Category Archives: Liminality

What a cab driver from Kashmir taught me about hockey…

Jun 8, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) celebrates with center Andrew Shaw (65) after scoring the game-winning goal during the second overtime in game five of the Western Conference

Jun 8, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) celebrates with center Andrew Shaw (65) after scoring the game-winning goal during the second overtime in game five of the Western Conference

I got stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Drive Tuesday night, the first night of the Stanley Cup finals between the Bruins and the Blackhawks.  My cabbie was visibly frustrated as time passed with little movement.  He counts on multiple fares each hour to meet the cost of renting the cab each day, let alone make a profit.  Sitting for over an hour in traffic doesn’t bode well for his income for the day.  I caught him watching me in the rear view mirror. He’d been pretty quiet thus far in the trip.

I smiled and told him to put me on the clock, instead of charging me by the mile.  He smiled REAL big and said “You understand taxi drivers, yes?” I laughed and said, “Well, I understand what it is like to be struggling to make a living wage.  And I want to be fair with your time.”

We chatted about the usual ‘stuff’ then, the ice apparently broken by reliving his financial anxiety.  We talked about places we’d lived, and about the city of Chicago.  I asked him if he was a hockey fan (seeing that night’s traffic was due to the first game of the Stanley Cup finals).  He shook his head no, but then said “Wait.  That’s not fair. Let me explain…”

“I do not care for the violence, ma’am.  I have seen too much violence in my life.  But then, it is not any more violent than any other sport, is it?  At any rate, it is not a sport I grew up with. But I must confess that I rejoiced when Patrick Kane made that goal last week.  That goal paid a million people.”

I looked at him quizzically.  He smiled. “You see, he scored that goal, and hotel workers, airline workers, cab drivers, restaurants… all of Chicago benefited.  That goal set in motion (like a trigger or a catalyst) a series of events which will ensure that we have plenty of work, and good income. For that goal, I thank Allah.”

And I smiled, pondering the thought that it takes more than a village: it takes a hockey goal.

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The perfect storm

That there was a pedestrian accident on the Metra affecting Northbound trains, an afternoon Cubs game at home, and an extra-alarm fire at Fullerton shutting down the Red, Brown, and Purple line El trains was sufficient ingredients to cook up the perfect commuter storm.  I was stuck on the Red line of the El underground for about an hour Monday, awaiting word on where we could move to, and where we could escape our interment.  They finally allowed us to proceed to the North/Clybourn stop, and disembark.  The underground platform was crowded with confused and inconvenienced sojourners.  Body to body we were moved en masse towards the narrow escalator and stairs–and I thought to myself how easy it would be to get trampled or knocked off the platform onto the ominous, electrified third rail below.  Shudder.

We emerged from our dark womb and stood squinting in the bright sunlight.  There were shuttles off to one side, promising to take folks around the disaster to the next strain stop to the North, but there were also thousands standing in line, waiting for said shuttles.  I turned and walked the opposite direction, getting caught up in the sweep of the crowd.  It took me several blocks to get clear of people enough to figure out my bearings.  I could see the skyline and determined the best thing for me to do was head towards the lake.  Perhaps, even, if I headed slightly South I’d have a better chance of catching a cab or bus.  And so I walked. And walked.  And walked.  I wished I’d worn better shoes to the office.  My computer bag was beginning to weigh heavily and my feet became inconsolable on the hot concrete.

I paused to take a break and wipe the sweat from my eyes, and looked around. I was standing on the edge of one of those large city blocks designated for construction–fenced off, but for now, just a large overgrown field.  In the bright sun, the tall grass shimmered in the heat.  And I was transported to another world.

I’m 11 and sitting on a grassy airfield with my 13-year-old brother in Irian Jaya.  We’d been dropped there with the plane’s cargo the day before, and were patiently waiting for the pilot’s return.  We’d been on our way to ‘the village’ from boarding school, but cloud cover had made the hour and a half flight into a much longer series of dangerous holding patterns.  Running low on fuel, the pilot set us down on an open airfield and promised to be back once refueled and the cloud cover had receded.

24 hours have passed.  We don’t speak the language.  We don’t entirely know where we are.  We sit.    I wandered off for a bit, only to have my brother (big brother) yell at me, concerned I’d get hurt, uncertain of the wildlife in the area, and just generally being controlling.  “What if the pilot comes and you aren’t close by?  We might have to wait for you and the clouds might come back!” We worry about being on the wrong side of the border–given we don’t have our papers, and border fighting is common.

I begrudgingly come back to the pile of cargo we’ve been left with.  We are dirty, hungry, and mildly scared.  Our thoughts turn naturally towards abandonment, and whether or not any one has even missed us yet.  We fight–verbally and physically.  Finally, we are silent and sullen.

And the sound of the plane comes over the horizon…

Back in present day Chicago, I’m struck as to how very vulnerable I feel.  Vulnerable and alone.  Would anyone notice I was missing?

Its a small world after all…

In a cab this morning, the driver told me that he’d never intended to be a cab driver and that really, he was a student. I was caught a bit off guard, and wondered what prompted this personal disclosure.  What are you studying? I asked. “I came from The Congo to Chicago to study Classical theology”. Huh, I said. I came from New Guinea to Chicago to study Postcolonial Theology.

We both had a good chuckle–to the point where he pulled the cab to the side of the road to wipe the tears from his eyes.

And I’ve made a friend.

Virtual realities…

I spent the last week at the JW Marriott Resort in Orlando, FL on business. For four days I didn’t leave the resort grounds as I was involved in business meetings from morning until late night.  But nothing was missing even though I was confined to the hotel: the vistas were incredible from the window, the pool inviting, the lazy river tempting, the walking paths paved smooth, and not a leaf out of place.  Not a leave out of place...Contained within the hotel was a convenience store, gym, wellness clinic and spa, Starbucks, clothes shops, restaurants, cleaners, shoe shiners, a news stand, bank… you name it, it was available: all to be charged to the room in a simple signature.  In the mornings a maid came and cleaned up my messy room, brought fresh white sheets and towels and removed all traces of waste from my room. At night another uniformed woman came in and turned down my bed, leaving chocolates on the pillows. I didn’t have to mess with the vulgarity of daily living; I didn’t even need to handle cash.

For those four days I breathed in conditioned air, bathed with spa soaps, ate gourmet foods. I listened to papers and presentations by people who are top in the field: the brightest minds on the bleeding edge of educational technologies. Every hall conversation was polite, and elevator rides were friendly.  Those I encountered were servile: at my beck and call wanting nothing more than to grant me a magical experience.

The one outing I took from the hotel was in a large luxury bus, designed to take groups to and from resort locations.  I sat with forty others in leather bucket seats which reclined, listening to my own private music as a friendly porter carried us to an Argentine restaurant: a facsimile of Carnivàle, complete with tango dance lessons, open bar, Cuban cigar rolling, fortune telling, artists painting, etc… we were transported to another world just twenty minutes from the hotel.  We could buy ‘authentic’ Argentine crafts made in China as souvenirs.

On the way to the restaurant, we drove through neighborhood after neighborhood of McMansions: each with large SUVs parked in the drive.  Occasionally you’d see the armored Hummer taking up more than its fair share of the driveway.  Endless suburbia stretched before us, disrupted by the occasional strip mall. The way was paved smooth.

I arrived back to Chicago late in the evening at O’Hare to find myself amongst other weary travelers, looking for their luggage. Conversations swirled around me in Hindi, Spanish, Polish and Greek. People pushed and shoved each other out of the way, children cried, husbands got short with their wives.  The taxi driver spoke little English, the cab was filthy and smelled from an overpowering air freshner.  He weaved his way through traffic at breakneck speed, bouncing this exhausted passenger from side to side.  Nausea ensued.

We drove through the Pakistani neighborhood where you can buy halal meat, then the Indian neighborhood where saris glittered the shop windows. We wove our way to my building through the West Indian and Ethiopian districts where the tang of Injera hung in the air . The doorman was not at the front desk and I had to wait several minutes to be let in.  The night air was cold.  The mail box was jammed with the week’s correspondence, much of which was balled up in the back of my box.  My apartment smelled musty and the cat litter needed changing.  She’d thrown up on the carpet in a couple of spots.  She greeted me with loud complaints about my absence, all the while rubbing cat hair all over my legs.

I was home. And I loved it.

Liminality observed…

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.