For many of us, more time on our hands because of the pandemic means more time to learn about our neighbors. And as Barbara Winard writes from her apartment in Jersey City, New Jersey— just a short ferry ride across the Hudson River from Manhattan— sometimes they know we’re watching, sometimes they don’t.
As at-risk baby boomers, we have quarantined ourselves in our two-floor apartment in a city neighborhood of old brownstones. I have been spending hours on my slightly derelict backyard deck during the pandemic. I bundled up on cold days and sit under a patio umbrella on rainy and sunny ones. I watch the sun set from the recliner, I listen to the finches trill, I’ve even watched an epicurean squirrel eating a slice of pizza just feet away.
Across postage stamp-sized gardens, I can see apartments stacked near and far, with layers of singles and families going about their daily lives.
Living as I now do, I identify with James Stewart (“Jeff” Jefferies) in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film, Rear Window. His character would fit right in with this pandemic. He was a captive audience too, hobbled by a broken leg and sitting for days and weeks in his small apartment in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, looking out the rear window. Often armed with binoculars or a camera, he obsessively observes humanity across the courtyard.
Stewart quickly turns into a voyeur, seeing from the rear window in his home what people do in the privacy of their own homes. He becomes the audience, and the spaces across the way are like a movie screen. He sees a dancer, who he dubs “Miss Torso;” a songwriter, a dog in a basket dangled down for a walk, and a couple sleeping outside on a mattress (until it rains). He sees and hears the neighborhood’s everyday domestic dramas and spats.
But the tension rises when the body of the dog is found in the garden, strangled. When Jimmy Stewart observes Raymond Burr, best known to us as the TV lawyer-sleuth Perry Mason, furtively dragging his suitcase after a particularly bad argument with his wife, we all suspect what it contains. The film becomes a grand soap opera, complete with the twists and turns of the best thrillers.
Over the past four months, I have also become the audience as life dramas play out surrounding me. People go about their lives as if no one is watching. Maybe they’ve forgotten that we are. Sometimes we can hear them breathing. On the top deck across from me, partially hidden by large plants, is a young couple with two small children. We followed her pregnancy last summer and feel as if we know them.
Across and to the left of us is the mystery family who populate all four floors of their building and are, we assume, wealthy. We hear impassioned arguments emanating from the windows but so far no suspects to track. Next door to us the garden apartment has recently been rented to a young couple who tend a small city garden. Over the past few days they have erected what would seem to be an impermeable fence made of several layers of bamboo, to keep the two noisy children downstairs from peering through or over the fence.
Chances are low that there will be a real-life drama in any of these apartments, but I’ll be ready if there is. I am a camera and see everything as if it is a giant Zoom meeting, with people in their boxes of apartments forming a panorama of human life— the boredom, the frustration, the peace, the fear, the joys.
We are all voyeurs in this pandemic, involved in the lives of others. But only from a distance.