My new apartment has windows in the bedroom with sills that are painted white, and wide enough for me to fit on comfortably. I can climb up and tuck my feet under me, hold a cup of tea and watch the people traveling through their lives below. My street is lined with old row houses, each the same height, with windows corresponding to mine to the left and right as far as I can see. Each set of three windows is the street face of a different dweller…with snatched glimpses of the bluish light of computer screens or the brown-edged leaves of jungle plants visible between thick curtains and wooden slat shades.
It is the street itself, however, that holds the greatest fascination. As Bill Cunningham documents the fashion triumphs and tragedies of Manhattan by bicycle, here I remain still while other lives are lived below. I see students with laptop bags and sneakers dangling by their laces walking towards the Hopkins shuttle, sheepish men in hoodies walking extremely tiny dogs that must belong to their absent girlfriends, women in pairs with yoga mats strung over their shoulders in naturally-dyed, organic cotton bags. I see a sudden resurgence of skateboards as a primary means of transportation, and the boys wearing skinny jeans and long bangs with tween hipster vibes who are their owners.
The loudest sounds are usually of two kinds. Teenagers getting into a heated altercation outside of the pizza place at 1am, a screeching soprano paired with finger waving and a low, exasperated bass intermittently punctuating the shrill track. The other are sirens, of fire trucks and police cars and ambulances, who use this street as their thoroughfare between the hospital and North Ave. Sometimes it is the squealing of much-used brakes, as another driver has to avoid the Baltimore drivers’ penchant for reading a yellow light as “speed up,” and the newly changed red as “go FASTER!!”
Tonight, the night before Christmas eve, the street is quiet. The sides of the street, lined with exceedingly valuable parking spots that are coveted by more than can successfully co-opt one, have yawning holes, the majority of this neighborhood having left the city to go “home.” There is a Christmas tree with draped colored lights in the window of the store selling rugs across the street. I see people piling plates of cookies tied with tartan ribbons and large duffel bags filled with laundry into cars for the ride away from this temporary life.
Over the years, through the transitions, apartments and jobs, a long list of temporary places and people has begun to solidify into my autonomous life. At different times I have been that college student tossing laundry into my car, the resident walking to work in scrubs on Christmas eve, the person pining to be somewhere else for the holidays. With each decision, each experience, I have stepped away from those places that were once considered permanent, and worked tirelessly to construct a personal shelter and identity that began only as a weak, transparent thing.
In the beginning, I think we also build these structure to protect our frail, underdeveloped, newly autonomous identities. We scramble to keep college lives private, decisions on friends and majors and test scores are our privilege and our problem. Despite this attempt to maintain true independence, we regularly flee back from our budding lives, generally under the auspices of holidays and celebration. We do so willing to undergo the shredding of our egos via lacerating comments about career choice, hairstyle, sweater color and weight. I think we brave these waters in order to look around at our families, and remind ourselves that mistakes, even large ones, can still contribute to the strengthening of our own personal structures. And also that it takes time. With years and decisions, our choices help this shelter to expand and solidify, a living, metabolizing entity that changes only from experience.
At this time, a decade out of college, far from the days of laundry in the car and beyond the point when my academic pursuits are previously traveled territory for my parents and family, I’m still building my own identity. I’ve learned, though, that it isn’t meant to cloister me from all other influential forces or people. Now that it is is becoming stable, although still adapting, I’m allowed to let others in, to help them or learn from them. It is like an extension of what I once considered permanent, but decorated to my taste. It takes a memory from whatever I do and embraces it, forming a new part that I didn’t even know was integral to me.
After this holiday spent at my family’s home, with colors and sounds brought back from my parents’ trip to India, I’ll come back to another cup of tea and the view from my own home. And then I will fall into step beside those people living their lives below the windowsill. I can’t learn everything by watching, after all…