Two couples, both from out of town, linger on the same park bench, gazing up at gauzy curtains in the windows of a 19-story hotel. They don't know each other, but there they are, on a sunny Labor Day afternoon, hoping to steal a glimpse of, well, for lack of a more delicate way to put it, naked people.
Voyeurism became New York's hot attraction this summer after guests were photographed in the buff prancing about, even having sex, in front of floor-to-ceiling windows at the Standard Hotel in the hip Meatpacking District.
These shenanigans unfolded as a result of a series of unintended circumstances. Start with the opening of the High Line Park, built on abandoned railroad tracks three stories above the street. Add a swank hotel, hoisted by massive pylons that straddle the High Line. Then bring on the combustible element: New Yorkers and tourists, who flocked to see the city's newest additions. As they walked the High Line, they quickly realized there was more to see than they could have dared to hope. With that, the High Line became a stage set as well as a destination.
All summer, images of the Standard's bawdy guests spread like cyber wildfire, and the management seemed to relish the attention, even encouraging new arrivals in the lobby to go ahead and "just have fun!" The hotel's blog, ever briefly, linked to photos of two unclothed women in provocative positions. Now, the curious assemble regularly.
This 21st century urban voyeurism is the next logical step in a society that has been peeping and poking into private lives, with all of us participating, on reality TV, through social networking, and in confessional interviews and memoirs. It's what brought Bob and Beverly Taylor of Virginia, and Mike Louvascio and his girlfriend, Marilyn, of Long Island to share that bench on the High Line.
"We're nudists," says Bob, 55, introducing himself. The Taylors often vacation in the big city, but this time the much-publicized peep show at the Standard is at the top of their to-do list. "This was our next cool thing to see," says Beverly, 49.
Louvascio, 64, and Marilyn, who won't reveal her age or last name, are here for the shopping. Well, that's what drew Marilyn. Mike admits he has little interest in the area's designer boutiques that once were warehouses stacked with bloody animal carcasses.
"I'd rather be hunting," he says of his favorite sport, shooting deer with bow and arrow. But "seeing naked people," he hurries up and explains, "is something to do."
Hal Niedzviecki, a cultural expert and author, laughs. He's not surprised by this turn toward group peeping.
"A city like New York always has people who want to be watched and enjoy watching," he says. "But the way society is moving, rather than feel, 'Oh, my God, there are times we have to close the drapes,' it's 'Let's keep them open, all the time, and let whoever wants to take pictures go ahead.' Under the influence of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogging, that very New York attitude is spreading around the world."
In "The Peep Diaries," published in May, Niedzviecki reflects on the ambitions and confusion of a growing number of people who are willing to trade details of their private lives for catharsis, attention and notoriety.
"It's one thing to have sex for the enjoyment of four or five tourists watching from the High Line, it's another for the hotel to make a profit off it, to have people recording it, putting it up on websites. . . . You lose control over what you're doing. Where are we heading with that?"
Not that visual contact, as a pro sport, is anything new to New Yorkers who live up close, in see-through glass towers, balconied tenements and apartment complexes built around gardens.
Putting aside sexual gratification for a minute (or not), voyeurism is a part of everyday life here. Who hasn't made up a story about a neighbor on the next balcony who suns herself on summer weekends or the mother in the apartment across an air shaft who meticulously lays out breakfast for her two children?
While the tabloids chronicled the mischief at the Standard this summer, a former New Yorker identified only as "Hof," wrote eloquently in an online forum about how most New Yorkers imagine life behind "window and curtains."
"Who among us, while wandering the streets of New York, has not let loose our personal voyeur and looked up at the lighted, curtained windows of a stylish brownstone or at one of the glowing dots on a massive high-rise on a foggy night, and watched the people move around in their space and wondered what kind of lives were being played out just behind the glass?? You KNOW what I mean because you've done it, too."
Peering, leering, observing -- it has long been the quintessence of city life. In the 18th century, French poet Charles Baudelaire defined the spirit of the flaneur, or the urban stroller, who saunters aimlessly with nothing more to do than experience the city. Alfred Hitchcock's film "Rear Window" portrayed a detached spectator with binoculars and raised the ethics of such spying.
But there's no thrill, on a crowded island like Manhattan, like a new green space -- and the unique perspective it offers.
Opened in June, the High Line floats for 1.5 miles along the western edge of Manhattan. Familiar with the eagle's view and the street view, New Yorkers, like birds on a new branch, suddenly are waist-high to buildings. It's not just cheap thrills that mesmerize. From its rare perch, the park threads among old buildings and over parking lots from Gansevoort to West 20th Street and eventually will extend to 34th Street.
Now New Yorkers can appraise the contemporary art on the walls of a conference room in the Phillips de Pury & Co. auction house; they can look through a wall of glass that overlooks northbound traffic on 10th Avenue. An old carwash is rediscovered and becomes a valuable piece of real estate. There is also a sun deck with dark wood lounge chairs facing the Hudson River, a public art project of colorful glass, and cafe tables with chairs that offer a sliver of a view of the Statue of Liberty.
Narrow in places and wide in others, overgrown with echinacea plants and assorted weeds, the High Line feels more like a promenade than a park. People, even the most sophisticated and best-traveled New Yorkers, don't walk there -- they stroll.
A few days before the start of New York Fashion Week, designer Diane von Furstenberg flees her studio for her public/private garden, the High Line. Von Furstenberg's signature thicket of hair, dark eyes and confident gait make her easy to recognize, but New Yorkers, who pride themselves on cool indifference in the presence of celebs, leave her alone.
She and her mogul husband, Barry Diller, donated $5 million in 2005 to help build the park. (They later gave an additional $10 million.) But it is not naked frolickers who interest von Furstenberg.
"It's a very nice crowd," she notes, smiling at two men canoodling on a bench. "There's so much to do, so beautiful to have the sunset on the West Side at this time of day."
She pauses to look back at the bold DVF on the side of her headquarters, three former warehouses she combined and topped off with a glass-pane bubble for her store, design studio and home. Her bedroom is on the top floor. She calls it "my treehouse."
"I am totally not a voyeur," she says. "My son gave me for Christmas binoculars, very nice, but the truth is, I don't care. I don't look at other windows. I look at the sky, I look at the clouds, I look at the High Line. . . . I'm not stopping at windows."
Her bathtub could be viewed by guests in the Standard or from that bench where Bob and Beverly Taylor and Mike Louvascio and his girlfriend, Marilyn, are stationed.
But von Furstenberg always draws the curtains.
That's not how the Taylors would do it if they were staying at the Standard.
"But why aren't you staying there yourselves, and doing your [nudist] thing?" Marilyn asks.
The two couples, after overhearing each other describe what drew them to gaze upward, are suddenly talking.
"It's too expensive for us to stay there," says Beverly, quoting rates as high as $705. But if they could afford it, they would take a room and undress for all to see, Bob says. But not for the excitement that some get from exhibitionism.
"For us," Bob says, "it's about freedom."
Marilyn looks skeptical. "Those people," she says, eyeing a 10th-floor hotel guest lounging in her underwear on a bed with the curtains open, "are interested in performing. They get off on it."
Dusk settles in as a truck rattles on the cobbled street below. Most of the curtains are drawn at the Standard. For now, it looks no more exciting than the standard Howard Johnson. The afternoon crowd is dispersing, and seasoned voyeurs -- those who know how much sharper and clearer a view of a lighted bedroom is at night -- are making their way toward the High Line.
Will there be a show at midnight?