Looking inside glass boxes for fun and profit

A couple weeks ago, I was downtown for a work thing but had time to kill, so I walked over to the Macy’s holiday windows on State Street. These tiny encased worlds, every year they’re there. This year the theme was “Santa’s Journey to the Stars” — lots of outer-space imagery; planets aglow.

I’ll be honest, I was surprised at the crowds. I assumed that kids were beyond this sort of thing. IMAX or it didn’t happen. But no, there they were, huddled amongst parents and siblings, pointing and exclaiming just as always. What is it about these windows that makes us cluster around?

Something about the enclosed nature of these windows always makes them irresistible. There’s glass between us and this super-interesting thing? Of course, that’s where we press our noses.

But even more magnetic is this: everything inside is MADE OF REAL THINGS. Fake things, but real. Moving parts, set to music. Pieces of robotic machinery that make dolls come to life, that make backdrops turn. An arm raises up a gift box, a star zings across an imaginary sky, and suddenly we’re inside that glass. Inside, with the robots who seem more lifelike than anything on the outside.

On every level, the visceral becomes more valuable in a digital world. It’s the same reason that live literary performances have become so popular, where it’s one writer onstage with her own story, breathing the same breath as everyone else, full of pauses and coughs in the wrong place.

I have a strange, through-the-looking-glass perspective on this one. I was hired to be a real-life mannequin in store windows, in high school. On Saturdays, I stood in a mall window. In an outfit that would otherwise have been on a mannequin. And I pretended to be made of plastic. Then, after fifteen minutes of not moving, I’d change clothes again.

Kids always clustered around. Some banged on the glass occasionally, but mostly they were reverent. Suspicious, but charmed by the idea of something living in that window.

Of course, the weird part was, as a friend recently noted, “You were literally objectified.”

I didn’t do this gig for long, just a handful of Saturdays over a few years, where it earned me twenty bucks an hour. The grocery store paid me five. But I did learn what it’s like to be on the other side of that glass. To be lingered over, to wondered about. And this was before so much of our world became screens, without so much as the texture of a pressable button.

Texture. Realness.

We need these things.

And underlying all of our slick pixels there’s still wires, still circuitry. Nothing is actually made of magic– not yet. I did get a Raspberry Pi for Christmas, which reminds me of the engines my grandfather and uncles used to work on in the driveway. All the parts laid bare. So clean you could eat off it, they used to say. I haven’t done much yet–just opened the box–but everything inside glitters.