When I was attending Columbia College in Chicago back in the late ’80s, I still lived with my parents in my childhood home in Wilmette, Illinois. I rode Chicago’s el train to and from school several days a week, and as I often had band practice after classes, more often than not I’d end up coming home late at night. I almost always had a window seat, and I’d lean in close to block out the reflection of the train car’s interior so that I could enjoy the scenes that passed… So many neighborhoods, so many homes, so many apartments, so many ways in which to live… I watched it all, hoping I would come to understand the world better… I tried to comprehend so many individual lives all going on at the same time. So many people tossing their keys onto the table, so many people turning on lights, checking the day’s mail, so many people tickling babies, kissing, eating, watching tv, worrying about tests or arguments or recipes or bills or job interviews, so many people newly in love, so many newly widowed… Each window offered a tiny, split-second vignette which I savored as best I could. I still have a few images locked away in my mind’s eye from that time; a room illuminated by a single light bulb and an entire family gathered beneath, a fat man brushing his teeth, a woman reading at a table, glancing up at the train…
My father understands the intrigue of a window too. We’re both the ones with the ‘dream’ gene in the family – neither mom nor Andrew seem to have dreams, much less the ability to recount them in incredible detail as both dad and I can. I wonder sometimes if the fascination with the unknown – or maybe more accurately the romance of the unknown’s potential – might not be related to this dream gene thing. I also think it’s related to a love of things miniature; of cozy, tidy tableaus. The spirit of ho train sets and doll house interiors… I can hardly drive down a street at night but be swept up in the fantasies that each house suggests; the tall windows of Saratoga’s fine Victorian homes, the lone farm house in the field, the top floor apartment on the corner building, all lit from within, all whose contents can’t quite be seen but are instead implied… It’s so compelling. All these scenes call to me, I feel as if I absolutely must know each one of them.
I do, however, realize not all people feel this way. After some twenty years of my cooing over the wonder of it all I asked my then husband (probably for the 100th time) if he didn’t just wonder who exactly lived behind all those windows? “And”, I continued, “Don’t you just wonder what they all do for a liv- “He didn’t even let me finish – but cut me off, laughing, as he answered with a loud and resolute “NO!”. I didn’t take it personally, instead I learned something from it. My partner didn’t get it, (and granted, I’d probably exceeded his patience on the subject) but I always knew that even if he didn’t get it the way I did, someone else in this big world surely did…
So now, with the world available to me in this little box, and my child once again gone away, I find myself swept out into the vast beyond as I follow trail after trail of other people’s stories… As I read page after page, connecting the dots of both the famous and the unknown, I see that there is no end to the story… (there is also no end to my fascination). The only peace I find is to accept that I just can’t get it all, I never will, and somehow, that’s ok. Kinda like a train ride, I’m only going to pass so many windows and there’s only so much time to peek inside.
There are things to be done here around the house, and it’s not always easy to rouse myself from the quest for more stories, more windows to other worlds… I have to remind myself that every train ride ends with a destination. I’ve got students to prepare for, music to learn and chicken soup to freeze. So for now, I’ll just have to mark my page and close the book.
2 thoughts on “A Million Windows”
I used to ride those same trains into the city from Evanston and I was just like you. I loved to look in the windows as they whooshed by, especially the windows on the North Side where the buildings practically touched the train. I’ve always been curious about kind of stuff, kind of a voyeur, like Peter Sellers in “Being There”, you know? “I like to watch…” GB
This journal entry reminds me, too, of numerous rides on the “L”, where I would look out of the window and get these split-second fleeting glimpses at so many different scenes of everyday life. Also, I would notice people on back porches, sometimes alone or occasionally talking to someone else down at the foot of the steps. Also, you get “flashes” of people in narrow alleys, as the train clicks on by hundreds of buildings. Then you would get some wider views of people shooting baskets or playing ball in the parks, plus the occassional dog chasing after a frisbee. Downtown in the loop, where the trains go slower, you could get slightly longer looks at people in offices or classes (at Roosevelt University’s building). There were even longer views of people, through the large windows of workout rooms, where they excersised or practiced ballet.
Speaking of views through windows, there is a wonderful exhibit at the Chicago Art Institute Museum, of miniature rooms. Anyone who hasn’t seen this must make the effort to go and see it. You look through a window and then spend as much time as you like, looking at very realistic reproductions of dozens of rooms of houses from the 1500s up until the 1800s. These miniature rooms depict the styles of different countries and different economic conditions. The details in the wallpaper, furniture, lamps, tiny artwork on the walls, rugs and curtains are fascinating. Any time that my wife and kids and me go to the Art Museum, this is the exhibit that we probably spend the most amount of time at. (I know that I was officially supposed to write the word, “I”, according to the rules of proper grammatical sentence-writing, but after writing “wife” and “kids” in small letters, I didn’t want to upstage them with a capital “I”. Never mind that I’ve now written the work “I” so many times in this parenthesis!) Anyway, you get the idea- we really find these miniature rooms interesting.
Best wishes for you and your family in 2013.