Notes from the desk: A return to “Street Haunting”



The last time I walked in Toronto — and I mean real walks, not those trips around the block you take on school breaks — it was summer. I didn’t look around much then. Now, wandering neighborhoods in a self-isolated, distraction-starved state, I absorb it all; my gaze is practically greedy as it settles on pastel awnings and construction scaffolding, on small dogs wearing leopard-print booties and middle-schoolers tripping over razor scooters. I read every street sign, relishing place names that aren’t “upstairs” or “the kitchen”.

I’m not the first to find catharsis putting one foot in front of the other. In her recently published memoir, Rebecca Solnit invests even aimless wandering with a sense of purpose (“it felt,” writes Solnit of strolls taken in her twenties, “like I was getting somewhere”). And Virginia Woolf’s 1930 essay “Street Haunting” builds on an expansive tradition of literary flâneurs, exploring the figurative escapes offered by city streets. In leaving our house, writes Woolf, we “shed the self our friends know us by… When the door shuts on us, [the limits of our identity] vanish. The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken…”. Out walking, Woolf claims, “we are no longer quite ourselves.”

I’ve struggled with mental health for years; it takes a lot less than a pandemic for my personal shell-like covering to prove suffocating. Six weeks of sheltering-in-place haven’t helped. By this point, I’m pretty desperate to be anything but quite myself — and so I take Woolf at her word, and begin to walk.

It works. Tracing the tall, dense streets of Toronto’s Annex, I seek out an escape which Woolf hailed the “greatest of pleasures”. Unlike Woolf, though, I don’t swap the “straight lines of [my] personality” for new, imagined identities. Because I don’t want to “put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others” — not really. When I street-haunt, I shed the current version of myself for former, freer ones.

I find them, too, on sidewalks and outside stores they used to frequent. Here’s an old me, for instance, on a street I canvassed last summer in anticipation of Canada’s federal election. Over the course of those humid nights, my gloveless knuckles knocked on hundreds of doors. Most people were out of town, so even a sneezing or coughing stranger formed cause for excitement; any anxiety stemmed from trying to remember political talking points, not calculate the probability of airborne Covid-particles. Two metres’ distance was the last thing on my mind (unless, of course, whoever answered the door was voting Conservative).

And there: another old self by the Dupont Food Depot, on the doors of which now clings a precarious cardboard sign. 11a.m.–10p.m., reads the ballpoint scratch. 12 ppl max. 

Normally, the Depot is open 24 hours. I know because it was well past midnight when I’d stop last August, en route home from my hostessing shift. These days, the older man behind the cash looks stressed. Last summer, he’d smile when I set my signature purchase — a half-pint of Kawartha Dairy Moose Tracks ice cream — down by the register. He didn’t flinch, either, if I fumbled around in my backpack for spare loonies and toonies, opting to pay in grimy, potentially virus-carrying coins rather than tap my card.

Now, I marvel at that germ-ignorant irreverence. I’d come straight out of the subway, slick with sweat and grease from bussing empty pizza plates — and not once did I wait the five-minute home trip home to wash my hands. Instead, I pulled the lid off my Moose Tracks as I walked, licking freezer burn from the ice-cream’s surface and rooting out peanut butter cups with a plastic spoon.

I meet yet another summer self on the Rosedale railway tracks. That version of me was driven up here by a different isolation, the kind which follows breaking off a four-year relationship.

That sounds sad — I didn’t come to the tracks to wallow. I came to sit cross-legged on the warm asphalt and work through the remaining pages of my watercolor sketchbook; to listen to Supertramp and the sound of car horns on nearby Avenue Road. Back before an uncompromised respiratory system became my most prized possession, I’d even enjoyed the rare cigarette. Watching Joan Mitchell-esque scribbles of smoke rise up from the orange tip, I wondered, lazily, what senior year at Middlebury would be like. I imagined how good it would feel to take muddy runs along the TAM, to drink endless, watery mugfuls of Vermont Coffee Company Medium Roast alongside friends in Atwater dining hall. I looked forward to lectures, to late nights in Davis library writing my thesis on “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse.

A kid skipping virtual high school streaks by on his bike, much too close for Covid-age comfort. When he looks back, I give him the finger. And then I feel bad. It isn’t his fault I’m finishing my undergrad over Zoom. I can’t blame him for being up here, either. By now, the remote workday has ended and the sidewalks surge with runners, making effective social distancing impossible. It’s time to head back.

I dread going home. Still, street-haunting helps. If nothing else, it reminds me that I’m not “tethered to the single self” who, minutes from now, will resume her station on the living-room couch — at least, not forever. Life post-Covid will come, and, when it does, a future version of me will enjoy all of the same vivid colors and textures which marked old experiences. New ones, too.

With that in mind, I mount the steps of my father’s front porch. And — am I imagining it? Or is my heel-dragging punctuated by a kind of gratitude? Because I’m lucky, really, to find “the usual door… the chair turned as I left it”. Lucky to have a kind, comfortable home to self-isolate in, to have a family who can work from the safety of their dining room tables. Lucky, even, that the pain returning to my chest is only anxiety (rather than a sign I’ve contracted Covid).

I’m grateful, too, for the essay underpinning my new survival strategy. Nine decades before I’d heard the term “coronavirus,” Woolf anticipated not only the necessity of escaping, but the literal and figurative refuge found by returning. Because as I “approach [my] own doorstep again”, I take undeniable (albeit grudging) comfort in feeling “the old possessions fold me round…” — in feeling the “self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many [suddenly, temporarily] inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed.”

Ellie Eberlee ’20 is The Campus’s senior Opinions editor.