A Wo­man Walks Alone at Night

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Bri­ohny Doyle

It’s fun to be free, and walk­ing around late at night. On the week­ends, cou­ples fight on the street in shouty whis­pers, sloppy drunks sop up ke­babs at plas­tic ta­bles be­side the night­club queue with its gaudy, ag­i­tated en­ergy. A smok­ing cage is like an aviary fac­ing the street. I walk through plumes. On a week­night it’s qui­eter. A bored bar­tender lean­ing across a bar, sharp cheek­bones phone­glow il­lu­mi­nated. A group of teens skate the town hall steps. Through the win­dow, a restau­rant has just the right kind of light­ing and some­one laughs loud enough that it can be heard out­side. The buzz of the evening usu­ally wears off some­where be­tween party strips and the deep res­i­den­tial en­claves. On a good night, when I’m walk­ing be­cause I want to (not be­cause I’m broke), it feels as though the city is fall­ing in step with me, fi­nally, and all the cars, the trees, the street­lights as­sume a quiet or­der as I pass by. There is no work now, no er­rands, noth­ing to buy, no one to meet. In mo­tion, in the in-be­tween, there’s pause to let my thoughts run over the night, the times, my life. We walk at the pace of our thoughts, sug­gests Re­becca Sol­nit, and my legs para­phrase.

I’ll take any op­por­tu­nity to cross a park. I love a sports field at night. If the lights are on but no one is play­ing, it’s a vast glow­ing noth­ing­ness: smooth, ready and wait­ing. If it’s dark, there’s an air of melan­cho­lia, nos­tal­gia. An un­lit field takes me back to ado­les­cence. How I felt when a full place emp­tied out. Re­lief. I could walk out to the mid­dle of the pitch, be­ing no one, not know­ing the rules of any game, lie down and feel the sturdy grass against my back. I still like to do this, 20 years on.

In sum­mer I’ll walk across the creek or through the ceme­tery at night and let my dog run the flood­lit green, bugs swim­ming in glare like dig­i­tal arte­facts strug­gling to co­here. Some­times, on my way home from some­where or other, I’ll take a break on a play­ground swing. Lis­ten to the chain squeak­ing against my weight, throw my head back into the air, the stars.

On nights like this I feel affin­ity with the flâneur, the 19th-cen­tury fig­ure that Wal­ter Ben­jamin so loved in his read­ings of Baude­laire. A flâneur roams the streets. He likes to watch but not en­gage. The du­alisms used to de­scribe him speak to de­sires deep within me: “pub­lic pri­vacy”, “lonely crowd”. The im­age im­printed in my mind: a well-dressed man walk­ing a tor­toise through an ar­cade. A writer, maybe, min­ing the city.

Flânerie was not gen­er­ally a night-time pur­suit, but now that ar­cades have trans­mo­gri­fied into malls and de­part­ment stores, and cap­i­tal­ism is writ too large to take your tor­toise out in, night works bet­ter. You see less, per­haps, but you see it more point­edly. And there is some­thing in see­ing noth­ing, too – the city street as al­most-va­cant ter­rain baring the traces of its res­i­dents. The aban­doned refuse of a pic­nic in the gar­dens. A child’s puffy jacket hung care­fully over a climb­ing frame. A pile of leaflets for an Ital­ian suit sale dumped un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously next to an over­flow­ing rub­bish bin. Walk­ing gives us the il­lu­sory abil­ity to read the city as a text, an ac­tiv­ity that Michel de Certeau claimed comes from “the lust to be a view­point and noth­ing else”. I have that lust. But I am also a wo­man.

The flâneuse (a fe­male flâneur) is a con­tentious fig­ure. That pe­riod of moder­nity was char­ac­terised by a life lived in pub­lic, but women of the time were ban­ished to the home. Be­cause of this sep­a­rat­ing of the spheres, some aca­demics, such as Janet Wolff, re­fute the pos­si­bil­ity of a flâneuse. Even in the up­per classes, a chap­er­oned con­sti­tu­tional in the park was hardly com­pa­ra­ble to the free­doms of a dandy on the boule­vard. Frus­trated with bour­geois con­straints, the writer Ge­orge Sand stepped out in drag. In 1831 she wrote:

I can’t ex­press the plea­sure my boots gave me: I would gladly have slept with them … I was solid on the pave­ment. I flew from one end of Paris to the other. It seemed to me that I could go round the world. And then, my clothes feared noth­ing. I ran out in ev­ery kind of weather, I came home at ev­ery sort of hour … no one looked at me, no one found fault with me; I was an atom lost in that im­mense crowd.

Women’s cloth­ing is still a point of con­tention in the pub­lic sphere. There are clothes that are deemed ap­pro­pri­ate, and those said to in­vite trou­ble. Look­ing at a pho­to­graph of Sand in her glam­orous man-cos­tume, smok­ing and star­ing down the pho­tog­ra­pher, I won­der if the suit wasn’t cut from the same cloth as the em­peror’s. When I walk I can be 21st-cen­tury an­drog­y­nous in jeans and a bomber jacket. I love the feel­ing of in­vis­i­bil­ity, too, but I un­der­stand it’s just a feel­ing.

De­spite pro­pri­ety and pro­hi­bi­tions, women walk, then as now. There are women lit­tered in 19th-cen­tury lit­er­ary street scenes. Baude­laire de­scribed “crim­i­nals and kept women” wan­der­ing the un­der­world, and a wo­man’s “sin­u­ous gait” as cap­tured by his favourite wa­ter­colourist. Baude­laire spec­u­lated on the lives of sex work­ers, wid­ows, les­bians, and even met a wo­man’s gaze once. The con­tem­po­rary reader has ques­tions about these women. What did they see as they were be­ing looked at? What po­ems might they have writ­ten, in pri­vate, for no one to pub­lish? Lau­ren Elkin ar­gues that, in part, what stopped the fe­male walker from be­com­ing

a flâneuse in her own right was the gaze of the flâneur him­self: that idle man, whose be­hav­iours and com­ments to­wards women are a form of so­cial con­trol. Those idle men to whom, even now, we hand over the night. Women al­ways walk, but some­how we are al­ways also part of the ter­rain.

Ar­gu­ing for the flâneuse in The Paris Re­view, Elkin writes:

The city can be a site of great free­dom for any­one, but es­pe­cially for women. Lay­ing claim to flânerie has al­ways en­abled us to dis­rupt the lives we were ex­pected to live

Flâneuserie – to coin a term – is about women mov­ing from be­ing looked at to look­ing. Through move­ment, we as­sert our sub­jec­tiv­ity.

These con­nec­tions – walk­ing and think­ing, see­ing and be­ing seen, dis­rup­tion, free­dom, sub­jec­tiv­ity – feel cru­cial to me. Par­tic­u­larly now, when I re­ceive the mes­sage that I should not walk: not as a wo­man, not in the city, not alone, and def­i­nitely not at night.

I bris­tle when some­one calls out “Be care­ful” as I’m half­way out the door. My boyfriend says it but he’s loath to leave a good party pre­ma­turely, and loves to walk the city on his own. My dad is al­ways telling me to be care­ful of hoons and ya­hoos, two terms that un­der­score with­out con­demn­ing. My dad is also an al­co­holic ram­bler who lives in a car and loves noth­ing more than to mo­tor into a far-off town and wan­der around in­tox­i­cated, look­ing at ev­ery­thing un­til he falls down. Both men are fiercely pro­tec­tive of their own right to make risky choices. They care about my safety, of course they do. But I sus­pect they care more about their own free­dom, in­clud­ing the free­dom not to worry about me. It’s this same du­bi­ous con­cern that I hear run­ning through the po­lice ad­vice that we all need to be re­spon­si­ble for our own safety. “We all”, we know, means “women”. Don’t make us worry about you. Don’t as­sert your free­dom at the ex­pense of ours.

Last year, a safety-con­scious neigh­bour knocked on the door of my share house to warn us about the creek at night. There was a shady el­e­ment on our street, she said, a bad man, known to her fam­ily. What if he saw, as she had, my house­mate head­ing down to the creek on her evening jog? This neigh­bour would never for­give her­self if we girls ended up mur­dered, sub­merged in shal­low wa­ter. I smiled po­litely, shut the door and swore out loud. I thought of my neigh­bour at her win­dow, watch­ing, imag­in­ing our vi­o­lent deaths right when we imag­ined our­selves un­watched and free.

I pushed against her un­so­licited dose of fear as I took off in the twi­light, sneak­ers spring­ing on the bi­tu­men, car­ry­ing me down to­wards the creek, its flood­prone banks some­times choked with refuse, some­times

mud-slick and slip­pery like my thoughts. There are places along the Merri Creek that feel haunted. The pulse quick­ens as you move through their shad­ows. Thought be­comes stac­cato and edgy. Fear can be a wel­come, even nec­es­sary, part of the jour­ney. But not if it’s used on you as an in­stru­ment of con­trol.

Walk­ing is think­ing and see­ing, is writ­ing and free­dom and self. And women do these things. We al­ways have.

In 1930, in a let­ter to a close friend, Vir­ginia Woolf wrote that “of­ten I plunge into Lon­don, be­tween tea and din­ner, and walk and walk, re­viv­ing my fires, in the city, in some wretched slum, where I peep in at the doors of pub­lic houses”. At the same time, in Paris, a young Si­mone de Beau­voir walked the boule­vards with Jean-Paul Sartre, talk­ing over their con­cep­tion of “rad­i­cal free­dom”, which reads to me as a pact to be un­afraid as much as pos­si­ble, and to use thought and writ­ing to achieve this end. She drank hot choco­late in cafes with her co­terie and sel­dom re­turned to her beloved pri­vate room be­fore two in the morn­ing. In her mem­oir The Prime of Life she wrote of vis­it­ing Sartre while he did his mil­i­tary ser­vice out­side Paris: “Trudg­ing alone along that black road, some­times in the teeth of wind and rain, and watch­ing the white dis­tant gleam of con­volvu­lus through the park rail­ings, gave me an ex­hil­a­rat­ing sen­sa­tion of ad­ven­ture.” Later, when she took up a teach­ing post in Mar­seilles she an­tic­i­pated how walk­ing would make this strange town fa­mil­iar to her and per­haps give her “greater fa­mil­iar­ity” with her­self. She loved to get up and walk be­fore dawn, when “things fore­seen and un­fore­see­able would be­fall me on my way”.

De Beau­voir knew what Sol­nit later made ex­plicit in Wan­der­lust, that walk­ing cre­ates “an odd con­so­nance be­tween in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal pas­sage, one that sug­gests that the mind is also a land­scape of sorts and that walk­ing is one way to tra­verse it”. What does it mean, then, to re­strict where and when a group of peo­ple may walk, and to do so by fill­ing the ter­rain with ter­ri­fy­ing spec­tres? This is a colo­nial im­pulse, well re­hearsed in Aus­tralia where my pas­sage is less re­stricted than that of non-white, trans and home­less women. But I’m still asked where I’m go­ing, by strangers in or out of uni­forms.

Lately I’ve heard peo­ple say that women should walk in groups be­cause an in­di­vid­ual who goes her own way will not be safe. Women should not be alone in pub­lic. We should stay in­doors, in the do­mes­tic space, the work­place (not all work­places, mind you) and the com­mer­cial space, mov­ing be­tween them in pri­vate cars. But we all know a wo­man is more likely to be at­tacked by a part­ner than a stranger, that a wo­man in the work­place has lit­tle re­course against ha­rass­ment if she val­ues her ca­reer, that a shop­ping mall is a place where a wo­man di­vests her­self of eco­nomic power in per­verse and non­sen­si­cal ways as an in­te­gral part of her very ex­is­tence-as-wo­man, that a car con­denses open space into a se­ries of de­tached lo­ca­tions. Where in this is free­dom, rad­i­cal or oth­er­wise? A cen­tury on I won­der, where is the time and place for the flâneuse? I have walked to know place and my­self in strange cities, peep­ing in the doors of pub­lic houses in New York City and Los An­ge­les, in San Fran­cisco and Syd­ney, in Hiroshima and Santa Cruz, in Tokyo and Cape Town and Ber­lin and Prague.

In New Haven I watched Amer­ica’s most priv­i­leged youth stag­ger and puke on their Hal­loween one­sies while wait­ing for the late-night cam­pus bus. I’ve heard gun­shots and sirens. I’ve learned, af­ter the fact, about ter­ri­ble things that hap­pened just a block from where I was. Jog­ging, bikes, dogs, buses, these are al­ready com­pro­mises to some­thing in­tractable and be­yond my con­trol.

Even at home I find my­self alone some Fri­day nights, rest­less and melan­cholic. I can cook and eat din­ner and watch an hour of TV, but if I can’t shift the sorry, lonely gloom I take it to the streets. On this par­tic­u­lar night it’s cold. I’m rugged up and dowdy as I pass the trendy bars on Ly­gon Street. A young wo­man with a red faux-fur coat that matches her hair ex­actly flashes a daz­zling smile at some­one I can’t see. An old wo­man smokes through a crack in her car win­dow, hold­ing an an­i­mated phone con­ver­sa­tion in Ital­ian, wait­ing for the lights to change. The univer­sity cam­pus is al­most empty now, re­ver­ber­at­ing with the loud hum of ven­ti­la­tion units that I’ve al­ways found mes­meris­ing. I get a phrase in my head and stop to write it down. The trees are low lit and leaf­less. My cheeks are icy and my spir­its are lift­ing. I can see right into the gym where male jocks work out in clus­ters, slap­ping each other’s backs, grin­ning, huge sweat stains on their shirts. I keep walk­ing. It’s 10pm when I ar­rive at Princes Park, though it feels later. The wind rus­tles the More­ton Bay figs, lamps strike their shad­ows across the white gravel path. There’s a lull in the traf­fic, and I can hear hard ac­cel­er­a­tion blocks away. Hoons and ya­hoos. Eury­dice Dixon was mur­dered here. I can imag­ine how she felt while she was walk­ing home that night: ex­u­ber­ant, buoy­ant. The adren­a­line of per­form­ing wear­ing off, leav­ing a sense of ac­com­plish­ment, free­dom. My eyes sting and I close them for a mo­ment. Then they are open again and I am mov­ing for­wards, clock­ing the ghost gums, a late-night jog­ger, as­sorted footy posts, a lit-up mau­soleum, and, in front of me, the city.

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