Holden Caulfield did it. So did Jimmy Stewart’s character in “Rear Window.” I do it. I’ll bet you’ve done it, too.
When my sophomores read Catcher in the Rye, they sometimes express disapproval when Holden Caulfield stares a long while out of his hotel window at all the strange goings-on in the windows across from him. “Weird,” they say. “Creepy.”
“Really?” I ask. “So if you glanced out of your hotel room as Holden did and spied a man trying on women’s clothing and a couple spitting water at each other, you’d be able to turn away and continue unpacking your suitcase? You’re finer folks than I am. I’d be riveted.”
In Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” Jimmy Stewart plays a character stuck in a wheelchair because of a broken leg. Bored out of his mind, he takes to spying on his neighbors in the apartment building across the courtyard. And he gets really serious about it, too—employing binoculars and later, a telescopic camera lens.
What motivates them both? Holden is feeling alone and blue, once again kicked out of another prep school, afraid to go home to face his parents’ disappointment and anger. He feels cut off from others, and yet incapable of reaching out to anyone. Why would the bizarre eccentricities of strangers hold his interest? Is there a kind of comfort for him in discovering others with secrets to hide, who also do not fit neatly into acceptable society?
Stewart’s character is bored and lonely. He is used to a fast-paced life as a photographer, always on the go. Unable to go out into the world as he normally does, to socialize and be entertained, he looks for something to fill the emptiness. He has no TV to watch; it is many decades before the internet. He looks out that window for the same reason we now scroll through Facebook—to divert himself from his solitude, to remind himself that he is not entirely alone.
I haven’t actively spied on anyone since I was a child. And I am generally way too busy to be bored. But I do love to take long walks at night through my suburban neighborhood, and I confess that when a house is lit up and the curtains open, it is hard not to look inside, to wonder about the lives that are being lived inside those walls.
I think we all have a fascination with other people. Not only with celebrities living their big-splash lives, played out for us on the web and in the headlines, but also with the quiet, ordinary folks we work beside and live next-door to. Are they like us? Do they love what we love? Do they also have secrets, sorrows and fears they try to keep hidden?
This curiosity was one of the impulses behind my new book of poems, What The Neighbors Know. The book is now available on Amazon, and the feature “Look Inside the Book” has just been enabled, making readable the two opening poems!
“Opened Houses” deals with many of the ideas I have described above. And “This House” explores the speaker’s mixed feelings about a home that must soon be sold. In the first poem, the speaker is on the outside, looking in at the lives of others. And in the second, it is the reader who looks in on the secret world the speaker inhabits.
Hope you will take a minute to check the poems out! Click on What The Neighbors Know above to find the book on Amazon.