One summer day when I was nine or ten a van came from the appliance store and stopped three houses down. Two workers unloaded a big cardboard box that had FRIGIDARE printed on its side, and they used a wheeled cart to muscle it up the porch steps and into the front door. They came out fifteen minutes later, and put the empty box on the curb. Naturally, I saw the possibilities and dragged it to my back yard.
It was my private clubhouse, with a membership of one. Me! Inside the box I punched out a 1/4th inch hole with a pencil, near the top. A hardly noticeable spy hole through which I could see without being seen.
Soon Caroline, my next-door-neighbor, came out of her back door and walked to her garden. She knelt and stabbed the dirt with a little spade. Then, after gathering up a basket full of tomatoes, basil, strawberries and rhubarb, she went back inside.
I don't know why, but it felt so good, so exciting, being hidden from her view and watching without her knowing I was there.
I got tired of standing and sat down, my arms resting on my drawn-up knees. As my eyes became more adjusted to the darkness I saw something that puzzled then elated me. It was a dreamlike, full-color upside-down image on the cardboard wall directly opposite my spyhole. I squinted. There was the big oak tree near the garage, its dark leafy branches moving slightly in the breeze, and there was the blue sky, and slowly moving white cumulus clouds, just like in those marvelous W. C. Wyeth illustrations in Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island.
The Italian painters of the Renaissance called it a “camera obscura,” and there I was, inside my very own. To improve the image I darkened the interior of the box by covering up light-leaking cracks with duct tape, and experimented with the size of the hole. A tiny one produced a sharper picture, but much dimmer. Then I thumbtacked up a sheet of white paper, and drew the details of the scene with a pencil, which I proudly presented to my father. He couldn’t believe I had done it because I was just a little boy. The drawing was too much like the real thing, you know?
A few years earlier, when I was living at Aunt Jane’s house on Bellmont Avenue, I made a super-secret hiding place in the closet opposite the door that opened to the back porch. They had stacked red cushions from the front porch glider in there, on the floor under a low, wide shelf. I could squeeze in, and arrange the cushions to shut out all sound and light. No one could hear or see me. I curled up, totally safe in the darkness. I listened to my heartbeat, and felt the warmth slowly increasing, and then I’d gradually drift off into a pleasant dreamy doze.
One afternoon hiding out in there I heard the sounds of Jane ironing on her machine in the cellar. She was almost directly below me. I wondered: Wouldn’t it be neat to be able to spy on her? Yes, of course it would. So later I crept down to Uncle Howard’s workshop and got his brace and bit. I clumsily cranked that heavy steel tool and watched the shiny spiral bit eat its way quickly through the soft wood. A neat hole, about an inch in diameter. A spy hole.
I failed to account for the sawdust that fell downward and made a pale blonde scattering on the basement floor. When Jane returned to her ironing, she stopped, leaned over. Then looked up. Didn’t take long for her to figure it out.
“What’s wrong with you?” she shouted. “For God’s sake WHY DID YOU DO THAT?”
From my point of view, nothing was wrong with me. It should have been obvious to her. A spy hole made perfect sense. A good way to see but not be seen. But from her point of view, I was destroying her property. Only crazy people destroy property, right? So no question. Johnny’s crazy. A real pain in the ass, you know?
Thoughts of my boyhood camera obscura, and then my spy hole in the floor in my secret bunker, came to me Thanksgiving as I walked the streets of Manhattan with my Nikon, secretly capturing images of passersby.
I rarely get caught because I’ve had decades of experience spying on people.