Sunday, March 6, 2011

Freedom from Fishbowls

At my awesome day job, I’m lucky to have my own office with huge windows. I usually keep my door closed, in order to quietly plug away or blast good music.

Most of this closed door’s surface area is dominated by yet another window – one through which I’m carefully watched by all who meander around the outside hallway. The meanderers are rarely shy about venturing into my inner sanctum (with many feeling free to burst in without knocking) to talk about work, keep me abreast of the goings-on in their personal lives, or interrogate me about something they saw me do during their hallway surveillance. The door-window’s glass is perpetually smudged with the remnants of grubby fingertips. A former employee once pressed her upturned nose to the glass, while breathing heavily, to get my attention; if I look closely enough, I can still see traces of her legacy.

Whenever I desperately need a breather from the cage, I take a meal break at a drab deli a few blocks away, where no one I know would ever think to come looking for me. The food isn’t great, but I’ve had worse – like in my own kitchen. But I’m there to hide well, not eat well.

Everyone else who goes there is clearly doing the same thing, and the only business people mind is their own. There’ll be the occasional pair of friends loudly whisper-arguing about whose life is more hellish, but most people sit solo, slowly chewing in deep thought. Some look driven – you can visualize the wheels turning in their heads as they silently chart out possible next steps that could turn their circumstances around. Others seem more resigned to the under-satisfying cards they’ve been dealt.

This must be what the dining halls looked like in Soviet-era Eastern Europe. Your food is thrown onto a big, red plastic tray that’s not as cute or as sturdy as the ones I remember from my junior high school’s cafeteria. Uncovered wires peek out from the paint-chipped walls, all under dim lighting. This time of year, the premises are so drafty that diners often sit on the wooden-bench seats eating their soup and sandwiches without ever taking off their bulky parkas and winter hats. There’s only one window, and I’m usually the only one who opts to sit near it.

A few afternoons ago, I returned to my beloved bunker after having been away for months, and was relieved to see that nothing has changed. In between plastic spoonfuls of an edible paper bowl of spicy tofu stew and reading the latest issue of Newsweek, I was taking notes on everything going on around me – the pleasant loner seated two tables to my right looked like she was too.

I’ve always had a knack for finding unobvious oases in the middle of chaos. They’re usually outdoors, amid lots of grass, trees, and chirping birds. But in this town, even in Central Park (the entire west-side length of which I walk through 5 days a week), it can be hard to find public space that feels private and keep other people’s smudges off your glass.


  1. I'm so happy that I am getting email updates on your blogs again! I love this one, and even have a guess about who might have put their face against the glass...

  2. have you considered covering up your window? Theres a small window on the door in my classroom, which we cover up with paper to keep curious kids in the room away from the window, and to stop nosy others from peering in..

  3. Love your ability to find an oases amidst all the close encounters of nosy passersby! We definitely have to find you some classy curtains for your window to keep the smudges away. :o)