WALKING HOME AT NIGHT (WAYS IN WHICH I’VE WASTED MY ENERGY)

EM MELLER

I’ve been walking alone, late at night.

Mostly, it’s been dark apart from street lights strung up along the road. I like their clean white orbs against the black asphalt – poles bent over backwards, like throats.

(What would you say if I told you, at this point, you were reading an essay entirely about street lights?)

I can see they’re ugly. Brutal, flat LEDs. There’s no warmth, no flickering core. They drain the night of dimension, everything rendered plain black above.

(What if I admitted to you, it’s all I’d talked about for weeks. At parties, and dinners.)

In a way, I have learned to appreciate their soullessness as an intentional design feature instead of an abject failure in aesthetics. Sydney’s roads are wide, houses boxy and modern. Even the inner city areas can seem suburban, with broad-leaved trees and picket fences. In this setting, naked bulbs make sense – clean and new. Dependable. 

(And every person who listened to me, describing the orbs, the throats of the poles, nodded politely over their salads and said, That sounds interesting.)

They are nothing like European style of light. In London, the most coveted streets are lined with Victorian-style lanterns – rectangular glass panels on top of wrought-iron poles, bases wrapped in fleur-de-lis motifs. These lights have a curvature that respects the shape of the sky, leaves space for the stars to filter down.

(Imagine their faked interest was so embarrassing for all involved that you found yourself flustered and knocked over a glass of red wine. It spilled over the white table cloth and dripped inevitably down the host’s grey, bunny-soft pullover.) 

That Sydney’s street lights are designed for function over form is obvious. The problem is when you try to pinpoint this function, what they are actually doing, things get murky. They are there to light public spaces, so we can see at night, true. But the question I am more interested in, that no one has a clear answer to, is what are we meant to be looking at? 

(All he said, all he could say as the stain spread through the fibres, chemical pigments bonding inextricably with the wool – What a waste.)

We can assume whatever we are meant to see under the lights, it’s something important: Australia spends $125 million a year on street lights. For public safety. This is the refrain, all over local government websites, newspapers, woven through reports. Melbourne’s Lord Mayor Sally Capp: As a woman who walks around … and uses the city at all hours of the day, I want to be able to feel safe. This is fair enough and should be possible in what is arguably Australia’s most progressive city. But she feels the need to add, It’s going to be difficult to achieve that.

(And what I want to tell you now that the wool is ruined is less about the stain, and more about its structure. That is to say, parenthesis, as a structure, are designed to contain irrelevant information. Afterthoughts.)

Woollahra, where I grew up, is a leafy area in Sydney’s east. You can get a latte and fresh bread on most corners, and people walk tiny dogs around, pick them up when they start to look tired. The kind of place described as safe and serene in realty brochures. They have ugly street lights up and down most of the main roads, but many are hidden behind the leaves of deciduous trees. Around sunset, leaves rustle with bats feeding on nectar and berries, which often drop and split open to rot sweetly on the ground. They avoid the lights, inhabiting branches just above our field of vision. 

(Irrelevant is too harsh. Let’s say, instead, they’re a way of presenting information that’s not strictly necessary.)

Woollahra Council estimates street lights cost them $1.5 million every year, and it seems like being responsible for their maintenance is a huge headache. On the Woollahra Municipal Council website is a page dedicated to local street light maintenance. It’s under the services section but seems like a service they are unwilling to provide. For power outages of any kind, you’re meant to contact Ausgrid instead. The page contains a long list of reasons for why the Council is unable to help residents when there are problems with street lights. It reads like a preemptive strike against any complaint a resident might make. Council does not have the budget to expand or improve its street lighting assets, council says, testily for a local government website. Residents who want better lights, may consider funding the modification themselves. 

Most modifications cost $200–$400. There’s a postal address to send cheques to. Council will only pursue the works once payment has been received. The real problem is they don’t technically own the street lights. There is some debate between Ausgrid and Council as to who owns the street light assets. Council can help adjust the height of the light on the poles. But if a light goes out, they have no jurisdiction. And a million dollars is a lot to spend every year on an asset you don’t own. Ask any renter.

(I don’t actually care about parenthesis. No one does. What I’m interested in is containment.)

The walk from the train station to my parents’ house is twelve minutes. It’s one I’ve done twice almost every day since I was seventeen and started university in the city. Usually, I walk down the main street parallel to ours, which is well lit with frequent traffic. But there is one part of the walk that requires a decision: do I turn down a side street with no lights, or walk an extra six minutes to the next main road? 

In 2018, a young woman was murdered walking home, late at night, in Melbourne. She wasn’t the first, and wasn’t the last, but the white colour of her skin, maybe also her status and the ease with which other white women saw themselves in her, meant her story was reported more loudly than others, an injustice on top of an injustice, as though one unforgivable truth can spawn another and another. When I heard about it, I was walking with my then-boyfriend, at night, unafraid. I started to tell him, stopped. Tried again, but couldn’t articulate myself. Tears rose up from my throat, until I was crying on the street. Other people walking by looked at him suspiciously, assuming he had upset me. It wasn’t him; it wasn’t even sadness. It was the kind of choking anger I’d experienced maybe two or three times in my life, the kind that cuts off your air supply, dredges up every other emotion related to it. This makes it feel huge, outside of all rational proportion, outside of yourself. Not long after, I was walking to my parents’ house. I walked straight down the dark pathless street, didn’t register what I’d done until after I arrived. The thing was, I hadn’t been scared at all. It’s around this time the night walking started.

(Weird how two marks hold an idea so firmly and at a safe distance from the preceding sentence, which it might pollute, or by which be polluted.)

There’s one very good justification for spending so much public money on street lights. It comes in the form of a statistic, repeated over and over. Lord Mayor Sally Capp, a policy brochure, ‘Safer Melbourne’: Some studies have shown a 21 per cent [sic] reduction in crime in areas where street lighting was improved. 21 per cent! The humble street light!

(So, to parenthesise (not a real verb) is to protect. Is a way of keeping meanings clean.)

There are a few theories to explain this 21 per cent phenomenon. The most obvious one is people are less likely to commit a crime in the light. There’s the risk of identification, and there’s no shadow to cloak the facts of what happened, to provide room for misinterpretation so many would-be criminals slip through.

(Does the ‘I’ offer the same level of protection?)

Except: This 21 per cent was taken from Research Paper 251 into the effectiveness of street lighting by the UK’s Home Office. In 2002. And the data, it’s not clean. One of the problems: it didn’t account for the possibility that crimes in a certain area are linked, rather than completely random events. I.e., when a crime wave is geographical, it might be more than coincidence, and could be based on more than the amount of light present. That the criminals might act in concert. That they might not be attracted by the dark, so much as each other.

As another study pointed out, even if the data sets were good, the evidence remains inconclusive. There is no definitive causal link between the number of street lights and the level of crime in an area. No one could confidently say there would be a 21 per cent reduction in crime if street lighting was improved in a given area. And, probably most importantly, even if there was a definite causal link, and even if this causal link meant street lights reduced crime in well-lit areas by 21 per cent, the types of crime it prevents are not the ones the brochures are talking about when they mention public safety. They are not the kinds of crimes Lord Mayor Sally Capp says it will be difficult to achieve. The Home Office Study concludes improvements in street lighting reduce the number of thefts and robberies in an area, but it has almost no impact on the incidences of personal violence. These criticisms have been circulating, publicly, since at least 2004. 

(By that I mean, can you see me?)

Lord Mayor Sally Capp: We all feel safer when we use well-lit pathways as we move around. 

(We used to think light was a substance, with molecules and everything. It had materiality.)

To save on electricity, China is building a fake moon. Overnight, it will maintain a constant dusk-like glow, eliminating the need for street lights. Each satellite will illuminate around 50 square kilometres and could save the government up to ¥1.2 billion (AU$250 million) a year. There was a similar, earlier attempt by Russia to illuminate the sky with satellites, through a series of experiments known as project Znamya. Russia launched three mirrors into orbit that were meant to reflect solar light from the sun back down to earth, creating light spots across continental Europe. The first satellite, Znamya 2, launched in 1992 and the mirror successfully reflected sunlight back down to earth. Unfortunately, it was a cloudy day, and only a few people on the ground reported seeing it flash by. The second launch failed for various mechanical reasons, and the mirror satellite burned up on re-entry. If successful, it would have had the luminosity of between five and ten full moons.  The third satellite never launched, and the project was abandoned completely by 1999.

(Now we think of light as nothing. Merleau-Ponty: We do not so much see the light, as see in it.)

There is something unnatural about the idea of the night as a steady, soft illumination. Electrification has already taken away so much of the world’s darkness. The switch from gas to electricity must have felt like a switch from lights to a false moon. From soft light to electric. As one man described: [it] felt as though he were stepping unexpectedly out of a half-dark passage to a room filled with daylight. 

(This nothingness makes it difficult to work with. Such formless materials are liable to bleed out or spill over. Just ask my emotions.)

In 1855, a Sydney woman wrote a letter to the government asking for streetlights to be installed in Hyde Park. She was sick of being hounded by young men when walking home through the park and wanted to be able to move through the dark. She thought light could provide her this freedom. Others seemed to agree, particularly policy-makers and electricity companies. From the 1880s, the electrification of Sydney and the rest of Australia was rapid. Tamworth aka the First Town of Lights was the first place in Australia to use electric light bulbs along its streets. 

(In the context of a footpath at night, street lights define the field of visibility. i.e., we only see what they want us to see.)

Meanwhile, the City of Sydney council kept stalling, opposing electric street lights for almost a decade. It is reported gas companies tried to scare people by demonstrating how electric lights could send deathly shocks through the ground. Then, finally, on a stormy night in July, they were switched on. Without warning, a brilliant light struck the heart of the city. It seemed as though a flash of lightning had seared its way across the night. There was some warning: it was part of a big launch event where the Mayoress of Sydney used a special golden key to switch on the new lights for the first time. Huge crowds gathered. 

(Babe, it’s not about how the street lights look. It’s about how they make you feel!!!)

The whole world was electrified in this way. Sure, some people were upset to lose the soft glow of gas lights. They saw the new light as less poetic. Unnatural. The electric lights had to hang higher, outside of our normal field of vision, or else they would interrupt other kinds of light. They would keep people from sleeping in circadian rhythms and threaten the whole life cycles of cities. But these risks turned out to be minimal and easy to justify with the chant of public safety.

(It’s okay to be afraid. This is a natural response to the dark. We are told it is basically a universal reaction.)

Of course, there are places we forget. In 1994, over a hundred years later, the small town of Weilmoringle in Western New South Wales still had no lights. In question time, Col Markham asked the Minister for Energy if he knew that the town, which had a predominantly Aboriginal population, had its electricity disconnected, leaving it without light. He asked if the lights would be reconnected to ensure the safety of residents after dark. In response, the Minister said the town did, in fact, have street lighting. This consists of one street light near the Weilmoringle store. The light is in operation. The question was closed, as though answered.

(But we should not deny our experiences of light are also shaped in culturally and socially specific ways.)

That electrification made cities and towns safer was never contentious among policy-makers. They treated this information as self-evident. Like the Sydney woman who thought street lights would make her night-walking less dangerous, we generally agree it’s better to walk down well-lit streets instead of dark ones. Paradoxically, we feel less exposed in the light.

(What I mean is, light is always contained by the objects it makes visible. Trapped by the shapes we see.)

But there doesn’t seem to be any scientific or other hard evidence that a lit street is safer. It’s something we believe because it stems intuitively from our collective fear of the dark –and if we are all scared of the same thing, there must be a reason for it. In this way, it’s a primal fear. But dig a little deeper, and it’s obvious it isn’t about a lack of light, per se – it’s about what’s hidden. Or, what we imagine is hidden. The clinical diagnosis for extreme cases is Nyctophobia, and it is well understood patients are not really afraid of darkness but of their own perceptions of what could happen in the dark. This makes sense evolutionarily – we are not nocturnal and lack the requisite body parts to enable us to easily sense our surroundings without light. But evolutionary biology doesn’t account for the fear we feel almost exclusively at night. 

The real problem is our mind, the tricks it plays on us after dark. By the same logic, light functions as a salve for this fear, but it doesn’t actually make us safer – it’s all in our heads. 

(My night is not your night. My street light is not your street light, etc.)

An alternative theory: now we mostly live in cities, and the lights are all on, we have a predator void. This accounts for our instinctive fear of the dark – even though predators, in the traditional lion-stalking-prey sense, are no longer hiding there. The void could make us collectively, completely paranoid, if we let it. Instead, we came up with mythology as a way of directing our nervous energy towards a make-believe predator, instead of turning it towards each other. It’s the reason people like to watch scary movies – to enact this fear in a safe place. This is why monsters exist. 

(Some people believe containment’s a form of conservation. Like, sometimes you’ve got to trap an animal to save it.)

There’s a film called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, an Iranian vampire spaghetti-western in black and white. It’s beautiful, set in a made-up Iranian town called Bad City, modern and flat and surrounded by oil drilling. The main character, a vampire known as Girl, wears a chador and striped t-shirt that makes her look like a comic book character. But she is a predator. A vigilante, stalking the streets of Bad City and killing its worst men. Watching her feels like a perverse kind of fantasy-fulfilment. The way she follows men, silently, as they walk home at night. The way they dismiss her as harmless, then get unnerved when she refuses to be afraid of them. In one long scene, she just silently mimics the movements of a man who gets increasingly agitated at her childish game. Then he gets scared. A fear I know well, have experienced many times – like footsteps just behind you, speeding up as you do.

We hear the way flesh tears as she bites into their necks – not an elegant, Dracula-style vampire who sucks a body’s worth of blood through two clean holes, but an animal. The first is a drug dealer, the second a rapist. The third – more contentious – is a homeless man, who has done nothing wrong on screen, who might, in fact, be good. This raises the possibility of Girl’s amorality. That she is just a monster, not an anti-hero. That sometimes, she just gets hungry. Can a truly moral vigilante exist? Sometimes I care about this question. Other times, I don’t.

(But trapping an animal is, prima facie, cruel. Especially if it believes, fairly reasonably, you intend to kill it.)

In one reading of the film, Girl represents Otherness – as all monsters do. Not just being a woman, being an Iranian woman. Vampires have stood in for queerness, blackness, the threat of seduction. Vampires have always represented the fears of whatever culture produced them. But there is another explanation for the existence of monsters. They are not Other, they are us. This is a film that understands things from the perspective of the Vampire, not the hunters. We see Girl dancing in her room, which has a wall of posters just like mine used to. We see her putting on eyeliner, checking to see if it looks nice, if she has done it right. We see her trying to adhere to some kind of moral code, see her fail, see her fall. She is not evil, and she is not good – she is just responding. We cannot exclude her as an aberration. The worst our society produces are still part of our society, just as dark is part of light – counterforces constituting the visible field of our universe. 

(Anything captured is, understandably, scared.)

In 2018, after the murder, the Victorian Police held a press conference. Acting Commander David Clayton said the police wanted to keep everyone safe, but women needed to take responsibility for their personal safety. He suggested we walk in well-lit areas, and if you wanted to listen to music, to listen with only one headphone in. 

(And what else are you meant to do when cornered –)

AC Clayton: Unfortunately, evil acts like this do occur.

(– but bite?)

In response, Lord Mayor Sally Capp promised to install more street lights. 

(21 per cent!)

In the hope, I guess, that the metaphor of light as safety, as the antidote to unfortunate evil acts, becomes literal. Or at the very least make us feel this way. Like the act of seeing can equate agency. Like the lack of light is the problem. 

(The street lights tell us what to see, and in this way, contain me.)

A Spectator opinion columnist wrote, In making this a feminist fight, violent crime is wrapped up with household chores. She wrote, Gender theory doesn’t solve crime and it never will. But these things are wrapped up. Who tied them together? And how much more energy must we expend explaining the knots? When is the time to slice the binds clean through? 

(What a waste.)

Maybe the problem is my whole life has been lived in well-lit streets. If I’m angry, it’s because I cannot know the dark like men know the dark. 

(Contain yourselves!!!)

When I’m walking, it’s rare I see another person. This night, I do – a man who does not cross the street as he approaches me, takes a drag on a rolled cigarette. He makes eye contact as he passes and this time, I don’t look away, but smile. I see a falter. He crosses over the road. I run my tongue over my teeth, press it against my incisors, and they feel sharper. I taste blood.

(My visions – fantasies? – always turn to you, eventually. You, crossing the road in a denim jacket with one pierced ear. Or a coat. A grey jumper.)

There’s this one scene from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, where Arash – the moody, James Dean figure – is walking home drunk, dressed as Dracula after attending a costume party. He gets lost and ends up in the suburban streets of Bad City, unfamiliar to him in the dark. He stands in front of a street light, a black pole with a huge round orb of light and stares up at it. Girl finds him. She is ready to attack, like always with men she comes across in the middle of the night. But Arash giggles like a small boy. He is sweet.

(When I eventually find you, you’re standing still, looking up at the street light. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt, I want to believe you are sweet, too.)

This time, she lets Arash go. They go back to her room. It is the first time we see her alone with a man when she doesn’t kill. It’s hard to say what saves him, except something clichéd – like the way he looks at her.

(I turn you around. Sometimes you are kind, you smile at me. But sometimes – 

you don’t.)

In the same way a gaze can dehumanise you, it can hold you in full complexity. And for the Girl, this is new. For the first time in a long time, someone sees her as a person. 

(A relevant statistic: 63.)

Lord Mayor Sally Capp: We all know that random acts of extreme violence are difficult to predict.

(If you thought these lines would hold me      clean me contain me –)

I am sorry if I scared you. If my transformation seems extreme, it’s because my feelings too are growing in extremity. Just know before I was a monster, I wasted a lot of my energy:

………………………………(…………Wasted money on the late bus.

………………………………Wasted money on unsplit ubers.

………………………………Wasted money on too-long taxis,

…………………………………………………………………………and taxis,

……………………………………………………………………………………and taxis.

Two years ago, a friend threw up in the back of a cab. Wasted.
Unable to say her own name. Driver took her to the station.
Held her in a cell all night. Two hundred dollar fine.
Her parents were furious. Made her pay it all back. Never asked,
Who put you in the cab?

Wasted breath inhaling fast.

Wasted breath exhaling slow.

Wasted breath shallowed
……………………over heavy footsteps, rustled branch…….weird feeling. 

Eleven years. Friend said, Let’s walk through the park. Saved twenty minutes. Next
half-moon, I cut through alone.….Told my Mum,

she started yelling   started crying, Never do that, ever.
Dad said, She’s from Adelaide, it’s different there. A week later,
in the apartment at the end of our street   police found a cricket bag rotting
with a teenage girl’s bones.  
…………Said it could be random, ………… said they didn’t know. ………… Dad drove
me everywhere….for a year.

Wasted time waiting….til the feeling passed.

Wasted time avoiding darkest….pathless streets.

Wasted time intuiting which door might open
…………………………………………………………………………if I knocked hard enough.

Sixteen. Went out in the city, wore heels dark make up. Got the train home
alone.

In the station….a man followed up the escalator….screamed YOU’RE BEAUTIFUL!
Followed into the well-lit street.   Walked fast   feet hurt.
Screamed….OI! BITCH!….Didn’t turn didn’t stop.….Screamed….couldn’t make it out
sound followed…………started running…………ran down the road
tore off heels….kept running….home in six minutes
…………threw them in the bin lay down didn’t cry
……………………………………………………not once

Wasted taxes on Council installing street lights where I’m meant to walk
meant to be safe they never do anything……just stand there

.)

………………………………………………………………….It’s going to be difficult.

EM MELLER is a Sydney-based writer who has had recent work in The Lifted Brow, Cordite, Going Down Swinging and other places. She is represented by Catherine Cho at Madeleine Milburn, and is working on her first book. Super fun tweets @EmMeller.