Listen up, New Yorkers who live in high-rise apartment buildings: just because you cannot see into the windows of surrounding buildings does not mean that you are not lit up like Christmas to people across the way. If you do exercise videos in the buff toward the back of your apartment…oh, man, can I still see you. Without even trying. In fact, it’s very hard not to see you. And I’m sure other people can see you, too, and are probably not as polite about looking away as I am.
Seriously, last night, as I was looking at this woman (and trying to stop looking at her), a naked old man totally ran back and forth in the apartment under hers. I am not even joking, I swear. What is with these people? Being filthy rich and having an enormous apartment in Soho must make you want to turn on all the lights and pace nakedly back and forth before the windows. How can they not realize they’re visible? I’m never leaving any curtains open ever again.
My last year in Chicago, I lived in a fourth-floor studio with big windows facing out over a parking lot, which was ringed by distant apartment buildings. I couldn’t directly see any other people in their apartments, and so I breezily concluded that no one could see me, and lived for a year without curtains. I now wonder how many of my activities ended up photographed and posted on the internet.
I have become more conscious of curtains lately, as there is currently a giant gang of men working construction in my backyard, and continually bringing buckets of rubble up from under the house, right in front of my street-level windows. From what I can tell, the crew consists of a pair of Hispanic men, exactly the same height, one with facial hair and one without, who both wear hoodies and are involved in a continual fireman’s ladder of excavating rubble buckets from whatever is going on in the backyard, and one gangly, furious-looking Polish man who stands around smoking and glaring at the other two. Plus, my landlord, who shows up from time to time to conduct an endless lecture in deafening, emphatic Polish. I’m frankly at a loss to imagine what he could find to discuss at such length. I’ve never talked so much at a stretch in my life, and he ,shows up to orate at least twice a day. So, that’s the entire cast of characters as I’ve spotted them, but it sounds like there must be at least fifteen additional people working back there. I can’t tell for sure, because shortly after all this work began, the back door into our garden apartment (and our main source of natural light) was nailed shut from the outside and then covered over in thick black plastic, momentarily confusing me one morning into thinking I’d slept straight through the day. So whatever’s going on back there is a mystery to me.
Every time I enter or exit my apartment, the workers stop whatever they are doing (emerging with a bucket from just under my bedroom, or standing atop the enormous economy-size dumpster that’s been permanently installed in the street outside my window) and stare at me until I’ve passed. It’s really uncomfortable, and my initial impulse was to ignore them steadily, but that was uncomfortable as well, because I was forced to do so multiple times a day. And I felt like a bitch, since they are working on my apartment. So, at one point, as I passed one of the twins (the one with the facial hair), I said hello.
‘Heeeyyy, babyyy,’ he replied. Fine. Bitchface and steady refusal of eye contact it is, then.
Given this environment, I’m newly interested in the opacity of my curtains. When I lived in the back of the apartment, I had no curtains at all for the better part of a year. Then, summer came, and there were boys in the next yard. I bought a $.99 shower curtain, and then realized it was transparent, so I bought another one, and between the two of them, I felt fairly private. Then, I moved to the front of the apartment, with windows right on the busy sidewalk. I bought some nice curtains this time, and spent a good bit of time with a friend, taking turns with one of us standing on the sidewalk and the other positioning herself directly in front and behind my various lamps, dancing around and removing clothing, and I came away from these experiments fairly confident that my activities weren’t particularly observable from the street.
The other windows in the apartment, however, were not crash-tested. Until the back door was papered over, the guys in the back yard used to watch us as we made coffee in the mornings, as if we were some sort of mildly interesting zoo animals. I don’t miss the company, although I’m sorry for the loss of light. Additionally, there’s a little window in our shower that gives onto the backyard, but it’s frosted and marbled. Still, it’s a little disconcerting to bathe with several men carrying on a conversation just on the other side of the glass. And one of my roommates hung a scrim of washrags over the frosted glass, which immediately made me paranoid that perhaps the window was transparent after all, and I’d given everyone a show with that first morning’s shower.
During the day, I work in a cubicle with giant windows, and the immediate view is of the skyscraper opposite. It is close enough for me to see everyone across working, and even to tell if there is text or pictures on their computer screens. I sit with my back to the windows, though, and occasionally I forget that I don’t really have any privacy, especially after dark. I have yet to catch the eye of someone in the building opposite, but I’m conscious of them there behind me, and I’ll often wonder if I’m being watched and turn around to see.
This afternoon, for example, I realized I had a little boogie, and dealt with it in the usual way. But then, I wheeled around guiltily to see if anyone in the building opposite had witnessed this. And directly opposite was a man standing right up in the window, wearing a yarmulke and bowing repeatedly over his little book (the Torah? I don’t know from Judaism). To either side of him, his coworkers worked on, unawares. Now, that’s not particularly embarrassing, but…it’s private, yeah? Later, I turned around again, and he was plastered against the window, staring at me, or someone or something in my building. What do you do if you make eye contact with someone in an opposite building? Do you wave? Or does that puncture the polite fiction that, as we all go on about our private businesses in bright and framing windows, we are unseen?