During 1985 my family served as missionaries in residence at a denominational university in far suburban Chicago while we furloughed from Papua New Guinea. As part of their ‘deputation’ responsibilities, my parents traveled the U.S. extensively, preaching, telling missionary stories, and raising funds for their next four years of service. Their itinerancy left my brother and me often fending for ourselves—we were registered at the local high school and charged with the task of continuing our education: I, as a sophomore; my brother, as a junior. My mother reports having been gone 47 out of the 52 weeks that year.
Alone much of the time, my brother and I found ourselves restless—unaccustomed to the stability of a household, the flat lands of the Midwest, the banality of television, and the light work that the American school system demanded. On weekends, we’d catch a ride to University Park and there embark on a journey to the city via the Metra. Once in Chicago, we would sightsee and play, but ultimately our destination was the Blue Line of the El—out to O’Hare airport where we’d polish off the evening watching planes take off and land.
Hours were spent speculating from whence folks came, or what their destination might be. We fantasized about working in such a place where people of all nations and creeds mingled seamlessly. The airports and the train systems seem like such finely tuned mechanisms—a means out of the Illinois flats and what I remember perceiving as a cultural narrow-mindedness that contradicted the endless horizon. We were comfortable in the transit systems. These liminal places marked the threshold between here and there—the in-between space that seemed to be joint possession of both expatriates and natives.
As a commuter in her 40s, the romance of the CTA has worn thin. It now constitutes a minimum of two hours of my day, and a good 10 percent of my waking week.
Rather than energizing, the crowds often deplete my resources, and I find myself occasionally in need of escape.
And while I can now recite every stop between Noyes Street and Washington and Wells, the unreliability of the schedule and unpredictability of my fellow sojourners marks each excursion as its own venture.
It is both stimulating, and over stimulating.
But old habits die hard, and even in my most exhausted states, I find myself wondering about my companions on the way. The trains in Chicago, it seems, serve many purposes. For some, they are merely a means to an end: suburbanite commuters; globetrotting professionals; city-locals who live without the luxury of personal transportation—all setting about their daily tasks, etc. For others, however, the journey appears to be an end in itself: transients seeking warmth ride the trains in endless circles during the winter months, and in the summers find comfort in its air conditioning; a child exclaiming in delight as she kneels backwards in her seat, peers expectantly out the window at the passing landscape; tourists looking for the ultimate ‘Chicago’ experience, board the ‘El’ for the sole purpose of bragging rights. What is perhaps most fascinating about these is the differing perceptions of teleology and their subsequent ecbatic interactions that such liminal space creates.