Gustave Caillebotte, Rooftops in the Snow, 1878
Is there a song about city life more evocative than “Up on the Roof,” the Drifters’ 1963 hit? In 1980, The Illustrated History of Rock and Roll said, “From the internal rhyme of ‘stairs’ and ‘cares’ to the image of ascending from the street to the stars by way of an apartment staircase, it’s first-rate, sophisticated writing.” All true, but the appeal is emotional, visceral, too.
Many years ago, I used to occasionally babysit for a little boy who sported a diaper until an advanced age. When he had to go to the bathroom, he would scream, “PRIVACY!” and everyone would have to vacate whatever room he was in.
That was weird, in retrospect. But I sort of envy him it—not the diaper, but the ability to magically invoke solitude. Maybe I am extra aware of it because I am currently visiting with my parents, and they have a tendency to shout to each other between floors, and I have a tendency to regress, and suddenly, just as when I was a teenager, all I want is to have some space of my own, where I can read, and think, in private.
Reading somewhere private and tucked away is one of life’s greatest and rarest pleasures. Neither “Up on the Roof” nor “Under the Boardwalk” is, exactly, about reading. But the Drifters were urbanites, and so were the composers, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, and they understood the need for solitude—anywhere you can find it—and the unparalleled delights of escaping notice. Half the point of the roof, and the boardwalk, after all, is that others are right nearby—“people walking above,” “right smack dab in the center of town”—but they don’t know you’re there.
The best spot I ever found was in a closet at my grandparents’ house, which was itself concealed behind a bookshelf. I made a nest on top of a chest of drawers, and no one knew where I was for hours at a time. Also good, and also on my grandparents’ property, was the old canvas parachute we rigged up in the walnut tree in the backyard. Back home, I had to take drastic measures—crawling out, Drifters-style, onto the roof, or sometimes secreting myself in a cupboard in the attic. I remember thinking there was no place secret enough in the world.
The other day, I experienced the kind of primal and wholly irrational rage I have not felt in years. I arrived at the library and made my way into the further reaches of the highest stack, to a tiny carrel tucked between Art and Architecture. This is my spot: it is where I work every day, and I have never known anyone to so much as walk by. And yet, on this day, I found the desk lamp lit and, in its glow, the silver hair of an elderly man. How dare he! I thought. And then he looked up in irritation, because, after all, I was disturbing his solitude.
There are many benefits to being an autonomous grown-up. But being able to hide oneself is not one of them. We are too big, for starters, and too accountable to other people. We can’t scream “PRIVACY!” and have people bend to our will. That little boy, incidentally, is now premed at an Ivy League university. I wonder whether the world is still his bathroom, or whether, as for the rest of us, he now has to find privacy wherever he can.
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