When I was six years old, we moved from the small house near the boulevard on the floor of the valley into the larger house in the hills. At the back of the new house was a room which had been added on, which we called the den, even though we used it as a dining room. There were windows on three sides. The back of the property was a diagonal line at the top of a steep hill falling down to the open space of an abandoned clay quarry, so the windows on two of the walls had a view across the valley to the distant San Gabriel Mountains. The third wall had a window seat which overlooked the lawn along the side of the house. The wall opposite the window seat had a row of higher windows, and the back door. The third wall, at the back of the house, had one large window. My Mother always called it a picture window. The phrase was in vogue among realtors and developers at the time, part of that commercial lexicon which, over the years, has transformed the Victorian parlor into the living room, and has created such things as the family room, the dining nook, the mud room, and the master suite, and has induced entire generations of Americans to call houses "homes." When I asked my Mother why it was called a picture window, she said that it was because, when you looked out of it, it was like looking at a picture in a frame.
It was around this time that my older brother was taking guitar lessons from a woman who taught out of her "home" in the northern part of San Gabriel. One evening a week, we would drive my brother to her house, and then pick him up an hour later. The intervening time was usually spent driving around, or, sometimes, parking at the railroad station in Alhambra, where, at about 8:30 each night, the Sunset Limited made the first stop on its long trip to New Orleans. I always enjoyed watching the train, and seeing the passengers moving through the fascinating, long world which would itself be moving through the night, out past the small towns east of Los Angeles and into the vast darkness of the desert.
But the rest of the time, we would drive through the streets of those suburbs which had been built up largely in the years after the depression. Los Angeles had long been a city of empty suburban streets lined with small and rather forlorn houses, but these newer neighborhoods were particularly vacuous. They had not yet achieved the fully forbidding quality of suburbia today, as the houses had not yet begun to disappear behind the double and triple garages which have since become the defining characteristic of American domestic design- (I almost said "architecture," but that is an entirely inappropriate word.) Yet they already displayed a degree of aloofness which I found disconcerting. I didn't know why, but driving through those neighborhoods always brought me an ineffable sadness. I think now that it was the relentless blandness of the buildings and the emptiness of the streets which caused this. Each house sequestered behind its green moat of empty lawn, a few flower beds here and there, or a shrub, usually neatly trimmed- it all seemed to say "don't touch," and "keep your distance!"
Though the houses had no discernable style, some of them had a bit of detail that suggested a buried memory of actual architecture, but which succeeded only in providing an unintentionally ironic reference to it. The details that I found most notable were the small, octagonal windows which some of the houses had, and which, I suppose, were intended to mark that particular building as "Georgian" or "Colonial." For some reason, these windows became the focus of all the sadness I felt in these neighborhoods. To this day, when I see a house with an octagonal window, I feel that sense of melancholy creeping over me.
Yet these were not the only windows which disturbed me. These houses still had living rooms in the front. (The period when they were moved to the back, with sliding doors opening into the back yard, would come later.) And each living room had a large window facing the front yard and the street. They were picture windows. It was not until years later that I found that the picture referred to was not the one seen from inside, but the one seen from outside. They were, in fact, a manifestation of post-war consumerism. They were intended to show off the possessions of the property owners to passersby. I remember passing house after house, and seeing the empty living rooms, brightly lit, some with elaborate drapes like theatre curtains, all of them suggestive of the shop windows in which the lamps and furniture and decorative objects had been displayed before they had been purchased. Seldom did we see a person actually using one of these rooms. It was as though the entire population had gone away and left the lights on. My Mother would often comment on the contents or the arrangement of these rooms, approvingly or disparagingly, but my response was always an intensification of the sadness I already felt. I was overwhelmed by the emptiness of it all, and sustained through these hours only by the knowledge that, after we picked my brother up from his guitar lesson, we would stop for ice cream, in a place full of people and noise.
Many years after this, when I first read Richard Wilbur's poem Year's End, I was struck by the lines:
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.
It immediately brought to my mind the memory of those houses and their picture windows, though there was precious little stirring within them. It was a fitting image for a poem about endings.
The window in the house at the end of my street with the flag of lights is a picture window. I remember it as it was before the lights were hung in it. The room was not like those I remember, all bright and filled with new things on display, as the spoils of victory were displayed by the returning generals of Roman armies. This room was dim, and a bit dingy, like a place whose time had passed. Now, with the curtain of red, white and blue lights, it seems even dimmer, like a cave in which people might huddle while the barbarian hordes raged outside. This evening, I looked at that window for a moment, and felt a sadness less intense that I remember from my childhood. It was more like the sadness one feels when looking at faded pictures of a vanished world. Then, I returned to my house, and sat in the back yard and watched the moon rise over the pines at its appointed time.