I’ve always loved being a peeping tom, and it’s even better in a small town. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not some kind of sleaze. I just mean, if I’m not the one doing the driving on the way home, I will gaze out at the night-lit windows as we pass and make note of what I can see inside.
It’s amazing how often I don’t see people in the lit rooms. Where do they go? Back to the kitchen? To bed and left the living room light on? Are they settling down after a long day or getting dressed to go out and release some tension?
That’s one thing about New England – there are still plenty of houses that sit barely back from the road — those roads that used to be quiet lanes that rarely saw a vehicle during the day, never mind at night. Now ‘traffic’ (hardly worthy of the word) goes on all the time, even late into the night. Yet often they leave their draperies open to the street view. And I appreciate it.
I study the different tastes in wall covering, furnishings, lighting fixtures. I try to guess how many people live there. And I wonder why they are still up so late, or alternatively have already gone up to bed when the sun’s barely behind the hills. I read books that still mention the blue-tinted light of TVs, but that hardly applies now that black-and-white is retro. With more and more realistic color, it’s the movement, the flicker that I see now. And it gets easier to see what they’re watching with the great screens that are hung up on a wall because they’d be too cumbersome as a piece of furniture. It’s wall art, ever changing and intriguing.
Sometimes I see heads above the backs of sofas and easy chairs. I wonder what they’re talking about, or what they would talk about without TV. That’s not a criticism, there was radio before that. The Lone Ranger. Dragnet. The Boston Pops. So to sit quietly and just listen isn’t really new.
There are anomalies that fascinate me, that stay with me. The other day I took a walk along a different small-town street, looking in the cafe windows. At least, I think it was a cafe, although I could find no sign hanging out. It may have been someone’s home made over from a long-ago cottage industry. It was a gloomy brick building with no draperies, very little furniture and nothing to be seen on the far wall to break up the pale expanse. In one window a woman sat angled so that she seemed engrossed in something to her right along the intervening section of wall. As I walked on past the next window, I saw that another woman sat in the left corner, looking back in the direction of the first woman. It certainly looked like they could be having a conversation, but the separation of the two windows had to be ten feet. Why sit so far apart? Was there a table between them pressed against the inside of the wall? It had to be a long table. Or was it two separate tiny tables, with each woman’s companion crammed in between them? I hovered, waiting to see if anyone joined them or if a waiter came up, but eventually I felt I’d better move on before I got arrested for standing there staring at them.
I suppose my favorite peeping is when we coast along our own main street, pretty much the only street of what you might call ‘town’. It runs about half a mile west before it rolls on out past the volunteer fire department and then the farmlands. The ‘business district’ consists of a tiny post office, cafe, and a small grocery which all share the same long building. The library’s around the corner, a little bank branch is right on the corner, and “Mike’s”, a four-pump gas station with portable potties outside and a deli and wine selection indoors, is a very popular stop for skiers and folks hauling boats and campers out to the lakes. The hair salon and barber shop are tucked in between old and stubborn clapboard homes, and it’s all overlooked by two historic mansions up on the hills – for sale, at very modern prices. There are no traffic lights, just three or four stop signs in unexpected spots that generate a lot of consternation in people if it’s their first time through.
We skirt the hundred-year-old imposing brick town hall and roll on past the three-room cottage labeled “Historical Society – call for appointment” (if you look close, they are open Mondays at certain hours which aren’t exactly peak tourist times). The recreation center is on the other side of the street, with a park, playground and ball field stretching behind it all the way back to the library. Not much for peeping there.
After that comes the pretty homes in wide lots with their porches full of rockers and potted plants. The garages are always unattached and out back, with some of them sitting right up close to the ‘crick’ that runs through the trees. A few houses might be a hundred years old, others maybe just fifty or so. But they all have the tall, wide front windows of a friendlier, less fearful time, and I can glance in as we cruise by. Living there, you could wave from your living room window to people across the street, or stroll out to have your coffee on the porch and speak with passersby.
At night the lit-up homes always look as open, warm and inviting as I remember my grandmother’s house. So I happily peep and try to imagine the stories going on behind the windows.