What I learned staring at the neighbors

The thing about me still living in Madison, WI, is that most of my friends somehow now live in Chicago. That is a natural trajectory, something I’ve noticed in the last four years of living here. Anyone who arrives in Madison feeling just a bit dubious about the small-town feel, just a bit unimpressed with themselves for settling down somewhere so easy, is not long for the little town. Soon, they empty their Madison apartments, which are mere blocks away from impossibly cheap grocery stores and even cheaper bars, and they move to a Chicago neighborhood with “lake” in the title. Lakeshore. Lakeview. Lake ‘n’ bake. It's all the same.


Needless to say, when I visit, I rely heavily on Google Maps. By the time I arrive downtown, I’ve used up all my spatial memory trying to figure out how I might pick up and leave again. The big city isn’t for me. Last Friday, I clambered up to a friend’s beautiful high-rise apartment, getting off the elevator at the 17th floor. If you took everywhere I’ve ever lived and stacked each one on top of each other, there would not be 17 floors.


When I arrived, I headed straight for the balcony. Naturally, I initiated a debate about whether someone would promptly die if they jumped. She was convinced; I wasn’t so sure. What if your legs broke your fall, even just a fraction - so you were full-body paralyzed, but your brain took too-little impact? You could live on, with no muscle function and totally brain damaged.


This, by the way, is why my friends invite me places.


We agreed to disagree, and moved on to the type of conversation you can feel proud of. Much to our delight, when we stared across the way, we were able to look directly into the windows of the neighbors. At least 30% of them had their lights on; the blinds or curtains were not drawn, and there were floor-to-ceiling windows. We were afforded a direct and unfettered view into other people’s Friday nights.


One house with a row of knick-knacks on the wall and a plant in the corner looked trendy and sophisticated. I guess junk is less junky at a distance. One guy was sitting on his bed, staring at his phone, and there was a large blanket-covered lump next to him. Is he alone, or is the someone next to him just less interesting than Reddit? I spotted two men sitting on white leather couches. White leather barstools were also visible in the distance. Are they gay, and are they never expecting to spill their coffee ever again? Based on their postures - at a safe distance from each other, legs decidedly manspread, I decided that the answer to the first question was no. One of them poured a drink, and I decided that the answer to the second was imminent.

It was a weekend, nearly 11pm, and a third of the people living in the fanciest apartments in Chicago were staying in. Sometimes alone, sometimes with others. As an alcoholic in recovery, I just assume that anyone who still has the ability to drink is, you know, drinking. Constantly. I assume they are at bars or concerts or nightclubs. I assume they are having uninhibited drunk sex and liberated conversation. I do not assume that a normie who pays $5000 per month in rent is just at home reading in bed. (You know: kind of like how I spend most nights).


People criticize social media for giving us an unrealistic impression of other people’s lives. Social media suggests that others are always doing something inaccessibly cooler than we are. I don’t mean to be a proponent of stalking, but staring at random strangers through open windows may well be the antidote to this. If social media highlights “otherness,” real-life highlights our essential sameness.


I’ve heard the phrase, “don’t compare your insides to others’ outsides,” and I mostly agree. If someone seems confident or put-together, all you’ve really learned is that they are good at seeming that way. Good for them. However, there are also moments where all you get is a window-sized snapshot into other people’s lives, and it’s really all you need. They are like you.


When I share my life online, it's not uniquely self-revealing or intimate; rather, it is the social-media equivalent of throwing open my blinds and leaving the light on. You’re welcome. I’m just sitting here, alone, drinking my coffee and thinking about the neighbors.

get an e-mail when I write something

If you're not much for social media, subscribe here. When I write something, a notification e-mail will go straight to your inbox.