In the scheme of ‘firsts’ we’ve experienced being in lockdown, I’m willing to bet you haven’t had a staring contest with a pigeon.
If you’re wondering whether I’m speaking metaphorically, about to make some insightful observations related to flight or focus…I’m not. I literally challenged a pigeon to a staring contest.
It happened on one of the many days I found myself sitting at my living room window, watching life outside. Right beside me, on the other side of the window, was a plump pigeon. Unlike its friends bobbing their heads and strutting up and down, this guy was content to stay perched on the ledge. I looked at it, it looked back at me, and I thought, Ok pigeon, it’s on.
There we both sat. The seconds ticked by, and eventually I looked away. Either that or the pigeon got tired of me and turned its head. I figure we called it a draw.
Escape through my window
Window watching has become a major pastime of mine since we’ve had to stay at home. For the first 11 weeks I worked from the black leather couch in the living room, computer propped on my knees. I’d get up and look outside whenever I needed a break or was craving a distraction.
At the start of week 12 I got a desk, which is where I’m writing this. Now all I have to do is raise my head and I have a near panoramic view of the outside. At sixteen weeks and counting you might think there’d be nothing new to see, but whenever I need a little boost there’s still plenty to help usher my day along. Instead of feeling like I live among strangers, now I can tell you all sorts about what happens in the buildings opposite and catty corner to my own. Here’s a sketch of my neighbourhood:
Golden Green Thumb
My flat is on the corner of a building which is itself on the corner of a main road and little dead end street. In the building diagonally across from mine, on the opposite side of the main road, is a man who, like me, regularly spends time staring out his window.
I’d guess he’s in his late 60s or early 70s. His head is nearly bald, he has a round tummy and his favourite t-shirt is a golden yellow. On nice days he opens one of the bay windows wide and sits on the ledge. While I can see other people working in their living rooms, the only other activities I see him engaged in are eating and watering his plants. I appreciate his plants: they’re large, leafy and green, the only green I see in all the windows of all the surrounding buildings besides the basil and mint in my own. Golden Green Thumb lives alone or, like me, is the only person in his household curious about what’s going on outside. He’s the only one I ever see at his windows.
Tatted, loves tea time
In the same building as Golden Green Thumb, actually in the flat next door, there’s a guy in his 30s who likes to take breaks at his window. Unlike me and Golden Green Thumb he doesn’t stare outside. Instead he reads, or sometimes sits at a desk. I see him there all the time, and in fact right now he’s sipping tea and reading a book. He’s got a thick head of brown hair, a beard and a moustache, and at least one partial tattoo sleeve. Once, when we were both sitting and sipping tea, I wondered if he was looking at me as I was looking at him, but the distance was too great to know for sure. He’s got a girlfriend and sometimes she sits at the window with him. They’re cute, in their companionable domesticity.
Bread for the birds
The weather has been too wet for this to happen lately, but the neighbours in my building and the one opposite love to dump their leftover bread outside on the ground. The minor street dead ends onto a patchwork of pavement, a rectangle of space that’s basically a concrete extension of the asphalt sidewalk. In the centre of this paved rectangle is a small garbage bin, and in front of this bin is where people leave their scraps.
I’ve seen men and women, but mostly men, come out with large plastic bags of bread. Are they in the restaurant business? It’s hard for me to imagine another reason they could have such huge amounts of bread going stale. They tip the bags upside down and shake them directly onto the ground. Then they walk off, and within seconds pigeons and some seagulls fly down and feast. Minutes after that, all the bread is gone.
I’ve seen rice and other leftovers on the ground too, and one day a woman came out with a pot of popcorn. She stood with the pot in her outstretched arm, waiting for the pigeons to come and eat from her hand. When they didn’t approach, she tipped the pot over, emptying the popcorn onto the grass under a small tree, and went back inside.
I’m baffled by this behaviour. How can you just leave food on the ground? And what if the birds don’t want it? Two days ago I saw a street cleaner stabbing what looked like watermelon rinds and other food waste off the ground. I sent him a silent thank you.
Pedestrians and processions
Moving my gaze left, to the main road, I watch people passing through the area as well. Two weeks into lockdown I saw a man sitting on a low concrete wall, below Tatted’s flat, talking to two police officers. It looked like they were writing him a ticket, and I assumed he must have been in trouble for being outside. A few minutes later I looked out and the three of them were still there, plus a police van had pulled up with two more officers. They put the man in the back and then all four officers climbed inside and drove away.
The scene remains a mystery. Was the man drunk or high? Were the police looking for him regardless of the lockdown? Who knows. It all happened so quietly that I wouldn’t have seen anything if I weren’t at my window.
Another day, sitting on the couch, I could swear I heard bagpipes. I got up to look and….nothing. So I sat back down and tried to go back to work, but again heard the music. I got up, looked as far out the corners of the windows as I could, but still no bagpipes. There were a couple of men in the concrete rectangle, chatting, apparently unaware of the music. Maybe the lockdown was getting to my head and I was hallucinating the Scotland I wished I could see. I sat back down.
Still, there were the bagpipes. There was no way I was making this up. I was tempted to look for them a third time, but the music didn’t sound any closer. Forget it, I told myself, maybe I’ll never find out where they’re coming from.
A few minutes later the music seemed to be right underneath me. I jumped up, excited, and there were the players, two men leading a procession down the road. My excitement vanished when I realised that the music I heard was a funeral dirge. Behind the men was a hearse with two, maybe three, plain brown coffins. Whether they were victims of COVID-19 I don’t know, but the march continued and I stood watching until the players were out of sight. Mystery solved, and a moment for me to reckon with the cost of the virus.
Squad rolls deep
Just when I thought I’d figured out the rhythms of our buildings and the quirks of the people inside, a new element came on the scene. Over the last few weeks a group of men started gathering at that paved rectangle and in the minor street. It’s a little hard to predict when they’ll show, but it’s almost certain that they’ll make an appearance.
There’s never less than four of them, and they pull up in Mercedes, BMWs and Audis. Some of them sit in their cars with the windows and the tops rolled down. Others stand on the pavement, and they stay for hours. Every now and then they play board games on one of the utility boxes, but most of the time they’re just talking. Their voices carry straight up to my living room and bedroom windows, and while I’m happy for them to have friend time, I do wish sometimes they would gather in a park instead. Particularly when they’re out until 10.30pm and 11pm at night.
A slower pace and a simpler pleasure
Before lockdown, window watching sounded incomprehensibly dull. I couldn’t understand how there could be any entertainment in staring outside. Now I realise there’s so much to see, whether you live on a busy street or have birds in your backyard. You could be missing out on an extra dose of worry, concerned for children standing right up against their third storey windows. Or you could get positivity points as cheerleader for the woman who was great about leg day at the beginning of lockdown, but now seems to have given up on exercise altogether.
I will be so grateful to get outside again. To be too busy with the world to check on Golden Green Thumb or wonder what book Tatted is reading now. But I’ll miss something of this time too: the pace that encourages me to stop and stare, all that I’m learning about my neighbours, and finding pleasure in something as simple as looking out my window.