When my roommate, Starchild, and I visited her boyfriend, Geno, in San Francisco, I thought I had struck pay dirt when they leave and I have the place to myself. I am giddy with mischief. Giddy!
I move all the crystals off the window sill so I can get busy. I don’t want to deal with the karmic wrath of breaking my host Geno’s germy gemstones. Across the apartment on Haight Street is a four-story building. The view from my window scans a panorama that looks out at about 20 apartment windows. Almost none of them have any draperies, shutters or other kind of awning so I know this gives me secret permission to enjoy the view.
While Starchild and Geno are devotedly reading poetry to one another elsewhere, I take my fun in glancing at the scenes through glass. I’m purely an out-of-town sightseer appreciating the sights right in front of me in the city of San Francisco. When night fell, I noticed my view was even better. Some of the undefined movement in the day made more sense at night and I could see further into the housings. The tired, grey wall across the street was now a frame for all these different human-occupied glow boxes. It was like watching all the TVs for sale at once at Best Buy. I enjoyed it all while reclining in a deep purple velour beanbag drinking Steelhead Brewing Titanium Wheat and eating Wasabi Crisps.
I made sure Geno’s apartment was dark so anyone looking my way could not see me, just like Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” but I am Jimmy Stewart without the broken leg. I felt very stealthy and spy-like, looking out into other people’s homes in the pitch dark. My eye was drawn to the most brightly lit uncovered windows. I was lightheaded with anticipation and beyond curious of what would happen if I kept ogling without being detected.
Oh, please don’t judge me. From what I hear from my savvy Big Apple friends, it’s very common in New York for people to buy binoculars purely for window viewing. Often times, the peeker is clearly seen and waved back to.
Books back my inquisitiveness: The City Out My Window: 63 Views on New York is a book of drawings by Matteo Pericoli and he interviews well-known New Yorkers to describe what they see from their windows. In Together Alone: Personal Relationships in Public Places author Calvin Morrill talks about how simply looking out your apartment window and seeing other humans being active provides stability and support for the viewer. Photographer Aren Svenson lives on the second floor of an apartment building in the Tribeca neighborhood of New York City. For his project, “The Neighbors,” he pointed his camera at a luxury apartment building across the street and secretly photographed its inhabitants through open windows. Those photographs sold for thousands of dollars at a gallery in NYC, but it turns out the subjects of these photos weren’t too happy about having their images sneakily snapped and peddled. Mr. Svenson successfully (and surprisingly) fended off a lawsuit for invasion of privacy.
On the upper left quadrant of tonight’s movie- through- a-window was a pinkish place housing two college-aged girls. I could make out cases of Diet Coke on the table and a Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch poster on the wall. One roommate was picking up clothes from a laundry basket in what looked like an attempt to match up outfits. She owned a lot of orange pants. I gave that window three minutes. By the time she started coordinating socks I was out of there. I adjusted position and freed the crushed wasabi chips from the beanbag chair. I double checked to make sure the room was very dark so the people across the way had no chance catching sight of me. I stayed still so eyes couldn’t catch motion. It’s probably legal to do this right? I am just acting normal, perhaps? I’m not really super sleuthing or making a direct attempt to catch anyone doing anything. I am not snapping photos, using a recording device, getting back at a jerk boyfriend or watching anything too juicy. I will avert my eyes, I promise!
I read the windows like I read a book. Left to right, top to bottom. I give the girls in the corner a quick glance to see what’s shaking, if anything. They’re still sorting clothes and watching TV. The Diet Cokes have been cracked into. Next up, a middle aged guy in a white t-shirt watching TV, he is eating something which looks like popcorn out of a bowl. Moving on, a woman is on her computer, looking stressed and typing ferociously. I linger on her hoping to guess what she’s working on, but she moves to the couch to watch TV. A couple in the next apartment are working on computers at the kitchen table. No words between them, no emotions – and no looking up from the laptop screens. I scanned the next floor down and found most people at home. Each apartment had the same set-up: a kitchen on the left, a table and a TV viewing area. The bedrooms must be on the other side of the building. I was only able to observe these inhabitants in their public living quarters and all I saw was people on their phone, their computer or watching TV.
I put the binoculars down. I’m so bummed. This sucks, and I’m probably missing out on perfectly tangy lemongrass tofu. Instead, I sit in Geno’s cramped patchouli and sandalwood infused studio feeling like an out-of-place perv. Well, I did choose chose to stare into people’s private lives instead of being out in this fantastic city and living my own. I thought my slightly deviant notions would be fun. Maybe I might learn something or walk away feeling blessed that I witnessed a kind or miraculous event — a sign out there in the universe that I need to incorporate in to my life. But it seems as if people live their down time behind closed doors as down time, at least across the street from me.