A Woman Walks Alone at Night
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.