The future of the future

Shinjuku South exit stairs

…Will still contain the past,

Her voice cuts in over the bouncing beat, that late nineties sound. I am walking through the warren of small streets around Sheung Wan station, and then up the steps through old Hong Kong. I am instantly instead walking through Saitama late at night in the cool rain of the autumn of two thousand two. I am twenty three, in a dress shirt, alone, and the world feels perfect, made just for me. In the distance I can see the elevated Saikyo line, my house on the other side. Behind me, almost invisible until a train passes, is the Kehin-Tohoku line. These suburban streets are quiet in the rain, and the folk I’d left in Kita Urawa are now far behind. I walk in a bubble of happiness and music, temporarily free from every bond.

Memories are fragile things, and they disappear for long periods, buried under more recent times, only to be brought back in an instant. The places that shaped me are never truly gone, and memories of entire evenings, commutes, and relationships are pulled back with the music that shaped those hours.

I have been obsessed with early Tokyo memories lately. I’d thought them a strange product of late-pandemic seclusion, of missing travel, of being so glad to have spent my fortieth birthday in Tokyo with friends from all over. The pull of places we could not visit, I thought, of favorite memories that were temporarily out of reach. Instead, suddenly, halfway up the 200 stairs of my morning commute, I am in the middle of a Tokyo evening, waiting for a someone overlooking the stairs of Shinjuku’s south exit. In my memory it was cold, or not. The weather, strangely, is hard to picture, having been overwritten by hundreds of days in the same spot. This is the effect of being shaped by places, and by music.

A colleague, a friend, gave me Amplified Heart my first year in Tokyo, back when passing albums was a thing, when recording minidiscs of other people’s CDs was the way we shared. I remember starting to rip CDs in Tokyo, to that very first iPod, bought in Omiya for most of a paycheck. I remember pirating software from the stores with firewire cables. I remember so many things, at least sometimes.

It’s packed at two am,
are you on your own

On a rare foggy Hong Kong evening I walk down the hill after work, through Soho and Central. People are alive, moving with the energy of evening, with the sense of somewhere to be. There are people everywhere, and I feel at home, part of a crowd going many places, going nowhere together. Often I write in the abstract, of groups and emotions. Partially I’m afraid of the details, of writing the specifics of memory into history, of trying to give shape to moments that seemed so important and finding them hard to make out in the larger motions of my life. Partially though it’s because many of the details are abstract, my memory is lost in a crowd of people I can barely talk to, carried emotionally on the words sung by an English woman decades earlier.

In many ways moving to pedestrian-friendly Asian cities in my twenties is the defining change of my life. The songs that I’ve spent the past two decades wandering them to, then, echo instantly with memories of evenings long lost to time, with friends distant enough to likewise need assistance recalling.

For a boy who had spent his early teen years at ska shows, his late teen years quoting Ani lyrics, and his college years speaker hugging through late night raves to the heyday of jungle, Tokyo’s second hand CD shops and rental stores, coupled with the minidisc and mp3, meant access to music in a depth impossible before. Mostly though, colleagues and friends took him clubbing and gave him tunes.

I use my walkman when I walk,
and I don’t talk,
but later on the moment’s gone
and I don’t get it.

Twenty years later, in the second pandemic spring, I spend a month walking to work every day to Everything but the Girl. These albums, Amplified Heart, Temperamental, and Walking Wounded, have been the background for so much of my life. Amplified Heart itself is the background for so much of our marriage, is the only album we own on vinyl, is the album I want most in the world.

I remember the conversation, a Canadian teacher on the train, older and wiser in a lot of ways, to that boy of twenty two. The week prior she had changed my year with the Dirty Vegas disc, with Days Go By. A week later she was ready to change my life.

If you like that I think you’d like Everything but the Girl. Amplified Heart.”

Like almost every day we were on the train platform in Kawaguchi, were heading home at nine thirty pm, shift over. Like every day we were tired and looking forward to the commute, to headphone time, to not having to talk any more. And yet we were awake, alive, part of the sprawling megacity we both loved so much.

It’s just so emotional,” she said, a turn of phrase both personal to her and globally correct.

Months later I would ride the train to Temperamental, leaning against the window of the elevated Saikyo line, dreaming of clubbing, dreaming of Shinjuku on that same ride home. The Saikyo line is one of Tokyo’s busiest commuter lines, leaving late from Shibuya and Shinjuku, touching down at Ikebukero before becoming elevated and pulling away from the city through Akabane and across the river into Sataima, out into the short lands, into the streets of my memories.

And the light goes down,
and all the lights come on,
and they call to me,
oh come on come on

Quoted lyrics from Everything but the Girl’s The Future of the Future’, Lullaby of Clubland’, and Low Tide of the Night’ from the 1999 album Temperamental

New metrics

Electric Road

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I am looking for a spray bottle. It’s our anniversary, the original one, and I’ve purchased a succulent to honor it. The succulents I’d gathered over previous years got moved from San Francisco to the East Bay but not all the way here. So I sought a new one, and then flowers, and now a spray bottle to care for them. In Tin Hau this search means walking down the street, eyes open. Eventually it means a ten Hong Kong dollar purchase from a store that sells stationary, toys, and basic household supplies. Tucked in the back near scrub brushes and a cutting board I find two sizes of bottle and opt for the larger one, in bright translucent colors.

For years now we’ve been evaluating cities, measuring them against our desires and needs. From the earliest days of this site, when smiles were my underrated metric for economic growth in boomtown Shanghai, I’ve been watching places. In Houston the bicycle infrastructure, or relative dispersal of it compared to Shanghai, was what struck me. Gas stations existed on every other corner while repairing a bicycle required a mile or more of travel. This set of facts, once realized, described adequately the built environment, the preferences of locals, the density of jobs, housing, and food, and the danger of streets for pedestrians. After all, cyclists rarely cause death. And so Houston gave me a new way to consider cities, a way to review wherever came next.

In San Francisco I spent days considering elevation and microclimates, these subtle shapes of hill and weather that have huge impacts on residential desirability across the city. The fog is a force in SF, and neighborhoods are defined by their position relative to its reach. The Sunset remains affordable partially because, come evening, it is entirely within the fog bank. The rest of its affordability, or what little remains after twenty years of appreciation, is due to the lack of transit, either highway or train.

In Hong Kong for months now I’ve struggled to clarify my thinking. I like it” and It feels good” remain mediocre rationales. The cliche, while true, that we live in a city but can quickly access the mountains or ocean is not what pulled me here. Something else explains why walking home from our noodle shop in the evening makes us so happy.

And so my quest for a spray bottle. In America, a desire like this results first in an online search. In a location where travel is expensive, dangerous, and personally demanding, it’s no surprise to see delivery flourish and online shopping rise. This rise brings with it the lack of neighborhood unity due to decreased exposure to nearby residents, the failure of local small-scale retail, and the creation of a poorly paid and utterly dehumanized delivery class to take the transit risks and bear the costs. For those reasons as well as the related sedentary health effects, it isn’t a culture that appeals to me. But how to express this preference succinctly?

In Hong Kong on a Wednesday evening I go in search of a plastic spray bottle. I walk seven blocks in eight minutes before finding one. In those seven blocks I pass three 7 Elevens, two grocery stores, one fruit stand, one vegetable stand, and countless small restaurants. I am never alone. Many of my neighbors are outside walking dogs, doing errands, chatting with friends, or coming home from work or activities. I purchase the bottle and then some sushi for dinner from a take out place. It’s a nice night. People are eating outside or in line for bubble tea near the train station. The whole city feels alive and engaged. Walking home amidst all my neighbors it strikes me: this search is a way to evaluate cities. In Hong Kong the fastest way to find something is to walk out of the house and start looking.

I remember coming home one day at the beginning of this year, not long after moving, excited with a discovery. Troye Sivan is playing in May” I said, entering the house. I saw a poster walking home.”

At the time we laughed about how learning about upcoming concerts and music releases from posters plastered on walls felt like New York in the 90’s. Now I think that for as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve learned by walking outside. That’s pretty new for me, a child of the American countryside. In rural America the fastest way to get anything, before Amazon, was to get in a car and drive 20 minutes. Walking was a good way to discover blackberries, and occasionally animals.

And so, one year in, I have a new way to evaluate cities, and a further explanation for why we love Hong Kong. What’s the fastest way to find something? It’s one more way to think about the places we inhabit, and what shapes the sense of life and community in each.

Walking borders

I get out of the taxi on a highway offramp. The driver, from Dongguan, doesn’t want to be on the surface streets of Shenzhen. After a week on the road I don’t mind, and I shoulder my backpack and duffle. I weave through stopped traffic to the curb, following it down to ground level. The border is less than a hundred meters away, a large building that houses Chinese customs connected to a walking bridge across the river to another building that houses Hong Kong customs and the Lok Ma Chau train station.

I’ve walked further to borders.

Carrying gear through traffic on the surface street I pause on the dotted yellow as cars start to move and pass on either side. It’s an action that would cause problems in San Francisco or New York but here, like so much of the world, is simply part of crossing the street. Three cars later there is a gap and I am on the far sidewalk. Five minutes later I’m in line for exit customs. Five minutes after that I look at the river that separates Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Like always it makes me realize how small the differences are between places and how much impact they have on our lives.

Borders are largely artificial. Yes, the river forms a nice demarcating line, like the Rio Grande between Texas and Mexico, but the differences in income, opportunity, language and safety are not caused by the river.

On the train into Hong Kong the air is already slightly better. Pollution does not respect borders, but the sources of it do. Hong Kong’s air has worsened over the last decade due to its proximity to Shenzhen, Dongguan, and the whole Guangzhou region, but it’s still better than those cities. So too is the food, Internet, and transit, not to mention salaries. The effects of man. Housing is more expensive though, so many Hong Kong residents have started living in Shenzhen, commuting across the border to take advantage of the artificial cost disparity.

Walking this border is new to me. I first crossed it on foot less than a year ago, though the lines and shops have grown familiar with frequent repetition. Without an electronic ID card I have to wait in line, unlike my commuter friends. It’s still an amazingly efficient border, on both sides. Hong Kong customs are rightfully considered a model, fast, well-organized, and simple to cross. Being a trading port and an international hub requires good customs, I think.

Less than one year. Surprising to me, as it feels like much longer. Fourteen times at least. First with others, colleagues and factory representatives. Then by myself, often met on one side or the other. And now, in a taxi I found, dropped on the off ramp from the highway.

The borders we cross say a lot about our lives. As a boy from upstate New York, the frequency with which I walk the Hong Kong Shenzhen border serves as a shorthand explanation of my job, checking factories and working on manufacturing problems. It also outlines another, more common border I frequent: that between San Francisco and Hong Kong, delineated by airports and the Pacific. This border, seemingly unremarkable, is of course the slowest to cross, and the most expensive. Impossible on foot, or as a daily commute.

Two years ago my border crossings were very different, the product of another job, another life.

In that life I stepped out of the minivan into the harsh light of a Juarez autumn. I carried less, just my backpack, and walked faster through traffic, uncertain of its comfort with mid-stream pedestrians. Hawkers on the corner offered beads and newspapers. The footbridge, a couple hundred meters ahead, arced up over to the U.S. border beside the bridge for cars, jammed and barely moving. Without me onboard my host could avoid this line, using his express pass to meet me on the other side. By walking four hundred meters I saved us each an hour or more. It was an easy trade.

That border changed my travel strategy, led me to the single backpack packing method I use everywhere now. It also taught me that the strangest feeling a border can bring is that of having to ask to be let back in to one’s own country.

So much easier, less stressful, and faster, to ask for permission to enter Hong Kong.

The walking borders of my life two years ago were all between Mexico and the U.S. Mostly El Paso and Juarez, but also Tijuana and San Diego, after long days on the road. Those trips, a staple of my 2012 existence, have disappeared from my life entirely, replaced by Shenzhen and Zhongshan, by so many evenings in Hong Kong. In some ways it’s a direct exchange. I have traded the hot summer afternoons in Mexico, the air dry, for Hong Kong’s humidity and Dongguan’s pollution. Walking back from where the car traffic became impenetrable, almost a mile from the border in Tijuana, to my rental car on the other side of the US border, heading to San Diego airport, flying back to SFO, all that has been replaced by a car ride to Lok Ma Chau, a walk across that bridge, a train ride to Yau Ma Tei, a train to HKG, a flight to SFO. Longer, but much the same. Travel necessitated by sprawling supply chains that are themselves created by the artificial borders I cross.

What would I have said, at twenty, if told that fifteen years later I’d walk the border between Shenzhen and Hong Kong a dozen times a year? Would I have been more surprised to know that at thirty three I’d spent months in Juarez? I suspect that twenty year old would be surprised by both, and then by neither, because he too was always seeking adventure, seeking to understand new things and to learn new places. He would be surprised at the specifics, at this afternoon’s offramp stroll. The general picture, of a life on the go, crossing borders on foot for money, would seem entirely appropriate. Or perhaps that’s the present talking, aware of all the strange jobs and odd decisions that brought me here. Perhaps that boy of twenty would doubt this future’s existence entirely, knowing little of Mexican factories and less of Chinese customs.

Either way, I’m glad to be back in Hong Kong, one border closer to home.

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.