The people who don’t put window treatments up in their home have always intrigued me. Like – do they want everyone to be able to see in? Or are they just frugal and see them as an unnecessary cost? It also brings me to wonder why other people opt to cover their windows, even when the cost of them exceeds their means. Sheets and small blankets nailed to the wall suffice when it’s all that you can afford. What circumstances of life make you window treatment people or one of those who goes without?
When I was barely old enough to drive a car myself, I went on car rides with a guy I met while working retail. He drove an early 90’s Cadillac Deville, perfect for an 80 year old to show off to his pals. Except this guy was 19. He was from a side of town I only knew of. Folks had large windows there. And no window treatments. We would drive slowly down the suburban streets, pretending we were being careful not to hit the children that undoubtedly filled these homes because what else were they going to do with all those rooms? But the speed was really to get a good look inside. Was that burgundy wallpaper with gold trim? Is that staircase made of marble? Look at that wall; filled floor to ceiling with books! And that fancy ladder thing attached to it like in Beauty and the Beast. The inside of these homes were very different from the apartments in which I spent my life. The only décor my mom put out was for the Holidays and those were from craft fairs or the stores where everything cost a dollar. When the time came for the plastic Santa, felt ornaments, and artificial tree missing a quarter of its branches, the shades were still drawn at night in my home. My mother’s efforts would need to be appreciated by folks on the inside of the glass, not on the outside.
I appreciated that my friend would drive me around to creep on people’s homes. My skin was too light to be black but not light enough to pass for white. His Jewish last name gave me comfort that we wouldn’t get pulled over or suspected of casing places to rob later. I believed he could care less about what was filling the glow of the windows. He rarely looked, just “wow”ed and nodded at the comments I would make. He listened to my never-ending mouth and drove. I think it was safe to say he just enjoyed the company. Every once in a while, he would take me to a place familiar to his childhood. While he grew up on the side of town without window treatments, his parents’ divorce forced him into an area where blankets and sheets were used to keep private things private. He would drive slower and with more intention that usual; putting on his indicator well before the turn instead of making a turn decision at the end of the block. He would stop. That’s when I knew we were some place that was more than rich people with expensive things. Once, it was the home he grew up in. Once, it was the first house his mom had moved to after the divorce. There were baseball fields and rec centers and pools that were all places he used to know. I would stop talking for a moment when he took me to these places. Then I would ask him if he was okay. I would find him “in it” – eyes glazed and unblinking. Then he would energetically say “yep” and we would continue our meandering, making turn decisions at the ends of blocks instead of well before.
Most would think that I enjoyed looking into these huge homes decked out like something from the movies because I wanted to live in them. That is partly correct. I would love to live in a large old home, filled with the stories of generations. Most of the extravagant items I spied I could do without (I’ll take the bookcase wall though). My fascination came from the fact that these homes were less than 15 minutes from my own home, where dinner was tuna casserole, made ahead and put in the refrigerator by my momma who worked second shift. We were responsible for reheating it and consuming it on our metal tv trays while watching “Married with Children” or the like. I lived with both parents. They worked opposite shifts. Even when we were all home, we fended for ourselves. My father lined up dominoes in the cloud of smoke with his buddies on the kitchen table. My mom gossiped with the buddies’ girlfriends. My brother played with his WWF action figures on the top bunk and I styled my Barbie’s hair on the bottom. There were no gatherings around the dining table. There were no conversations in the kitchen while the meal was being prepared. There were no pianos or bookcases or statues or signs of sophistication at all. Just dominoes, wrestling toys, dolls, and sitcom television. Yet 15 minutes east, people were living in places where entire walls were filled with books. The holiday decorations were not plastic. There were dining rooms, not just eat in kitchens. And people were sitting at tables in these dining rooms, having conversations, laughing, and eating a meal that was scattered about the table, not on trays. Sometimes I could see televisions but even when I did, they weren’t on. There were people sipping drinks from glass cups, we only had plastic; Tupperware or ones you got as a specialty item from one of the fast food chains. Pianos were being played. Art was on the walls. Their lives were so much different from my own yet we only lived 15 minutes apart. This was why I loved looking into those treatment-less windows.
Later in life, I would get tiny glimpses into what it would have been like if I was able to drive through the apartment I grew up in without the sheets on the windows. My parents would tell me stories. Friends from the neighborhood would share their experiences. I’d see some things on the news. The apartment above us was rented by a single mother and her children. I really only remember seeing the kids as a kid myself. My mom would later tell me that Jaye, the oldest daughter, pretty much took care of her younger siblings; and her mother. “Crack” is what kept the mom from being a good mom, my mom said. Some of my dad’s buddies would go upstairs and she would do things to them for money. My mom would buy extra groceries and take them to the kids so they would have more than the chips and soda Jaye would buy for them from the basement vending machine. I first wondered why my mom never called someone to help the kids but then I realized that what they were experiencing was probably better than what the foster care system had to offer them. And at least they had the nice lady downstairs keeping an eye on them now and then.
There was a dead body found in one of the units. Someone called the cops after they spotted the thick blood stains on the door and wall leading up to it. It was a stabbing. Over drugs; supposedly.
Another unit had a very interesting sleeping arrangement. The parents did not sleep in the same room. The mom slept alone and the dad took turns sleeping in twin beds with his teenage son and daughters. There is a lot to infer there and I believe they also believed that and this is why the windows were covered.
I experienced the unit next to us once or twice. One of the girls I ran around with in the Summer lived there. It was so dark. If you would have asked me as a kid why it was so dark in there, I may have said they painted the windows black but I now understand they had room darkening shades. They were never open. There was maybe one lamp in the main room, where I stayed, waiting for my friend to grab whatever thing she needed. Most of the unit was illuminated by the television. Her grandfather was her guardian. He just sat, watching tv. I remember my friend greeting him and saying goodbye to him, but if he noticed we were there at all, I would be surprised.
A lot of the stories I heard from the kids that I grew up with there said they lived similar lives to my own. Whatever parents they had, they were working; a lot. When they weren’t working, they were blowing off steam with their adult friends, banishing their kids to their rooms or outside. I vividly remember being locked out of my house during the day in the Summer. Have to go to the bathroom? Go at someone else’s unit. Or in the bushes. Hungry? Should have eaten more earlier. Hurt? Better hope the cops roll by soon. Thinking about mine and the other kids’ experiences in our 15 minutes west ‘hood, it made me realize that although the houses 15 minutes east had tree houses out front (and in back), soccer nets set up for practice, and signs in their yard proclaiming their proudness of their high school athlete, I never did see kids in those windows; only adults. Yeah, sometimes we would drive by later at night but mostly, it was at or a little after dinner time. I don’t even remember seeing children at the dinner table. Where were the kids? Were they banished to their rooms and outside too? It made me think; maybe life really wasn’t that much different in those 15 minutes. Maybe it was just the lens. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. One man’s dominoes is another man’s baby grand.
I never looked at my upbringing and thought I missed out. I never wished I grew up in a home filled with all the sophisticated things. All I ever wanted from those east side windows was a confirmation that we exist. Just a rolling reminder that we are all floating in space on the same tiny ball, doing different versions of the same things.