COLUMN: Know your place

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, June 20, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune, referencing my visit to Chicago detailed earlier in the week.

Know your place
By Aaron J. Brown

I don’t travel much. When you live in the place you want to live and do what you want to do, you don’t need to travel much. And then when you travel the trip reminds you not only of the big world outside your place, but also the meaning of your place, where it fits. I live in northern Minnesota, am enjoying a cool beverage on a reasonably warm day and writing this column. So I don’t need to travel much. Just a little.

I went on a trip recently for work, to a conference about education. I’ll say it short like that because to explain exactly what the conference was about would require more than a few words, but rather several in a sentence that would dwarf this one; yes, even this one that just used a semicolon and continues on even as you beg it to stop – the dash providing only temporary comfort, and then the anticlimactic conclusion of an ellipses … but I did get to travel.

The trip in question was to Chicago, or more accurately the suburbs outside of Chicago. I’d been dealt this same switcharoo back when I lived in Dubuque, Iowa, and my Chicago friends told me they’d take me back home for a weekend but I found they didn’t live in Chicago; they lived in Geneva. For a guy like me, the best part about Geneva is the train that goes into the city. That was the same train system I took on this journey.

I had this romantic vision of flying into Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and taking a train into the city for the express purpose of eating a hot dog. The fare was $2.25 and the hotdog was $7 and, all things considered, events worked to plan. The particular suburb that I was supposed to find did not have a train station. In fact, the suburb seemed designed as an impenetrable fortress to anyone who did not own a reliable car. But I only learned that because, according to the Metra train website, this place was just 2.86 miles from a train station on the line. I walk 2.86 miles on a lunch break. No problem, I previously believed. I was full on hot dog and ready to move.

I disembarked from the train into a suburban compound complete with wine shops, Italian restaurants, and shoppes of all kinds. I walked to the nearest place most obviously not governed by city aesthetic code, a gas station, and asked how crazy it would be to walk into Oak Brook. The attendant looked at me like I was crazy, most of all because he did not know where Oak Brook was located. “It’s just north of here,” I said. He looked at a map and realized this for the first time. You can’t walk there, he said. “Do you want me to call a cab?”

Defeated, I agreed. The cab took me to my destination the way you’re supposed to go – passively and oblivious to your surroundings. The distance from the gas station to my hotel was less than the distance from one side of Hibbing proper to the other. Can you imagine living somewhere where you did not know what lay just a hard walk away?

After the conference I caught a ride to a different station and rode the train back to O’Hare. Bad weather killed my flight and, long story short, I ended up spending 12 hours in the airport waiting for another way home. An airport is a place. In fact, an airport is the one place you can expect to see on most maps. Yet, I learned in my half-day at O’Hare, an airport is also not a place, it’s a sort of purgatory, a sort of prison, where everyone there wants to go someplace else, either someplace better than home, or home itself. I’m glad to be home.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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