just walking by, and noticed your light was on.
Now he wants to come inside. Is that okay?
On a clear spring evening, Heather and I load four objects into her car: 1) A tripod, 2) a camera, 3) a small black tape recorder, and 4) a large, white sign with black lettering that reads, "WE ARE FROM THE MERCURY NEWSPAPER" on one side, and "WE WANT TO TALK TO YOU" on the other. The moon is bright, the air is crisp, and I'm sick--recovering from a cold, fighting a blistering headache.
Meanwhile, Heather's stressed out because she just got fired from her job at a software company, and recently had her purse stolen which contained $200 in cash, her driver's license, and her social security card. She has no money and, technically speaking, no identity.
All things considered, we're not in the best of shape to invade the homes of innocent strangersÉ
At nighttime the world goes dark, and the lights come on. Shadowy husks of buildings and houses line the streets, broken only by randomly illuminated rooms. Like an astrologer studying distant stars, I am infatuated with these twinkling windows. They highlight the secret activities of human lives--without revealing what those activities are.
For a writerly type such as myself, who hungers for the stories of, well, everyone, this tantalizing urban landscape is torturous. I want to see what's on the other side of each and every one of those millions of lit windows--but the sad truth is, I'm never allowed... until tonight, that is. Tonight, Heather and I are seeking out the lit windows and doing whatever it takes to find out what's inside. Call it an atmospheric ode to the inner workings of our fair city at night, or call it rampant self-indulgence of a nonsensical obsession. You can also call it kind of creepy. In any case, we're doing it.
"HOW DID YOU GET IN HERE?"
At 7:30 pm, we head downtown via the Ross Island Bridge. Of all the lights in a city, it's common knowledge the most dramatic ones are downtown, where the buildings rise into the sky. However, most buildings are often almost completely dark, save for one or two shining windows way up high.
Our methods of reaching those tantalizing targets will involve whatever it takes. We may shout and yell at the lit window if it's low enough to the ground, or try to follow an unsuspecting keyholder into the designated building and then try to figure out inside which window we were looking at on the outside. The most exciting tool we have at our disposal is The Sign. I'm looking forward to waving my big-ass sign at people who are too high to hear our screams.
Halfway over the Ross Island Bridge, Heather spots a light in a large structure to our right. It looks like an administration building of some kind. She whips into the empty parking lot, and we sit in the car, contemplating our next move.
"National College of Naturopathic Medicine," says Heather, reading a nearby sign.
"Let's do this shit," I say--or something comparable.
We burst out of the car, pulling out cameras, notepads, tripod, and The Sign. We tiptoe up to a set of double doors on the east side of the college. I grip The Sign to my chest.
"All right," I say. "Here's what we'll do. You flank the building's inner perimeter and I'll station myself in the middle of the parking lot. On my cue, start rattling the doors while I hold the sign above my head and--
"The doors are open," Heather says.
She pushes on one, which swings open gently and easily.
The doors open into a fluorescent, lit hallway. At the end we can make out a feminine form clad in black, hunched over a desk. When the doors slam behind us, her face snaps up with a flash of white. She rises from her seat and heads toward us.
"How did you get in here?" she asks, drawing near.
"Hi, I'm Justin Sanders and this is Heather Hawksford, photographer," I babble. "We're with the Portland Mercury newspaper, doing a... an atmospheric piece... you know, a Portland-at-night sort of thing... you know when you see a dark building and there's a single light on in it and there's somebody in there doing something? We want to find out what the people are doing. And... um, yeah... write about it."
I will my lips to stop flapping.
"That door's supposed to be locked," the girl says.
"Yeah, it just opened right up. All we did was push. So what are you doing? Just studying?"
"I'm studying, and monitoring the doorways. In the evening the building is not open to the public, it's just here for students."
"Do you mind if I take a picture?" says Heather.
"Actually I need you guys to sign in," she says.
She's trying to do a job, holding down the fort of a virtually silent learning institution. Needless to say, we scram, continuing downtown where the real excitement is.
IN A PINCH, TRY HONESTY
Twenty minutes later we're near the corner of 10th and SW Jefferson, looking up at an unassuming apartment building rising perhaps 15 stories tall. It has a light shining in the upper right corner of its otherwise dark, monolithic facade.
"It's beautiful," I tell Heather.
The window is very high up. Even if we screamed at the top of our lungs we probably wouldn't be heard by whoever inhabits the room. We could use The Sign, but no one inside is standing close enough to the window to see it.
We're lurking around, when the building's front door opens and a young blonde man comes out to have a cigarette. He eyes us amiably.
"You guys trying to get in?" he asks.
"We need to interview someone in there," says Heather.
"Cool." He holds open the door and smiles at us.
"Uh, thanks," I say as we stroll in. It hadn't occurred to me to try honesty.
We ride the elevator in pursuit of our target mystery person. The room with the light in the window is in the Northeast corner of the building, which means from the elevator we head left, then right, and now down this hallway here... and there it is. The hallway ends with a single door, a hideous turquoise hue to match the hideous purple edges surrounding it. There can be no doubt that this is it; on the other side lurks an illuminated life.
I stand, staring at it. Heather snaps a few pictures.
"Get one of me knocking on the door," I say.
"Are you going to knock?"
"In a minute."
"Just do it."
"I think I'm scared."
"What's the worst that can happen? You're not going to die."
"How do you know?"
I breathe deep, gathering myself.
I knock with one knuckle. It makes a feeble tapping sound.
"What kind of a knock is that?"
"What do you mean? It was loud enough."
"Knock like a man."
"All right, all right, here goes."
I lift my hand. Heather's camera snaps once, twice. I bring my knuckles down with a firm, manly knock. We wait... wait... and nothing. Nobody's home. Defeated we head back out to the street.
"You know," says Heather," I'm pretty sure I saw the light go off right before we went inside anyway."
"Well... why didn't you say something?"
"I thought we needed the practice."
Outside, we wander for a few blocks aimlessly, winding our way into the Southwest Park Blocks.
"How about that one?" says Heather, pointing to a four-story brown building near Park and Columbia with a light on in a third-story window. This time the window is low enough that we can actually make out a feminine figure wandering around inside. If we can get to the room, we are guaranteed to find someone to bother--I mean, chat with.
"Sure," I say. "Let's do it."
Once again we are let in by an all-too-friendly resident. One thing I'm learning about Portland is how trusting it is.
We walk up creaky stares. It smells musty in here, and the carpet is stained and tattered. I get excited again as we near our destination; this time we know for sure that someone's home. This time, something's going to happen.
We turn right, push through weary, double doors, and find ourselves in a hallway, facing the door leading to the light in the window. We stare. Midway up a sign reads, "MANAGER." We stare.
"It's the building manager," I whisper.
"Yeah," says Heather, camera poised.
"Probably wouldn't take too kindly to a couple of muckrakers causing trouble in her building."
"You don't think so?"
"No. Let's get out of here."
"Come on, we'll find a better place."
But I've already turned and gone back downstairs.
Back outside, the deserved wave of cowardly shame washes over me. All we had to show for our efforts so far was a work-study security guard at the College of Naturopathy, a nobody home, and a pathetic excuse on my part to avoid knocking at all. I could have bothered the manager to chat for a few minutes. It's not like she would have punched my face in.
"Well," Heather sighs, "Now what?"
I don't answer at first, an epiphany forming in my brain. My eyes are glued to the ground as I think.
"I must redeem myself," is my internal mantra.
If this night wasn't about courage before, it is now. It is now about staying true to the mission, and to myself. Tonight is about staying true.
I look up from the ground. We're facing the river, and straight ahead of us, rising towards the heavens is an unmistakable skyscraper with a gold pyramid on top like a condom tip. It is the Koin Tower, and in a second I know what we have to do.
"There," I say, pointing. "We go there."
"Wow," says Heather. "Shouldn't we warm up to it a little more?"
I narrow my eyes. "You gotta jump in the water before you can learn to swim."
And we're moving.
THE KOIN TOWER
If you ride the Koin Tower's old brass elevator, past the movie theater and levels of cubicles, you will find yourself in a strange residential utopia; floors of enormous apartments with arguably the best views in the city. The cheapest Koin Tower condo currently runs about $600,000. Some of the residents have purchased two, and even three of the units, knocking down walls and combining them into one massive Trump-ian glut of exhilarating wealth and excess.
As we push through the Koin's palatial gates and head for the glass lobby doors, a guard comes out to greet us. She looks cheerful enough, so I try the direct approach. I tell her we're journalists for the Mercury, doing an atmospheric piece on urban Portlanders and the lives they lead within the comfort of their own homes. I say our criteria for choosing interview candidates is that they're home and the light's on in their window. We noticed several lights up in the Koin Tower condos, but couldn't determine what floor they were on; might she buzz some of the residents she knows to be awake and ask them if they'd like to participate in our story?
She looks baffled, but surprisingly tolerant considering the wealth, power, and influence of the people we're asking her to pester at 9:30 pm on a Thursday night.
"You know," she says, "there's a guy on the 20th floor that might work. He's a young guy, real friendly. But he's at the gym right now.
At that very moment, by some amazing coincidence, a tall, 30-something man with workout clothes and sweaty hair walks in.
"Hey," the guard says to him. "These nice people are from a newspaper. They want to interview you and photograph your apartment."
He stares at us. We're frozen.
"Which paper?" he says.
"The Mercury?" I reply.
He thinks for a second.
"All right. Come on up."
And easy as that, we're in.
"I'm Horatio," he says. "Horatio Sanz." (Not his real name.)
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY
Minutes later we're riding up the old brass elevator to the 20th floor. Horatio stares straight ahead, chin thrust forth.
"I'm the only guy in the building who's under the age of 50," he says. "So it's good you found me."
"Yeah," I agree. We exit the elevator onto a perfectly clean hallway painted entirely white. It looks like something out of Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Even the door to Horatio's apartment looks like a secret panel in the wall.
Inside, it is spacious and beautiful, like a hotel suite, but with windows along every wall facing the river, 30 stories up. It's like being inside a cocoon, with a cityscape as the walls.
"Gosh... this is terrific!" I say, sounding a little too much like Charlie Bucket.
Horatio takes us out on the deck. It wraps all the way around the Southeast corner of the building.
"You can see the Rose Garden and Mt. Hood over there," he says, pointing, "and then over there you got the hill and you can see the sunset. It's great. It's beautiful."
Horatio looks humbled by his surroundings, and a little regal. He does not seem to possess the high blood pressure often associated with the unusually rich.
"So you've just moved in recently?" I ask.
"I've had it for a year and a half, but I work so much I just haven't had time to move in. Pretty sad statement."
"If by 'sad' you mean being wealthy enough to own a condo with the best view in Portland, and not even live in it," I think to myself.
" ...But yeah, nothin' like barbecuing out here, drinking wine and hanging out."
I'm starting to feel like I'm in The Thomas Crown Affair. Now if only Rene Russo would pull her top off and French-kiss me.
"What do you do?" Heather asks.
"I run a construction company," says Horatio. "It's our 30-year anniversary tomorrow."
"Really!? Are you gonna have a party?"
"Yeah!" says Horatio, excited.
"You gonna have it here?" I say, hoping desperately for an invite.
"Oh, no. Down in Corvallis. I'm a country kid, you know."
He leads us into the bedroom, which has yet another entire wall of windows facing the West Hills, plus a closet the size of my living room.
"Here's the master bedroom. In the summertime in July and June when the sun rises early in the morning, the light off the hills and the river is just amazing."
Heather snaps pictures frantically. Horatio doesn't seem to mind even though various undergarments are strewn about the rug.
In the front hallway, we thank Horatio profusely for showing us his apartment. I hand him my business card.
"Just to prove I'm not some lunatic," I say.
"Oh there's nothing to prove," he says. "I flip through the Mercury all the time actually. It's a great newspaper."
Shortly thereafter, we leave. Victory tastes sweet in the warm elevator air.
"Good job, Justin," says Heather.
"Good job nothing," I say. "Good job Horatio Sanz. He made this moment happen. We just watched."
"Where to next?"
Stepping into the Koin Tower lobby I realize this mission is done. Wherever my fascination for lights in the windows stems from, Horatio and his palatial suite have sated it. Of all the lights in the city, there were none I was more curious about than the Koin Tower apartments. Now that I've seen what's inside, it turns out it was just a dude with a nice view and underwear on his floor.
"Let's go home," I say.
I've learned that my window obsession works best inside my mind. I could never see what's behind all the lit windows in the world, and even if I could I wouldn't want to. No matter what people are doing in there--eating, sleeping, reading, drinking, talking, fucking, fighting--it's most likely not going to be nearly as interesting as what my imagination can come up with... And if it is, well, it's probably good I don't see it anyway. Only in the privacy and comfort of a home can a person be true.
"And people gotta stay true," I think, as we walk back to the car.
"Wait... You never used the sign."
"Oh yeah... Shit. That was the one thing I was hoping to do."
"Let's take pictures of you from above so it looks like you used it."