I have written before about my belief that privacy is not a fact or a right but is, instead, a social convention established when we grant each other the opportunity to be not seen (that is, we don’t look) and, in the case that we do see, we pretend we didn’t or, at the very least, do not speak of it again.
I still think this understanding of privacy is true for the places I have lived in the past, but privacy appears to be something different here in lower Manhattan. In fact, it feels to me like it is not really privacy at all, but anonymity instead.
Our living room faces south and is on the corner of the building. This means that our entire south wall is primarily glass. I feel fortunate to have so much light in the apartment. If you look to the left down the street, you can see a swatch of the east river and, beyond, Brooklyn. Directly next door and across the street I have in immediate view, 1 office building, 1 mixed use building, and 4 apartment buildings – all high rises. In other words, as I sit here on my sofa writing, I can spy into hundreds of windows that offer a glimpse of hundreds of other lives unfolding within shouting distance.
Our first morning here, we were having a breakfast picnic on the floor. I noticed that there were two guys hanging out of windows in the mixed-use building across the way. They seemed to be maintenance workers on a cigarette break – chatting amicably, their eyes trained unabashedly on our merry breakfast party. The first time I noticed them, I glanced away quickly (which is how I believed such things were done) and expected that they would also avert their eyes. When I glanced back over, however, I found that they were still looking. I stopped what I was doing and stared back at them. They continued chatting (about us, I began to assume) and staring – neither acknowledging my awareness of them with a wave nor shifting their gaze.
“Huh,” I thought to myself. “Here’s something different.”
In other places I have lived, I felt that it was no big deal to streak from the shower back to my bedroom because I was unlikely to be seen and, if I was, I expected that my neighbors would do me the courtesy of never speaking of it. Here we seem to be living our lives in full sight of each other, and, perhaps, even revelling in the ability to follow the lives of the people around us the same way we follow the lives of our favourite celebrities or fictional television characters. I see them and, likely, someone is seeing me. (After all, what is the point of having these wonderful windows if I am going to close the blinds?) I have no privacy but I do depend on anonymity – the fact that the guy across the way watching American Pickers is someone I will probably never meet. I suppose, if I did, I would do him the courtesy of pretending that I knew nothing about him and I would hope he would do the same for me.
At least, I hope that is how it works.