Mark O'Connell

ARTICLE n. 19 / 2021

The Ghost On The Street

One evening a few months ago, I opened up Google Maps on my iPad, and entered my own address in Dublin. I wanted to explore my neighbourhood on Street View. I can’t quite remember what put me in the mood to do this, but I suppose it had to do with the pandemic. This was late January; Ireland had experienced an explosion of cases over the Christmas period, and what followed was a lockdown of unprecedented strictness and duration. The city was becalmed and silent. There was nobody out there, and nothing happening. I wanted to remind myself, I suppose, what my neighbourhood had been like before Covid, when the cafes and the bars and shops were all open, and the streets filled with people coming and going, stopping and chatting.

I dragged the icon of the little yellow man from the bottom corner of the screen, dropping him gently onto the map, in the general vicinity of my house. I found myself peering in the window of the cafe across the street from my front door. There was a man inside the door, right where they keep the sugar sachets and the plastic covers for the takeaway coffee cups. His face was pixellated, making it impossible to tell whether he was wearing a mask, but then I noticed a poster in the window advertising a «small plates» evening the cafe used to run when such things as restaurants were viable, and so I knew that this digital rendering of my neighbourhood had been recorded before the pandemic.

I clicked and dragged myself up the street, idly imagining myself a sort of disembodied time traveler from the not-very-distant future, returned to a familiar place that had been frozen in time. I looked at my house, and zoomed in on the front window, trying and failing to see into my own living room. Our car was parked out front, and I got up as close to it as I could, and was surprised to find myself taking a small, bourgeois satisfaction in seeing that it had been recently cleaned – an extremely rare occurrence for our car at the best of times – and that it had thereby avoided being immortalised by Google in its customary unwashed state.

I drifted the length of the street, down to an intersection with a much busier thoroughfare. I noted the open bars with tables outside, the food trucks, the small shops that had shut since the start of the pandemic, but which had been preserved on Street View in their former state. Then I turned around and headed back toward my house again. As I approached the corner of the terrace I live on, I saw something that made me stop in my tracks. Standing on the street, right by my front gate, were two people I had not originally noticed: a man and a woman, their heads bent toward each other in conversation. Their faces were blockily pixelated, but it was obvious from their general bearing, and from the fact that they were both holding walking sticks, that they were quite old. I recognised them immediately. The woman was Joan, who lives with her grandson a few doors up from my family and I. The man was Willy, who had lived alone in the house beside ours, until he had died about a year and a half previously.

Though I did not know Willy all that well, we spoke quite regularly, and shared a garden wall. I remember now, a little shamefully, that I often avoided him. This was not because I didn’t like him – I did like him, he was a very nice man – but because I often tended to encounter him when I had no time to talk. (As I type these words, I am conscious of a small but insistent question: when do you ever have time to talk?) He would emerge out of his front door as I was parking the car, and I would greet him somewhat distractedly as I was unstrapping my son from his child seat in the back, and even though my son was eager to get inside to his mother, and possibly already beginning to complain, Willy would come over and start to chat about one thing or another.

He was quite deaf, and so the conversation could be a little one-sided. He was also, I remember, zealously preoccupied with the question of parking on our street – with the insufficient number of spaces, and with who should and should not be taking them. There was an apartment building across the road, for instance, whose residents he felt had far less claim to on-street parking than people who lived in the houses, and he would take a grim pleasure in pointing out which of the cars belonged to those apartment dwellers. As often as not, all the parking spaces on our terrace were taken, and you would have to park far up the street and walk a few hundred yards to the house. Because of reduced mobility after his hip operation, Willy had acquired special permission from the city authorities to park on the street around the corner. He was always reminding me that if I couldn’t get a parking space outside the house, all I had to do was knock on his door and he would come out and move his car around the corner so that I could take his spot. He was very kind like that. He restated the offer many times, usually as I was getting into or out of the car, always as an opening gambit for a monologue on the topic of parking.

Though he always seemed pretty cheerful, it often struck me that he must have been quite lonely. He had never married, and had no children. When he died I went to the funeral home, where I met the nieces and nephews who were his next of kin. One of the nephews introduced me to a woman he referred to as Willy’s partner. I had lived next door to Willy for almost seven years, yet had never laid eyes on this woman, nor had he ever alluded to having a partner. Then again, why would he have. Our conversations rarely moved beyond parking.

In theory, seeing him on Google Street View should have been unsettling. It strikes me, after all, as almost a text-book definition of the uncanny, in the sense of being an encounter with the familiar made strange. It felt much closer to seeing a ghost than looking at a photograph. And yet it was not particularly unsettling. It was a strangely touching experience, in fact, whose poignancy derived, at least in part, from the thought of Willy being frozen in time in an immersive 360º model of the street he had once lived on. It was as though he were somehow still alive in there, a vivid simulacrum of what he had once been. There he was, one hand on the walking stick he had taken to using after a hip operation he’d had in the last year of his life, the other hand resting on the low wall in front of the house on the corner. There was such strange and yet simple pathos in this stasis, this state of preservation between life and death.  Despite how little I had known him, I felt something close to loss in that moment; I felt the strangeness of his once having been there, and now being gone.

In Jorge Luis Borges’s story The Aleph, the narrator encounters an impossible object in the basement of an acquaintance. The object, called the aleph, is a «small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brilliance», is a single point in space that contains within it all other points in space, and allows the narrator to see the universe in its entirety from every conceivable angle. «The Aleph’s diameter», he writes, «was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror…» the list continues, with its combined radomness and specificity, seeming itself to offer a glimpse of the infinite.

In its banal and flimsy way, there is something about Google Street View as a technology that recalls this aspect of Borges’s aleph. It offers the prospect of the infinite, seeming to grant the viewer a kind of God’s eye view. You can be in any place, a silent and watchful presence in an immersive simulation of the world.

When I saw Willy on that corner beside my house, I started going back and forth, viewing him from various positions along the street, approaching him from different angles. When I occupied a position a little away from him, up the street or a further down, he was perfectly visible, bent in conversation with our mutual neighbour Joan, the arrangement of their bodies slightly altered according to where I happened to be viewing them from. This gave the apparition a sense of duration and movement, so that at first it put me in mind of a crude form of animation. More than this, though, the effect seemed to me to be reminiscent of tableau vivant, the popular 19th century form of entertainment whereby audiences would watch actors posed in perfect stillness inside elaborately staged scenes.

Just recently, I returned again to the same corner on Street View, to see Willy again, or his ghost. This time, I noticed an odd glitch. When I occupied a position on the street right beside them, Willy and Joan disappeared completely. They could only be viewed from a slight distance, and at an angle, a fact which somehow added to the ghostliness of their presence in this splintered labyrinth. It also seemed to me to represent, in some way I could not quite account for, the impenetrable strangeness of death. One moment he was there, leaning against a wall and talking about the sorts of things living people talk about –the weather, the news, the deplorable parking situations in their neighbourhoods – and then he was gone.