Once when my boyfriend’s parents were visiting us, his dad looked around at the apartment buildings lining the street and said, “I can’t imagine living on top of other people like this.” Everyone else weighed in on whether or not they’d like living in Chicago, but I didn’t answer right away. To be honest, I didn’t even hear him at first because I was staring into someone’s open window watching them watch TV. When I came to, I said, “Sure, it’s a bit crowded, but have you ever watched a strange couple argue inside their own home? It’s lovely.”
Up until that point, I had never considered living here to be strange, but after seeing city living through someone else’s eyes while I peeked into the uncovered windows of apartments to deliver judgment on their home decor, I thought, “Oh, right, not everyone sees their neighbor dash to the garage wearing only their underwear early one morning and then mentally name him Underwear Guy despite learning his actual name.”
I forgot that other people, like millions of them, live in suburbs or rural areas where a single family home can encompass the space equal to half of a city block, offering privacy I can only dream about.
I forget that their bedroom windows aren’t six inches away from their neighbor’s bedrooms. That they don’t have to listen to their upstairs neighbors clomp around in horseshoes custom made for human beings while they move what seem to be heavy armoires every night.
Some people don’t back out their garage and wonder when the neighbors are going to move that pile of cinder blocks in the alleyway. Or sometimes there’s an entire sofa sitting directly in front of the garage door, slowly revealed as the automated door rises, like a shitty Price is Right showcase. Or that even having a leaky garage for your car is a rarity and means we don’t have to shovel out a spot and pathetically put out a folding chair to say “dis mine okay thank you” when you’re done.
I had always taken any annoyance of living in the city in stride. So what if the bus is 26 minutes late and it’s packed tight? I can walk to that new restaurant started by that one chef who cooked at that other place that had those awesome things. Any inconvenience was always balanced with entertainment opportunities literally around the corner.
Constant traffic is considered inevitable like the sun rising every morning. Distant gunshots are treated with a shrug. I once witnessed a guy getting mugged in the a middle of the day and I thought, “Oh my God. That mugger is the fastest runner I’ve ever seen.” You might be knocked senseless for your iPhone, but there are street festivals all summer long.
I never really understood why people didn’t prefer the chaos that city living can offer. Millions of us are smashed into apartments, pretending to not see each other at our worse, but loving it when we do.
Sure, rents are too high, but once my boyfriend came over to help me pack up one of my apartments, and saw a neighbor’s boobs as she walked around shirtless in front of her window. “Jesus!” He said. “See what happens when you help me? You’re rewarded,” I replied.
That’s the real charm of the city––casual voyeurism. You can totally stare at your neighbors in the suburbs and maybe you’ll see some titties, but people own those homes and homeowners typically invest in curtains. Besides, how many people can you stare at from inside the comfort of your own non-urban home? You’ll only have the neighbors across the street and the ones on either side of you, maybe more if you live on a cul-de-sac.
That’s three to five families max, but I can walk down the street and spy on what amounts to your entire subdivision within five minutes with endless possibilities still stretched out ahead of me. On election night, I walked around ––drunk, of course––looking into people’s windows to see who had what news network on. I now know which of my neighbors thinks the election was stolen, and I wouldn’t have learned that so easily anywhere except in a city.
But you also have to be comfortable with other people watching you, which a lot of people aren’t. I like to think that I used to not care, but now that I work from home, I’m beginning to care. I’m home a lot more than I used to be, what with the working from home, pandemic, and the steady slide we all seem to be in towards, “what awful thing is happening now” so, really, why bother leaving the house? I spend most of my time peering out a window, sighing and watching rainfall, living my life like the first half of an anti-depressant commercial.
I’ve reached my final form of introvert like a beautiful lonely butterfly. When I’m not shuffling around seeing what the cats are doing, I’m pretty much hanging out on my couch, because, goddamn, I earned this. I spent decades in the service industry, mad that I had to make small talk with strangers and wishing I could just lie down while I was waiting for a table to order. Now I talk to no one and lie down all the time, when I’m not peeking out the window to see what the neighbors are up to, but snapping the blinds shut whenever I see any human eyeballs begin to roll in my direction.
I’m a bit too comfy with my solitude and my laziness sometimes hits a level that would make a sloth be like, “Damn, bitch, go for a walk.” Sometimes I forget to close the blinds, leaving myself and these sweatpants I’ve been wearing for two years vulnerable to neighbors’ glances. It’s usually one of the seven twenty-year olds that live above us.
They come home and look through the front window as they’re unlocking the front door to catch me on the couch slopping my way through a bowl of noodles and feeding my cats bits of noodles, saying shit like “Share! C’mon, guys!”, and they’re probably like, “Oh, man, look at that smoke show.” And then I notice my neighbors and wave, oblivious to the smear of ice cream that’s been on my face since 10 am.
I’m kidding––I don’t wave, I just pretend they’re not there, which is uncomfortable for everyone involved. When I notice anyone on our front porch, i.e. a ticket to watching my “self-care routine”, I pretend to become suddenly invested in the stains on my old t-shirt. Then, after they and their shoes made of cymbals and maracas clomp up the stairs to their apartment, I untangle myself from my nest of blankets––no matter the temperature of the room––and waddle to the window to close the blinds.
Living in the city pretty much means avoiding eye contact whenever possible. We can’t protect our privacy through space so we’re just going to pretend you don’t exist, which is the exact opposite of what you do in a small town, like where Mike grew up.
“Be sure to wave to people,” Mike told me one summer day as we jogged along the county road near his parents’ home.
I had known this. When I was little, we visited my grandfather who lived in the middle of nowhere Missouri, and we were always sure to wave to the good old boys and gals driving past up in dusty pickups as we walked down to the creek giddy to wade in shin-high water that was always oddly warm and infested with ticks.
I like waving to strangers along that road when we’re going for a run. I get the same thrill Mike’s mom did when they visited us and when we stumbled upon an “Aldi AND the post office?!”, as if we don’t need to eat and mail stuff here, too.
I wave to cars near his parents’ house as I sweat everywhere running along that road framed by cornfields and an “I hate Pritzker” sign. I’ve even adapted the quick two-finger wave as cars drive past me while my knees scream at me to stop trying and just walk. I enjoy it. So does that mean I’m making eye contact or even wave a little hello to strangers back home in Chicago?
Absolutely not because rules still exist. But there are some exceptions. I wave and yell thank you to delivery workers dropping off food and packages to my hermit-ass self. And if I get in someone’s way at the store, I’ll say, “ope sorry”, and give a small smile. There are neighbors I say hello to, but only like two and it’s because they have dogs. I’m not alone in this, this is what we all do, so I’m really not understanding why some guy was on my porch the other day making eye contact with me through the window while he waited for the upstairs neighbors to let him in. It made me understand why our girl cat goes insane when the next door neighbor’s cat stares at her through the window. He’s breaking rules.
Maybe that guy was either a creep or from a small town because whenever we’ve walked into a bar in Mike’s hometown, everyone turns and stares. It makes me question whether we walked into a place that sells Busch beer and offers video poker or we time traveled back to a saloon in 1840, and we’re the outsiders brazenly swinging open those dumb half-doors. “Why do people stare whenever we walk into a bar down here?” I asked Mike. “They just don’t know us,” he said.
I guess it’s another way to connect to people, or maybe they’re sizing us up––it probably depends on the person––but it makes sense. Waving hello or greeting everyone who walks into a public space in a crowded city would be emotionally-draining. But in a small town, why not? I can easily wave to two people once a month, no sweat. And who knows, maybe you’ll increase your pool of friends or stumble upon a new sworn enemy. Both are fun to have.
Honestly, if you really want to break down city living, we’re all recreating the small town experience within this mass of people. We venture out to new spots, but for the most part, we have our to-gos within walking distance, we make small talk with neighbors, and we take pride in the neighborhood we live in. We just have more chances to eavesdrop on conversations while we do it.
There’s good and bad things no matter where you live. Nothing is permanent except death and children. I’ve found myself living in cities all over the country, only to move away again, chuckling, “Well, that was expensive AND traumatizing.” Maybe Mike and I will continue to live smashed together with millions of others so we can eat tiny expensive foods and see what houseplants are dying inside our neighbors homes, or maybe one day, we’ll join The Others and stare at the new people when they stroll into town.