Tuesday, July 16, 2013

On Windows

It's 10:30 AM on a Sunday, and I look out from the window of my 8th floor apartment-- an elderly woman in a housecoat tends to the birds-of-paradise in her garden, a procession of Filipinos and Vietnamese approach the Catholic church, a sex worker, still wearing the lacy dress she wore last night, steps out of a rust-streaked concrete love motel and hails a taxi home.

But my eyes are always drawn away from what's going on, upward, toward the skyline, toward the hazy sunsets. And before that, to the other apartment towers that line the narrow side streets of this neighborhood in Central Bangkok.

It's one of those less spoken joys of city life, to look out at everyone else going about their daily lives, one household atop the other. An old man is sleeping below a woman tapping at a computer keyboard next to a young, shirtless guy frying rice for dinner above a Russian drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette on his balcony. You never see people having sex-- they've lived long enough in this high rise panopticon to practice a measure of discretion.

It's an odd sort of entertainment, looking in on the lives of others. That being said, I would dare anyone to say that when walking around a quiet and unfamiliar residential neighborhood at night, that their eyes aren't drawn towards the brightly lit windows. We are attracted to the hidden dramas unfolding in immaculate, white-carpeted living rooms and parquet-floor kitchens, We all have this desire to pry in, to see the sins and transgressions that supposedly lurk behind every suburban curtain.

However, it's also hard not to say that this practice doesn't indicate some measure of alienation. There is the wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, spying on his neighbors to alleviate the boredom and loneliness and isolation brought on by his own disability. And there is Holden Caulfield in his decrepit Manhattan hotel room, alone, adrift, and vaguely suicidal as he stares out at crossdressers and alcoholics.

But I'm not drawn, especially, to the crimes and vices that go on in the apartments of my city, nor the judgment of other people's lives and lifestyles, and voyeurism leaves me cold. Rather, I'm enthralled by the plainness of everyone's life, what they eat, how they wash their dishes, the way they sit when they watch TV. Because people's lives are far less ordinary then we would like to think. Safe within our own homes, we shed our polished demeanors, we talk to ourselves, inanely tap our legs, twiddle our thumbs.

When we're alone in our own realms, we stop looking like presentable humans, and start looking like the grotesque self-portraits of Egon Schiele, almost deliberately disheveled.

Which of course means that I must be doing the same thing, looking just as roughly drawn in my own apartment.

And I'm forced to confront my own aloneness, in a tumbledown state, in my boxers and a t-shirt, some music coming from my computer speakers, a book lying open-faced on my bed, scanning the cityscape for any sign of life. Yet I don't think I'm trying to fill any kind of inner void.

Rather, it's like going to a the movies. My eyes are focused on the flickering images in front of me-- the golden, star-like glow of an elevator going up, a child running down a hallway, the Burmese maid shutting off fluorescent ceiling lights as she vacuums the floors of an empty office, silhouetted passengers waiting for a train at a distant metro stop. And like a good movie, it entrances, but it forces me to examine my place in the world. I may be by myself, but I'm at the center of a vast whirl, and it's as if I'm standing at the center of a freeway in late afternoon sun, traffic rushing by in both directions.