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Windows

Friday, August 2nd, 2013: Places.

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Luna

In early childhood, I was one of those kids who rocked himself to sleep at night, sitting up in bed, staring at the window in the opposite wall. That was my first window. It was high above the earth, looking out across an overgrown field called the Vacant Lot that sloped down to the creek. At night, when the moon was bright outside, the top of my curtains formed a black shadow in the shape of a bat. I felt it was alive, a silent, motionless presence.

I had a small child’s desk below the window. One bright summer night, a pale winged creature like a tiny angel soared through my open window and landed on the desktop. Green, with a delicate forked tail, it rested there with its wings spread in the moonlight. In the morning, the luna moth was gone.

Time and Space

What is the history of windows? Many indigenous dwellings – the tipi, the wickiup, the African hut – lack them entirely. When they appear in cliff dwellings and pueblo apartments they’re small, set high in the walls, used primarily for light. Life was mostly lived outdoors; windows wasted precious heat in winter.

What about the relationship between windows and art? In Europe, early framed pictures were icons rather than scenes. When medieval illustrations first began to show landscapes, they were tightly framed like the small windows of the time. Windows in castles and forts were primarily small defensive openings, for scouting and firing on approaching raiders, although the fairy tale has Rapunzel using a tower window to beckon and admit her lover. But in the Romantic period, landscape paintings expanded to a grand scale which could never be encompassed by the view from a window.

The “picture window” and “view house” seem to be recent inventions associated with midcentury or “modern” architecture. Did those grand landscape paintings influence architecture, encouraging the American dream of becoming “lord of all I survey?”

Windows in urban tenements can be a primary social interface, opening onto bustling streets and steel fire escapes draped with laundry, or a symbol of frustration when they face a filthy, confining air shaft. The high, small, barred window of the prison cell has become a vivid image of European and American culture. A symbol of loss, isolation and helplessness, often too high to see out of, offering nothing but a tantalizing patch of sky and snatches of noise from the unreachable outside world, or worse, the terrifying approach of the lynch mob.

During my first year in San Francisco, a despondent office worker downtown famously jumped to his death from a high window in one of those monolithic glass skyscrapers, and he was quoted as shouting “We’re all just hostages from hell!” A friend borrowed that as a band name. But window suicide has a long history, acquiring legendary status during the stock market crash of 1929.


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Window on Fire

When I was eight, we moved to a small town where my second-story room had two very different windows. One looked south across the alley over the neighbor’s big side yard where we kids played football. The other was a double window over my bed looking west out onto the shallow slope of our porch roof and the Pennsylvania Railroad track that sliced through our front yard.

In warm weather, I woke to sunlight pouring through the south window, birdsong from near and far, and the cooing of a mourning dove on the telephone wire just outside, and I’ve always associated that window with the innocence and optimism of childhood, the joy of waking to a new day full of promise.

My room was larger and cooler than my younger brother’s, and I had a double bed, so on hot nights he would join me, and on the hottest nights, unable to sleep, we crawled out of the north window to sit on the porch roof in the dark, waiting for the night train to rumble slowly past on its way to the furniture factory a few blocks north.

A square fan had been placed in the open south window, and on those hot nights we kept it running. One night I woke up, coughing, to face a rectangle of flame and the room filling with black smoke. The south window had turned into a picture of hell. I ran to the head of the stairs and yelled down to my mom, then got my brother out of bed and headed down to safety. While my mom called the fire department, I pulled pots and pans out of the kitchen, filled them with water, and ran up to douse the flames, but the burning curtains had caught the wall on fire, the smoke was so thick I could hardly even see the fire, and I quickly gave up.

We were standing in the yard when the fire truck arrived; they raised a ladder to the window and put the fire out with a single powerful blast from their hose. They concluded that the fire was caused by a short in the fan’s electrical circuit. Most of the smoke had consisted of charred and vaporized plastic from the flammable fan housing; the resulting soot stuck to the surface of everything in the house, so everything had to be laboriously cleaned or discarded, and the walls repainted, and in the meantime we lived with our grandparents a block away. That night, we each took showers in their cement basement. I was blowing black soot out of my nose for days afterward.

My last memory of the windows of youth is from after my first year of college, when I was home for the summer. It’s afternoon and the backlit leaves of the big maple tree fill the view out the west windows just above my bed. My mom and brother are away and my girlfriend, still in high school, has lied to her father again and joined me for our first and only secret tumble in my childhood bed. She’s a freckled redhead and her skin is almost as pale as the white sheets. She rises and I can see her silhouette framed by those tree-filled windows.

Wizard of Lights

My dorm at the University of Chicago was a large old five-story, U-shaped brick building surrounding an unused tree-filled interior courtyard which was like a sanctuary. The building had previously housed an entire small academy, and more than half the building was vacant. I talked the janitor into letting me use an empty second-floor classroom overlooking the trees of the courtyard as a private art studio. One wall consisted of steel casement windows that opened outward; this may be where I fell in love with that style. I loved the ambience of working in the treetops.

Raging hormones and the continuing distance between my girlfriend and me left me helpless with desire much of the time. When frustration peaked late at night, I took buses and trains far uptown, past the Loop to the hundred-story John Hancock building, which was then the tallest building in the world outside New York City. Now, the 94th-floor observatory is a highly developed Vegas-style attraction, but then you just paid to ride the elevator and stepped out into a quiet, elegant, dimly lit space like an exclusive private club, in which the only attraction was the flickering nighttime city spread out below like a controlled burn.

The lake, to the east, was a void, but I spent most of my time sitting on the floor gazing west through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass at the dense converging grid of street lamps, immersed in my private fantasy of playing the city’s lights like an organ. My girlfriend had roped me into her Ayn Rand obsession and we were both at the height of our naive fascination with cities, architecture and engineering. I still felt like a helpless child, but being up there in the sky suggested that anything was possible.

Parakeets in Chicago

Finally my girlfriend graduated and joined me, again in secret violation of parental decree, and we shared a small, second-story apartment in an old brick building in downtown Hyde Park. Our kitchen window faced a window of an Italian restaurant called La Russo. It was only separated from us by a narrow alley, and we soon grew tired of watching and being watched by other diners, so we covered the window with tinfoil. We shared the one-bedroom apartment with another student, and we occupied the living room, which had a big sash window facing the busy downtown street and the larger high-rise apartment building opposite us – the only real “picture” window I’ve ever had.

At night we kept our lights off and watched the world outside. One upper window of the big apartment building across the street was always occupied by an old man writing at a desk, with a cat on his windowsill. We fantasized about this nighttime writer and made up stories about him.

The following year, we both transferred north to other schools, and found an apartment in a newer, mid-century high-rise near the lake, with steel casement windows. Our apartment was at the back, on the fourth floor, overlooking treetops with branches right outside our windows. During our first summer, we discovered a couple of parakeets living in an uneasy alliance with the flocks of English sparrows, following them around in their search for food. Somehow, learning from the sparrows, at least one of the parakeets was able to survive the brutal lakeside winters, and feral parakeets outside the window became one of the main attractions during our three years in that location.

We moved to California so I could go to graduate school, and the girlfriend dumped me for an older guy, a right-wing economist who supported her Ayn Rand fantasies. In the mild climate and lower-density suburban environment, I lived more of my life outdoors, and windows became much less important. My upper-story grad-school apartment had a sizable balcony with sliding glass doors, and for a year I actually slept outside on a folding cot – I was becoming more my dad’s son, fulfilling his dream of getting closer to nature.


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Objects of Admiration

After grad school there were a few short but intense and formative years – I was finally coming of age, and my post-ivory tower lifestyle was splitting into its two distinctive tracks: bohemian vs. nature boy. And I both found and created my dream home, the Terra Incognita loft in San Francisco, with its large, iconic windows facing different aspects of the filthy, dysfunctional, but vibrant South of Market ghetto.

Our front windows became the symbol of the loft. High above Fifth Street, a major artery by which commuters, shoppers and suppliers flowed off the Bay Bridge into the heart of downtown, our row of five tall arched casement windows, their wood frames painted blue against the white of the facade, were the old industrial building’s main decorative feature. The view was unimportant – the windows themselves were an object of admiration for the whole neighborhood – and they were our main social interface with the street below.

My young female artist roommates perched on the windowsill and smoked, gazing pensively off into the urban distance. When we were home, each of us came forward at odd intervals to catch revealing glimpses of our colorful neighbors in action. Olen, the gentle, friendly old owner of the dark, mysterious record store on the corner, with his bloodshot yellow eyeballs, offered to “take care of” parking tickets for us. We peered quizzically down from above as he was periodically visited by men in pale suits who removed small ice chests from the trunks of their Mercedes sedans and carried them into the store. Popeye, who lived in the large flophouse around the corner when he wasn’t MIA somewhere getting shock treatment, was a tall, trim and handsome man of indeterminate age with salt and pepper hair in a crew cut. He had a long, theatrical stride and occasionally crossed the street, stopping traffic, in flamboyant drag: now a general of the Confederacy, now a sailor in jaunty white cap and striped jersey. The small tenement next door housed an evolving population of more troubled souls. I happened to be at the window one morning when a psychotic young woman raced out the door into the busy street, stark naked and shrieking, pursued by her rescuer, a gentle man who clearly had his hands full.

The windows got me in trouble when I went over one night to check on a roommate who had run out into the winter rain. I saw him pacing and called to him, and when he didn’t respond I went down to retrieve him and ended up spending the night in jail.

It was also like the defensive windows of a castle; there were people we didn’t want, and we could check them out, negotiate or turn them away from our high vantage. Like the ex-cons from San Quentin staying at the halfway house in back, who showed up dazed and bloody with dubious stories, or the attractive female friend my suspicious new girlfriend drove away with shouted threats. I never saw her again.

But the windows were still our asset: in demand among fashion photographers as a backdrop, they were also a dramatic setting for our public music shows. And the ambient street noise they admitted was captured on my band’s recordings and became an integral part of some of our compositions.

State of Decay

My large, high-ceilinged room at the back of the loft had, in addition to an old-style pyramid skylight, a crumbling wall of rusting steel casement windows which I loved. They evoked the windows of my old college art studio, but in an advanced state of decay. Made of fogged, chicken-wire-reinforced glass, they faced south toward the elevated freeway which was only a block away. With gaps around the frames, they let in the freeway rumble at all hours, and the cold, wet air of winter. I replaced a broken pane with clear glass, and later I found five unglazed ceramic masks in the street that I glued to a row of windowpanes.

Out that window, I watched Dancy and his ex-cons sorting through his yard of trash down below. He operated a decrepit, nightmarish halfway house and salvage business behind our loft, and much of his jumbled industrial detritus was hard even to identify. One afternoon I was fortunate to be at home when I overheard the little Vietnamese boys who lived next door, and looked out to catch them setting fire to a mattress on the tar roof just below my window.


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Outside Looking In

I’ve never lived in a glass house or had a true picture window, but in the mid-80s, on leave from my San Francisco loft, my girlfriend and I spent a languorous, heavenly afternoon smoking good weed and listening to the sultry new Anglo-African star, Sade, while gazing out over the Los Angeles landscape from the glass wall of an architectural showpiece house on a hill in Silver Lake. So I know what it can be like.

The American modernist dream of the glass house paradoxically led to the “fishbowl” experience typified by the famous house at the end of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Designed to give the occupants endless views and the illusion of living in nature, the glass box sometimes resulted in a total loss of privacy and the reversal of the view from inside-out to outside-in. Indoor life became a diorama or shadow play, with the occupants on display for all the world to see. In the high-rise city, this is multiplied exponentially so the voyeur, like Jimmie Stewart in Rear Window, has a choice of domestic scenes to spy on, like a bank of televisions set to different channels.

Changing Views

Years of residential stability in the loft were ended by the Loma Prieta earthquake. I was briefly homeless, I briefly shared houses and apartments with friends and girlfriends, and I lived outdoors in the wilderness for a year. Sharing a friend’s decrepit Victorian in an Oakland crack-house neighborhood, I discovered that women enjoy being made love to while looking out a window, even if there’s no view. Years later, I was told something about the risk of exposure from a safe vantage point adds to the thrill.

From winter through spring I rented a garden cottage which was secluded behind a large house in Oakland. It was U-shaped, with windows facing a central courtyard like my college dorm, so that you could look from one wing of the house across into the other. One night in springtime when the orange trees were blooming, my girlfriend and I faced each other in opposite windows and theatrically stripped naked, then stalked each other through the house like hungry hunters, to clash in the central kitchen.

Later, I briefly shared a tiny studio apartment near Oakland’s Lake Merritt with the same girl. It was a rear unit and one of her windows looked out over the small parking lots of various buildings. One night in bed, we heard a female voice shouting. My girlfriend was closest to the window and jumped up to look out. As our eyes adjusted to the dark, we could see a girl backing away from a carport, where a tall guy advanced on her from the shadows. The girl was still yelling and now my girlfriend leaned out the window and yelled at the guy as well. She told me to call 911 and I started dialing. By that time there were more open windows and more people yelling, and the guy was backing off. My girlfriend had been the first to respond and I was both impressed and proud of her, and it taught me the importance of quick action. Don’t stop to think!

Within a year, I was back in the crack house neighborhood. The windows in my room faced a large house which had been vacant for a while. One morning I was awakened by the sound of boots on wooden steps, and peeked out my bedside window to see a full-on SWAT team with dogs, converging from all directions. My roommate was illegally growing pot in the basement, but he had slept elsewhere that night. I totally freaked out, running to the kitchen to call his girlfriend’s number. I heard more noises outside, but nothing seemed connected to our house, so I returned to the window, to see the cops breaking into the house next door. Apparently they didn’t find anything!

Living in Los Angeles with another friend, I occupied his upstairs “tower” room, with wood casement windows on three sides. To the east, they overlooked the front roof and the street. I was working in my room one day when I heard rustling outside the window. I looked out to see two raccoons scuttling across the roof. When I shouted at them, one came over to the window and stood up to his full height, threatening me with claws and bared teeth. The roofline he was standing on was just below the windowsill, so he appeared taller than me and was taking full advantage of it!

The dotcom boom of the late 90s brought me back to the Bay Area, where I continued to suffer from dysfunctional neighbors, from drunks to pyromaniacs, but never again found a vibrant neighborhood or good window views. After the dotcom crash I spent a few months as artist in residence in a cabin in the Mojave desert, where my studio had a bank of wood-framed casement windows with the best view imaginable across a spectacular landscape. They opened upward and had to be left open in the heat of summer, but a strong gust of wind could be expected at any time, so I acquired the habit of always anchoring everything in the room with a heavy weight, as if I were onboard a ship.

Screens

My current home is as different as night and day from most of my urban lodgings. I socialize with my neighbors, they’re well-behaved, and we have big yards or gardens and plenty of privacy. My windows are steel casement – my favorite kind, with all the attendant problems of rust, poor seals, energy inefficiency, difficult cranks and hinges – but they all look out on nature: the lush vegetation in my yard. It’s not a “view house” – my downtown neighborhood lies at the bottom of a basin surrounded by hills, with all the houses nestling among tall trees – but the dense vegetation outside my windows transforms with the changing weather and seasons, and what I hear typically ranges from silence to the songs of birds and insects rather than traffic or screwed up people.

Watching my loved ones age, I’ve become aware of how one’s world often shrinks to a view from a window. My grandma died looking out a hospital window at the peaceful homes of a small-town residential neighborhood. My old art teacher recently moved from a cabin in the woods to a nursing home where his only experience of nature is the bird feeder outside his window, and even that is out of his reach. For almost twenty years at the end of his life, my nature-loving dad, crippled and unable to drive, shut himself in a house with all the blinds and curtains drawn, claiming that the sunlight hurt his eyes. But on a deeper level, he had fallen victim to paranoia, fearing everything from his neighbors to names and faces he only knew from TV: politicians, immigrants, ethnic minorities, foreigners. TV news was his only window on the world, and it continually reinforced his fears.

So much of our lives is now spent in transit, watching – or mostly ignoring – the world passing outside the windows of our cars, buses, trains, and planes. I always take window seats in airplanes, since I view air travel as a rare and unsustainable opportunity to see the earth from above, and it continues to amaze me that most others prefer the aisle and ignore the view. But even those people are focused on the windowlike frames of their laptops and tablets. The screens of our electronic devices are now our main windows on the world, and they’re shrinking – they’re even smaller than the defensive arrow slits of those old castles and forts.

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