Aug 12, 2020

When Sheltering at Home Brings Out One’s Inner Claustrophobe

Spying on my neighbors without leaving home

By Ed Goldman

Whenever I get an irresistible impulse to suffer a bout of claustrophobia, I watch Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and that seems to satisfy my neurotic need. The film, if you recall, focuses on a photographer (played by James Stewart) recuperating from a broken leg and, apparently not being much of a reader or TV watcher, spends his days staring out the window of his second-floor courtyard apartment, his camera allowing him to surreptitiously keep tabs on his neighbors’ comings, goings and eccentricities. He also concludes that one of his neighbors murders his wife and thereby hangs the movie, to paraphrase Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.”

At this point, you’d be perfectly justified in asking me why I’d seek out an opportunity to feel claustrophobic, when there are so many other neuroses on the buffet table of my psyche just waiting to be tucked into. For example, I suffer from claustrophobia’s mirror opposite, agoraphobia (fear of wide open spaces). 

It doesn’t happen often—mainly when I find myself driving down a long stretch of open country highway, mine is the only vehicle on the road and I pass a hitchhiker who looks just like the late Rod Serling, the creator and host of “The Twilight Zone.” Or my imagination, thanks to decades of watching movies, runs away with itself and I think that any second, a computer-generated dinosaur will abruptly appear in the mountain pass I’ll be driving through in about five seconds. Or a crop-dusting plane will appear out of nowhere and begin pursuing and strafing me through my sunroof with neurotoxic pesticide. 

Anyway, since I’m not especially claustrophobic, I don’t panic about getting CT scans or MRIs, and am even curious what spending a little time in a hyperbaric oxygen therapy chamber might be like. Allegedly, this was one of Michael Jackson’s pastimes, but any similarity between the gloved one and me ends there—although, I should add that I once did the ”moonwalk” at a retirement dinner I’d been hired to emcee when I showed up in the wrong venue. A security guard near the exit told me as I passed him that he’d never seen anyone walk backwards off a dais and across a ballroom that fleetly. 

Even so, like James Stewart’s character living alone in “Rear Window”—but more likely, owing to the past few months of sheltering at home—I’ve detected some mild claustrophobia awakening in me. 

For three-and-a-half years, I’ve lived in a condo community I call Cramps ‘R’ Common (its real name is Campus Commons because the Sacramento State University campus is a short walk away, though I renamed it because my impression when moving here was that the average age range ran from Medicare to Last Rights). Every day at home, I’ve been afforded a rich panorama, sometimes just aural, of other people’s lives, like:

  • The neighbor who vacuums his or her place multiple times a day, leading me to believe he or she has an uncaged finch for a roommate that has the run of the home and spews sunflower shells throughout;
  • The neighbor for whom the gardening service we pay for through our homeowners association just isn’t good enough, prompting him to blow sometimes non-existent leaves off the driveway we share two or three times a week. This same fellow, a very nice guy who always waves at me, also washes his car two or three times a week, even though he keeps it in his garage and, as far as I can see, takes it out only to wash it.
  • The neighbors who subscribe to XFinity for their internet, phone, email or security alarm system—or all of those, tied up in an electronic “bundle,” as the sales reps for the former Comcast firm call them. “Bungle” might be a better descriptor of the product(s), however: I see company trucks on my block almost every day, sometimes three at a time. I figured out that they’re not all converging on the same home but rather, the truck dispatcher at XFinity doesn’t seem adept at triangulating—which instead would have him saying something like, “Okay, Gary, you go to this street and see all three of these accounts. Marna, you go see these four accounts within a few blocks of each other. Lorraine, how about taking the northside…?”
  • The neighbors across the way who invite their gardener to sit and have a cool beverage with them every Tuesday after he’s completed his chores. This would be a lovely gesture except that the gardener has a very loud, hyena-like and not entirely sincere laugh—I mention the lack of sincerity because I’ve talked to these people and they’re not remotely amusing. (“I’m okay— for a Tuesday!” is a pretty fair example of their devastating wit.)

    I’ve closed doors and windows but the laugh all but vibrates my windows and walls for the gardener’s half-hour visit. Not long ago, I walked outside to his truck, which had the phone number of his gardening service painted on it. Back inside, I called it and, sure enough, it was him on the voice message. So I bellowed my best hyena laugh for about 30 seconds, hung up, then did it again. Four times, I’m ashamed to report.
    I was sure he’d see my number on his phone and call to bawl me out. On the other hand, maybe he welcomed what for him might have constituted a chat. Maybe he’s simply a recluse. A claustrophobe. Like James Stewart and me.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).