Richard Thomas doesn't miss much from his terrace in Southern Towers. Before his morning ablutions in the snug "bachelor" efficiency, he usually grabs his binoculars and steps out to greet the dawn.
Perched on the 15th floor of the Monticello Building, Thomas trains his field glasses on the four sister towers: the Sherwood and Berkeley looming off to the right, and the Stratford and Ashlawn rising ahead across the green.
"There's a lot of folks out there who keep their blinds open," he says, cradling the Montgomery Ward binoculars, a gift from his ex-wife. "I can see into all the buildings except the Monticello. There's one woman, 10th floor of the Sherwood, who wakes up at 6 o'clock every morning, stands up in her bathrobe and then -- ta da! -- tosses it on the floor. I don't pay much attention to her anymore. A lot of times I'll see other people with binoculars, and even telescopes, checking things out the same as me. I'm not the only pervert with a pair of binoculars."
The pastime is a fact of life in the Alexandria high-rise, where looking through a spyglass is a way of being neighborly. "A friend of mine uses hers every day," says Rose Chiostergi, 82, a widow who lives in the Berkeley. "She's housebound, but she still likes to keep track." In the quiet time before daybreak, gogglers might see the first intrepid jogger rounding the perimeter, the security force's station wagon patroling the rows of parked cars or small birds stirring in the maples and pines. "You might consider it a game," says Thomas, 38, a sheet-metal worker at the State Department. "I just consider it getting up in the morning."
Rearing 16 stories over I-395, the five brick-and-concrete towers stack up as a vertical neighborhood. Built in the early 1960s, the project straddles 40 acres of rolling lawns, tennis courts and swimming pools, and boasts a bank, 7-Eleven, valet service -- plus safety and reasonable rents. People used to call it "Sin City" because of its swinging singles. But that was 10 years ago and one resident says, "The reputation greatly exceeds the reality."
The 4,600 tenants in nearly 2,400 apartments fall largely into a singles set but seem to swing less than before. Beth Kersey, who recently became manager, puts their average age at 40 -- a far cry from 1970, when Kersey's predecessor, Earl Campbell, counted about 2,600 single men and women younger than 35. Many of those have married and gone, to neighborhoods in Fairfax and Springfield (nicknamed "Southern Towers South" by a few nostalgic homeowners), while growing numbers of elderly have come to take their place.
Rosemarie Moore, 42, still visits the project, where she met her husand Douglas through the Southern Towers Bowling League. "Southern Towers is a nucleus," says the Washington native, who makes her pilgrimage from Fairfax for Thursday night bowling. "The number of people who have moved away and still go back out there is amazing."
Others, like Pat Massie, a native of Saco, Maine, simply stuck around and got older. "It was parties, parties, parties all the time," says Massie, who arrived at the complex at age 23, and now is 39. "I'll probably die here," she jokes.
Samuel Levinson, a clinical psychologist who practices at the Monticello, says, "One of my patients once commented to me that living here must be a lot like living in a rabbit warren, and there may be something to that. But you can be as active or as isolated as you need or desire to be. Isolation is too often self-imposed."
After moving into the eighth floor of the Stratford, Cynthia Potter went six months without seeing any of her neighbors. "Finally, I decided that this was ridiculous," says Potter, who owns a typing and answering service on the Stratford's ground level. "So I got some wine and cheese and sat out by the elevators. At first people looked at me strangely, but after a while it got to be quite a party."
Then there's Ann Ellen Goldberger, a 24-year-old dental hygienist who moved to the Monticello last February. "I've never lived by myself," she says. "There was no furniture, just a bed and a dresser, and I felt all alone. I was scared." But soon she discovered that the laundry room was a good place to meet people. "I chatted with people in elevators, and made friends with the women at the desk." Before long she was trading magazines for tomatoes with an older woman nearby. She never got to know one neighbor, however. "The man down the hall shot himself a few months ago."
Ex-manager Campbell lives atop the Sherwood and, until passing the mantle last month, reserved hisbinoculars for finding cracks in the brick facades. "A lot of people are lonely here," he says. "I've talked to the resident managers about it, and it seems that some people come home from work at 5 o'clock Friday, and nobody sees them till they go back Monday morning. If you want to be like that, a high-rise is the place."
Shortly after sunrise on weekdays, the complex springs to life. As the joggers come out in force, Metro buses start their rounds through the parking lot, leaving a whiff of diesel exhaust at each stop along the way. Car-poolers wait in the vestibules, peering through the plate-glass doors. Others, like Richard Thomas in his Volkswagen, drive themselves to work.
The action flags by 10:00. Until 4:00, when it revvs up in reverse, Southern Towers seems calm, almost bucolic. Besides the ubiquitous joggers, there are grounds-keepers pruning and trimming, maids and porters mopping -- and, of course, the tenants who don't commute anymore.
The nearly deserted lobbies, with their speckled terazzo and bland decor (though oil paintings of famous Virginians grace a few walls), smell a little like hospital wards. By noon a few gray- haired women have settled into the chairs, chatting with one another during their ritual wait for the mail. Another woman well past 80 sometimes rides the elevator down to meet with her insurance agent: her propriety (an acquaintance reports) forbids his coming upstairs. The background music is inexorable: slightly subdued at the Stratford, a building with a good number of old people, and jauntier at the Monticello, reputedly the young-singles spot.
All day long at the front desks, assistant managers take complaints, dispatch maintenance crews, answer phones, sell newspapers or chew the fat with the tenants. A hundred-odd people keep the complex running, and by most accounts, they do their jobs well.
"My building is run very nicely. As a matter of fact, they just changed my filter," says Rose Chiostergi, who does part-time bookkeeping while serving as treasurer of the Southern Towers Social Club.
The social club--the old- singles' answer to the tennis players and bowlers--stages bridge and canasta games, trips and lectures, but holds little charm for residents under 60. Old is old, and young is young, and seldom the twain shall meet. "Personally, I can't tell you too much about them," says Chiostergi of her younger neighbors, "but there's one person who lives next door and there was a ruckus one night with a woman pounding on the door. She kept shouting, 'I know you're in there, open the door for me!' Finally I called the office and they told her to stop and she left."
Chiostergi's daughter, Sandra Marie Davis, lives in the Berkeley a few floors below. "I've never considered myself to be single or alone," says Davis, 48, with a daughter off to college. "I more or less consider myself a mother." She's lived in the high-rise since 1966. "It used to be, when I said I lived in Southern Towers, people would look at me as if I lived in a bordello."
At the Pawnshop, a singles bistro in the bowels of nearby Skyline Mall and a popular watering hole for Southern Towers residents, Richard Thomas has a table by a window looking out on the arcade. As he talks -- about his escapades at Southern Towers, his ex-wife and his two sons ("They're really my whole life") -- his eyes are glued to the scene beyond, teeming with late-night shoppers. He picks out from the parade a brunette in leather jacket, gliding along a window display and gazing at her own reflection.
"Look at her primping in the mirror," he says. "I know her like a book. I know all of them like a book."
Half an hour and a few beers later, Thomas is at a table near the bar, talking about how he'd like to change the way he lives and maybe go back with his wife. Whirling around to ogle each new arrival, he says he's not too hopeful about a reconcilation. "I hate Southern Towers," he says with feeling, and the waitress comes up for the order.
"I really like your tie," he tells her. "Can I buy that?"
"No, I'm sorry," she says, touching her calico bowtie, "It's a very unique tie. I made it myself and there's no more material."
"Then why don't you give it to me?"
The wheedling continues in spurts for 20 minutes, every time the waitress returns. After a while Thomas eases up, and the conversation turns to careers and backgrounds. "Where do you live?" she asks.
Her face is a cross between smile and smirk. "Oh God," she says, "I'm not surprised."
"What do you mean? It's a very nice place." Thomas looks hurt for a moment.
"I've heard about that place."
"You sure you won't sell me that tie?"