Some sociologist once wrote that New Yorkers avoid looking into each other’s eyes not because of unsociability, but in a subconscious gesture of discretion: i.e., if you’re forced to stand cheek-to-jowl in an elevator, you’ll direct your gaze elsewhere to provide psychological if not physical space. Good point.
As is the case with anyone who lives in a city, the views from my own top-floor windows are not of trees and lakes, but “cityscapes.” (What a word, the salvation of real estate agents, implying that any vista you catch from an apartment window is worth the eyestrain.) While the bathroom Cityscape is ho-hum, the living room Cityscape isn’t bad. However, the kitchen . . .
First off, the window is enormous, over three feet wide and seven feet high, nearly floor-to-ceiling. This provides actually the best view in the apartment, a slice of Broadway and even a sliver of New Jersey. But there’s a bonus: As the building is constructed in an H shape, my kitchen window looks directly across to another wing of the building and gives a completely unimpeded view into the kitchens of my neighbors, whose apartments are of different configurations but have equally enormous kitchen windows. And this means that, for most of us, at least one portion of our lives is on public display.
There seems to be an etiquette to this. Many New Yorkers who have “interesting” views will park a telescope, or a pair of binoculars, near a window. That doesn’t seem to happen in our building. At least not that I can see. (Maybe it has to do with the fact that, technically, we all live under the same roof?) But on the other hand, very few of the neighbors have installed any coverings on those windows. Maybe they feel that it’s the closest they’ll ever get to Virtual Rear Window, a game whose (informal) rules seem to be: (1) Wear whatever you please in your own apartment, but in front of the window, kindly wear something; (2) Don’t get caught looking in on your neighbors; (3) Don’t acknowledge if you catch them looking in on you; (4) Social interactions with neighbors should not include hints that you do now, or ever have in the past, looked in on your neighbors; (5) Embarrassment is not allowed—after all, no one has ever seen anything untoward, now, have they?
All this means that many people in my building may not know their neighbors’ names, but they’re utterly familiar with their schedules, food habits, domestic quirks, entertaining preferences, and tastes in underwear . . . and a whole lot more. When one neighbor’s elderly relative decided to commit suicide by jumping out of a window, it wasn’t discussed. When a young couple moved into the building, and one of them decided to alleviate his boredom by posting his phone number in the window, it wasn’t a hot topic. When another young couple rented an apartment and celebrated their first night—horizontally, in front of the kitchen window—no one said a thing. (Me, I never saw their faces.)
This is known as Giving Each Other Space.
It doesn’t always work out that smoothly. One grumpy old codger stumped around in his skivvies unconcernedly and, er, incompletely. It wouldn’t have mattered to anyone, except that he was a complete sourpuss in public, with not so much as a nod for his neighbors. And somehow a song about him sprang up:
(To the tune of “Mr. Cellophane”)
Underpants / Mr. Underpants / You can see his shvance / Mr. Underpants . . .
I have no idea who would have done such a thing.