Other People’s Houses
Whenever I find myself at other people’s houses, I can’t help but look around. I’ve made a habit of visiting friends or acquaintances in their houses just to see how they live, what secrets are contained in their walls. As I enter their house I assume a shy disposition, carefully holding one bag by my side. I fool them into thinking that I am much more polite than I really am, and clear away any potential worries that I will be a bad houseguest. As the person I’m visiting asks if I’d like something to drink, I clear my throat and excuse myself quickly to “wash up.” Following her directions to the bathroom as she bellows behind me, I am already off, on a mission, deceiving her by the instant. I turn the doorknob in the bathroom and
my eyes simultaneously survey the area. I run the water in the faucet to keep up pretenses, as I hurriedly open cabinets and slide out drawers and rummage through their medicine cabinet, surveying the ratio of prescription to over-the-counter drugs, beauty supplies to practical cleanliness products. Half the time I am curious just to get a better view of their ordinary, regular lives while the other half I hope to find something scandalous or deeply personal like a diary. Taking a roundabout way back to the kitchen I peruse the picture frames, books on countertops, cat toys, taking wary glances back to see if the host has caught on to me. But once back in the kitchen, I compliment the tile work in the bathroom and all evidence of a past snoop is gone.
When I snoop, I am very thorough. I have a system and a methodology: small things first— perfume bottles on a dresser, contact lens dispensers, nail polish, false teeth, wedding rings, age cream, magazines and fridge magnets—before moving on to bigger things like family photographs, pantry supplies, antiques, novelty cases, desk drawers, and bedside tables. I should admit before I go further, I am not non-judgmental, if I come across something tacky or strange I do not let it wash over me without some critical analysis. I once went to the house of a woman whom I knew was single, yet she had twelve pastel toothbrushes in her bathroom. I was quick to categorize her as overly optimistic.
When we tour relic museums or historic houses where objects of a Revolutionary general are encased in a bullet proof-box, it’s expected that our eyes will dart from place to place, that we’ll tempt the tour guide when we think she’s not looking and poke the colonial pillow. In crime shows, detectives barge into people’s houses under investigation, pulling out ziplock bags and tweezers to collect evidence from behind picture frames. These examples are clear intrusions, yet they seem justified. But there’s an unnerving crossover that happens when I’m confined within the walls of a house that isn’t my own, and I too am an intruder; unlike the crime scene investigator, I have no excuse for prying except curiosity.
The snoop side of me is always looking for proof or clues to something juicy. Staying over in someone’s house, I feel excited by the prospect that I will become privy to a more candid picture of the host and gain far better access than any normal, well-behaved visitor would. When I spend time in another person’s house, I exist temporarily in an alternate world. I gain insight not only into the inanimate objects and the stories they tell, but also into the people’s day-to-day lives and how well or badly off they are economically. The only thing you can’t infer through snooping is how happy they are.
It’s the peculiarity, randomness and placement of people’s possessions that are so interesting. There’s a level of individuality you just can’t make up: like discovering a glitter action figure of Jesus on the windowsill, or three Felix the Cat clocks wagging their tails in synchronism. The first house I snooped was my grandmother’s. She had fake poppies all over the place and I couldn’t figure out why. I ended up finding a folded letter on red paper with her father’s nickname “Poppy” at the bottom, a sign of how attached she was to him, even a half-century after he died. I started to wonder what could secretly be housed in the battery cover of electronics—after finding a purple lipstick in her freezer and a stack of postage stamps and political bumper stickers behind some cereal boxes.
I love to see what people will choose to display for viewers in their homes. Will they clean up before you arrive? Wipe the place clear of anything that speaks too revealingly, such as bills and correspondence, and leave out only neutral objects like the butter knife or fish food? Or will they leave all as is, and invite you into their home, mid-second into their lives? I once was called in unexpectedly to house-sit for our tenants when the young actor-couple spontaneously decided to go upstate. After tending to the plants, I browsed their book collection, picked through the CD’s stacked on the radio, and looked in their fridge, which contained only Pepsi, bread, cheesecake and edemame appetizers. Their bedroom was cluttered with clothes from nights before (I speculated they’d been ripped off in haste), haphazardly strewn across the room. A single sneaker looked as though a messy bachelor had tossed it, while her jewelry sparkled independently on the dresser. And a good morning love note was scribbled on their bathroom mirror in red lipstick.
Snooping is a bad habit that I ought to put an end to and I should scold myself for having kept it up so long. But isn’t it a natural impulse? In moments when I fear I am pushing the common courtesy boundary, I convince myself I am merely taking a detailed inventory of things I would instinctually observe as a passerby. As the host says goodbye, asks how I slept (and I lie enthusiastically despite the throbbing crick in my neck), I wonder if my snooping endeavors were worth it. In retrospect a part of me feels selfish for hunting secrets and insights that aren’t mine to seek, but without them I’d have no way of telling how my own compare. As I leave the house I consult with my conscience and remember that I was voluntarily invited into their home when I was greeted at the door. The hosts should take pleasure in the fact that they are interesting enough subjects worth being snooped in the first place. It’s a compliment.