I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about windows this week. Both the view we see through them and the eyes we use doing it.
My brother, Jim, called to say that he was going back to Hawaii on vacation for the first time since he sold his house on Oahu eighteen years ago. But when he searched Google for "Hawaiian vacation rentals," the first listing that came up was his old house in Kawela Bay.
He decided to try going back home.
Sure, they’d tarted it up with new paint and bathroom fixtures, but it was the same bedroom where his wife had given birth to two babies. The same backyard where he’d dug a pit and buried a whole pig for a luau. The same front yard where the damned breadfruit tree had attacked me with a seven-pound missile.
I wondered what it would be like for him — eighteen years later — to look out those same windows. Would the view have changed? Or just the eyes that regarded it?
The pet goat would no longer be tied to the mango tree in the side yard. He’d no longer be able to see into his best friend’s kitchen window on the next lot over. His kids’ tiny baby clothes would not grace the clothes line strung between the palms.
Of course, the shoreline wouldn’t have changed much. Unless they’d cut down the trees and added a golf course, that is.
Then I realized that I, too, had tried to go home once before. To see through old windows with new eyes.
Donkey’s years ago, I lived in New York City, on the top floor of a five-story, walk-up brownstone on East 39th Street. It was a long thin slice of a room, with one exposed brick wall, and a handkerchief-sized kitchen that I would now describe as adequate for camping. An even smaller bedroom — not much wider than a double bed — was upstairs.
The best part about the apartment was the private roof deck. Covered in astroturf and populated with dozens of city smog-resistant plants, it was larger than the entire apartment below it.
And it made it the easiest apartment to break into on the entire East Side.
My address must have been printed on the inside of matchbook covers, right under the ad that said "You, too, can learn to rob a brownstone!" I had four burglar-visitors in one year.
But that was the price I thought you had to pay for charm in NYC. And I learned to shout and flail at most of the would-be intruders, threatening them with the wrath of a non-existent dog or gun.
So, thirty years later, when I discovered that the New York hotel
I’d booked for a business trip was on the same block as my old
apartment, I thought it would be interesting to see how the
neighborhood had changed.
The W hotel had rejiggered five brownstones on the block, keeping much of the facades and gutting the interior. I asked for a fifth floor room on the front.
The room was what I could only have fantasized about in my advertising executive-in-utero days. Subtle lighting. Eight-hundred thread count sheets. A bathtub you could actually stretch out in. The raw brick wall was gone. As was the roof deck.
But they kept the same windows.
I pulled aside the curtains, absentmindedly wiping a clean spot on the glass with my shirt sleeve, the way I used to. It didn’t need it. And the window sill was no longer littered with grains of black soot that would sneak in like thieves when the wind blew from the north.
The brownstones across the street were still pretty much the same, although the fruit market on the corner, where I’d stopped to buy daisies on my way home every Friday, had been replaced with a pan-Asian fusion restaurant.
The trees were thirty years taller; I could almost reach out and touch them. But they didn’t obscure the thin, between-the-buildings view of the Chrysler Building, still gleaming like a gemstone hidden in a pile of Legos.
I looked down. They’d replaced the sidewalk and the old brownstone entrances, erasing the crack in the pavement from when I’d thrown a waist-high potted palm out the window to stop the last of those fleeing burglars.(The first cop on the scene had tactfully dragged the unconscious man back into the entryway, so that I could claim he was on the property when I attacked him with the lethal greenery.)
So, not much had changed.
Or had it? Had my eyes changed more that the view?
In the last thirty years, I’ve been loved by fumblers, and hurt by experts. Found new roads and dug deeper ditches. Forgotten all the words and learned to pun in three languages. And I wouldn’t have changed any of it.
My new eyes were perfectly at home, gazing through those old windows.
So, what do you think? Are there any old windows you’d like to go look out of again? Maybe that cactus-framed window in Arizona where you first fell in love? Or the porthole on the houseboat in the South of France? The dorm room with dusty white blinds? Or maybe your parent’s kitchen window.
Do you think you could find the person who used to stand there? Or has the view changed so much that you wouldn’t even recognize it with new eyes?
And by the way, did I mention the new "150 Thrillers" contest? Just by signing up here for the free online ITW newsletter, you’ll be entered for a chance to win a whole library of new, author-signed thrillers. A hundred and fifty, in all. Can’t beat that with a stick.