In an alleyway between the Uptown Theater and the Mister Maharashi Indian Restaurant, a cocaine dealer is waiting for a client. Warily, shiftily, he glances up and down the street. Occasionally he looks behind him into the alleyway, which connects to a second alleyway, which in turn connects to a third and a fourth, giving the dealer multiple paths of escape—lines of flight—if police come down the street to catch him. Like a woodchuck, he has left himself many exits from his burrow.
But unbeknownst to the dealer, he is already being watched. Fifteen floors above him, in the high-rise across the street, an old couple who like to sit on either side of their table by the window looking down onto the street are passing a pair of binoculars back and forth. It was the man who noticed the dealer standing down there beneath them. He called his wife’s attention to his discovery. They watch the criminal as he waits.
A white Lexus drives up the street past the alley and slows as it passes the dealer. The dealer’s head bobs as his eyes connect with the driver’s. The Lexus goes around the block and comes back again. Up above, the old man hands the old woman the binoculars to watch the unfolding drama. The Lexus pulls over about fifty yards from the alleyway. The driver leaves it, engine running, at the curb, and walks briskly towards the dealer. The two men look each other over and stand about a meter apart. The old couple look at each other with big eyes and eyebrows raised. The man takes the binoculars from the woman. He watches the two men and then hands the lenses back to the woman.
Due to the narrowness of the street and the height of the building, the angle from which the old couple watch the dealer is extremely steep—the old couple is five times higher up than the street is wide, so the dealer would have to rubberneck his head way back to see them perching there at their window, and he is focused on the street, the buyer, the transaction about to take place, and of course, the ambient possibilities of danger and threat from lurking police or—worse—competitors at street level.
Dealer and client shake hands briefly and the old man fifteen floors up sees that the client has placed a wad of folded bills in the dealer’s hand. The dealer pockets the money without counting it and, with a nod of his head, waves the man deeper into the shadows of the alley. A corner of Mister Maharashi’s restaurant prevents the couple from seeing the eight ball of cocaine change hands. They just see the client emerge first from the alley with a hand in his pocket, which he then removes. Looking both ways, the dealer follows him back to his initial waiting point and looks down, then up, then across the street. The buyer climbs into his Lexus and drives away. The dealer stays at his post.
The old couple look at each other with wide eyes. It is thrilling to have witnessed this anarchic act from the safety of their luxury condominium a hundred and forty feet up. A true crime story right in their hood! But there is a complication.
Due to a sixth sense all humans have access to—an uncanny feeling of being watched by someone unseen—the dealer finds himself looking first at the second floor windows of the tower opposite him, then at the third, the fourth, and so on, until finally, his head craning back, his eyes reach the fifteenth floor windows and he sees, illuminated by their interior lighting, the figure of an old man watching him through binoculars and, beside him, an old lady raising her hand to her mouth. A surge of fury goes through the dealer but he quickly looks away. The old couple run to the back of their apartment in fear. Didn’t they just see the dealer, the criminal, see them watching him? It was not the criminal but they who had been busted!
It is a long time before the couple is brave enough to approach the window again. After thirty minutes they turn off the lights and creep over to the window on their knees. The man keeps the woman behind him and pops his head slowly up behind the curtains until his eyes are above the windowsill. Peering down, he tells the woman the dealer is gone. The coast is clear. Nevertheless they wait a while. When they peer down again the alleyway is still clear. The dealer is gone. The danger has passed.
They turn the lights on and take up their usual positions across from each other at the table by the window. The man continues reading his newspaper. The woman continues to read her novel. Occasionally they each look down at the alleyway and are relieved to see that nobody is there. No angry drug dealer. No scary criminal. They decide the dealer must not, after all, have seen them when he was looking up.
For an hour or so they stay where they are, lost in their respective reading trances. But occasionally the woman looks up from her novel. She looks down at the street. No criminals. No drug deals in the alleyway. Just a few pedestrians going about their business. Occasional diners coming out of Mister Maharashi. At eleven the restaurant closes. By eleven thirty, the staff have all left and the building is dark. There is no more activity in the alley or in front of the restaurant.
Still, the woman occasionally looks up from her book with a strange feeling she cannot quite name. For a long time it is not even distinct enough to be recognized as anything specific. The old man asks her what is wrong. She says nothing is wrong. She’s just a bit jittery, she guesses, after witnessing the drug deal and then the dealer seeming to discover them watching him. But after a few more minutes of reading she gets the feeling again. Where is it coming from? Deep within her psyche, the old man says. But after not too long, the old man, too, looks up from his paper and says, hesitantly, that he doesn’t know why but he himself feels like he is being watched.
There is only one place close by from which the interior of their apartment can be seen. Across the street from them, slightly behind where the man is sitting, is another high-rise. Its western edge faces them, a great wall of prefabricated bricks. But on that end of the building the architect has placed a set of windows half way down each of the two flights of fire escape stairs between the floors. Because of this feature, the old couple can look across the street and clearly see the fire escape stairs of the other tower. Due to the low angle of incidence on the horizontal plane, they can also see the interior fire escape doors of four floors, along with the stencilled red numerals marking the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th floors. The windows of other floors are visible, but not the interior doors. Sometimes the old couple see strange scenes enacted in the lower floors of the fire escape stairwell. One time they saw two men beat another man down near the bottom level, which they speculated connects somehow with the parking garage beneath the building. The garage has an exit ramp onto the street at right angles to the one with the alleyway. Another time they saw a couple having a screaming match on the stairs between the tenth and eleventh floors. Occasionally they see someone lugging shopping bags up or down a floor and disappearing through the doors. People who must have pressed the wrong elevator button, got off on the wrong floor, and decided to walk up or down, rather than wait for the elevator to come back.
The old couple, responding to their niggling sense of being watched, looks over at the parallel floors of the neighboring building. There is nobody on the four floors that are most visible. The upper windows of the fire escape seem progressively less illuminated and seldom warrant attention. The couple looks down the fire escape levels to the bottom. Nobody in the stairwells. Nobody on the street. Nobody in the alleyway. Nobody beside Mister Maharashi. They both decide again that they must just be jittery due to the frightening moment earlier. A primitive part of their brains, they reason, must have been activated by the criminal’s apparent glare. But evasive action had rescued them from an uncomfortable situation. Or something worse.
Nevertheless, the feeling that they are being watched lingers. Intermittently they look over at the fire escape. The street. The alleyway. They see nothing. But around midnight they look at each other again across the table. Instinctively, they look out of the window at the fire escape opposite. This time, however, their gaze drifts upwards. They scan the increasingly shadowy windows above them. Curiosity winches up their gaze. Momentarily, they scrutinize the landings between the floors above them. Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one. Nobody. Twenty-two, twenty-three. Twenty-four. Nobody. The building has thirty floors. In a smooth camera-like vertical sweep of the increasingly oblique window faces above them, the vision of the couple ascends. Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven. Nothing. In the seven years they have lived in their building, they have never seen anybody in the bare landings of the upper few floors of the opposite building’s fire escape. But a strange force continues to draw their eyes up to levels they never usually reach. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine….
It is only when their gaze reaches the thirtieth floor that they finally see him. A dark shadow standing boldly up against the glass. Far above, he looks down at them with the disdain of a demiurge, glaring over his folded, thickly muscled arms, his eyes two burning lasers of threat. Slowly, he nods his head to confirm that it is them he is watching. A disturbing signal. Not only have they seen him—they immediately understand that he has been waiting for them to discover him. He wants them to know he has been watching them. And he is watching them now, too, as they process the terrifying realization that he has probably been watching them, patient as a panther, for an hour.
The couple immediately recoils from the window in fear. The old woman rushes to the bathroom and locks herself in. The old man cowers in the back of the living space, cringing out of the window’s view. He wishes he had had the presence of mind to draw the blinds and close the curtains. But he did not. The criminal could descend fourteen or fifteen floors and watch him cowering there. The old man furtively steps towards the light switches and turns them off. The long-term companions are silent for some time. Finally, from behind the bathroom door, the woman, with a shaky voice, tells her husband that now the criminal can find them. He could just as easily gain access to their building. Come up to their apartment. Knock on their door. Perhaps he was already on his way—worse: perhaps he had already crept to their door and was listening to her say this right now! What should they do? What should they do? She whispers now, urgently, through the door. Should they call the police? No, the man replies. The police would laugh at them. Nervous old people worried about a harmless silhouette. A shadow. She knows from past experience that he is right. As they tremble in their violated interior space, they have plenty of time to consider the implications of the eerie optic reversal. What was obscure has been made plain. What was crooked has been made straight. It has taken the insidious form of a stranger, the twisted imagination of a criminal, to teach them in old age a new lesson, one they won’t soon forget—the relation between the watchers and the watched.