rear window

we are all jimmy stewart being a jerk to grace kelly for no reason

In one of the buildings across the street from mine, there’s a top floor apartment that’s full of plants. Their greens burst out the view when the apartment’s tenant opens the window, which he does at least twice a day. He sits on the ledge five stories above the street with a clear drop below him, and, leaning half way out, no screen, sometimes dangling one leg over the side of the window, smokes a cigarette. No one else in the world has ever been cool or attractive. I want to be him. I despise my stupid little uncool frightened rule-following life, I regret getting married and giving up my vices, I regret everyone I called and didn’t call and every party I ever bailed on and every time I ever went home early and every time I ever said no to anything unless it was good for me. He smokes a cigarette and sometimes it’s raining while he does this and I am stolid and boring and I look like a department store and like a station wagon and I will never be beautiful again. I try not to stare but then again I figure he has to want exactly this reaction, or maybe he doesn’t, I don’t know, I don’t know what it’s like to be cool. Every time I see him smoking I know that I failed at every chance I ever had at being young and now I will never be young again.

Almost a year ago, in a slow and oppressively mild January, Thomas finally convinced me to watch Rear Window, a very famous movie about Jimmy Stewart being a dick to Grace Kelly for no reason. I am never going to really appreciate a Hitchcock movie. Hitchcock’s particular flavor of misogyny is the same one that several people I had the misfortune of loving very much when I was younger subscribed to, and Hitchcock movies will always feel to me like having again every argument I had when I was twenty-five. This doesn’t mean they aren’t brilliant movies; it means I am to an overwhelming degree incapable of perceiving them. There is too much of myself in the way. The icy blonde resentment of a world in which everything would be all right if the women would only be more beautiful, be more perfectly dressed, be more needless, feels too personal. This is my problem, not Hitchcock’s, but I did like Rear Window a lot. The reasons I liked Rear Window were as unreliably clouded by my taking everything personally as the reasons I hated Vertigo. Rear Window understands New York to be a story about the same thing I understand it to be about: other people’s windows.

In Rear Window, Jimmy Stewart’s world shrinks to the size of what he can see from his window. Confined by an injury to one chair in his apartment’s bedroom, he survives his own version of quarantine (or lockdown, or whatever not-quite-accurate term we’re calling it today) by dragging his chair to face the window, and turning the view of the backs of buildings that face his into the world world, taking the same approach to it that he takes to his job as a photojournalist.

The stage set in Rear Window looks nothing like New York, but it nevertheless gets it right. The movie hums with that cooped-up voyeuristic certainty that all of my neighbors whose windows I can see into must necessarily be caught up in high-stakes soap operas and murder plots. Because their windows look like television screens, their lives must operate on the same level, with the same urgency, as television shows.

This isn’t particular to New York, of course. It’s merely that New York is the only place in which I’ve experienced this phenomenon, a life punctuated and underscored, given shape and dimension, by the lit-up windows that contain other people’s lives. If people sometimes come to cities like New York to be the main character in the story, I suspect they sometimes stay because they don’t have to be. Jimmy Stewart is the main character in Rear Window but also he pointedly isn’t; he is standing to the side of the proscenium stage, pulling back the curtain and directing the audience to watch the staged lives that play out within. He is the audience as much as we are. Cities make us the audience far more than they make us the main character.

My apartment is on the top floor of my small building. Looking north, I can trace where water towers chatter and huddle toward the horizon. Below them a collection of slightly ragged windows delineates where the sky starts and ends. Over six years now, I’ve watched lives play out in the rectangles of those windows, appearing and reappearing, moving in and moving out, packing and unpacking, falling in love, getting cats, staying up late working or fighting, talking out loud to computers.

One neighbor does yoga every morning. One neighbor leaves their Christmas lights up all year. One couple has an adorable dog who stands in the window all day and when I see him on the street going for a walk when I am going for a walk it feels like seeing a celebrity. In August, that couple moves out and another couple moves in and puts up houseplants and a Biden/Harris sign. They turn on colored lightbulbs at night for some reason; for a week or so the light in their window is a thick red as I am falling asleep and I convince myself they are practicing some kind of cool-person Satanic ritual. Two floors above them a new tenant arrives and on her first day there she tenderly places her fat orange cat in front of the window, as though showing him the view. A few weeks later her boyfriend comes over and I decide that I don’t like him, and neither does the cat.

Every one of Jimmy Stewart’s neighbors in Rear Window becomes a murder mystery, a high-wire drama, the part of a horror movie right before the turn. The beautiful woman entertains a crowd of men who seem just on the verge of turning on her. The piano-loving party at the songwriter’s festively gorgeous apartment seems at any moment ready to tip over into violence. Marriages and families visible in fragments and glimpses hum with the crackling anxiety of a long summer afternoon before the heat breaks into thunderstorms. This nail-biting tension is Hitchcock’s whole thing, but it’s also accurate to the experience of being stuck inside, with only the neighbor’s windows on offer for access to anything beyond one’s known, dull life, with only the yellow-lit glimpses of private rooms in other buildings available as a means of escape into the larger, unknown world. Jimmy Stewart didn’t have the internet, and we do, but what else is social media but another, even larger series of lit-up curtainless windows, a city of lives glimpsed in fractionated comings and goings, a way to eavesdrop on a million contextless pieces of other people’s small dramas?

Cities like New York are about envy, about gossip and voyeurism and eavesdropping, about wanting to know things that are none of your business and creating competition where there is none. The sound of the place is the whisper of rumors, the stories told in a low voice in the corner at a party, did you know that? A place full of secrets where none of the secrets are kept. A place full of windows where almost nobody knows how to use curtains or blinds.

None of this is actually particular to New York. Anywhere people live is about gossip and envy, friction and proximity. Everywhere we live up against one another runs on this same fuel, whether in stacked and sectioned tiny apartments, in the buzzing undertow of wide-streeted suburbia’s constant surveillance, in the clamoring and exhaustible closeness of small towns, or in the endless piled-up lives of close friends and loose acquaintances displayed inside our phones.

The unit of the home has become even more cruelly important now when so many public spaces have disappeared from use or availability. Those of us who can stay inside are sickeningly lucky; our claustrophobia is a form of hideous abundance. This year the luckiest of us are all Jimmy Stewart with his broken leg and his camera and his irritable restlessness, teeth-edged desperate for a mystery to solve, for something in which to participate. 

On Sunday, Thomas and I got a huge Christmas tree. It would be a medium-sized tree in a lot of other spaces, maybe, but in a five-hundred square foot apartment a seven-foot tree is a decadent monstrosity. We put it directly in front of one of the windows in the living room. Partly it’s that there’s no other place for it, but it’s also that the tree is for the neighbors as much as it’s for us. Since the day after Thanksgiving, when people on the block started putting up their holiday lights and decorations, I’ve felt that same competitive itchiness about getting a tree, wanting to prove that I am as good as anyone who had already put up a glittering collection of branches and ornaments in their window.

Our Christmas tree is about envy, but it is also about the longing to participate, to be part of something larger than myself, larger than my own small room. All the trees and the string lights and the decorated windows on my block are speaking mutely to one another, pieces of a larger project, acknowledging that we are in at least some small way not alone, and that who we are is created as much by our proximities as by any choices we more consciously or deliberately might make. Who I am is the neighbors whose lives I have glimpsed in tiny pieces over years as much as it is any people I have chosen to live with or to love. 

In the top floor apartment directly across from me, one building over from the coolest man in the world, is a woman whose bed is, like mine, lined up right against the window. I don’t know anything about her, but I know that at night she gets into bed with her phone, holding it above her face or turning on her side, and its familiar blue glow illuminates her entire little top-floor room. I don’t know who she loves, what she does for work, whom or what she’s lost this year, what she hopes for or what makes her angry, but I feel an overwhelming kinship with her. This kinship may be fictional, but everything I imagine from glimpses of my neighbors’ windows is fictional. She is who I’ve been so much of my life in the city, alone behind a window in a small room, curled up in bed lit by a screen, glued to the murder mysteries and soap operas I can construct out of glimpses of the lives of others, making my world at once as small and as large as possible. 

thanks so much for reading. this is a piece of something— about small rooms, and interior spaces, about other people’s homes, and our own—that I’ll be exploring in pieces here all month. normally these go out on wednesdays and mondays, but I’m still figuring stuff out as I get this newsletter going again, so this week there will also be a post on friday (as in tomorrow). then next week should be back to monday and wednesday. there’ll be more pieces in this series, and also some weird, fun unrelated stuff, about things like indoor jeans, and phoebe bridgers’ new EP and christmas music in general, and my many feelings about the 1970s conversation pit, and the softest shirt in the world, and likely, eventually, more mountain goats essays. If you’ve enjoyed this, I’d love it if you subscribed, and maybe told your friends about it and encouraged them to subscribe. you can also buy a gift subscription for someone else, which I think is a wonderful holiday gift idea. in january, much of the content here (including some new features I’ll be launching, like discussion threads and other stuff) will become paid subscriber-only, so if you’re considering a paid subscription, now is a great time. if you want to subscribe but can’t afford it, you can always email me and I’ll be happy to figure something out. again, I’m so glad you’re here. xo

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