space.” They separate, and he grasps for the first time the attic’s scope. It mirrors the entire floor plan, save for the three porches, and while the coverings make it cozy, the beds, of which he counts three, illustrate the expanse. Following her around a corner the floor’s texture changes, to a lush fur over some sort of padding, and he realizes it is four mattresses, buried beneath the rugs, and two full size couches at their rear, facing outwards from the wall to his right.

This is our movie theater,” she says, indicating the projector overhead, mounted on the wall behind the couches, and the dvd player to their right. It plays on that wall, and there’s surround sound.” He finds the speakers, tall ones in the front and sizable rear ones, matte black, mounted on the wall to either side of the sofas.

Wow. Whose is this?” He makes the mistake again of treating the house like a normal apartment, like the collection of a disparate groups’ belongings.

It’s ours. We all chipped in for the projector, and an old housemate got the speakers.” Her simple statement surprises him, a reminder that although the living style is communal, although the people are artists and travelers, this is a space built with a purpose, by a group of people dedicated to its creation. In housing, as in everything, scale requires means and shared desire, opportunity and perseverance. Reaching the attic’s front-most bed he looks out, through a small window at the peak of the roof, down into the trees and the fog that swims through them.  The house, its immaculate lawn, and the street below sit in some parallel world, with San Francisco both just over the hill and unimaginable at the same time.

Childlike eyes

The sound of children playing does not change with their language. In Shaoxing last week, in San Francisco now, they scream and run in games I no longer get to play. Much of the nostalgia for childhood stems from that inability to join.  Easter egg hunts, bouncy castles, and no-touch-ground tag are forbidden pleasures. Hearing adults mourn the loss of youth, speed, and freedom I think that our desire is not just to escape current responsibilities but to return to a world where foursquare or tetherball were defining tests.

In fourth grade, at Waldorf school, the tetherball rankings went down into the thirties, with a complex system for challenging those above at morning break and recess, or before the busses after school. By sixth grade the scene had shifted and wall ball, played with a racquet ball against the school’s yellow rear, was the kingmaker.

In two thousand ten the children yell and run and I try to understand their games. Outside of the Shaoxing train station they play a strange version of freeze tag while I cart my suitcase up the low concrete stairs. The frozen child counts down and, if not re-touched, becomes the it”, the chaser. In San Francisco they streak down the sidewalk, an aunt or family friend repeating one line over and over without using either of their names. Do you see the sign,” she says of the red man blinking as they approach the intersection with eyes only on their race. Around the lamp post they spin and back again. I step aside, laughing. I am certain they do not see the sign. As they sprint back past her still warning form I wonder how long it would take them to join the Shaoxing game? Mere moments, probably. Children do not have the restraint that we do. And having it, we call it fear.

Could that be what we’re wanting, remembering youth so fondly? Not the game itself, but the lack of fear in challenging the eighth best tetherballer in school, a seventh grader, to a lunchtime battle? The lack of fear of injury, or humiliation. Indeed it’s opposite, eager acceptance, or perhaps total blindness to risk. Yet that is not true, and the humiliation of not scoring a point against an older student was well known. But the rewards for bravery were so tangible in the oral rankings every student knew.

This weekend I saw my cousin, six, on video chat. It was the first time she’d seen herself projected, or me. The first time she’d seen me at all in a year, more. Around her the adults watched, impressed by the technology.

I found a bunny in an egg this morning,” she told me.

Really?”

It’s orange and fuzzy.”

What’s it’s name?” I asked her as she raced off to find it.

Last year while he was bored at a reception I handed another boy my iPhone, which he’d never seen, a baseball game on the display. He grabbed it and sat down, experimenting with the tilt and tap controls. The timing took him several tries, but the understanding of what he needed to do barely a second. The context of my conversation with my cousin, or of the baseball game, mattered not at all. Were it in my power to place either of them amidst those Shaoxing children, or vice versa, would they be too stunned by context to absorb the games?

As I wandered Changsha’s back alleys last week, exploring half-abandoned railways, two girls playing some game of balance and chatter shouted at me, testing English words and my ability to respond. When I did so, in both English and Chinese, they turned away, back to their game. Their lack of surprise at my ability to speak Chinese, their entire manner of easy comprehension and acceptance shocked me because it seems globally so lacking in their elders. I think they would fit in well, those two girls in matching uniforms, at this street race in the Sunset. Indeed it is this comfort, this ease of exploration, pleasure at strange games, and quick acceptance of facts that I am often searching for with travel.

Perhaps it is not something that needs discovering, but remembering.

Title  from an Alphanumeric hoodie I once owned in Japan, whose tagline was For adults with childlike eyes,” a classification I aspire to.

Welding protection

He crouches beside the road, booted feet on a grid of window bars. In one gloved hand he holds a small welding torch, from which the sparks have just ceased to scatter. The sidewalk beneath his work is slick with mud made by last night’s rain, and the air is chilly. Keqiao in March is cooler than Shanghai, and no less wet. The sky overhead is darkened by clouds, an even more impenetrable layer than the normal haze of white. All along this block men work in similar attire on similar projects, welding square bars into shapes or ferrying cartons of them on and off small open-backed trucks into stores fronts that have no doors. It is a strange symmetry, most of their business conducted in the public space of this dirty sidewalk, almost five meters wide.

He is young, this welder, his companions are paunchier and less concerned with their tasks. Disturbed by my passing for a moment he turns back to his structure, checking the corners. I imagine it walling off an entry way in the evening, a visual impediment. Each square bar is hollow and, from the way they are hefted in bunches, quite light. They restrict access to houses all over this country, and I have tested them with pressure years before. Never though have I seen these men with masks creating them, not in such a group. The block houses thirty of these shops, each with metal shelves along the walls that hold bars of varying length, each with groups of men who turn them in to objects on the sidewalk. The street is filled with the sound of it, radial saws chewing through metal, and the bright flash of the tiny welders at work.  In front of one shop a man is welding a hinge onto the back of a small flatbed truck.  One side of the hinge is on fire, the solder slowly burning.  He continues to affix the opposite corner, ignoring the flames as they singe the truck’s paint.

It is their masks that stop me. I have seen dozens of men welding in China without any, simply covering their eyes with an arm as they work. This is not a method that lends itself to precision.

These men each have masks though, in the fashion of Keqiao, this suburb of Shaoxing known for it’s fabric mills and rivers. Each mask is a pair of black sunglasses, plastic ones with small horns that flare out at the tops of the lenses, where the ear pieces connect. They are dark enough to obscure the eyes completely. Over these in careful composition sits a piece of cardboard cut in the shape of their face, the glasses’ space removed, hung on the earpieces to replicate a welder’s mask. Each one is a unique construction, lending the scene a striking individuality.

The crouching worker, whose face I noticed first, is instantly recognizable, his face the mirrored red white and gold brands of a Double Happiness carton, centered on the opaque black glasses.

Just plain

Living in China he became inured to the pleas of the homeless, crippled, and burned. Embarrassed by his riches, even in the earliest days of part-time jobs teaching his native tongue to children for the barest of stipends, he gave coins as they came to him. A few in the morning, to the boy with but one arm in the Hengshan Lu subway station. They were the same age, he and the boy, or close.  One of them was surviving in a foreign land on the gifts of his birthplace, the other in a city far from his home on the gifts of those who pitied his loss of limb and with it the ability to work the land he had come from. A five on occasion to the old man who tottered in front of the Lawson convenience store on Gao An Lu, a bamboo stick for his cane, Mao-era blues padded underneath with layers and layers of clothing to blunt the wind. Most of the time this old man waited with his eyes closed, though he was not blind, arising with his cup only when alerted by the sensor at the Lawson’s door of a customer’s exit. The creative use of this annoying ding dong amused the boy from America and he did what he could.

But in time the numbers overwhelmed his ability to care, and aside from those he already recognized he gave sparingly. Cripples on carts dragging themselves down Shanxi Nan Lu elicited no sympathy. Neither did women holding hungry children they may or may not have borne. The enterprise that it had become, that it perhaps had always been, was too obvious, and the women who banged at his arms as he exited the subway were too brusque. Only music still made him search out spare change, flute players and trumpeters, the old man with an erhu and others with instruments whose names he did not know. This, he reckoned, was not charity at all, but payment for joy, for the echoes in the subway and the kind welcome home after a long day’s journey.

With this mentality he moved back to the country of his native tongue. The number of potentially self-maimed youths lying on the sidewalk was comfortingly less, and yet the total numbers didn’t seem to change.

In San Francisco though they are not burn victims or legless farmers, they are not his age, and their injuries are invisible. Some, when approached inadvertently, scream, or curse his presence. There are those who simply ask for money, and those with clever signs that read It’s morning I need coffee,” and on the reverse No lie I want to buy wine.” The startling part, to this boy grown accustomed to China’s injured masses, is not the wit but the vehemence, the random verbal assaults. One day as he exits the bus he comes face to face with the neighborhood woman. He has no other term for her, but she can always be found somewhere on the two blocks to either side of his apartment. Often she hides behind the tree next to the gas station. He flinches at her presence, drawing back because of their most recent encounter, him biking home one evening and her standing in the middle of an intersection cursing at him as he passed. He braces for the yelling, for the strangely strung together assault, and when she speaks calmly, a quiet could I have two dollars” he is uncertain. The other passengers push at his back, and he slinks away, sad and confused.

And still he gives money to those who make music.

Three business tactics

Answering the phone while driving back from the factory to his office, weaving in and out of the oncoming lane to pass trucks and cyclists, his voice shifts. At thirty eight he is a man of no small stature, having already begun to gain the bulk of those well-fed into their later years. The change then, from light-toned questioning with the windows down to this deep-voiced adult, who refers to others as Little so-and-so, comes easily from his body. This voice, devised for business and for those unknown, is not a personal invention. It is a ritual, a method of establishing seniority, sincerity, importance. He questions the faceless caller without pause for several minutes, half in one lane half in another. As the phone clicks off he shifts back to a more gentle set of sounds, but the switch is not as quick. His first sentence begins severe, in this voice of habit, and then becomes a joke, a secret shared between friends.

It is this voice he will use the next day to tell me about the factory’s complaints, about the difficulties they face, and the strictness of my standards. His voice will tell me this is business, that it is his job to say these things, and I will nod, agreeing. Nothing will change.


Without words he pulls the pack, red with golden lettering, from his bag, slicing the plastic wrap from it with a long nail. As he pushes the top open he extends it, though he knows I do not smoke. As I dismiss the offer he swings around to its true target, the third party at our small lunch table, who accepts gladly. He then takes one himself, and procuring lighter from some pocket lights them both. As they inhale he sets them neatly on the table, lighter on top of cigarettes, a deftly handled social calling. He looks at me, then, slowly exhaling, before eyeing his cigarette carefully. The third man puffs away, grateful for the break in conversation.

You still don’t smoke,” he says.

No.”

Neither do I.”


This weekend we will go to a bar,” he says, it’s just that I’ve been so busy.” I nod. I’ve barely had any alcohol at all this week myself,” he continues, too much work, too tired.” I sympathize. The week has been long, lots of driving and meeting, waiting and watching, but that is not what we are talking about. We have spent hours together, driving around in the patchwork of our shared language, and they are long hours, filled with uncertainties and re-thought opinions. But I agree, if that’s how it happens. I haven’t been to a bar in so long,” he says. Two days before he’d admitted that he didn’t understand them, and never went. His wife, across the room, does not look enthusiastic.

Me neither,” I say. It’s true. We leave it like this, sipping tea and waiting for a phone call.

Do you even go to bars?” he asks after a minute, as though the idea were new.

From far away

They arrive gradually. Each one in turn is slotted underneath a single magnet. Eventually more will be needed, to keep up with their flow. They go up backs face out, a collage of hand-printed lettering. Their fronts contain scenes from this country or others, strange photographs, or sketches made popular not by the artist’s fame but by their very printing.

The longer I inhabit this house the more crowded that space will be, on the freezer’s front. Eventually these first to arrive will be replaced, their pictures long forgotten. They will be read one last time, to revive the memories, and placed in a box that has come with me from Houston, from Shanghai. That box is filled with similar already, and though I can not remember from where, the list of from who comes easily to mind. These ones, fresh delivered to a mailbox I have owned but a month, are a good representation of whose handwriting might also be found in that box. Because, like all habits, that of postcards written and stamped is one born out of repetition, reinforced by reciprocation.

Turning them over now, a momentary cataloguing of their pictures presents me with the Potala Palace, proof that my friends, again, have been on journeys I meant to take myself and have so far not managed. The next is of Brandenburger Tor, ensuring that my catalogue of famous monuments enshrined on postcards continues to grow. It too is proof, though of a different kind: that friends from Shanghai were not as daunted by Europe’s expense and moved eastward. The lessons are similar though, that all of the places I wished to go, whether to visit or live, are as accessible now as they have ever been. Yet here I sit, receiving these in a city in the country of my birth, the borders of which I have not crossed for more than a year.

The last is of Old North Wharf on Nantucket, a beautiful shot of houses with their boats at anchor in place of a lawn. It is America, in the view of water and peace, something I appreciate, from my house mate in Shanghai, who is likewise learning a new coast. It has traveled long, chasing me here from Colorado, to which it was sent at the end of the summer as I fled westward.

As we settle so too do I send out these missives, currently featuring whimsical Japanese art, to the corners of these United States and a variety of countries. I must learn where the post office is, and mailboxes. These worthwhile efforts are fueled by our decorated freezer, and the envelopes of longer letters that lie in the phone nook. For the most part they are small stories of happiness, and share a sense of wonder. Because although we are not beyond our borders, we are exploring, learning a new city and state. And after so long parts of America are as foreign to me as anywhere, all the more so because they ought to seem natural.

I am grateful though for the reminders of places and people I always mean to see, and one day will be glad to.

Familiar faces

We live together, celebrating the years since our meeting. After so long, though, it becomes hard to remember what we saw in each other’s faces, that first time. The features have become people, the strong nose or odd eyes faded into friendship.  Looking at each other today, we do not evaluate. Well, occasionally, of course.

You look pretty today,” she says. It is a shy moment, not something I am used to being told. Is anyone? Sometimes we’ve made a special effort, preparing for an interview, or a business meeting.

Nice outfit,” one says, as they look in the mirror one last time.

Thanks.”

Even this is not the same, it is recognition, and our response something likewise known. Praise for attention to clothing, or a new haircut. We have grown familiar to each other, and each specific quirk, vocal habit or emotion has ceased to be a moment of discovery. We offer comfort for fear, anger at a story of injustice, or laughter. We no longer prepare for one another, showing up instead unannounced at any hour, in any garb. Faces become familiar, and our knowledge of each other’s features background to our daily adventures.

This is a good thing indeed, and it holds us together in spite of illness or anger, good dress or poor, because it is the person we see, not their appearance, or face.

Yet sometimes, on anniversaries, say, it is good to get out pictures and try to remember each other’s faces as they were before we knew them. What we thought before we had watched the other awake without shower or coffee, eyes closed and uncertain of the world around. This shared exploring of our memories is another form of familiarity. Trying to remember what we were so inclined to know better, to photograph, to tease laughter from, is indeed treasuring how far we have come.

There is another goal: an awareness of this change. So that with practice we may be able to see those first faces again, without pictures or special occasions, scattered randomly amidst the familiar daily expressions. And with these observations we remember both why we have spent all these years together, and where the desire to do so began.

There comes a time

We shape places, I have written, as much as they shape us. In the summer months of two thousand nine I think the same is true of time. Turning thirty on a mountain in Colorado, with friends flown in from either coast, the talk is of the landscape, large themes and shared history. In America, later than in many places, these are the years of settling down, and friends from college, from Asia, from both and neither are moving with me through them.

This is the time of late night texts and early morning IMs informing me of good friends’ engagements to their partners of years. In the middle of this country and far from them, having once again driven enough of it’s spread to appreciate the distances, I am glad for each pair in turn. These tales are not just of impending marriage and rings. They are of a variety only distance can shrink to a pattern. Though I am physically closer to these friends than I have been in years I still watch the aggregate shape, aware of our age.

There are remnants of this current crop of decisions in our past, attempts to shape the age we were before the age we are became a shape of it’s own. A friend who now moves to New York to live with a woman once did so before, from Maine to Hawaii, to try to build a future on an island. A boy I once knew likewise moved back to Shanghai to live with a woman. A couple now engaged once moved into a two floor apartment together, a single bicycle their transportation to offices across town. A couple I knew shared a one bedroom in a Chinese apartment complex built years before, where the shower and the toilet were part of one unfinished concrete room and the price, economical to the extreme for a single inhabitant, became a joke with two incomes. The space itself became their burden, moving together to avoid collision, and they moved on, to another country where issues of lines on a map, visas, instead of physical space would push them forward.

Yes, these are not the first attempts, these synchronized decisions of the summer of oh nine. Neither are they an end, and in another decade they may look like a progression rather than an event. This summer though, as friends move from Boston to New York, move from New York to Boston, move from boyfriend to fiance, change coasts in each other’s company, the clustering of decisions is too much in tune to ignore. Our lives are reflected in the passage of years, and, having accumulated enough of them to weigh someone down with are all seeking people like papers seeking stone.

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.

Finding work

He sits easy all day, on a wooden stool barely half a foot high. His arms hang over his knees, back bent sharp in the blue shirt and dirty gray hat. In front of him there is a tub of water, the kind oft used for oil changes, red and plastic. The color has faded mightily but red it is. In the bottom of the water money sparkles, mostly one mao pieces, yi jiao, ten to a kuai. They are silver, and so light that they drift when he puts his hand in. There are a few five mao, wu jiao pieces, larger and gold, but no kuai, no rmb, no yuan, too valuable they are fished out immediately and pocketed. There’s an old bike pump, black with wooden handle, next to the shabby tree that’s one of a series along the road. This isn’t the old part of the city, so the tree is only about ten feet high, not so thick. The dirt around it is covered in spit and grease and mud, no grass. The sign behind him reads 自行车修理, zi xing che xiu li, bicycle repair place, and there are some locks for sale, their cases bound with wire to a peg board. For five kuai he’ll fix a tire, the cost of the patch only a kuai or two. Labor is cheap, there’s another guy two blocks down. This is 上海, Shanghai, and everyone needs their bike fixed. This is 上海 and it’s easy to find people good with their hands.

In Houston I go twelve blocks to find a repair shop, and I am lucky, it is often further, and they charge me twelve dollars. This is Houston, and getting a bicycle fixed isn’t usually an on the way to work necessity.

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.

Our time is short

Spring is a time of transitions.  Summer hours are posted on the student center doors, and there is talk of trailer sizes around the dinner table.  The leaves are blooming, but in Houston the humidity is becoming oppressive.  For the first time in months we close our windows despite the shrieking protests made by their tracks, dust-filled and weathered open.  Air conditioning returns, bringing memories of Shanghai’s summers, and the weeks spent entirely indoors.

It is not just Houston, though, that is in transition.  The city’s occupants, or those I have met, are thrust headlong into summer, their collegiate careers ended in a flourish of family and mortarboards.  Watching them, in bars with friends who will soon be distant, I can almost feel experience relaxing me.  As they sit on the floor, those who still have housing hosting those whose who do not, making art in the long afternoons of the comfortably unemployed, I smile, and head to work.  It is a stark reversal of the past few months, where I would linger over coffee in the mornings as they rushed to class or to the studio, prepped presentations or wrote finals.  It is a good exchange we have made, them content and constantly smiling and myself just barely busy, biking to work with no hands and home again for lunch with good company.

The gift of age, then, has descended on me, eight years removed from my own panicked post-graduation summer.  Don’t go home,” I can say with confidence to those debating their direction.  You can go anywhere for a while, and you’ll miss your friends dreadfully.  Stay here and see people until you’re ready to leave.”  The advice isn’t novel, nor particularly family-oriented, but it comes from observation rather than prediction.  You’ll get a job, you’ll still make art,” I offer, seeing nervous fears arise.  Somewhere in the future both are true, though difficult to keep in sight amidst a quest for housing and storage, for interviews and incomes.

Houston is a different city in the summer than the late winter and early spring, which were beyond treasure, and I understand at last some advice that was offered me a month before.  The woman had asked where I was from, the north east, and my opinion of my new home.  I was pleasantly surprised, I said, and am, and remarked at the glory of a February spent in sandals and jeans.  I would be moving on, I told her, but was happy for the months here.

Then it’s time to go,” she said, before the summer gets here.  Leave while you’ve got a good impression.”

We laughed, and two weeks ago some friends took her advice, departing post-haste almost without pulling off their gowns, their lives boxed and packed before the ceremony, apartments emptied and bare.

Yet here I sit, on the floor of my apartment while those who remain tell stories and grow closer over tattoos and adventures, and I am glad of it.  The month may have given me a taste of humid weather, but it has also given me a sense of time and composure, both good things to take from this city on our approaching homeless tour of the west coast.

And of Houston, like my own graduation years before, I still have fond memories.

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.

Talking about the future

Ethan arrives in town, my second visitor in a month, attending a conference at Rice while the undergrads are on break.  We meet after his session is over, on the grass in Houston’s sunshine.  It is seventy degrees, and he, coming from Wyoming, is in shorts and t-shirt, rejoicing at the freedom.  It has been years since last we met, on an evening in Shanghai when he had likewise, without direct intention, arrived in the city I inhabited.

Encountering friends from previous ages, from far away places like college, high school, or Tokyo, we drift in two ways.  Either meeting becomes more and more an act of presentation, of accounting for the time spent apart, or it is approximately as it ever was, and the conversations gain from the separately gathered wisdom.  A teacher now, I do not know what he will appear as, and, biking up on my Haro in sandals and shades, I thrill to see him, unshaven and care-free, his back against a brick wall, sneakers crossed, the New York Times on his lap.  He pushes his shades up on his baseball cap and gets up, the Ethan I knew, and we go forward, rather than explaining.

Visits from friends of the second kind, who need no introduction and require no apprehension, are necessary.  Planning our lives, in the largest sense of destinations, aspirations and occupations, requires conversation, or is better for it.  Speaking of things that are far from now, or may never become real, is an art, that of conjuring a future for ourselves.  Out of these conversations come goals, followed by struggle and possibly success.  A matter of shaping the future, and one that depends on who we can work with, and talk to.  With an ever-expanding circle of friends, well-known and just met, the gift of a few hours with one from years prior is just that, and we sit in the sun outside Valhalla.  The beers are ninety five cents, the sun warm, and the conversation of jobs, and purchases, of the cost of things, and living with no income.  We talk of girlfriends and travels, of the freedom to go and the reasons to stay.  He mentions hand-crafted skis, I show him my hand-crafted bag, and we go round again through teaching and life lessons.

Gifts like these, arrivals of friends from experiences long since past, are the best parts of living so often so far from anything I know.  Friday afternoons on grass in the sun with people who are often likewise give us some space to toss around ideas and histories until it is time again to separate.  Four years ago the gift was Shanghai’s streets, this week Rice’s empty campus.  Our lives happen in between, built out of the hopes first voiced in these discussions.

A decade on

When counted as a stack of days, ten years is a long time.  In the history of a place, though, ten years depends entirely on when.  Lansing, small and rural, looked almost identical this August.  Ithaca has changed, with some new buildings, a Starbucks in Collegetown, a Walmart on Rte 13.  These are small shifts, though passionately fought against for years.  They are changes that do not disguise the place, save to those who have spent every day there.  All changes like that happened long before, in waves that have long left upstate New York.

Shanghai has become a creature completely unrecognizable to the countryside from whence it sprung, a decade earlier.  Those still able to find their way through the streets to their homes have mapped each change and watched their neighbors move on, move outwards, move up with the construction.  But it is not the larger places that have changed most these past ten years, New York and Tokyo still very similar to their counterparts of nineteen ninety eight.  Rather a decade’s worth of change is a matter of focus, a matter of effort.  Change is something that must be made, conscious and full-willing, despite the scale of time.

A decade is a long time to a person.  Or it can be.  People change by waking up and doing different, rather than simply as they have before.  People change by waking up and doing.  From nineteen to twenty nine seems long enough a corridor that memories from either end throw strange echoes off the wall.  Yet maybe from some greater remove of age the gap would not seem so great.  Or perhaps from a life with less motion, with less change in the same period, the similarities would shine through.

A decade ago prosperity seemed possible, democracy seemed casual, intelligence seemed valuable.  A decade ago growing old together seemed half madness, half obvious.  Growing old at nineteen an impossibility, a myth from those with no connection to the age.  May it always seem this way to those old enough to vote yet not to drink, and may they not always be given only one of those privileges.  Ten years ago the idea that the people I knew I would continue to was more basic a fact than gravity.  Friendships built in the fires of high school, of late night drives and semi-legal building climbs would endure anything.

A decade ago.  Yet here we stand, separated by every one of those stack of days.  Because there is another fact ignored in the belief stated above, that change comes from waking up and doing.  Sometimes change comes from not waking up, and not doing.  Ten years ago that seemed an impossible choice.  Today it seems even more so, reinforced by each decision I make, each place I see.  Of all the changes these years have brought, wars, jobs, friendships, travels, the one hardest to imagine is their lack.

Gary Snyder’s words linger as I type in a cafe in Houston, a city impossibly far from our high school plans. Ten years and more have gone by, I’ve always known where you were.” And I have.  And each morning I get up and do, making changes that take me further and further away from this day ten years ago, in nineteen ninety eight.

The confluence of dates is simple coincidence, but I think you’d be grinning at the change we’ve been working on, given the decade that’s come and gone.  I think you’d want to celebrate, and climb things, and run around with that wild look in your eyes, just like I will, tonight.

And sometimes, for a matter of hours in the span of these years, the distance doesn’t seem so long.

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)

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.

Settling into weather

With fear comes many things.

The weather report beckons doom for my new home, in most of a half-dozen computer-generated predictions.  Then in all of them.  In a car, unfortunately, on the way to breakfast, the gas station is overwhelmed with drivers, spilling onto the road and disrupting traffic.

The sky is blue, with small cloudlets adrift in no discernible pattern.  I startle slightly at the earnest measures.  Evacuation measures engulf entire districts, and new-found friends.  Seven years previous, just before America’s transformation, I stood on the balcony of my new home, trying to see Fuji through the sideways rain.  The tsunami brought flooding and broken umbrellas to Saitama, far inland of the sea, and damage I was not equipped to assess elsewhere.  With the mass of suited commuters I huddled behind vending machines on the Saikyo’s elevated platform, drenched through, until later that evening I found a windbreaker and rain pants to cover work’s requisite tie and slacks.

In the evening of the coming storm we help piling furniture into pools, stashing barbecues indoors and securing all signs of outdoor living.  Our own house, small and box-like in nature, had already been prepared, books moved away from windows and covered lest they break, things unplugged for the inevitable power lapse, computer backed up and bicycle brought indoors.

Food, cash, gas, these things I had gathered either inadequately or not at all, instead relying on other’s preparations, on those who took the week’s worth of prognosticating in the utterly serious fashion it was meant.  The concept of such informational deluge, made real the night of the storm through all-hours television and then battery-powered-radio coverage, overwhelms my senses and I flee to fiction, to small personal tasks, and then to yard work, to food preparation and consumption.  I am sheltered by those who have but just met me, and appreciate their kindness even as I am stunned by their dedication.

Yes, the purpose of the opening statement is to clarify the outcomes, not to decry the causes.  In a storm severe enough to shatter trees, windows and roadways, I remained safe not because I saw the needless fear in the advisory messages, but due to the kindness of those who appreciated the severity of the warnings so direly delivered.

As for my new home, I am proud of its structural integrity and admire the wood floors and light.  As for my new city, I appreciate the hospitality and am not frightened by the news or weather.  The year will speed past I am sure, three weeks already in more like a moment, and be gone.  There will be smaller victories and larger lessons, but post natural destruction I can not avoid the memories of that first week in Saitama and the weather’s similarly unexpected impact.  Likewise I find us here glorying in the first day of clear skies, welcoming in the autumn’s long afternoon with relieved grins after long travels and trying arrivals.

Flying home

Again thirty thousand feet up, on a flight of a length that will become rarer.  Having said goodbye to friends and roommates, business contacts and those who welcomed me into Shanghai five years ago, I am on my way home.

The trip will not be short, though this flight, eleven hours of China Eastern hospitality, is about as quickly as one can swap China for the lower forty eight.  Yet, having leapt across the Pacific in a binge of time travel, I will not continue east apace.  I will drift, this evening into a sports bar in Santa Monica, to watch the Cardinals and meet old friends.  I will slow my travels gradually, from plane to taxi to bicycle to, at last, sandal-clad shuffle.  At this pace my heart may have time to catch up to my body, at least enough to be of use.  Right now it is torn between a woman in the mountains of Colorado and a friend walking away from the intersection of Jianguo Lu and Yueyang Lu.  It is torn between where I am going and where I have been, on a scale rare but not unique in my memory.  I struggle to  remember leaving Shanghai the first time, to Thailand and then the US in two thousand four, all belongings likewise shipped or abandoned.  I barely remember those months at home, selling my father’s collections on eBay for money eventually used to return, post election, to Shanghai.

Today’s sense of confusion, loss, and singular aloneness does not echo that transition.  The flight that comes back to me here in 41G, surrounded by sleeping Chinese and Americans, is the flight from Tokyo to Shanghai on August eighteenth, two thousand three.  The boy on that flight cried often, for lovers, friends and the comfort of the life he had left.  The sharpest memory, of standing on the observation deck at Narita, thankfully not alone, watching the incoming planes prior to my own boarding, brings sadness even yet.  Saying goodbye today is like that, though in many ways it will never be so permanent.  Most of my friends in Japan are still there, people I see rarely and think of often.  Most of my friends from Shanghai are American or there frequently, and reunions will not be as costly.  In some ways the Shanghai I have lived for the past five years is coming with me to America, somewhere.  Though we won’t be roommates, and contact will become a celebration rather than a morning necessity, it will be more than I have with the life I lived from September seventh, two thousand one until that August afternoon two years later.

Shanghai was, in many ways, a second chance to make something lasting out of a new country.  Sitting here, excited for the future but saddened by the exit, I know I have done that. And it’s a reminder, to all the friends I have scattered across the world: Eventually I’ll have another house to visit, another couch to crash on.  For the next few weeks though I’ll be the one showing up, knocking on doors and looking for a place to sleep.

With wings

He leans against the curved hull, pillow stuffed into the window well. Mouth open and head back, he is asleep in 33A high above the Pacific. Time zones slip past, an oft-ignored creation of human-kind, organizing the world into segments. The plane shudders in the wind, buffeted by invisible currents. As it lands, sliding into the gate, the passengers rouse themselves, stretch. Phones blink to life, electronic cackles of welcome, connection, home and business. The arrival gate and it’s crowds of men with signs, of lovers desperate for the first glimpse, awaits.

Habit shifts can define generations as the rare becomes commonplace, the mythical ordinary. Mid-morning conversations with friends in New York as they settle in for sleep, detailed analysis of fauna found on a day’s excursion on an Australian island read over breakfast coffee in Los Angeles. The world shrinks, people say, as their habits change. As what was once extraordinary, the arrival of mail on horseback, becomes a daily ritual, and then scarce again. On a rural route outside of Ithaca the mailman pets the golden retriever through his jeep’s open door, knows the names of every family on his route, holds their letters when they travel. This integration seems mundane to those born a century after mail calls around campfires. Only a decade after that a single envelope hand-addressed is a cause for celebration, the personal effort touching. Stamps whose varied faces once hid beneath pens in every drawer become difficult to find, require lengthy waits in line to purchase. FedEx, revolutionary in it’s global reach and speed, becomes the province of companies, recedes from the individual. Our travels become electronic, or personal. The detailed letter from Thailand wilts under the weight of a thousand blog posts, of Flickr shots uploaded from dodgy connections at the beach.

These shifts, of distance and technology that become those of lifestyle, are not necessarily successful. The automobile created suburbs that became cities in an effort to avoid the use of the automobile that inspired them. The airplane becomes a cubicle with repetition, and the freedom of takeoff that so delighted little boys becomes a sleep trigger. No longer do the passengers peer out and down, watching cars fade into matchbox toys, wondering who all those people are, and where they are headed. The boy no longer looks up from his lawn mower, wondering where all those people are going, up so high in that silver sliver, trailing white across the sky.

The man in 33A boards patiently. He no longer seeks to be the first in line, no longer jumps at the anticipation of the flight attendant’s newspaper rack. He stows his luggage anywhere, comfortable with magazine and notebook. His movements, long practiced in these tubular confines, have gained an economy of motion, been minimized. Like all such travelers he knows the bathrooms, the coffee spots, and where wifi is at each and every airport. He no longer marvels at the numbers of people heading to Korea, to LA, to Chicago, to Singapore, to Mumbai at any hour of the day, at any time of year. This is how the world works, covered in people constantly re-arranging themselves. All sense of miracle at humanity’s frantic new habit has disappeared.

Perhaps he is correct in this. The technology amazes, as once did the wheel, the steam engine, the railroad, yet underneath the urge to leave, the desire to settle somewhere new, the possibility of better just out of sight has kept people moving for millennia. They have crossed valleys, rivers, oceans, often in no more than their skin, rarely with a plan grander than to go. He crosses the Pacific likewise, back and forth with little certainty, and less consideration. His nonchalance would be epic, save for the other two hundred passengers asleep around him.

Shared eyes

They make out frantically, in the back of the taxi, her head on his lap bent back. The abandon does not startle their driver, who weaves through Shanghai’s traffic without pause. The man, baseball hat on, looks up briefly as I slip past on my scooter. The woman, face hidden in the dark of seven pm, does not move; her head is back, mouth up in an imagined gasp for air. He, window again free of my shadow, dives down to her waiting lips in my rear view. Where are they going, this couple so enraptured on Tuesday? Where have they been?

Shanghai, like any where, shifts with the lives its people. Like any people, we shift when caught up in each other. A cold ride home through quickly darkening streets becomes a soft journey barely remembered when not alone. It becomes a passel of stories swapped over the wind and horns, becomes the wait for an end that is glorious in anticipation. Likewise, old haunts long since grown repetitious suddenly provide new afternoons of shared wandering.

A conference center never finished stands several blocks south of Zhaojiabang. First discovered in two thousand three while wandering on lunch breaks from an elementary school nearby it is a mystery of Shanghai, of the Asian Financial Crisis, of some bankruptcy somewhere. Its brick and concrete structure sits astride the terminus of Feng Lin Lu and imparts a strange majesty to this neighborhood, still trapped in the repetitive architecture of China’s 70s and 80s, rows of short squat flats all the same. The marbled-bodied friezes on the front, strangely fixed in place before the windows, floors, and walls, which were never completed, stare out at the tree-lined avenue. A massive gate, likewise roofed in granite long before the arch was framed completely, has been walled off with blue corrugated metal opened only occasionally by the old man who lives in this complex now alone. There is no mention of the plan, intentions, builder, or the once-imagined grandeur save for a model, tucked away in a section of the surrounding construction wall, it’s glass window originally set up to inspire passers-by and now covered by sheet metal. Sneaking through the old man’s room it becomes visible from an end, an odd angle above and behind the complex. In it the ring buildings are five stories high and roofed with peaks rather than the flat structures of skeletal concrete they remain. The central hotel towers fifteen floors above the surrounding streets, it’s intricate curved entrance wide enough to drive up, it’s elevators’ glassy fronts ascending the building’s outer face, gradually rising out of the courtyard to give a view of Xuhui, of Shanghai.

This building, discovered years ago, is wrecked in the fall of two thousand seven, and only the desire to show another, to be somewhere together, to share this city, brings me back to see it crumble. Four years on the view through fresh eyes returns the joy of discovery to mine. It is two years since I climbed through the complex one Sunday in January with a friend, discussing girls and the chances of surviving them while transposing lives (his) to America. The circle is not lost on me, watching the wrecking crew pillage this gigantic complex, imagining so many parts of the life I have built here come crumbling down in that shudder, this shake. Construction in Shanghai is immediate, constant, and temporary. As if in proof of time’s passing buildings are removed from my life, buildings that contained my history here. The noodle shop of Friday lunches in two thousand three has been boarded up for years, the Out of Africa poster that hung behind the tv leans up against the half-obscured window, a small reminder to old customers. The dates I went there on are likewise lost, only peeking in to my memory occasionally as I pass in the dusk of evening, coming home from Cotton’s, from work, from intoxicating conversation.

In Hongqiao, in two thousand four, there was a noodle shop with a wooden door, carved, eight feet high and four across, of a weight made light by hinges yet massive to the touch. Often, in the cold of February, a boy and girl would sit ensconced behind it, neither entirely familiar with the menu, with the street, with each other, or with the city. They slept in an apartment furnished yet made bare by the cold and their caution, on a street whose name neither would remember. Still strung with Christmas lights Hongqiao’s streets felt empty even when packed with the rush of office workers heading home.

Writing a letter in a cafe near there in the fall of oh seven, the streets of Hongqiao have lost their mystery, and I have joined the work day lunch break.  I can no longer find that door. Has New York shifted this much in four years? Is it Shanghai that changes, or the people, or are they both the same?

I scooter up and down Fuxing, sometimes alone, sometimes not, learning new places, noticing new houses, which are often old houses suddenly discovered behind walls and trees long sheltered. Shanghai changes, as does my focus, and both of us are better for it.

On the first Sunday in December the view in all directions fades into white as the pollution descends low and encapsulates everything, like snow, cutting off sound. On Fuxing, kept warm by arms wrapped around me and slipping through the dust into invisibility, the reason I am leaving - this strangling air - strikes us both as gorgeous, and Shanghai is again a city of picturesque memory.

Whistle blow

As he holds up his hand, palm facing the oncoming traffic, yellow brim of his hat covering his eyes, the tenuous nature of his position becomes clear.

These men and women who hold traffic at bay with their white-gloved hands, day in and day out on Shanghai’s chaotic streets, inhabit a strange strata. Neither police nor street sweepers, not quite civil servants, yet not volunteers, they are paid the bare minimum and endure disasters. In torrential downpours they stand sheltered beneath swaying umbrellas anchored on the corners. In the sweat of August they hide behind sunglasses, beneath the uniformed hats. Their khaki pants are sometimes tucked into rain-boots, sometimes into dress shoes, sometimes hanging to the ground un-tailored and unfitting. They have no power save their whistle, it’s lanyard presence their baton. They give no tickets, have no higher authority to call. The police do not heed their shrill cries, and so often neither do I.

They are , these capped and uniformed whistlers, between forty and ninety, products of a China that is struggling before the tide of age. They are passed over by children who stand idly beside them, licking ice-cream, lolling from foot to foot, waiting for the light to change. Beside the children stand the cell-phone-staring masses, the bustling business men of degrees and financial mobility. Around all these rushes the never-ceasing crush of scooters, bicycles, odd machines, precisely the traffic these whistles were designed to tame. And ever more cars, overflowing small streets, jam-packing elevated highways, ignoring waves and yells, whistles and vague hand-waved persuasions.

Will this job exist in the Shanghai of 2030? Once this generation fades, and the next, with far fewer children and far grander desires, floods in to take it’s place, who will take these jobs of a dozen hours in the summer’s sweltering heat? Who will stand on curbsides swallowing exhaust and putting out noise for a few hundred kuai a week?

Will these jobs, created in the late eighties, early nineties, late nineties, after the car’s first private introduction, before the pulse of electronic sign boards indicating the average time to Xujiahui, to Zhongshan Lu, fade mysteriously into the labor shortage, into the rising economic prospects, into the disguised waste of a half century?

By the government, for the government, to organize and protect the people. To organize, protect, and employ the people. An entire generation brought up without schooling, and placed into jobs that demand nothing but arrival, persistence, and time.

My children will have more than I did,” words not unique, both true and sad as may be anywhere. In Shanghai they are tinged with the idea, new and startling in scope, that perhaps no one will have what he had, what he has. An entire system, created with a generation’s rise, may disappear with it’s fade.

Attending parking spaces

Some of the people I talk to most often, and enjoy greatly, are those who demand money of me. Not large sums, which is how we survive the irony, neither troubled by the transaction. They watch my scooter for 1 kuai. I, a creature of great habit, frequent few establishments but with incredible regularity.

This job, clad all in blue, slightly above street sweeper yet slightly below whistle-blowing stoplight watcher, is done by machines in the land of my birth. There are no wizened men there, sitting on the flower pots waiting for an approaching cyclist. No women swapping stories to lift the boredom in between progressing up and down their lines of scooters, cycles, oddly motorized contraptions. No one spends their days escorting, re-arranging, directing, in a twelve hour shift of two-wheeled motion. In time lapse the patterns would be mesmerizing.

Perhaps my home town lacks this service not because of the people to machine transformation of so many jobs that has granted the developed world it’s label but because of the lack of two wheeled travel. My home town has no need for rows and rows of carefully restrained and individually locked bicycles. My home town has instead towers of concrete that stack four wheeled machines, in strange and ever-more-increasingly complex patterns. Turn right to exit, turn left to proceed, do not go straight. I re-learn their mazes often.

These men and women, though, do not provide me with some over-arching insight, they provide me with a place to leave my cycle, and I know them well. The woman who watches in Hongqiao, outside Zoe’s cafe, where I eat on Tuesdays, often with a friend since moved away. In rain, she huddles under her umbrella, wondering at my soaking clothes.

It wasn’t raining this morning, was it?” To which I nod and shrug, and we laugh. 1 kuai. Thank you. One day her friend is lounging on the planter, and observes my approach.

He’s a foreigner,” she says, as I park and lock, two kuai, two kuai.” Massive inflation hidden with a half-toothed grin. The parking lady waves her away.

He knows what you’re saying, he comes here every week, stop it, stop it,” and they laugh.

You do, don’t you,” she questions me.

I do.”

1 kuai.”

This is not a foreign story. This is not a story of monetary influence. This is a story of habit, of repetition, and of small interactions that embody places.

The two men who share duties outside the ICBC in Zhongshan park are full of smiles, their spot a prime location filled with shoppers, with building guards, with hotel workers, with bank guards, never silent or empty.

One of them speaks English, a result of living in Australia for four years, he tells me. He offers to share a beer when off at eight pm, shares stories, and asks about my day each time I arrive.

His colleague, who works every other day while he rests, barely speaks. He takes my coin, gives me my receipt, and heads back to his office chair, it’s wheels long gone, that leans against the building’s wall nearby. He is rarely alone, someone else sitting on the low ledge, usually the parking garage attendant, his legs swinging idly while his friend collects my money. This man, his job consisting of twelve hours of tedious patience, smiles hugely at all times.

Parking next to a snazzy new electric cycle one week, my own a battered wreck, sans rearview mirrors, sans seat, sans locks, starter twice changed, headlight busted in, I wonder at this flashy machine’s make, and cost. The characters scrawled on it’s frame are unfamiliar, have no meaning, convey nothing. As he approaches I ask the grinning man how they are said, what they mean. He looks at me and shrugs. I ask what brand this is, what is the name of this brand, what cycle, what characters, how are they read.

He pauses, looks at them and then again at me, his smile never changing, and shrugs, and walks away, his one kuai collected, his receipt distributed. Back to his chair, and his friend.

I don’t know how to read them either,” I say, my Chinese vague and tones wrong, and likewise turn away.

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.

Three bicycle moments

He is in his fifties, hair going white at the roots, dyed almost red at the tips that whisper about behind his head. He squints into the onrushing breeze, his knuckles clenching the grips. The scooter’s square frame long ago went out of style, it’s rear compartment has been taped together and the tape cut, replaced by twine. His pants are gray, half of a suit long separated from it’s kin. Purring and puttering in parts down this leafy block, he does not move too fast for this Sunday afternoon. He stops thirty yards short of the next street, not at all for traffic’s sake. Stepping off, left leg still stiff, as though injured, he pauses, left hand still holding the bike upright. After a moment’s concentration, right foot on the ground, balance precarious with the left leg tethered so, he opens the seat compartment and rummages in. After a moment he withdraws thick black plastic frames, almost safety specs. He dons them without pause, his hair waving in the breeze. The straight leg scuffs it’s sole across the scooter, and he is off again, never once considering traffic, never once unsure of his glasses’ capacity to clarify.

She walks slightly behind the bicycle’s rear wheel, her black dress whipping against her stockings, it’s formal length strange on this wide open stretch of road. The heels of her boots clink on the pavement, a staccato counterpoint to the angle of her voice as it spikes at his back, a chisel of words outlining fault. Two steps ahead he pushes the bike, shoulders slumped in the winter jacket, slacks neatly creased. Shoes of black leather look unworn, unfit for cycling. The bike is a dull red, it’s basket black, the rear’s flat metal shows telltale signs of it’s second life as a seat. Her words slip past, around his body, sharp barbs of condemnation that match precisely the tear in her stockings, the scuff on her coat’s elbow. They walk past me like this and on for yards, the harangue common in any language, the blame, the lateness, the fine dress for a Saturday luncheon neither will make. The cold air of Pudong’s November envelopes them both, and I wish a better afternoon, some warmth and friendship, and a safe ride home at their vanishing backs.

His arms are straight outstretched, his mouth wide open, his eyes large. These are the features I notice, that convey his emotion long before I can see the source, it’s wreckage hidden by the taxi’s teal side. It was once a bike, the form clear in the mind, if not on the street. Two wheels, one now slightly less than round. Pedals, each distinct if slightly rusted. The frame itself, painted black but whipped by wind and weather, rust showing so much like moss on an old maple walnut in a clearing near the stream on my parent’s property. The handle bars are truly mangled, and I wonder at the impact. The taxi blocks my view, any indentation on the other side. Its driver stands, abashed, his arms at his side, apologetic yet uncertain in the center of the rider’s onslaught. In the taxi a girl types on her phone, explaining the delay, reassuring a boyfriend, mother, classmate. I am whisked past them, traffic picking up again, my taxi escaping the dangers that weave through our lanes on two wheels. I follow him, my head turn the only expression of sympathy I have, trapped in this steel box. Tomorrow morning I will join his side again, dodge the teal and yellow shapes, speed through intersections with hope, and be indignant when crushed, as all so at a loss must be.

The girl next door

For the first time in my years here, mine is not the only balcony watching the sun set. She stands next door, so close and yet alone as well. Her phone is draped around her neck, cord long and beaded. Her grey t-shirt, khaki capriis, light blue sneaks with pink laces speak to less than two decades, to fifteen, sixteen, fourteen years. She is impatient, the phone can not convey good news fast enough, her friends do not respond with proper urgency. She is not watching the sunset. But neither am I. I do not know how long she has lived here, or if she does. She may well wait for a realtor, only here to show the place, it’s two floors the mirror images of mine, it’s two other balconies a floor above vacant, like mine.

Or perhaps I imagine this bellicose disinterest in the city, superimposing long-remembered emotions from those years upon her unknown face. She watches the bikes pass, weaving in and out between the taxis, between the trucks, between the pedestrians who amble in the slow fading heat. The sun is but a flare behind the abandoned factory across the way, it’s color filling the sky with oranges, yet a swath of blue survives atop. The baking temperatures of noontime have but scant decreased, and still the city breathes again, those who hid in restaurants smoking now emerge, bags in hand, to chat and laugh with neighbors, business partners, fellow sufferers, to flag taxis, meet friends, unlock bikes, drift away. The weekend mellows out here as July ends. Tomorrow will be another month, though probably no cooler, and the summer passes. The sky shifts from blue to gray as the sun disappears, slipping behind buildings, glaring momentarily through windows, in reflections, and then gone. At some point the girl slips indoors, as quietly as she appeared.

Half an hour later she is back, lights coming on throughout the view. She is too young to smoke, her earings, dangling almost to her shoulders, sway gently towards the railing as she rests her chin on her arms, her arms on the black iron that rings the open edge of our balconies. Where does she live, if not here? What view does her room have, if not this one? The sky darkens, shifting away from the dusky gray and back to deeper blue, the clarity so appreciated after days and days of polluted ash and white.

Shanghai bustles even now, it’s relentless pace of taxis, pedestrians, bicyclists not indicating furor, simply a testimony in motion to the powers of addition, person by person, building by building, car by car, month by month, year by year.

Eighty five Damuqiao Lu blinks to life, it’s signs flickering enticements.