Derelict Windows

Heather O’Neill’s “Derelict Windows” catalogues a pedestrian perspective through Montreal. Accompanied by photographs by Miles Petrella, the following essay uses images of what she describes as “the worst window displays” in the city to untangle constructs of femininity, religion, and perhaps question what we determine is important, useful, and eye-catching to who we are when we walk through our everyday lives.

Through these observations, O’Neill oscillates between coming-of-age stories from walkabouts with her father and present deconstructions of female representation. “I didn’t know enough about life to make any sense of these characters,” she mentions when looking at mannequins in the window of sex shop as a young girl. “Girlhood is an ideal that no girl can actually live up to,” she says, recanting a desire to enact dystopic gender performances of femininity through films like Blade Runner.

And yet, there is a present voice aware of the différance of gender that permeates this inquisitive and wry narrative, one that seems aware of her wonder at the absurdity of the objects Petrella captures. “A display window is a small theatrical production,” and O’Neill casts herself not as protagonist, but as the narrator who describes the power of what seems thrown together, forgotten.

“Can anything ever be simple?” she asks. Absolutely, and not at all. A production is always both, and it’s this tension that forces us to consider the most surprising questions.

— Aricka Foreman, Enumerate Editor

When I was a little girl, my dad would always take me out for walks after dinner. He liked to go for his evening constitutionals, and since we lived downtown and not in the country, we found ourselves looking at window displays. There was a toy store in a basement that had a wonderful display filled with toys and figurines. I would sit cross legged on the sidewalk with my nose pressed up against the window, staring at the tiny world of ducks on their way to the office and ballerinas riding trains to Paris. We also both adored the window display of an enormous carpet store. There would be new carpets out on display every night. Each carpets told a different story. They were maps of magical kingdoms and pictorial histories of medieval wars.

I was sometimes a little bit shocked at the kind of stuff that went on in window displays. The ones for the sex shops told such odd stories. There were mannequins that wore masks and had latex corsets and bunny rabbit ears. They would be standing against a backdrop of aluminum paper, smiling with whips in their hands. I didn’t know enough about life to make any sense of these characters.

A display window is a small theatrical production. Since we have all been forced to take English literature at some point, we were taught to see symbols and interpret scenes for their deeper meaning. Around my neighborhood, there are some odd window displays. Sometimes they are put together and sometimes there will just be a naked mannequin wearing a pair of green shoes. What am I to make of all these strange plays.


Photo by Miles Petrella.

Immediately when I stand outside this window, I can’t decide whether it is truly amazing, or insane. There is something just too hectic about this window display. It’s like Prince Charming finds all these different shoes every Friday night. Girls have started deliberately leaving their shoes on the steps hoping that the prince will find them. But then most of the time he is too lazy the next day to bother looking for the girl that was wearing the shoe.

How does anybody ever choose between so many pairs of shoes? Which of these wedding shoes would I chose. They all seem to be very slight variations of one another. There’s nothing that I like less than choosing between very slightly different things. I once read a novel by Issac Bashevis Singer in which the main character describes a girl that he is infatuated with. He says that she is so simple that she cannot make even choose a chocolate from a bow of different ones.

That is how I sometimes feel in life: incapable of even making the slightest of choices, avoiding all forks in all roads. Perhaps that’s why I never got married to begin with. There were too many slightly different men to chose from.


Photo by Miles Petrella.

There are a lot of wedding stores around here. They have ones that will dress up little kids for a wedding. One window has happy polite chipper kids. This other ones has kids that have had a couple sips of wine and are passed out in the corner. Kids always get abandoned and ignored at weddings. I like that the parents are not in any of these window displays. Because it causes me to assume that they are off some place having sex in the bushes, or in their hotel room.

They have escaped from the abusive grasps and domination of their children. Now the kids sit in the corner like disposed ventriloquist dolls. Yes, they have so much to say when they are in their parents’ arms. They are cocky and arrogant and insulting. But without their parents, they aren’t really much of anything. They sit there quiet and exhausted, desperately wanting the party to be over.


Photo by Miles Petrella.

In this wedding store, that looks like it’s been around forever, are some beautiful, old school mannequins. They are so beautiful and at peace. Look at their eyelashes. Look at their looks of tenderness. They don’t look like sex dolls, they look like the Virgin Mary. They even have halos around their heads, just like the Virgin Mary. They look like women from a Hitchcock film, whose date is about to go terribly wrong.

How can I ever trust this ideal of femininity these mannequins are projecting. It’s about as preposterous as the damsels in the Middle Ages paintings with their big foreheads. They stand frowning at dragons.


Photo by Miles Petrella.

There are loads of wig stores on this block. I love the groups of mannequin heads. They always seem to be babbling away together and I want in on the conversation. Now a group of this many young women always creates a sense of tension around it. Where in the world could you spot such a group of nonchalant women who all look so oddly comfortable in their sexuality? Perhaps they are the cast of Chicago backstage in their bras, smoking cigarettes, with their bobby pins pulled out and piled into a cough drop tin. Or maybe they are a member of an undefeated high school basketball team, on their way home on the city bus with the windows open and their trophies in their laps. Maybe they are suffragettes rounded up in the back of a paddy wagon with their buns undone and their hair down.

They look as though their hair is the least of their worries. There has always been something that has attracted me to girls that are comfortable in their own skin. There was a girl who lived in my neighborhood whose most striking feature was her loss of a finger. She also had straight black hair and bangs in her eyes. She walked into stores asking if they had anything for free. She would sing Michael Jackson off key. She was totally free in the way that only a confident girl can be.

I will never get over the fact that I was lucky enough to be born in the body of a girl.


Photo by Miles Petrella.

Why is there always a naked or wigless mannequin in every window display? Is she pretending that she doesn’t exist? Is she is an underdeveloped character in a play?

And what is with this girl?


Photo by Miles Petrella.

I love these mannequins because they all seem to be sporting really outrageous wigs. They seem to be suited for a futuristic world where they know martial arts and drive hover crafts. I went to see Blade Runner when I was a little kid. I can’t remember with who. Probably with a relative in their 20s who felt that they had been repressed and censored as a child and so wanted to take me to see things I was not ready to see yet.

I remember wanting to take one of the tests in the movie that were used to determine whether the subject was a human being or an android. I wanted to determine whether or not I had free will. Whether I had a soul. Was I here just as a cog in a machine? Was my purpose here on earth to please others, or was I here to please myself? What were my responsibilities towards my own happiness, and what were my responsibilities towards the happiness of others? Do men feel the need to have this test performed on them? Are they just entirely certain of their identity — and the fact that they are free and independent existential beings that belong to no one?

The stores along the street fix up different parts of women. You can go from shop to shop getting better parts. When you replace and fix each of your parts, you will be an attractive and melancholic android woman. You will never quite be a girl. Girlhood is an ideal that no girl can actually live up to. But you will still feel an urge to be think thoughts and reflect on existence and want more. We women are all rogue androids to some extent.


Photo by Miles Petrella.

What I am to make of this plugin Virgin Mary? Christianity used to flaunt its greatness. The church was the only institution that was loaded enough to be able to finance masterpieces from artists. So artists all painted Jesus at the dinner table or trying to hold a baby lamb still. Then they could go home and draw sketches of prostitutes or penises in their notebooks.

Now religion is tinier and cheaper and tackier. I grew up with the Angel Gabriel holding up the thermometer like a sword. Jesus was on the dish towel. All the animals from Noah’s Ark were in a shoebox under my bed and our toy poodle was always dragging them out and chewing on them. There were Virgin Marys in bathtub grottos in backyards.

Belief is an oddity. Nobody invests any money in it, that’s for sure. I was once in a store where there were icons of the Virgin Mary next to little pink bottles of love potion. There was a time when people believed in love and religion. Now they both just seemed magical.

What is this Christian God anyways? If we are made in his image, then do we come to know him through contemplation of ourselves? Does God have an extreme fondness for cats? Why does he like fried food so much? Why does he spend so much time shaving? Does he ever have buyer’s remorse?


Photo by Miles Petrella.

Sometimes I try not to look at windows that are just filled with junk. They are filled with objects that are so absurd. Especially when it comes to little ceramic animals. Why would you want a small ceramic bad representation of an animal?

There is a rat that lives in my wall. I like to assume that it is one rat — but it is probably an entire colony of rats living there. Nonetheless, I imagine the rat as a bachelor. When I hear him scuffling, I imagine he is cooking and shifting his cast iron pan on top of a stove. Or I picture him running around moving furniture because his new girlfriend is about to show up and look at the place for the first time.

Maybe if you watch nature shows you have a proper idea of animals. I grew up downtown. My image of animals comes from children’s books and cartoons and cereal boxes.

This tiger has lost its ability to be anything other than a symbol. There are many things that are like a tiger, but a tiger is not like anything. All of the tiger’s attributes have been commodified. Independent of its characteristics, what is a tiger, other than death itself which we cannot begin to understand.


Photo by Miles Petrella.

I’m off the main shopping strip and on a street that is heavy with traffic and lack luster. I should be done with window watching, but how can anybody possibly walk past this window and not see some buried symbolism in it? Here is a mermaid that has had its eyes scratched out. She has been brutalized, and yet she is still smiling. She barely existed before because she is a mythical creature. Her very identity implies non-existence. And now she had no eyes. She, along with the rest of the world, cannot see her. She is just a feeling, an awareness and certainty of existence.

She gives up her ability to talk in order to have legs. Good luck girl, you can’t seduce a guy without a personality. She had all this knowledge about other alien species that she could have told him about. Now she is just broke and pretty. Guys are wary of broke girls to begin with. She isn’t like Holly Hunter in that Jane Campion film. She can’t play the piano in this fucking deep gut wrenching way. She doesn’t have a really cute daughter who does cartwheels and will call just about any man “papa” in a lispy British accent.

As a mermaid, she can’t be happy with the fishing industry. We are going in the store already to buy her friends.

Somebody mad — with a set of keys or a lucky quarter decided to disfigure her. And who exactly is the re-interpreter of this tale. Was it a serial killer? Was it someone who hated fairy tales as a child? Maybe it was someone who hated the fishmonger. Maybe it was a competitor. And he wanted to change the narrative that entered your head once you walked up to the store. Inside of it being childlike and playful, it was a Greek tragedy.

She is like Oedipus Rex. It went from being an Easy-to-Read child’s story, to a Greek tragedy. But wasn’t she one to begin with? Can anything ever be simple?

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