Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Confessions of an urban spy

One of the things I love about Santiago is how many windows it has. This city is home to six million people who need places to live and panes to look out of. The consequence: I get to live vicariously through all of them.

No, not stalk them. I´m not talking about prolonged, covert observation. I´m talking about fleeting, almost incidental moments of espionage. For a pedestrian, these glimpses last only as long as you can sustain a corner-of-the-eye gaze without noticeably turning your head. Buses and cars provide the urban spy with a bit more freedom to stare; as anyone who's ever had an inter-vehicle love affair that lasted the length of a red light knows, being aboard a form of transportation provides one with the same sense of anonymous invincibility as the internet. The knowledge that one is moments from rolling away down the street provokes audacity the way that the protection of a screen name incites people to make sordid confessions they would otherwise have taken to the grave.

Here's my sordid internet confession: I look through people's windows. Not with a telescope or my nose pressed up against the glass. Not with any sinister purpose. Just in passing. I imagine how my life would be if I took naps in that bedroom or opened Christmas presents every year on that living room sofa. In this way, Santiago provides me--and anyone else with a slightly voyeuristic spirit--with millions of imaginary identities.

This is much truer in some areas than in others. When I was in Chile as an exchange student, for example, I lived in a suburban neighborhood where single-family houses sat behind gardens that sat behind high fences. In my current neighborhood, in contrast, people live smashed next to and stacked on top of each other. Building fronts--and, therefore, windows--are lined up right next to the sidewalk, which provides great views for spies despite iron window bars. These streetfront windows also provide a live soundtrack: I love walking through my neighborhood and hearing people laughing hysterically or belting along with the radio.

Some of my most recent espionage activity took place this past weekend, when my roommates and I went to play a midnight round of Trivial Pursuit with a friend. The venue chosen for the showdown was an apartment in a new high rise downtown. I have something of a love-hate relationship with these buildings, which are sprouting like stuccoed mushrooms all over central Santiago. On the one hand, they oftentimes require the destruction of beautiful old buildings in historical areas. On the other hand, their balconies provide some of the best panoramic views in the city. They also, of course, have tremendous numbers of windows. When residents have their curtains pulled, these structures become giant rectangular multi-colored mosaics.

A friend recently told me that looking up at these buildings depressed him because he felt excluded from everything he imagined happening inside. I feel the opposite: Knowing that hundreds of lives are being lived right before my eyes makes me feel accompanied.

But back to Trivial Pursuit. During the course of the game, I learned that birds have three eyelashes on each eye. I also learned a little about the neighbors. When it wasn't my team's turn, I stepped out onto the balcony, which provided a beautiful view of an extensive area of the city--and of nearby apartments. In one, the TV was tuned to the Teletón, a fundraiser for children with disabilities that keeps Chileans teary-eyed for 27 hours every year. In another, a shadow cast on a wall was wailing on its air guitar. In an older, smaller apartment complex across the street, a guy was shuffling pillows around on his bed. At one point, he leaned out his window and looked up at me.

He was spying, too.

So we did what any two undercover agents who had just caught one another in the act would do: We waved. The greeting was somehow an implicit agreement to keep each other company: I would occasionally step out onto the balcony when my team's turn was finished, and he would hang around his window for awhile. To clarify, there was nothing romantic about it. It was just a temporary alliance between two people floating in giant window grids at 3 A.M. in the middle of an enormous city.

The great thing about huge cities is the frequency with which these fleeting friendships are formed. Someone who laughs along with you when you do the who-should-go-around-whom dance in the middle of the sidewalk or shoots you a knowing eye-roll when the bus is packed is guaranteed to brighten your day, if only for 30 seconds.

In other words, I love being an anonymous spy in Santiago. And I'm not a stalker, I swear.


Noel said...

Funny! I have to admit that I had much the same tendency when I moved to Chicago and had all of that interesting humanity/activity to observe. Perhaps you should get yourself a pair of groovy 70s-style mirrored sunglasses...No way to tell where those baby blues are pointed!

Mamacita Chilena said...


I love looking in windows. When I was a kid and we would drive past other cars I would invent lives for the people in the other cars, imagining where they were going and what they were like...

great post, I really enjoyed reading. You're a great writer!

Suzanne said...

Great little piece though I have to confess I was so momentarily stunned after reading about the avian eyelashes that I had to read again the bits after that wonderful trivia (is the plural "trivii?") I prefer using field glasses myself but only during the months I'm at the cottage and then only while on the porch. It started with bird watching but quickly expanded to include beach activity at the naughty neighbors,i.e., the folks who kept us in court for three years. So there you have it...like it or not!
Take care...Sue