by Lucy Griffin Appert || Author's Links
One fall semester, I lectured on Great Books before a class of 28 New York University freshmen and one naked woman who perched in the window directly across from my sixth floor classroom. I was unaware of my 29th student's existence until early November, when the others divulged their secret rather matter-of-factly: "Professor, you do know there's a naked woman who sits in that window across the street, don't you?" Considering that most of them had only been in Manhattan for two months, I thought they were doing quite well in the urbanity department. No one had tittered or gawked, though I had to admit they had been one of the most wakeful classes I'd had in years, even when I darkened the room to show slides. This behavior offered the only proof I needed that the woman existed, and I passed on the opportunity to check her out for myself. It seemed unteacherly, for one thing, and anyway, I didn't want to encourage the exhibitionist's bad habit. I pretended she wasn't there, and judging from my students' blasé attitudes, the novelty had worn off for them as well.
Our nonchalance suggested that we somehow expected voyeurism and city life to go hand in hand, as might anyone who has seen Rear Window. Indeed, the potential for pursuing this diversion is in itself one of the most under-publicized factors that attracts people to cities; our island, for example, offers an enticing blend of tall buildings, bare windows, and unconventional morality. And if you don't believe Manhattan is a watcher's paradise, consider the fact that Donald Trump has equipped every room in his Trump World Towers hotel with a telescope. In this environment, it's hard to say why people keep their shades up -- are they exhibitionists, or are they afraid they'll miss the action across the street? It would be nice if everyone fit neatly into one of these two categories, watcher or watched, but they don't.
There are, of course, unwritten codes that define gradations of behavior. Clearly, the guy on the 34th floor in a darkened room training his telescope on the hapless residents of surrounding buildings is doing something more serious and explicit than the man who spends a few moments at a window each morning watching his street wake up. Both are watchers, but only Mr. Telescope might hesitate to own it. Conversely, the woman posing for my class was asking to be watched, while oh, say, me, running to get the phone in my underwear is a lapse in judgment that calls for a turned head and a short memory. I don't think any of us would want to confess the actual number of occasions on which we have knowingly watched or offered our selves for watching, but then again, maybe I just haven't spent enough time with urban telescope owners and women who flash college classes.
Unfortunately, I have spent more than enough time with the open windows of the apartment across the courtyard from me. The original occupant was a single male whose lack of window treatments and an air conditioner helped us to get to know him much better than we ever could have wanted. The stream of sexual conquests mercifully stopped when Dude, as we semi-affectionately dubbed him, acquired a roommate who set up shop in the living room opposite ours. Judging from the fold-out bed and separate bathroom usage (they left that window open, too), this began as a platonic arrangement and blossomed into something more, literally right before our eyes. One evening as we all sat in our respective living rooms, the couple succumbed to passion right there on the fold-out bed with the lights on, prompting my husband, Edward, to scream "CURTAINS!" and start a frenzy of shade-dropping. Then he looked at me and asked, "Do you think they think we saw anything, or are they just trying to mess with us?"
It soon became clear that at least for Mrs. Dude (a title Edward chose with unwarranted optimism), the name of the game was messing with us. Sometimes she would merely wait to catch my husband's eye, then take off her shirt with a provocative cross-armed stretch. Other times she launched full-scale attacks, such as taking a shower with the bathroom window (located inside the shower) open during one of our dinner parties. Once she and one of Dude's former playmates began cavorting suggestively on the sofa, prompting us to go out for a second dinner. And of course she and Dude were going at it all the time in the living room -- they used the bedroom, where the windows faced the street, so rarely they could've rented it out and never noticed. We stopped dropping our shades in embarrassment at each fresh tableau, primarily because it made our living room dark and depressing, but also because we didn't want a) to make it seem like we were watching, or b) to imply the opposite and thereby send the exhibitionists on even more dangerous quests. We figured the bright side was that we didn't need cable.
When Dude moved back to England a few months later, ex-Mrs. Dude acquired some venetian blinds and a little more modesty. She also began to cop a serious attitude on the rare occasions when she saw us elsewhere in the building. Although Edward chalked it up to sexual frustration, I wondered if it could be something more. Did she think of us with as much disdain as we thought of her and Dude? Were we, to her way of thinking, taking unfair advantage of her lack of space by rudely keeping our shades up? They had one bedroom, uninspiringly laid out, and no air conditioning, while we had two bedrooms, two air conditioners, and a ceiling fan. Who would suffer more from closing the blinds?
It was an interesting line of thought, and further proof that in Manhattan, everything ultimately comes down to real estate. Apartments on higher floors are more desirable (as long as there's an elevator) for a list of reasons any New Yorker can reel off: brighter, quieter, better views, and, though no one ever says it, improved odds that one will be the watcher rather than the watched. But after about the tenth floor, the positive effects of height begin to diminish. You're essentially a focal point for those on your level in neighboring buildings, but your view makes you less inclined to close your curtains, especially during the prime evening viewing hours.
Another, more disturbing effect of living the high rise life can be the subtle changes in perception it produces. A man who lives on the 48th floor of a 50-floor building, in an apartment with spectacular wrap-around views, told me he hates being up so high because he feels out of touch with the world. People, cars, and even other, smaller, buildings are ants and sandhills to him. He deals with the city generally, through bold skyline views and panoramic sunrises, but not specifically enough to give the ants and sandhills names, faces, or addresses. He can watch with impunity because he will never have to connect. Yet not connecting bothers him with the vague guilt that many watchers feel about objectifying fellow humans. His empowerment makes him uncomfortable, a situation that offers an odd displacement of the discomfort one would expect from the persons being watched.
Of course, the degree of connection available to lower level watchers is never what it seems. As casual observers of the street below our second floor apartment, Edward and I have gotten to know by sight and sometimes even by name the neighborhood regulars. Those we don't know, we name in the same way we did the Dude Family: the withered, antisocial smoker who wears a beret and diamonds the size of ice cubes is "Greta" (for Ms. Garbo), the caretaker of the Hungarian church is "the Church Lady", the terrifying biker-super down the block is "Skankmeister", an emaciated and frequently hysterical woman who often receives cash in front of her building from different men in long, chauffeured cars is "The Prostitute." These people are all familiar faces to us, and it's hard not to speak to them when we pass on the street. I catch myself making eye contact, giving a warmer than usual smile, or beginning a wave, and I have to remember that my sense of a connection with them is an illusion. I see other people do the same when I pass them, the shoe repair guy across the street from our building and the employees of the laundry next door, and I wonder if I would see an accurate picture of myself in they names they have made up for me.
Which brings me back to the question my husband asked about Mrs. Dude, and I wondered about the woman who posed for my class that semester: Were they clueless, or were they messing with us? Were their exhibitionist displays efforts to connect or efforts to create discomfort in their audience? In exposing themselves, the watched seem freer because they offer points of connection that the concealed watchers do not. Like actors, they put some version of themselves out there and invite engagement from the audience. Hence our naming the Dude Family, and the possibility they had named us.
But the chance that these women had been aiming to create discomfort offers the more intriguing truth about voyeurism. Watchers, in their existence as a known entity, an audience, are themselves objectified and used by the watched. Who knows what the naked woman or Mrs. Dude hoped to achieve through their exploits. Investigating their motives only distracts me from the more discomfiting reality of their perspective: a view of me off guard, teaching or conducting my home life oblivious to the fact that I was being watched back. What better way to look inside a person than through his or her reaction to your nudity or sexuality?
I sometimes watch a die-hard watcher who lives in the building across the street from me -- "The Spy" is our name for him. Retirement affords him the luxury of putting a pillow on his window ledge at mid-morning and staying there until late afternoon. On rare occasions, I will look down to see what he sees, but more often I prefer to guess at the nature of the spectacle from his face and body language. The intensity of his focus and his oblivion to his own exposure to me are amazing. I wonder if I look like that when I am watching him, and then I remember the maxim about clothing and open windows my parents used to warn us with: "If you can see them, they can see you." Perhaps it is the latent exhibitionist in me that rejoices to think that in our own secret way, The Spy and I are connecting.
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