The city only seems empty until you start walking around. Kasia van Schaik learns to appreciate it from the outside looking in.
In a third-floor window, in a living room identical to mine, a woman—not me—measures out a glass of wine and hands it to a stranger. In the apartment below her, a giant photograph of a black dog takes up the entire back wall. In a basement on the next block, a family on a couch mirrors the family they’re watching on TV, only the TV family lives in a world of coffee shops and libraries and rolling green parks, where they casually greet and hug their friends.
These scenes from my nightly walks give me a strange kind of comfort. They are an archive of normalcy in a world irrevocably changed: a shifting puzzle of half-drawn curtains and pacing feet, elaborate shadows, faces flooded with digital light, a small rainbow in each window. Gazing up at these backlit portraits, I have the sense that they’re suspended in darkness by a connective thread, that they’re part of a much larger exhibition of intimacy, extending out along Montreal’s corridors as if along the galleries of an infinite museum.
Many have noted how life under the pandemic resembles the work of twentieth-century American painter Edward Hopper, an artist of loneliness—his quiet, nested worlds of diners and late-night cafes, of beautiful, sad women trapped in their own finely wrought solitude. I keep hoping I will meet one of them on my night walks, so that they can teach me how to wear my own grief with more elegance. A retreat into the recesses of the self, a total detachment from the outside world—admittedly, this would be one way to bear the lockdown. But I don’t encounter these women, not even in the laundromat, one of the last things allowed to remain open.
Rather than images of solitude, my pandemic museum brims with scenes of communal life: families arguing, hugging, scrolling, disappearing through doorways, shouting soundlessly across rooms. I pass unfinished garden projects, balconies of trash, a locked playground, a heap of tricycles. It’s only on the next block, at a long-term care facility, that these busy domestic scenes are interrupted. The units in this building are dark, blinds drawn, with the exception of one unit, I notice, which is empty. The bed’s stripped, the closet doors are open, the walls and floor immaculately clean.
Looking into these basement windows, condominiums, closed-down daycares and hair salons, I try to imagine what it would mean to exist solely within an interior—your whole world compressed into a tiny rectangular frame. We have seen this before in Hopper’s most iconic portrait of loneliness, Nighthawks, from 1942. It depicts a late-night diner on a desolate green-lit street; three customers and a server sit around the bar, each lost in thought. Hopper famously eliminated any reference to an entrance to the diner, and so the four figures at the counter are separated from the viewer by a seamless wedge of glass. They are distracted, uncommunicative, isolated, yet quarantined together in what the cultural critic Olivia Laing calls their “urban aquarium.”
Before the lockdown, I had been working on a dissertation about women writers’ relationships to domesticity, or, in another way of putting it, the struggle to make habitable spaces for female intellectual work. When forced by the pandemic into my own state of domesticity, I found I could no longer write, or think, or do anything beyond listen to the radio and scroll through the ceaseless stream of bad news. My walks became my only creative act: a way to plot my way out of my writer’s block by analyzing the aesthetics of our locked-down state.
When quarantine was first announced in Montreal, I only dared leave my apartment at night when there was no one else on the streets. Now, a month in, I venture further out of my northern neighbourhood. As I head south in the rain through a Hopper-like arcade, the interiors grow airier, the windows larger. A cat scrutinises me from a window ledge. The same Scandinavian chair reappears in several living rooms. A man scrapes the remains of a meal into a garbage can, a gesture that is repeated the next kitchen over, while in a third kitchen, a plate is washed clean.
In his history of the domestic interior, Walter Benjamin suggests that in the most radical instances of domicile, we return to the earliest of all forms of dwellings: the shell. A residence bears the impression of its occupant, and in turn, the occupant is shaped by his shell. In this strange process of devolution—caused, in our case, by the holing-up enforced by quarantine—we have once again become sea creatures, crustaceans confined to our interiors, immobile in our airtight casements.
One street over, the renovated homes disappear. Here, some tenants have sealed over their windowpanes with cardboard; I wonder if it’s for fear of contamination. This reminds me of a Carol Shields story about a couple who board up their windows to avoid a draconian window tax. But this is our world now. Just up the street in a friend’s apartment building, the landlord installed a tarp over a tenant’s windows when he learned that the tenant had tested positive for the virus—the window looked into a common courtyard and the landlord was afraid of the virus getting out. For weeks, the tenant had to recover in darkness.
My sister, who works in the health-care system, calls me while I’m out walking. She’s googling how long she can leave her eleven-year-old son alone at home. The answer: up to three hours, but only during daylight and early evening. She’s bought him a tiny trampoline to use in his bedroom. But it’s already covered in laundry, she says.
On my way home, I pass an old man who stares at me as if I possess the nuclear codes, or as if I, myself, am the detonator, a silent walking bomb. I feel like this some days; other days, I feel defenceless: my lungs contract, and my mind lets loose upon my body all the symptoms of the disease. It is in these moments that the membrane between the interior and exterior world is thinnest, when our bodies become another kind of museum, calcifying the headlines, graphs, emotional deficits and surges of the day in exhibitions of blood and nerves and skin.
Tonight, the news tells of Spanish ice rinks turned into morgues, New York mulling burials in public parks, a spike in domestic violence, and the importance of ritual. Make your bed, call your friends. Walk while you can still walk through this gallery of lighted rooms, our nocturnal aquarium, the only one still accepting visitors.
Below me, the 10 PM metro transports no one. It circles back, north towards the river, towards the suburbs and the men’s prison; then it returns, ghost-like, through the tunnels. At my intersection, the street glistens red in the traffic light. It looks so much like wet skin that I reach down and touch it.
I began my nightly walks in a desperate attempt to remain mobile in body and mind, to escape merging completely with my shell. Reinventing the city, filling it with portraits and exhibits, lets me be curator rather than Hopper’s victim of isolation. But instead of an aesthetics of loneliness, what I discovered was an aesthetics of hope. These portraits of interiority reveal what people can withstand, but also what we can’t stand to give up. Companionship, the privilege of daylight, touch.