Monday, December 24, 2018
“Let’s ride the whole ‘L’ in one day,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said.
When Reuben asked me about a month ago if I wanted to ride the whole ‘L’ in a day for this cross-cultural field experience, I thought, “Yeah, that should be interesting.” It sounded like a good way to explore and see the city of Chicago, right?
Well, I didn’t totally know what I was in for (although, Reuben did try to warn me).
The initial estimate for this endeavor was about 7–8 hours based on some web journalist who’d done it. That seems feasible, right? Start at 8 a.m. and be done by 4 p.m., 5 p.m. tops, right?
Little did we know …
Well, we encountered our first delay here when it took me approximately 20 minutes to add three sentences to my blog post from Sunday’s gathering, among other things. So we actually boarded the first train, which was the Purple Line to Linden around 8:45. Then, when you add in the couple of pit stops for Corban (who did incredibly well throughout this venture!), one extra pit stop for Dramamine (for me), several unexpectedly long waits between trains, and food breaks, you’ll find us still invested about fourteen hours later at 10:45 p.m., which is just about when I got off the Orange Line at Midway.
But, here’s a little more on what actually happened during that time:
Like I said, we started with the Purple Line to Linden. As we got into Evanston and then the edge of Wilmette, you could see where the suburban sprawl started, where the density lightened up a little bit. Everything was clean and upkept overall. This was also true throughout most of the North Side of the city.
The contrast between our rides through the North Side of the city and the South Side of the city was stark.
If you ride the Green Line south or west, you’ll see many vacant lots, many with litter throughout, trash piles in yards, bits of building debris in some of these piles, old train tacks left piled up, and many more buildings that haven’t received as much care and attention as the majority of those on the North Side.
In regards to the vacant lots, many of them were probably not always vacant. In fact, they were probably once people’s homes—homes that were eventually determined to be blighted, an eye sore to the neighborhood. And many of the new apartment buildings that cropped up on occasion were probably there for similar reasons, with the old residents of the worn houses kicked out and forced to find new places to go.
An even starker contrast appears when you compare the side-by-side ghettoization of neighborhoods like Woodlawn to the gentrification of neighborhoods like Hyde Park. And when we got to the west end of the Green Line in Harlem/Lake, you could see a similar abrupt contrast between the neighborhood of Austin and the suburb of Oak Park.
Beyond the neighborhoods along the ‘L’, there were many moments within the train cars that reflected the unique culture that persists in these spaces.
Aboard those trains we met people from backgrounds as diverse as anywhere on our planet, all of us sharing the same space, even if only for a short time. In those times, with all that separates us in others aspect of life, there was something humbling about the opportunity to recognize each other’s humanity.
Sometimes these moments weren’t the most pleasant, such as when a woman was having a loud argument over the phone with her children’s father. On the one hand, it felt awkward to overhear what was in many ways such an intimate conversation. But on the other hand, it was a reminder that each one of the thousands of people we shared a train ride with that day has a life with struggles that we may only be aware of for a brief moment.
There were some really great moments, like when we struck up conversations with some of the people we met, all thanks to Corban—because no one could resist the cute-baby factor.
We met Linda, who was commuting to a line-dancing class on her day off. She normally has a commute, probably at least two hours long to get to her work at a library on the North Side of the city from her home on the South Side.
We also met Antonio and his brothers, who were together for the first time in over ten years because Antonio was visiting from Virginia where he’s lived for about fifteen years.
And there were those experiencing homelessness who were trying to sleep on the train, riding lines back and forth similar to how we were, except they weren’t doing it for “fun” or for a “cross-cultural” experience. This was their way of getting out of the cold, just figuring out how to get by.
Even as our day on the ‘L’ went longer than anticpated, I was reminded that it was my privilege to choose to have this experience. I don’t have to strategize how to find a warm place to sleep. I don’t have to take the ‘L’ as part of a two-plus hour commute to work every day. I didn’t have to be doing anything else during that time. It was my free choice.
So as long as the day was, and while I’ll likely never do it again, it was worth it.