There is no need or expectation to conform completely to this chaotic rhythm, to do so would be a total forfeit of everything it means to be human, but trying to insist on order in this chaos can be a lot like building sandcastles a few steps from the ocean. To put it simply, you need to pick your battles.
In order to compensate for the lack of a morning in my life, I've learned to get up and out quickly. It's usually only 10 minutes between my bed and the front door. As I brush my teeth and wash my face I think about what kind of choices might lead to what kind of day. After a productive weekend my main concern for the day is refueling my "love of life meter". Twelve minutes into my day and I'm out on the street, walking towards the Village.
Freelance work has it's perks. I believe that everyone should have the right to choose the way they live their life. That includes the right to say "I need a rest today". The most ridiculous thing in the world is having to choose between being late for work and holding in a toxic case of diarrhea. I know from experience. Sadly, our collective obsession with financial security (which we subconsciously know we will probably never reach) makes such freedom a rare and enviable sight. When I share my schedule with some overworked individuals, they're eyes quickly fill with hatred and envy. I can hardly blame them, they spend most of their lives rushing to the next item on a daily schedule. If I could do something to relieve their pain I would. Hell, that's why I'm writing in the first place.
By the time I approach the intersection that separates my home from the village, I already know that my day isn't going to go the way I planned. Inspiration has been running dry in the neighborhood these days. This village, another rare sight in the city, dances to a beat closer to nature than the rest of the city, or it did until recently. Now, human beings overflow into the intersection, cars are gridlocked, they have likely been stuck there for half an hour. There shouldn't even be cars on this road, it wasn't meant for cars in the first place.
Sometimes I forget that this is how things are now. Over the past year, this area has been featured in a variety of magazines and guidebooks, "places locals like to hang out". At the time of earlier publications, it still was a place that locals liked to hang out. Artists, musicians, punks, stoners, b-boys, new agers, activists and everything in between had called this place their home for almost a decade. There were also lots of normal working folk who had particularly good taste and interesting ideas. They all lived side by side in perfect harmony with the elderly, long term residents, often frequenting their more traditional shops. It had developed into a real safe haven for those who wanted to hold on to the good old days of friendly neighbors without having to live far out in the countryside and it was much more, so long as you were willing to put aside any rigid ideas about how things are supposed to be.
These days we have been holding on to it desperately, trying to find ways to adapt to the new climate, not ready or willing to give up our home, but not really sure if it will feel much like a home in the future. It's not just the tourists. The village is being attacked multiple fronts. The tourists hit first. Then came the chain stores, trying to cash in on the new influx of people and the rise in rent that followed. Next came two government plans to redevelop the area, the first of which would destroy the old subway station and everything around it to build a new station and the villages first department store. The second plan would mean the construction of a highway right through the center of the village, splitting he pedestrian maze in two and forcing over 100 small shops to close. Despite ongoing protest, the two plans are already underway and the tourists now outnumber us 10 to 1. Our village is dying but even though a significant portion of its magic has already been lost, and the worst is far from over, it still feels better here than anywhere else.
I live on the outskirts in a quiet residential area, a twenty minute walk to the center. As I approach the edge of the town by foot, I recognize the familiar faces of laundry shop and convenience store owners and employees. The atmosphere changes as soon as you reach the village. There are no clear borders, but everyone knows what belongs and what doesn't. I walk past the Bad Kid Toy shop, a tiny toy store that opens at 9 pm and closes at dawn. There are rumors that the owner is incredibly wealthy, though he just looks like a regular old man. According to the rumors, he made all his money betting on horses races a long time ago and opened the shop as a hang out space for fellow antique collectors. He likes his toys old, and his women young but he seems to show an equal amount of respect and adoration for anything or anyone he sees as part of his collection.
Next door is the hip hop bakery. The owner is swaying around the open kitchen as usual as he works on the afternoon batch. "Hey bro!" he shouts over the music. All his closest friends are rappers and DJs but he expresses his love for hip hop in the form of a bakery. I pick up a vegetable roll. We chat for a few minutes about what's going on in the town and he asks how my music is going. He was friendly enough before I started introducing friends to the shop, but now he won't let me pay for anything.
We say our goodbyes and I walk outside, still swaying with the beat. The next shop over is a bar that plays mostly psychedelic music and only opens sporadically when the owners feel like it. They have kids but that doesn't keep them from having a good time. They've built a soundproofed bedroom in the back of their bar and on the weekends their friends will come over and the kids will play while the parents drink. Usually one mother or father will volunteer to watch the kids for the night while all the other parents relax. As I walk by I notice my bicycle in front of the shop.
I feel a bit perplexed and for a moment, I just stand there trying to collect my thoughts and figure out what my bicycle is doing there. I suddenly remember walking home a few nights ago. Oh fuck, I totally forgot it, and forgot to lock it at that. I'm not sure which surprises me more, the fact that the bicycle hasn't been stolen or the fact that it's a five minute walk from where I left it. I decide to be surprised by neither, and thankful for both. These kinds of things just happen here.
I fell in love with the village 3 years prior on a Saturday night when I missed the subway home and instead of getting a taxi. I took it as an opportunity to see the neighborhood at it's worst. The first two hours of my blind date with the village were spent in a grungy dive bar that could fit about 4 people upstairs and 3 people downstairs. I listened, with less and less enthusiasm, to some washed up rock and rollers share stories of sex and drugs from the glory days when people would still come out to their shows. If the rest of the night looked like that, I may have never made this place my home and there would be no story to tell.
I snuck out of the bar at around 1:30 AM, leaving my drunk new acquaintances to their stale popcorn and hair metal. Discouraged, I thought about catching a cab home. I resigned myself to trying to make sense of all the twists and turns of the pedestrian roads for a while before heading out. The town still felt surreal, I thought it best not to give up so easily. If 2 AM came and all I could find were people reminiscing about the good old days, I would call it a night.
The buildings were so much smaller here than in the rest of the city, and they had more history. The people were different too. Every once in a while I would come upon a group sitting on stumps and talking to each other. They looked happy. I avoided eye contact with them; it was a habit. You always hear stories about people walking alone at night and running in to trouble, but for some reason, I could feel that my fear was out of place here. More than once, a stranger shot me a smile. Was this really the same city I had been living in these past year?
It was hard to tell houses from shops. It was obvious that people here had a way of getting around the rules and regulations for opening bars and restaurants in the city. I walked past what looked like a flower shop. There was a drink menu at the door and a man in his 50's obviously trying his best to be charming with the attractive lady next to him. I slowed my pace and tried to pick up bits and pieces of their conversation. It seemed they both lived on that block and the lady had stopped in to say hi to her niece, the bartender, on her way home from some work related event. Though he was obviously interested, there was something innocent and playful about his advances. I thought about going in and sitting down but decided against it. This man, innocent as he seemed, was drunk and probably horny and might see me as competition and I had no intention of getting in his way.
I could hear a beat coming from a distant place deep inside of the maze. It could have been my imagination but I decided to follow it. I hadn't seen any clubs in this neighborhood and it sounded like it was coming from outdoors. The town had a heartbeat pulsing through it. I knew that in a place like this, the beat never stopped, even when the music stopped and the sound waves could no longer reach your ears. I was already feeling myself melting into this new landscape, becoming a part of this town. It had a pulse, it was breathing. It had a will of its own, a collection of the will of everyone who made it what it was, and it was greater than the sum of its parts. I followed the beat, hoping the town was ready to share its secrets with me.
The beat led me all the way back to the subway station entrance where a crowd of people were dancing and having the time of their life. There was a bar set up in what looked like a janitors closet. This bar, like the hair metal bar I had visited earlier, had room for just a few people inside. There was a DJ booth set up at the corridor leading to the bar, and nearly 100 people scattered around outside, lost in the music or chatting on the sidelines. The music was live and not the kind you'd hear at a normal bar or club, it was basically experimental guitar noise with a house beat. It was challenging to dance to but absolutely hypnotizing. I started to wonder if I had fallen asleep on my taxi ride home. Was this real? It felt like something straight out of a dream.
An elderly woman danced with two younger men, teasing her drunk and nearly passed out husband. A young father held his sleeping boy, stroking his head and talking to what looked like the bars owner while his wife dwayed back and forth blissfully with her two friends. There were men in business suits and college girls and a massively overweight guy with a mohawk holding hands with his skinny, clean cut boyfriend. Everyone was together, though most of them seemed not to know each other. The businessmen flirted with the college girls, but he was respectful, as if everyone had decided beforehand that any kind of sexual tension would have to take the backseat in order to fully enjoy the music. That seemed to be part of the culture here. People did what felt good without being reckless? The owner took a step toward me and put his hand on my shoulder.
"We've been waiting for you, drinks are free until I feel like their not. Go have a good fucking time."
I speed past a crowd of high school students. They are the tourists. Most aren't tourists from overseas or from another city. Most people are tourists in their own city. You ask them where to hang out and they don't think to ask what you are into, or contemplate who you might be behind your eyes, they just give you information that might as well be out of a guide book. They like what's new, so long as it doesn't push them outside of their comfort zone. Ask them what they like and they'll all give you the same three answers. Don't ask them why, it will give them a headache. They are unaware that they are also artists, unaware that anything is really possible and that it's not just something people tell you to help you get through childhood.
The station is lined with chain stores now, the same stores selling the same things that can be found at every station. Whether through addiction or through our insecurities these stores feed on a sense of lack, designed to hack our subconscious and get us spending money. You'll never get any closer to anyone no matter how many times you enter, not unless someone breaks protocol. Who knows who made it, who knows what kind of work it took to get to the shelf, the only thing anyone can tell you is how much it costs and whatever made up story they are supposed to tell you in order to convince you to buy it.
It wasn't enough that the commercial centers were saturated with these same names. They had to spread to the residential areas as well. They keep expanding because that's what they were designed to do. If no one wants it, they figure out how to make you want it or they relocate you and find someone who does want it to take your place. Now they've reached the quiet pedestrian roads of the Village. We all hurt to see this happen to our home. Some resist. Sometimes we have small victories but that doesn't make the sight of the villages first department store any less painful.
We remember the old jazz cafe, it's 80 year old owner and his middle aged son who was preparing to take over upon retirement. We remember how the building 'mysteriously' went up in flames when the owners son tried taking the land developer to court over their constant harassment when he refused to sell the land. We remember the lady who would set up a stand outside of her house to sell soup from her home country and how the department of sanitation suddenly took away her license without cause. We remember the kids who used to run around the streets who were relocated with their families to an apartment complex somewhere far away where they are now holed up playing video games.
I decide to put it all out of my mind. The weather is perfect today and there are still lots of friends doing interesting things here. We don't know how long we have here, probably not long, but we do have now. I try to focus on that as I pass the Beardo who is out at his usually spot, just staring at people as they walk by.
I ride past the Buddha bar and park outside the Thai restaurant to stop for lunch. The owner and chef is a woman with a huge afro. She is the kind of woman who you don't want to piss off. I've never seen her pissed off but she gives you the feeling that she could beat up a man twice her size. Last time I saw her she read my palm and discovered that I was a country bumpkin living the life of a city hipster. I didn't understand at the time. She likes to make fun of me when my eyes tear up from all the hot pepper in her food. "Aww keep crying, that's how I know it's delicious." she says. I heard she recently broke up with her husband and this is just a theory but I think she might have been having an affair with her favorite waitress, a folk singer who has been inviting her to sing along at shows. I think they make a cute couple but I don't want to be presumptuous so I keep my mouth shut about it.
As I eat the dishes that she learned while living in Chen Mai, my eyes fill with tears. I pretend it's too spicy but it's fine really. I don't want to tell them why I'm really crying. I don't want to say goodbye to any of this. Things change, yes, but why does it have to be like this? Why is everyone so fixated on filling a black hole that only exists of their own volition?
After my meal I head up to the bar on the rooftop of the same building. It's closed now but I have a key and permission to use the space during the daytime if I ever feel overwhelmed by the tourists and construction. I lay down on the couch and continue crying. What else can I do? Where should I go when this is all gone? It's the first time I've ever felt at home and it took decades to find. I sit with these thoughts for a while.
"Focus on what you can do, focus on now."
The words keep repeating over and over in my mind. I imagine the seeds of the village inside of me. I imagine myself traveling around, searching for fertile land and planting those seeds wherever I find it. I wipe the tears off my face and sit up. I reach for a pen and paper and begin to write.