The night crowd.
I grew up in a Manhattan apartment whose view encompassed sky, clouds, and other apartments. For a while I kept a pair of binoculars on the windowsill. I used them before going to bed, a kind of voyeuristic nightcap. Most of the pleasure I got came from noting which lights were on and which were off in other people’s apartments. I would sometimes wonder if somewhere out there, in one of the unlit windows, perhaps, there was a kid with binoculars looking back at me.
Once, when we were thirteen or so, a friend in the building and I took his massive telescope to the roof. This was before all modes of entrance and egress in Manhattan apartment buildings and hotels were locked down and wired with alarms. We probably almost died getting the tripod up the fire ladder. Once we were up there, we took turns slowly rotating the telescope across the landscape as we peered through with one eye closed. We did this on a few occasions, and only once achieved the semi-nirvana of seeing a naked woman. She was sleeping on her stomach. A sheet covered most of her. But enough of her back, and a bit of leg, was visible to infer that she was naked. The question was if she would wake up, or at least roll over. We stayed up there for a long time, waiting. I don’t think she ever woke.
I lived in that room on and off into my early twenties, and that windowsill, that view, have come into sight again now that the holiday trip is upon me. My mother still lives in that same apartment, and the building’s architecture lives within me. Over the years I came to know the night crowd: the windows that stayed up late, like the crowd at a bar. Usually it would come down to me and a couple of regulars. These were not necessarily represented by a single rectangle of light. One of them had three windows in one room, a trio of lit sentries. Another had two. Another had just one, a big square, the highest of us all. My window looked north, so all these windows faced south, and that big square one, so high, must have had a fantastic view of the Hudson River at sunset.
My own experience of sunset was vicarious. The sun would go down over the Hudson just out of my sight, behind me and to the left, casting its deep rays of orange and pink onto the buildings across the canyon. Now and then one of their windows would catch the sun and reflect a sharp ray back into our apartment, and for a brief moment my room would be drenched in sunlight at an unexpected angle—a dazzling, diffused light, a secondhand sunset.
You would think that with such a view one would develop a feeling for the symphony of simultaneous experience. You see all the different lives playing out at once. You know that at any given moment life is expanding and contracting in a millions ways. But it’s the opposite. You develop an ability, in such a building, with such a view, to block out the fact that there are people all around whom you cannot see and do not even know, doing things totally different from what you’re doing. The spotlight of reality always falls on your observable space, your home, yourself. Perhaps I’m more aware of the novelty of this now that I live, for the first time, in a house. A house that is currently in a state of tumult, everything about it possessed of an immediacy derived from the fact that we will, in a few days, join the great holiday migration and travel to “there,” that room with that view, so different from the one from my house.
Like many houses, ours, in New Orleans, is, as a friend put it, “a fishbowl.” Our living room windows are right on the street. The house is up a few steps. When people over five-and-a-half feet tall walk by, you’ll see the tops of their heads bobbing; you can sometimes hear their voices. I’m six-and-a-half feet tall, and from the street I can look more or less directly into the room.
Last night I stepped outside to observe all the Christmas lights that we’ve strung along the perimeter of the fence along our yard and around the pergola I built, of which I am very proud. The fence is six feet high. It’s very strange, if you’re six-and-a-half feet, to spend time enclosed in a six-foot high fence, your head like the bouncing ball in early sing-along cartoons. I stood on my tiptoes and held my phone high to take a picture of this twinkling view, and when I walked the few steps back to our front door I was surprised to see, through the window, the living room scene I’d just left. It included a tiny Christmas tree and beside it a rudimentary menorah, the candles burned almost all the way down. On the floor, my daughter was looking unhappily at the Hanukkah present I’d just given her—a journal with a leather cover on which a horse had been emblazoned.
She’d taken the wrapping paper off carefully, as though intuiting that the Hanukkah side of the family connects directly to my mother, who always likes to save nice wrapping paper. When the present came into view she tried, at first, to keep her disappointment out of sight. Then she tried less. Then she started to complain. This may have been, in part, why all of a sudden it was important for me to step outside.
One summer not that long ago, five or so years, I bumped into James Salter leaving the beach. It was late afternoon in Bridgehampton. He was coming up a steep hill of sand to the road in blue swim trunks, a towel over his shoulder, his torso still wet from a dip. The afternoon light was deliriously beautiful. It flattered us all. We all greeted one another, and later he wrote me, “You were nothing but an enviable family yesterday afternoon when we happened to meet at Gibson.”
The line comes to mind now and then when I feel overwhelmed with family life and want perspective—such as when packing for the December trip. If April mixes memory and desire, then December, for me, mixes memory with whatever the antithesis of desire is: the logistics of family travel, airports, packing. I’m a great packer. I travel light. My problem is unpacking: I have a thing for souvenirs. They litter my suitcase at the end of a trip. Looking at them is like looking at a first draft—it can be hard to distinguish the debris from the keepers. I tend to leave it all in there until it’s time to travel again.
And then, all of a sudden, the holiday binoculars are out, conflating time and space. I was thinking of Salter’s line as I walked back toward our front door and looked up to see my daughter through the window, lamp-lit. It was a shockingly pleasurable feeling. What I saw looked so lovely: a gorgeous, sulking little girl, the festive wrappers on the floor, the little tree with its colored lights, the expired Hanukkah candles. Somewhere in the house her little brother was probably still exulting over his present. I felt a pang of envy for what I saw—I appreciated it so much more at a slight remove, and now I was going to reenter it with a new sense of appreciation and perspective. But first I snapped a photo on my phone.
Now we’re getting ready to return to New York. Did I say return? I always get confused about the nature of home at this time of year—I suspect many people do when they make this trip, especially if they’re headed where they grew up. Soon I’ll be in my old room. I’ll glance out at the other windows, the other lives, a gesture with the curious effect of concentrating the viewer on the life inside, now comprised of people I couldn’t have imagined when I was growing up: the people I focus on now.
Thomas Beller is the author of four books including Seduction Theory, a collection of stories, and J. D. Salinger: The Escape Artist, which won the 2014–15 New York City Book award for biography/memoir.
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