Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In defense of Chicago Transit Authority

My workday morning routine is pretty typical. Get a shower, do some devotional time, make coffee.

See, while this may not seem strange to those folks who have been living and working in large urban environments for some time, riding a train every day is a new experience to me. In rural central Pennsylvania, public transportation is minimal. In the small town where I spent the first ten years of my life, I think that there is still a Capital Area Transit bus stop, but I can’t remember ever seeing a bus stop there. Like much of the United States, everyone in my hometown has a vehicle or at least has access to ride in the vehicle of someone else. And we don’t truly have curbs, so that’s why I have such hard time parallel parking (false).

I was blessed to have a car in college so that I could effectively volunteer as a Young Life leader in a town 10 miles west of the university (and drop high school kids off at their houses another 20 miles west of there). In my various temporary jobs during breaks, I always drove at least 20 miles, and the church where I interned for a summer was 30 miles away. The only buses that ever passed my house in the woods were the school buses.

Public transit is new to me, and though Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) makes enough sense—usually-- it is surprisingly expensive. $2.25 per trip, whether by bus or train, adds up pretty quickly when the minimum number of fares per week is ten. And of course the people always invade the privacy of my morning reading time. No one actually talks to me, but people sing outlandishly loud along with their I-Pod, laugh far too much, and quite frankly, smell bad far too often. Oh, and CTA can be completely capricious and irrational. For instance, it is not totally abnormal for a train to suddenly go “express” and pass by three stops without my noticing. It is customary to go “beepbeepbeep” and announce that we are experiencing mechanical difficulties and will be moving promptly. This may happen three or more times during a given commute. Truthfully, a co-worker once commented that staying committed to the CTA is like a battered wife making excuses for her alcoholic husband.

But I have a car in Chicago, and I don’t use it for commuting.

Obviously, this is a sign of my relative wealth and the support of my loving family. However, what I find in using CTA is a bit of the authentic experience of living in a city. I am still a newcomer, a stranger, really, in a vast metropolis of teeming streets, towering skyscrapers, and dilapidated, abandoned factories. I can choose to insulate myself from this unfamiliar, sometimes unwelcoming environment by manipulating my station wagon through Lake Shore Drive while listening in “Morning Edition” on NPR, but I feel that I do gain something quite intangible by riding the Red Line every day. I have read a half-dozen books since I arrived in Chicago, largely during my commute. I have noticed how quickly the racial and ethnic makeup of commuters changes when I cross from North Side to South Side. I have learned that yerba mate, my favorite South American tea, can inundate an entire train car with the smell of “wet dog”, as one teen-aged girl told me while covering her nose and mouth.

These experiences are also on top of an investment I make in my community. I see the same people on the street as I walk or bike to the rail landing in the shadow of Comiskey Park. I share in the misery of unexpected delays and unwanted odors with the other folks in the train car. More than once, someone has stopped me because one of my several buttons fell off my converted lap-top case. The experience is not always pleasant at the time, but it helps to build a body of experiences that in due course develops my understanding of my mission placement site. Who knows? Jesus may yet stand uncomfortably beside me, cleverly disguised as a tired-looking black woman, and I may have the opportunity to offer Jesus my seat.

Spiritual growth only occurs in vulnerability, and vulnerability only occurs in the presence of other people. Like people on a north-bound train.

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