Most city dwellers, and almost all high-rise inhabitants, must address the unfortunate physics of traditional glass: in order to allow light in, it must let it, and the potential retinal imprints it carries, out. Translation: unless you cover your windows people can look all up in your shit.
My first New York City apartment functioned much like a car. It was cramped, expensive, and difficult to share. Of greater relevance, the walls afforded an illusion of privacy. From the eleventh floor of the tallest building in the area, I couldn’t hear street noise or look into anyone’s eyes. Just like a driver absentmindedly picking her nose, however, one evening I made like a popsicle and froze when I noticed a figure peering directly toward the backlit window in front of which I stood changing into my pajamas.
Four years later, lulled into complacency by a series of apartments with windows facing brick walls or abandoned lots, I upped the mortification ante when walking by the bedroom window in our Beacon Hill walk-up. I could have sworn it looked out over nothing inhabited by man. Usually it didn’t, but this particular afternoon, a group of about eight college-aged men clutching red plastic cups populated the rooftop, and about half of them stood pointing at me, clad only in the Victoria’s Secret-issue excuse for what my grandma would call unmentionables.
I could hardly underestimate the risk of exposure when we moved from one of Seattle’s in-city suburbs to the heart of Downtown. The Olivian apartment building runs along the east side of 8th Street. On the west side of 8th Street stands the chic new, enviro-friendly Hyatt. Window to window we’re talking spitting distance plus about fifteen feet depending on the skill of the expectorator. As a result, we kept the blinds in our bedroom and the nursery permanently drawn. At the other end of the hall stood The Line of Nudity beyond which one’s movements were clearly visible through the unobstructed kitchen and living room windows. We could have pulled those shades down too, but Seattleites must soak up any and all available Vitamin D. Plus, what blocks the view in, generally obstructs voyeurism as well – and we couldn’t have that.
At first I found the promise of a 24-hour variety show captivating. I hankered to see a hotel guest “nudie-petunia” as Viv calls it (now we use “nudie-pa-Stu-nia” to describe her baby brother in the buff), but somehow Ian, who is home far fewer hours of the day, spotted a disproportionate number of disrobed travelers. Trying to calm his self-righteously indignant wife (I mean, really, just one more unfairness piled onto the already heaping plate of the stay-at-home mother in America), Ian delivered in a factual monotone: “Babe, they’re like deer. They mostly come out at dawn and dusk.”
At first I cackled with glee after spotting contenders for the award “best dressed, birthday suit.” But then it all got real. Hosting a dinner party one evening, I caught sight of a man wearing a ubiquitous white hotel robe and clutching two champagne glasses. He drew the flimsy and entirely transparent outer curtain, but not the thicker blackout layer; always a promising sign. “This looks like it’s leading somewhere!” I jested, using the grid system we’d devised to direct our guests’ attention to room G5. And when the room’s female occupant came into view, it did. For hours. Frustratedly unable to focus on anything else despite our repeated attempts to divert collective awareness back to conversation, one guest exclaimed, “How on earth can he carry on this long?” From across the room her husband chimed, “Don’t you mean, ‘What a perfectly normal amount of time for a man to perform’?” I went to bed feeling guilty for both our initial rapt attention and subsequent bored irritation, but an encore showing the following night with even the filmy curtain pulled back exposed the sexhibitionists for what they were.
After a few similar incidents and months of eating my breakfast across the way from men standing in their boxers, gazing out the window, and talking on their cell phones while scratching themselves, I’d legitimately grown tired of the spectacle. One afternoon I decided to make the most of Vivi’s daycare hours by settling down to catch up on my scrapbooking. When a repetitive flashing appeared in my peripheral vision, I thought my border-trimming perfectionism might be giving me a migraine. I looked up and straight into the eyes of a stark naked (well, if you don’t count the stilettos) barely legal looking young – ahem – lady, contorting herself at the direction of a photographer. She shot me a glare laced with such moral disapprobation that I almost blushed, as if scrapbooking in plain sight in the middle of the day were the indecorous behavior.
When we began looking for a new home, we paid particular attention to visibility. One unit we toured looked directly into the halls of the fancy new federal courthouse. No thank you. I wouldn’t want any “scrapbooking” I do to endanger my bar memberships. Another carried no threat of revelation, largely because it featured the ever-popular shoe box with almost zero windows floor plan. Finally, about a month ago we settled into a fabulously located, light-flooded 24th floor apartment with a view of Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, the Space Needle, and . . . only a sliver of the Westin.