Our House, in the Middle of the Street: So, About that George Street Video…

What happened one night on George Street might be an exceptional event, but it’s also very much an exemplary one. 
The east side of George Street in downtown St. John’s. Photo By: Sara Swain.

If you haven’t seen the video in question, you’ve probably heard about it by now. It was the talk of the town a couple of weeks ago after it made the rounds online. If by some strange internet magic you managed to avoid it, I won’t dwell too much on the details. After all, the video was circulated without the consent of the four people featured in it.  But also, the activities it depicts are completely beside the point. It’s where they are happening that matters. Namely, in the middle of the street, and not just any street.

While we can describe the video in many ways, and offer it up as evidence to support an array of theories, the fact that it keeps being referenced as “the George Street video” is all we need to know. This is first and foremost a document of George Street, “The Biggest Little Street in North America.” 

The incident transpired during the witching hour of that last Saturday in August, in the near-deserted thoroughfare at the tail end of George where it meets Water. It unfolded at the base of those iconic concrete stairs that cascade down from Duckworth, under the unwavering gaze of our dear bronze-casted Ron Hynes. The choreography, a different kind of St. John’s Waltz than what he’s used to, but notable nonetheless.

Suffice to say, the two-minute-long video shows a woman sitting on the ground performing a sexual act on a man who is standing before her. A second woman slowly staggers into the scene and throws herself between them. She falls to the ground, knocking over the first woman, who reclines backwards onto the road. The two women flounder, one supine, the other prone. A third woman walks into the frame and stands at the edge of the action. The man then proceeds to take matters into his own hands, as all three women watch.  Meanwhile, somewhere above them several meters away, a group of bystanders watch, and one of them is recording it all. 

The most telling aspect of the whole video might be the way the third woman, last to show up on the scene, remains unmoved by the commotion.  She loiters off to the side with the air of someone waiting at the walk up window for her Big Mary to appear so she can go home already. She glances at him, at the other two women, then dispassionately at her phone. She’s acting as though it’s just another night on George Street–and she’s right, it is.

Though described as “indecent,” the acts aren’t in and of themselves obscene. It’s the fact that they are happening in full view in a very public place that seems to have caused such a stir. It’s ironic, however, since “indecent” refers to something that doesn’t conform to acceptable standards of behaviour. To my mind, what this video represents actually conforms quite well to the spectrum of behaviour we’ve come to passively accept as “normal” on George Street. What happened that night might be an exceptional event, but it’s also very much an exemplary one. 

The stairs going down to George Street from Duckworth. Photo By: Sara Swain.

“What do We do?”

I stumbled upon the video while scrolling absently through Instagram on a lazy Sunday during the last weekend of summer. It was posted on one of the local meme accounts I follow so I was expecting something fun and foolish. It turned out to be nothing of the sort. It didn’t last long up there; by Monday morning it was gone, just like you would hope for any other bad memory of George Street from the night before. 

Except it wasn’t really gone. It endured in recordings that were saved and shared among friends on social media. It was memorialized in the salacious play-by-plays of described video for the sake of those who hadn’t seen it. It was mentioned on the NTV newshour. It prompted activists to make public statements about it, which CBC turned into a larger story about safety downtown

The video, after all, appeared only weeks after the RNC had issued a warning about drinks being spiked in bars on the street. It was a coincidence, but it certainly didn’t feel like one. At present, the RNC are investigating the incident but cannot confirm it constitutes an assault. “It’s difficult to speculate as to what final conclusions an investigation of this nature would come to,” Constable James Cadigan told CBC.  

As graphic as the video is, the details around it are ambiguous. Do these people know each other? If so, how? Do they know what they’re doing? Are they drunk or high? Have they been drugged? Will they remember this? Will they regret this? But there are also larger questions that need our attention.  

To me, the most important ones are posed in the video, by the onlookers themselves. It’s unclear how many of them there are, but if the sounds of hooting and hollering are any indication, there’s enough to constitute a Greek chorus. 

If you listened carefully, you could actually hear–barely audible above the din of squeals, shouts, and laughter–a woman onlooker imploring frantically, “You guys, what do we do? What do we do?” 

She could be anyone, she could be everyone. “What do we do?” Indeed, what would you do? Her voice sounds like an addled conscience at the moment it’s confronted with a call for action. 

Then, at the end of the 2 minutes, her unseen voice leaves us with another set of questions: “What is he doing? What is he doing? Why is he doing that?” and, finally, “Why are they letting him do that?

“Why are they letting him do that?” 

What’s interesting about her reaction to this man’s finishing touch is where she assigns responsibility for it–and how rapidly she does it. That question: “Why are they letting him do that?” assumes that the man in question is not really to blame, nor is this onlooker or her fellow bystanders. Rather, it’s the three women caught in the man’s orbit who are drawing judgement. 

It is as though whatever he’s doing–no matter how disrespectful or unacceptable it might be–it’s not as bad as what the women are not doing. The assumption seems to be that women should know better, and men–well, you know what they’re like! 

Deciding who is “letting” who do what is a calculation, one that lets us avoid accountability. It’s a way of placing responsibility on whoever is in the most vulnerable position, so that we can relieve ourselves of any obligation to step in. If it’s on these women to do something, if they put themselves into that situation, then we are off the hook.  

In the end, the onlookers’ inaction confirms that there’s only one person in charge in this situation, and it’s the man holding court with his genitals. No one has to intervene, presumably, because these women are not worth protecting, and nor is the sanctity of the street–if it ever had any at all. 

Maybe the women believe it too. Who could blame them? Look how quick and easy it was to record this video, share it, and consume it like some cheap thrill. It illustrates just how natural it feels to all of us to turn drunk women into instruments for our pleasure and entertainment.  

No doubt, what’s been captured makes for an unseemly keepsake. I don’t condone circulating it or re-watching it. But I don’t want to ignore it either. It has served as a catalyst for important conversations, generating a necessary discussion about George Street and what happens there. 

It’s been illuminating to witness people’s immediate impressions too. What’s struck me the most is how diverse they all are.  The video is like some kind of Rorschach test: everyone looked at the same inkblots, but ultimately saw very different things. 

Which interpretation of the events and its surrounding details are true? We may never know. Regardless of what we think is happening in that video, every version has some element of truth in it. 

Our judgements about what is right and wrong in this instance reflect back to us what we believe to be true about men and women at the intersection of desire, sex, and alcohol in public and private spaces. They bring to light all of our unexamined assumptions about bodily autonomy, consent, safety, dignity, privacy, and responsibility informed by our experiences and the stories we tell to process them.

The east end of George Street, viewed from the stairs. Photo By: Sara Swain.

The Return of the Repressed

The video offers a birds-eye-view of what really goes on down on George. (Frankly, it’s no wonder the seagulls in this city never sleep). While we didn’t ask to see it, it was thrust into our faces anyway. It’s shocking no doubt about it, but not because it’s unfamiliar. It’s because it’s too familiar. 

It’s troubling because we’re not used to looking at George Street from this vantage point: stone cold sober, in the light of day, uncomfortably close to the reality of our everyday lives. 

George Street, as we all know, is best experienced in the dark of night, under the protective veil of many drinks. It’s a place we like to leave behind when we’re not there. It’s not something we want to take home with us, it’s not something we always want to remember, or contemplate at breakfast in the harsh light of day. 

We like to let our time spent there slide into the deep canyons of our memory, where it can remain far away and out of reach. George Street is where we go to let go of our worries, our cares, and our responsibilities. 

But this video stubbornly brings all of them right back to us. 

We could choose to look the other way, or act like it’s not there in the same manner we try not to notice those rusty Irving oil drums when we gaze at our beautiful southside hills. Or, how we avoid lingering on the sight of Her Majesty’s Penitentiary as we enjoy our therapeutic circles around Quidi Vidi Lake. 

We can, after all, walk right by George Street without even looking at it. It’s tucked in between Water and Duckworth, like some nearly-hidden pocket of downtown St. John’s. It’s easy to forget what we’ve stuffed into it. This video dumps out its contents to remind us about what’s inside. It’s an opportunity to admit what we have long been concealing from ourselves, even if we’ve been carrying it close for years. 

George Street on a weekday night. Photo By: Sara Swain.

How George Street is Made

George Street is both famous and notorious. It’s a mythical place and it’s all too real. It’s a destination, or stretch of road to avoid. It’s a starting point, a high point, a low point, or the end point of an evening. It’s an unexpected tangent, or a predictable one. At its best there’s music and reverie, dancing, joking, laughing, and carrying on. You can happen upon old friends and acquaintances, chat up friendly strangers, establish fleeting connections. 

You can feel the liveness of the city there, that erotic reach for the oceanic, the will to connection or the desire to disappear. It’s an oasis or a desert, or maybe it’s a mirage. It’s an invitation, a seduction, and a hunting ground. Heaven or hell, limbo or purgatory, a dream or a nightmare. It is all of these things at once. lt can be whatever we want it to be–we make it and remake it again and again, every single night.  

As much as it has certain enduring qualities, recurring themes and soundtracks, fixed settings, and regular characters it takes on the character of everyone who shows up there, and whatever energy and intentions they bring. 

Individuals have their personal responsibilities, it’s true. We do have to look after our own selves. We can’t be responsible for other people’s behaviour. But to insist on that and only that, is just a way of shirking our responsibilities in public spaces. Because the reality is, everyone in that video didn’t get into that particular situation that night all by themselves. 

A lot of people had to contribute–in tiny, indirect ways–to create the conditions of possibility for that situation to unfold the way it did. That includes us–maybe not directly and or explicitly, but certainly in the moment we watched that video, or shared it. And again in those moments afterwards when we tried to forget it, to put it behind us like some unpleasant sexual experience we want to pretend didn’t happen. It’s time to stop pretending.  

George is Your Uncle

George Street is like our creepy “uncle” George, a family friend–no relation–who smells like booze and hotdogs. Whenever he’s around there’s always a faint whiff of pee because George can’t really take care of himself. He’s an incorrigible bachelor and lonesome too, still trying to live out his glory days when he was the life of the party. 

He takes liberties, but gives you none. He makes inappropriate comments about your body, or what you’re wearing. Maybe he lets his hand rest a little too long on the small of your back. Even if you don’t spend that much time with him, you’re always aware of his presence. You develop strategies to evade him. Everyone just laughs him off. “Oh that’s just George,” they say, “he means no harm.” 

Except he does cause harm. We don’t want to talk about it, because if we did, then we’d have to do something about George. Heaven forbid we’d make George uncomfortable, or make it his turn to learn new ways of being in the world. We’d have to admit to our own buried feelings, all that shame accumulated from repeatedly enduring behaviour that is out of alignment with our values. 

So we live around George like he’s some kind of weather system–bring an umbrella, cover up, watch your drink, don’t drink too much–and not a part of some anthropogenic sexual climate we’ve all had a hand in making. We keep smiling, laughing, or outright ignoring his boundary-badgering behaviour. Maybe we drink more to bear it. We really don’t want to cause a scene. But not participating is itself a form of participation. George’s social learning, gleaned from all our permissive reactions, leads him to believe we’re all totally cool with this. 

No one wants to take responsibility for teaching an old creep new tricks. It’s easier to give up and ghost. But he doesn’t stop being creepy the moment we stop paying attention to him. You might be saved from having to brave through his antics, but no one else is. 

A social space is not one person’s responsibility. It can’t be, that’s too much to place on a lone individual. It’s a group effort. That offscreen woman repeating, “what do we do?” over those lurid moving images points exactly to that: it is we who have to do something.   

A construction site at the centre of George Street where the Sundance Saloon once stood. Picture By: Sara Swain.

Under Construction

Now is as good a time as any to start renovating the street’s culture. George Street is already under actual construction. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there is an almost- crater where the Sundance Saloon–once its keystone bar–used to be. 

In other cities, someone would have erected a temporary facade to hide the mess, this unseemly expanse of broken earth, especially for tourist season. But here, they’ve merely put a steel grating fence around the perimeter, presumably for protection–though whose is anyone’s guess.

As a result, it almost looks like a meteor hit, or some other disaster, giving the street a post-apocalyptic vibe. Apocalypse literally means “revelation,” and that’s essentially what the street has become. It doesn’t hide itself, it doesn’t even try to: all the beauty and ugly is there in plain sight if you have the courage to pay attention. 

It’s effortless to see the people socializing and appearing to have a good time. But if you look at what’s on the periphery, what’s happening in the background, you’ll see there’s an anti-social undercurrent on the street too. There’s a predatory hunger, weighted by desperation, and a black hole of loneliness underneath it all.

You might see a skinny man with darting eyes stealing a half-finished pint of beer off of a patio table, guzzling it quick and hard. You might see another man, shirtless and caked in grime, talking to himself, stopping passerby to ask for change. Or maybe you’ll notice a young woman in fishnet stockings and platform heels lollygagging outside another establishment, trying really hard to delay going back in. There’s a round-shouldered, sallow-faced middle-aged man slumped before the glow of a VLT. You might remark on the inebriated woman weaving around alone and the opportunistic man who spots her. With soft eyes, I bet you could also catch a man slipping something into a woman’s drink. 

Everyone is so caught up with what they are personally trying to get out of their experience– attention, sex, money, a buzz or a high, escape from reality–we’ve stopped seeing and being apart of the reality that endures around us. We’re neglecting the space. We’re abandoning our civic duties as temporary architects of this “time” we’re supposedly having. 

A person sleeps on the George Street Mainstage. Photo By: Sara Swain.

Good Samaritans

Streets are, whether we want to admit it or not, places for ethical contemplation and action. They are the sites where the unpredictable occurs: we confront and negotiate with strangers, manage situations that we don’t control and don’t understand. Streets are places of risk and possibility: for conflict, resolution, connection, or disconnection. 

Whatever happens on the street calls out for our attention and our participation. We have to make a decision about whether or not we will engage. Do we go towards or turn away? Do we intervene or ignore? Mind our own business, and keep moving? Do we stop, watch, laugh, and take a video? What do we do?

In the short term, it might be easier to do nothing. But in the long term, that means nothing will ever change. And if it needs to–which it does–it’s going to keep calling for us and showing up in unpleasant ways. 

As this video illustrates, what happens on George Street doesn’t stay on George Street. It’s not some other, separate place, a locked storehouse for all our private browsing. It’s a truthful indication of what’s really going on in our city. It’s all of our business. It’s not a place we merely visit, or a place we end up, or a place we can just stay away from. It’s a place we make, through our actions, our habits, our customs, everything we say and don’t say about it. 

The George Street Association prides itself on its many festivals and special events, those occasions where the street becomes an even livelier, more raucous, and extra version of itself. Soon, it will be Halloween, which brings Mardi Gras. It may seem strange to invoke this famous carnival in October instead of February. Whether intentional or not, it invites a comparison to its religious meaning. Carnival is meant to serve as a feast before a period of fasting. It’s a celebration of abundance in response to coming scarcity. We know that winter is coming. 

Carnival is rooted in the phrase “farewell to the flesh.” It’s like a wake, an occasion to honour life. No doubt, George Street aspires to undo those religious connotations, but it doesn’t have to be profane. Carnival can still be a beautiful thing: an important affirmation of and an appreciation for the human body, its dignity, its capacity for joy, for pleasure, for nourishment, for movement, for connection. It has the potential to elevate our experience of living down here on earth in the face of impending mortality–it doesn’t have to degrade or endanger it. 

Come on down to George Street. The iconic staircase looking up at Duckworth.
Photo By: Sara Swain.

Last Call

There have been calls for the George Street Association to step up and collaborate with the community to create some sort of public safety plan. They did release a statement: a representative from the GSA recently told The Telegram that they’re advocating for increased police presence on the street. In addition, they have a “Pour Responsibly” program, which includes providing coasters to cover the tops of drinks. It’s a band-aid solution to a deeper cultural problem–about gender and desire, and who is entitled to the right of way–but it’s something. It’s not everything. 

I wonder if the GSA’s slow and ineffectual response to addressing the culture on the street is related to deeper worries about killing “the vibe.” I make up that there’s eye-rolling about “safe spaces,” barbs about buzz-kills, and maybe some defensiveness about how you “can’t even flirt anymore” (Note: You definitely can). But the vibe is already on life-support. If we want George Street to truly be the “happy place” we advertise, people need to feel safe. When people feel welcomed into a space, they are relaxed. They can forego the frugal economics of fight or flight, fawn or freeze, and actually have fun.   

Those disturbing allegations about the RNC–and more recently this surreptitiously changed policy–serve as a reminder that we must be wary of making third parties and institutions responsible for the work we all have to do as citizens. Distributing that shared responsibility across the GSA, The City, Downtown, Hospitality NL, the RNC, and the NLC is one thing, but let’s include bar owners, managers, bartenders, bussers and barbacks, dishwashers, servers, musicians, security guards, doormen, taxi drivers, patrons, passerby, and also ourselves. Together, this makes for light work. 

We’re social creatures, we learn by watching what others do. And what we do makes our house, our street, our world. It’s actually pretty easy to keep an eye on things, to make small interventions in the service of everyone’s experience. That’s what hospitality is: the creation of a shared space we can all enjoy, hosts and guests alike. It’s about making a place where we can have a good time (not a long time) and actually want to remember it.  

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