The family excursioned to Arab St. today, I was shocked at how much it’s changed since the days when I spent far too much time drinking beer and smoking shisha in its graffiti stained alleys. Now, the graffiti is sponsored, the local vendors have been replaced with organic juice bars and overpriced boutiques, and the dingy (but lively, fun, homey) bars and shisha lounges have been replaced with upscale cafes (clean, quiet; empty). Though its changed, I was still overcome with nostalgia. It brought back so many memories of wandering up and down those streets, with friends, alone, smoking, thinking, sipping Tiger beer.
On the corner of Arab St. and Haji Lane there was a place that was ‘our spot’ for so many years. It was across from Merdandy’s, another smoky hole in the wall, another place we went to feel older than we were. I don’t ever remember it having a name; to us, at least, it was just our place, or if we needed to be marginally more specific, the Place With the Upstairs Blue Couches. Its crazy to think of how many hours we spent up there, talking, laughing, smoking. We told our parents all kinds of tales to keep them subdued, would never dare let them know their teenage daughters were in a (at that time) dodgy part of town, smoking shisha in a bar from the time school got out on Fridays until late into the evening. Our spot was the small upstairs floor of an even smaller restaurant and bar. The treacherous staircase lead up to cozy culdesacs of mismatched furniture, around low coffee tables where strong drinks, ashtrays, and tall, decorative shisha pipes would mingle and take company. The narrow shophouse windows were always open, letting light in to repose on worn wooden floors, letting smoke out. We sat on blue couches, cracked leather and coincidence, and hours of conversation, getting hazier as smoke from the ends of burning cigarettes mixed with another round, the sun begins to set as the nicotine goes to your head. There was an old piano against the back wall, despite its poor tuning, the gin made it hard to resist pounding out some old sad songs, my friends would never fail to sing along.
For the first time since it closed, I saw the door to the upstairs open today. I had to see what was up there now, what had become of this far off day dream, this world all our own. I climbed the stairs of polished wood, the stars to see a whole different world on the other side of the banister. They must have had to refloor the whole place to hide the burns and spills. There were small, clean wooden tables, perfectly matching Ikea chairs that looked like they’d never been sat in, fresh paint on the walls. There wasn’t even one lonely person in the whole place. The tables looked like they’d never held the weight of a girl dancing to her favourite song, the walls looked like they’d never been yelled at or taken a drunken punch, would even the ceilings remember me? They too, looked like they’d never gazed down upon a wild Friday, never witnessed a first kiss, a fresh tattoo, a smuggled bottle of booze.
It was strange, sad, and nostalgic, but not unsettling. Things change, kids grow up. Though it was neatly decorated, it just felt empty, it lacked life. Like walking into a field of some anonymous cash crop- though the plants are alive, the field is dead, it has no life, no insects, no living ecosystem. It was like peering into a coffin, the likeness of the deceased is there, coupled with the painful realization that there is nothing else. The strangest part of my time machine exploit was the graffiti that can now be seen through the shophouse window (shutters re-painted red). On the opposite wall across the lane, there is the black and white image of a man, a turban wrapped around his head, his eyes, sad, longing. Had he always been there? Was this old or sponsored and approved graffiti? If it had been there before, I hadn’t noticed until today. He seemed to be keeping an eye on the place for me. We both gazed at this new world, this gutted fantasy.
In this city especially, nothing stays the same for very long. Spots and bars and places come and go, and things change faster than traffic lights. In those young and blissful moments, I didn’t even consider the possibility that the light in front of that rickety staircase wouldn’t always be green. That I’d come back from my first year of University in Canada to find the door to the upstairs shut and locked. And when it finally opened again, three years later, that it would open to a completely different room. If I’d have know that one day that light would be red, maybe I would have laughed a little harder, taken more mental pictures, stayed just a little bit longer. But in those moments, I couldn’t have imagined anything ever being different. I suppose you can never really see something when you are right inside of it. Most beautiful things we don’t notice until much later; don’t regard until it they no longer exist. Every light eventually turns red, even the lights you never expect to change. Memories of those afternoons soaked into those cracked leather couches, so ugly to an eye void of sentiment that they were probably the first things to go. I just wish they’d kept that old piano. I hate to think of it anywhere else but there.