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Bag Lady

The ideal state versus the state of bag lady.
The one has she not bags.
The other what bags brand.
My sister always has a plastic bag full of somethings.
She’s a teacher. She spots things.

Such a lovely bag said my workmate re one with a duvet propensity.
Take it I said I’m clearing out it was an odd well-meant gift.
But it’s a Guess she protested I could never.
It’s anybody’s I said you’re welcome.

The ideal state versus the state of vagrant.
He did repairs now he takes tea in the Premier Inn.
They don’t mind he’s not dressed up walks head-down.
He looks like he lives in a small place trailer-park type.

The only place where they could ever be private was the streets.

– George Orwell(1)

Partly spawned by Kate Bolick’s book, Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, I enter a contemplatory webful of bag ladies. Ladies whose bags wholly define them. Because they’re not worth it. Kate quotes Elyn Saks, a law professor who was diagnosed with schizophrenia: “I’d be that wild-eyed character on the city sidewalk that all nice baby-carriage-pushing mommies shrink from. Get away from the crazy lady. I’d love no one; no one would love me.” And she comments: “What is haunting about the bag lady is not only that she is left to wander the streets, cold and hungry, but that she’s living proof of what it means not to be loved. Her apparition will endure as long as women consider the love of a man the most supreme of all social validations.”(2)

It surprises me that fear of becoming bag lady still seems engraved in some psyches. Who wanders the streets with apparent purpose but is invalidated by the wrong sort of bags or the wrong demeanour. As opposed to those who sleep on the streets, addicts or transients. The bag lady has lost her home-right. She is uncontained.

A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.

– "Song of Solomon"(3)

The horror of that. The horror of this. I recall a woman almost completely folded over at the waist who could probably only see a metre ahead of her at the level of the average knee. Such bravery to walk the streets with her shopping at all. But she was not a bag lady. Bag ladies carry their belongings everywhere with them. They rummage in bins. They may have lodgings somewhere but they don’t feel safe there. They’ve lost something. Maybe as Kate says they hoped for a saviour. Believed they’d slip into a fragrant container tight as a compact among beauty makers. They had no plans for the rest of their lives.

Honteuses d'exister, ombres ratatinées,
Peureuses, le dos bas, vous côtoyez les murs;
Et nul ne vous salue, étranges destinées!
Débris d'humanité pour l'éternité mûrs!

Wizened shadows, ashamed of existing,
With bent backs, you timidly keep close to the walls
And no person greets you, strange destinies!
Human wreckage, ripe for eternity!

– Charles Baudelaire(4)

Baudelaire portrays himself as an all-seeing eye who re-reveals the beauty of the miserable “little old women.” As usual we attribute notions of superior and inferior. She was a goddess once. Must we mythologise. The tragedy is constructed by a notion of lost potential. The city has failed to be the hortus conclusus that redeems. But is there nothing to be gleaned from the present.

Walter Benjamin describes Baudelaire as an allegorical genius with the gaze of the flâneur “whose way of life conceals behind a beneficent mirage the anxiety of the future inhabitants of our metropolises.”(5)

Women arrive at cafés on Sunday afternoons battling their umbrellas at the door, self-consciously smiling at Brazilian baristas, self-consciously toying with newspapers. Men too, but they are generally without umbrellas. I notice the women. I want to know whether they would describe themselves as happy and what matters. Am I a flâneur or a trainee bag lady watching these people at tables alone, sitting at tables alone, in “winding folds of ancient capitals” (“Dans les plis sinueux des vieilles capitals”) in the “swarming scene” (le fourmillant tableau) of the city.(6)

Kierkegaard’s Johannes in Diary of a Seducer is a street-watcher. Not a flâneur like Baudelaire, but a predator. He says: “. . .one is always only bashful, after all, to the extent one is seen, but then again, one is always only seen to the extent one sees.” “She noticed nothing and therefore believed herself unnoticed.”(7)

The sentences are contradictory, especially as Johannes is watching the unsuspecting girl like a raptor. Unless we can take the meaning that one must understand how one is being seen. Then the matter is more complex. Assumptions stroll the streets like hawks. Expectations police the pavements and shopping malls. The majority are complicit in the Look. The Look is the gatekeeper. To be judged ‘looking well’ is the ticket. Young women have no compunction about grimacing at your choice of eyeshadow, or your lack of it.

Maybe Our Lady of the Bags never had an understanding of urban decorum, where, as Benjamin writes, the exterior and interior merge and diverge in a complex dynamic.(8) Strict partitions are devised so that we can bear each other and ourselves away. Like the girl in Diary of a Seducer, she might have been ignorant of the game and, unlike the girl, was never seduced into it for better or worse.

Nothing liveth any longer that I love,--how should I still love myself?

‘To live as I incline, or not to live at all’: so do I wish; so wisheth also the holiest. But alas! how have I still--inclination? Have I--still a goal? A haven towards which MY sail is set?
. . .

This seeking for MY home: O Zarathustra, dost thou know that this seeking hath been MY home-sickening; it eateth me up.
‘WHERE is--MY home?’ For it do I ask and seek, and have sought, but have not found it.

– Friedrich Nietzsche(8)

It’s unlikely that Kate Bolick will ever be a bag lady or abandoned in some institution because she chose to be alone. The total opposite is more likely. Someone with such a facility for social connections and a concomitant one for domestic décor seems to have the entire system nicely embroidered. She’s not like her admired Maeve Brennan of the wayward moods.

The more immediate twitch in the web that set me con-templating was an incident in an “award-winning” café with intense attentive staff and the presumption of cream with scones. It was over-exposure for me until I tasted the latté and began to think that genteel homely might just be alright for thirty minutes every now and then. A woman came in and sat at the table nearest the door. She wasn’t particularly dishevelled or talking to herself, or talking at all. Maybe there was a history but the way in which she was moved on by the suddenly unhomely waiter seemed cruel and undignified. Her departure dignified enough, having taken a minute to compose herself. There was no shouting, no argument. Just a heaving of the shoulders with slight annoyance and then resignation. I admired her for trying. But she and I who needs them. I had known there was something wrong about the place from the start. She did have quite a large bag. Large as life.

Home does not arrive. If you believe in arrivals it is you who come
to it. Why stay bedded in a marshy heart where you have floundered
in its gulpings over and over. Home is a purposeful construct you
dwell in not on. If it’s where you live your arrangement of walls
do not mean it. Living scapes itself into semblances and realities
of wild before behind your eyes. Your restless moves your building

– Máighréad Medbh


(1) Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Ch 6. Online at:
(2) Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. London: Corsair, 2016, 264.
(3) The Bible. King James Version. “Song of Solomon,” 4. Online at:
(4) “Les Petites Vieilles” / “The Little Old Women.” Les Fleurs du Mal / The Flowers of Evil. Translation by William Aggeler, Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954. Online at:
(5). The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Harvard University Press, 2002, 21.
(6) Baudelaire, “Les Petites Vieilles,” Ibid.
(7) Søren Kierkegaard, Diary of a Seducer. Translated by Alastair Hannay. London: Pushkin Press, 2001, 26, 56.
(8) Ibid., 19-23
(8) Thus Spake Zarathustra –A Book for All and None. Nietzsche Ultimate Collection. Ed. Darryl Marks. Kindle Ed. Everlasting Flames Publishing. Also online at:
(9) Poem in process.

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