I am going to tell you a story. My donstairsiker, Joe, does not know how to cook. He’s Japanese American, and although his Central Valley grandparents could farm and garden and cook almost professionally in their sleep, Joe just never developed an interest. My Chinese American landlord, Ben, once sniggered (good-naturedly – no malice intended) that Joe was – in his opinion – the most non-domestic man on the planet. Still, Joe loves to barbecue in a very man-cave sort of way, and when I finally turned the drab yard of our squat, walk-up rowhouse into an ever-more-serious urban garden, the tone of the place changed completely and he began barbecuing there every day it was not raining too hard. I fashioned a small, sandy area for his little grill and I arranged salvaged brickwork right next to it, so he had a place to lay plates and implements.
He has his whole routine down: He takes out that little aluminum chimney-thing used to prime the charcoal, lights it and waits for the billows of acrid smoke to fade into a warm glow of red coals. Then he dumps the coals into the cheap tripod grill and lays his chicken, which he has marinated overnight in olive oil, garlic and rosemary, on the grate. He sits back in his rubber clogs and gray sweatpants, swaddled in a coat if it’s chilly, and pokes it every so often. Before long it’s done and dinner is served. He keeps his hot pad and weatherproof clogs down in the yard on the broken concrete patio, so they are at the ready to do it again the next day.
If I am working in the garden at dinnertime, I and the plants will be doused in smoke. I usually stay weeding or tying up young legumes till I can’t take it anymore, though, and I try to talk to Joe about wine and movies, both of which he is quite fond and about which he knows a lot. I planted rosemary, of course – how can you not plant rosemary in a Mediterranean climate? – and told him where it was, where the variegated thyme and oregano were, and told him to help himself.
When winter weather is inclement, Joe cooks his chicken inside. I am not quite sure how he does it, only that when we come home, the stairway smells like fried chicken, fried burnt chicken. I have peered though the window on more than one occasion to try to catch him in the act. I can see he has a rice-cooker, but the rest of his kitchen is a jumbled mess of vinegar bottles, pots and plates and cheap, nondescript items, so I’ve yet to observe his indoor chicken methodology. What I can say is that it smells like he has submerged a wet chicken in smoking hot fryer oil. It smells – dangerous; and it usually instigates a conversation between me and Country Girl as to when are we going to get renter’s insurance already.
But the other day, climbing the stairwell through the familiar, lightly fatty reek, I felt grateful to be part of Joe’s culinary indiscretions, even if I am – at these moments – just an olfactory participant. I thought of the old brick apartments and SROs in Chinatown, where the old, mostly poor, people share one savorous kitchen per residential floor, yellowish paint peeling, coated with rancid oil, but kept neat and tidy by neighbors who congregate to cook their provincial dishes. They live so closely in tiny rooms, sleep on bunk beds, know in part by smell what their neighbors are doing. At the door to my flat, I took out my keys and felt wordlessly close to Joe and his endless fried chicken; we were a part of each other’s lives through our daily senses, our little activities.
I lived in Oakland, which I think of as ‘the suburbs,’ for a few years and could not wait to get back to San Francisco. It felt creepy having so much room between houses; the dark would fill in the gaps, the wind would blow between garages, and once I stepped away from my neighbor’s property and on to my driveway, it felt like I had entered another little country where lawn edgings were like national borders. It got quiet at night; my neighbors were out of the sightlines, there was no knocking on the walls or bustling about to hear in order to gauge where they were at or what was happening. And because owning one’s own home makes people think about their property values and neighborhood quality of life in a more proprietary way, people would make a special effort not to be too disruptive, which though it was sometimes appreciated, also felt oddly impersonal and unnerving. I rather like looking out across the city, watching the action to at least three blocks deep, seeing the brown-haired man futzing around in his aqua-painted apartment like a fish in an aquarium. I like knowing there are people below me, other pairs of eyes and ears, other monitors of trouble. I like watching couples make dinner, hipsters walk around on their roofs; I like spying satisfied house cats dozing at window panes, seeing the lights blink out, one after the other, between midnight and two a.m. and wondering who is that guy who stays up so late? The sleeping city is like a little black bear taking a short nap, monitored by crows, until the whole business starts again about five or five-thirty the next morn.
Urbanites understand well that feeling of lonely closeness, velvet anonymity. It’s hard for your busy-person self to get to know your busy-people neighbors, but that has become increasingly true everywhere. I have never felt more alienation than one year when I visited for a few days with friends of the Ex at a suburban neighborhood in Maryland. The house, though sterile, was large, nice enough, and the lawns, the side streets, the driveways were eerily the same; it appeared there was a code governing how they could be presented. The lawns were green green green crayons in a box and perfectly trimmed, the superficial quasi-Georgian detail of the home models looked glued on. There were no sidewalks! And people would leave their homes for work by getting into their cars while still in the attached garage – accessed via a doorway in the house, then open the garage door with a remote controller and roll out of the subdivision. They came home the same way – their feet never once touched the street! It made me feel like I had been wrapped in some kind of fire-retardant lace calico prairie-revival fantasy dress and left in a well-appointed living room alone to perish.
In cities, we have at least the anonymous “each other” as we stare across the night sky at tiny figures silhouetted and listen to each other pound nails into the wall. I get a kick eavesdropping through my old gas wall heater to the people in the building next door – the steel box amplifies their voices. I don’t know what they are saying most of the time, but the hum is amusing, except when they have their occasional raucous party and even then I feel a little bit like I am in on the fun, too. And since we share walls, we share heat, waste less of it and pay less on heating bills. Perhaps it’s more a function of the regional culture, but I will nod to neighbors on my street, even those I don’t know. And we like to feed people and throw our doors open on occasion to those we do get to know.
I have had profound consciousness-expanding experiences in wild areas surrounded by tall trees and wide skies; I mean really tall trees – ancient redwoods and huge mountain pines; and really wide skies in the Great Basin. I know in my heart there is something needful in the human encounter with wilderness or even just a temporary aloneness within the integrated framework of an earth-bent ecosystem. This can only be had in sparsely populated landscapes where humans are on an even playing field with cougars, snowstorms, lightning, swollen creeks and fungi. I know from my experience that if aware I would shortly die, I’d most want to be wheeled out under a clear black sky free from light pollution, somewhere in the high desert where the Milky Way is a thickly painted white strip glowing along the celestial roof, and scores of meteors flash by every hour. It is in that sort of place that embodiment best meets dissolution, that we can thoroughly give ourselves up to the ever-recreating molecules that formed in the galaxies, will fly from us and go make something else under the sky.
But in the everyday, we need each other. We were meant to be and live together. When you come to a traditional human settlement in a vast, rural space, it’s not spread out over miles; the people pitch their tents or huts or houses close – they make a settlement, a town, then they fan their fields or pastures around the hub. It was the garden I planted that made it pleasant in the yard, gave my neighbors and I an excuse to talk to each other, brought them out to barbecue, brought them down to sit and read the paper, brought their cats to chase moths and lie in the sun under the lush potato plants. It’s the bread we bake and food we cook to share that make us a community; it’s the stories and gossip we stop on the street to tell to one another – stories that inevitably make us late for something – that make our streets into neighborhoods, neighborhoods in the old sense, and not simply places we live in while we happen to own or rent them.
Anyone really looking knows that non-humans are a part of our communities too: not just our dogs and cats, but the wild birds that live in trees directly outside our windows and the trees themselves, the sowbugs that chew dead leaves into soil, the bumblebees that pollinate our garden-center flowers, the maddening raccoons. The other day, we ran to get the binoculars and peered from our back stairway: a merlin falcon had caught and torn the head off a songbird and was perched on the back stair rail of a neighboring building, zestily defeathering and eating lunch. We watched the scene for quite a while, and the next day, when I went down to weed the garden, I discovered a circular blast of feathers right on top of my greens-bed – the kill site right in my backyard!
I am pretty sure that one day we will have to leave this place. Eventually our building will be sold to be fixed up for resale or lived in by new owners, and eviction may follow. Or we will be ready to change our digs on our own; and it’s near certain we’ll end up in a more affordable but slightly less urban environment where I can plant a larger yard more intensively and we can warm up a little more, a couple miles inland from the cool Pacific fog. No matter where we live though, we’ll want to get to know our neighbors, visit each other, eat, drink and make plans together. And when we do that, we’ll make soup.