Under the heading “Needs” on the dry-erase board at the retreat center was my name and “Ride to Southfield after Sunday lunch.” Next to it was a large blank spot. It was accurate, but it was jarring as I read it. The blank space made me feel vulnerable.
I was dependent on an unnamed someone, most likely a stranger since I only knew a handful of women at this retreat in Michigan, to get me to my friend’s house. My itinerary also included a bus trip to South Bend, Ind. — with a two-hour layover in Toledo, Ohio, where another friend planned to pick me up so we could catch up over coffee — then an event in Goshen, Ind., and a ride back to South Bend for the morning train home to Chicago.
“I know it’s kind of crazy to take all those buses and trains, with rides in between,” I told a coworker. “But I couldn’t find anyone to carpool with, and I didn’t want to spend so many hours in a car by myself. Plus, it’s January, and I’ve had to cancel trips for white-out snow on the highway before.”
“If you’d planned to drive, there would’ve been a blizzard,” my coworker, a lifelong Chicagoan, replied sympathetically. “That’s how it works.”
Still, even after packing light and having an easy first train ride from Chicago to Detroit — 7 a.m. departure notwithstanding — I was aware of the trouble it is to travel on mass transit. I could’ve thrown whatever I wanted in the back seat of my hatchback and driven, reveling in my self-reliance.
Interstate mass transit in the U.S. is a paradox. If more people used it, it could be more convenient. If it were more convenient, more people would use it.
I commute almost daily on city trains and buses. But I take rail or bus across state lines only a couple of times a year.
Since it’s much easier to drive or fly, that’s what I do most of the time. When I make myself rely upon mass transit, it’s partly to get over my guilt for the times when I don’t. Sometimes it’s for a sense of adventure: after navigating public transit multiple times in one day in Philadelphia, a city I haven’t lived in, I felt like I had passed some sort of 12-hour examination of my cognitive capacities.
On this recent trip I pondered a reason for this kind of travel that I couldn’t have articulated earlier. Perhaps it’s something God knew I needed to learn more fully: I’m not self-reliant. I simply find it much easier to care for the needs of others than to have the situation reversed.
Our highways are built with independence in mind: traveling on your own timetable, not needing help unless there’s an accident or a vehicle breaks down.
In my visit to Detroit, one of my hosts told me how Henry Ford, automobile manufacturer, had a role in planning the city with wide streets — the idea being that everyone would get around in their own vehicles.
Without my car, a few moments earlier I had been standing outside of the Detroit Amtrak station, with only a text message from a stranger assuring me that I wouldn’t be waiting in the cold forever.
That moment of uncertainty, like many others on the trip, reminded me that I am at all times interdependent with others. My needs may not be displayed on a dry-erase board, but I am nevertheless waiting for someone to write their name in the blank space in all kinds of ways. It is vulnerable, but it’s part of our common humanity.
Celeste Kennel-Shank, a former MWR assistant editor, is an editor and community gardener in Chicago.