Baltimore City Paper

Guy Debord's concept of the dérive inspires a focused meandering

Walking down Barclay at 9 a.m., I find a spot on the sidewalk where the sun makes near-perfect perpendicular shadows of the houses, chain-link and picket fences. The corner of Barclay and 31st is overgrown with weeds, as always, and an older, white woman complains and whacks at the purple thistles with her cane. I hop down onto the street to walk around her, avoiding the broken green glass, thinking that even for a short walk, sandals were not the best choice.

The walks I've been taking lately have been rote and dutiful—to the grocery store, to the bus stop, to and from a friend's house. Perhaps even beyond that, they have been nearly robotic, in that I don't have to think about the way that I'm going, because my body remembers the route, even when that route varies. For a split second I'm surprised to find myself heading east on 31st without even consciously intending to.


But it's not that I'm lost in thought, oblivious to my surroundings—quite the opposite; for a long time now, I've been collecting moments from these walks in my mind, and occasionally on paper or with my phone's camera. These moments—an overheard phone conversation about a no-good ex, a watered-down blue row house façade, a plastic bag made translucent by a puddle, a vent overflowing with insulation foam—feel strangely poignant, like a good, flowing conversation, the kind peppered with seeds you want to keep and hold onto for a minute, and let them germinate a little while later. Maybe they "mean" nothing but they stick out, and that matters.

My mental digressions and walking habits have some ties to the Situationist concept of the dérive, which, in 1955, Guy Debord defined as "a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences," involving "playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects"—i.e., simultaneously letting go of forethought and prediction and being mentally aware of everything as it happens. It is a focused meandering.


In another writing, Debord defines psychogeography as "the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals." How does the lay of this land make us feel? How do we decide which way to wander? Are there barriers, and do they seem passable? The dérive and our tapping into "psychogeographical effects" engage a "spirit of discovery."

There is also a political bent to this practice—for one, in its purest ideal form, a dérive is a small action that at least momentarily disrupts productivity. But it's also therapeutic. Like boredom, or sleep, or a conversation—a walk can clear the mind. What sorts of thoughts flow when we wander? What ideas are generated? Rather than being passive plodders, we can be active expeditioners.

There are many more nuances to the dérive—and in its true form, according to Debord, it should take hours, or a full day without ceasing, which is something for which I don't have the luxury of leisure. Dérives are meant to happen in urban environments, because of the sheer quantity of people and things to bump into. In Baltimore there are plenty of "how ya doin'"s to exchange, plants to inspect (my nose might be mistaken, but I believe that is a huge crop of rosemary in front of City Hall), and dogs to say hi to.

Though I have yet to embark on a "real" all-day dérive, I get that intuition is a crucial part of it too. You have to let yourself follow your nose, in a way, like a dog. Whenever I walk a dog, I like to balance control and freedom, letting the dog go left if she wants to, but nudging her along when she starts to sniff the 10th pile of another dog's poop. I feel like I can learn from dogs and their instinct and intuition, their notions of awareness.

If I'm open to it, and tapped in, I can learn something about this neighborhood or its inhabitants even in the six-minute walk to the bus stop, like the one on St. Paul and 27th, where I often wait. I passed by this stop one late night walk home alone a couple of years ago, after observing, for a few blocks, a young, bearded white man walking quickly in front of me, picking up trash along the way. At some point, we were walking down opposite sides of the same street, and he started to tell me about where he works, saying I should drop by there sometime. Then he abruptly asked if I ever felt unsafe walking alone at night. "Nope," I replied confidently, eyes open, clutching my keys. I hung back a little bit, waiting to head up the steps to my house.

Maybe when I was even younger than I was then, I'd have been eager to talk to that bearded man—a new friend I met in a funny, quirky way—but I've gotten better at trusting my gut in recent years. Following my intuition has instilled in me at least the illusion of control and safety. And though I've been yawping this whole time about having an awareness to the world around me while walking, I have spent numerous walks looking inward, and coming to these circuitous conclusions about how to be in the world, when to yield and be open to people, and when I need to be closed off.

In the 2010 book "Ten Walks/Two Talks," co-authors Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch write fast-paced prose which ambles like they do in their dérive-like walks through New York City, in a way that I'm not so subtly riffing on here. It's a good, quick, and overwhelming read that makes me appreciate the power of description and noticing things when I'm out in the world. They write about the walks with vivid details but with neither author's attribution, so we can only trust that five are written by Cotner and another five by Fitch; they present the "two talks" via transcribed conversations between the two of them. In this way they submit walking and talking as the same thing—the way a body moves through environments and notices things and the way the mind works in talking with someone. I've started to accept that my thoughts and words and unarticulated mental associations between things are often more of a hopping staccato than ebbing waves.

Leaving the house another morning, I stopped to talk to David, a friend who teaches at the nearby elementary school; he takes his smoke breaks on our porch every day. Our brief conversation was about pushing through it—for him, the school year, and for me, ignoring anxiety and writing this essay. Strolling down 30th, I felt grateful for the faint cool summer breeze as I made my way down past the orange water lilies that have recently bloomed on nearly every corner in Charles Village. I had almost forgotten about them, and that you can eat them, which my friend Kathy told me about three summers ago at Prettyboy Reservoir in the beginning of June—right on the cusp of a torrential downpour and a bad breakup. A few yellow honeysuckles remain on the bush next to a shed near Calvert on 30th, and I didn't have to see them to notice.


An Eddie's breakfast sandwich called my name. Two hot drops of coffee blistered on my hand, and I scurried to catch that bus, and still managed to wait in the shade. When I hopped off the bus at my stop and made it to the intersection the light had just turned yellow and another bus pulled up to the red-soon-to-be-green light. I waited predictably for a break in traffic to cross.