Happenings at a Window: three stories, one word
In the receding embers of 2014, there is little left to do but make some lists.
Yes. Lists are legion, coming after Facebook’s pictorial assault on 1.2 billion people’s ‘great year’ – packaging life in a manner that suggests both uniqueness and sameness, simultaneously.
I have recently read lists of 2014’s dead, its best jokes, its plane disasters, its political highlights, its celebrity woes, and its musical triumphs.
But my favourite List is of the year’s most interesting words. This is an annual event where lexicographers have a go at making words not just meaningful, but fun and fashionable too.
In a fun assessment of 2014’s most important words, from Lexicon Valley, (‘vape’, ‘culture’ and ‘exposure’ all make a mark for various reasons), one word has caught my imagination.
It is untypical: it does not capture a 2014 zeitgeist, but rather is elected because it is a word full of power, colour and fascination.
Defenestration. The act of throwing someone or something out of the window.
Hearing that word, defenestration, has brought me directly to three stories which linger in my mind. Two are tragic. One is comic. Two are real. One is imagined.
Only special words can conjure worlds with total ease. Through words such as these, empires fall, great works of art are created, and human life itself is more richly understood.
The first story happened in the 1970s. I know the date imprecisely, but I do know that windows were made differently back then. As a child, when I heard the story of that poor woman, I felt her pain with profound distress. What happened to her never left me.
In an urban family home in the early morning, a fire started downstairs. It was accidental, and quickly cut off the stairs. A dazed and panicked mother gathered her two small children in an upstairs bedroom as fire ripped through her home at startling speed. Helpless neighbours looked up to see the most appalling scene unfold. All of this happened before emergency services arrived.
The woman’s house had been newly fitted with double glazing, and the windows opened only at the top, and only horizontally. The opening was too small for even a small child to escape through, and the glazing was too tough to break, no matter how hard she tried.
The woman spent her last breaths trapped in her own glaze-insulated home. She and her kids were consumed by fumes whilst hammering at the window, to no avail. Three lives were lost that morning, all victims of a failed emergency defenestration.
The second story takes place on the stage, in a serious comedy that is often ridiculous. In Count Almaviva’s court, the testosterone-crazed teenager Cherubino has managed to charm a couple of women through singing one of the most famous songs about love from the 18th century.
He is a character in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, and the Count suspects that the youth has been cavorting in his wife’s second floor bedroom. A hasty escape is required.
In a scene perfectly captured in silly, beautiful, farcical music, Cherubino finally lands on a plan. As the Count is about to enter the room and have his guts for garter, the sex-crazed teen swings open the window and leaps two floors, down into the garden.
His melodramatic escape is a highlight of every production of The Marriage of Figaro, and a timeless moment of ribald defenestration.
I worked in Manhattan for a summer when I was 20 years old. Through the experience, I took a crash-course in understanding what it is to age.
My job was within the Activities Therapy department of a Jewish Nursing Home on East 79th Street, and I was paid an hourly wage to talk with, sing for and listen to elderly people.
It was a milestone life-experience, informing how I’ve come to think about what it is to truly live, and bravely die.
One day, I facilitated a discussion group of five old and infirm New Yorkers-in-wheelchairs, and my chosen topic was the Wall Street Crash of 1929.
My participants were perhaps infirm of body, but fully lucid in mind. Although I was facilitating, they were leading.
One man described his personal experience of working on Wall Street at the time. He described how confusing it was, how the collapse happened so fast, and how the economic devastation had ruined lives.
‘I saw a businessman stand at a window of a tall building opposite mine. He stood for a long time. He looked back into the building several times. And then, I saw him jump.’
There was silence as his words filled the air. I enquired as to where and when exactly it had occurred. He related the details in the way old people do – that is, as a set of detailed facts, rather than a collage of sweeping emotions.
The only lady in our group then spoke.
‘I too was working on Wall Street in 1929’, she said. ‘I was a secretary for a business in that building. That man you’re describing. The one who jumped out of the window. He was my boss’.
I stared at her. We all stared at each other.
57 years later, a calamity for a whole society had come alive, its meaning conjured in the memory of what happened high up, through a Wall Street window.
© 2014. Brian McIntyre.