catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 16 :: 2011.09.16 — 2011.09.29


Autonomy and the red line

For the last few weeks I have been buttonholing my friends and family to tell them endless stories about my new life without a car. Let me explain:

I grew up in the last house on a dead-end road among the windswept and gravel-dusted fields of northeast Kansas where endless acres of wheat and soybeans invoke the expansive feel of a U2 song. This, in my high school economics teacher’s idiom, was “God’s Country,” where many streets quite literally have no name. Memories of my teenage years all include driving. In most of them Interstate 35 lies before me like a powerful asphalt artery pumping semi and station wagon across the Great Plains. And I am in my dust-laden 1990 Chevy Astrovan, taking exit ramps at full speed like some countrified parody of The Fast and the Furious. This was autonomy.

“Autonomy” means “having a law unto itself.” Thus, it is almost the exact opposite of good government and healthy civic life, where the law acts as an equalizer. William Blake may have said “One law for the Lion and Ox is oppression,” but as the history of the United States has shown, different laws for different people is the definition of oppression. Like most Americans, I had a hard time revising my views on freedom and autonomy. Up through my 21st birthday I lived like a teenager, just with more options. It wasn’t until I spent four months living in a small town in England without a car that I began to rethink the value of my supposed “autonomy.” Or as it was so eloquently put in an episode of Seinfeld:

Frankie: Don’t you remember, we always talked about how cool it would be to have a van and just drive?

Jerry: We were ten.

Like Jerry’s friend, Frankie, the idea of “just driving” dominated my adolescent imagination, falling just behind discovering a desert island and becoming the emperor of a civilization of mythical woodland creatures. But after my time in England, I decided to grow up.

As it turns out, when the word “autonomous” is first used in the English language (in 1673 in Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory) it is used as something of an insult. Baxter, a Puritan theologian, did not, as one might assume, use the term to praise the innovations of his sect, but rather as an accusation against his enemies, calling them “autonomous, supercilious, domineering formal hypocrites, and false teachers.” How surprised Baxter would be if he found out his neologism has become the single-minded pursuit of an entire nation.

Nevertheless, even my former homeland shows signs that we may be rapidly approaching the end of the suburb and interstate car travel. My parents downsized and moved into the city. The road that always hummed the single note of freedom in my teenage ears literally has begun to collapse: a bridge on Interstate 35 in Minneapolis gave way, plunging over a hundred cars into the Mississippi River. All of us are realizing — in more ways than one — what continuing to hold onto our ideas of autonomy will cost us.

So, this summer I got rid of my car and moved to the Rogers Park neighborhood in north Chicago, with its familiar sound of rickety old trains on the red line rumbling along their elevated track. In thinking about this transition, I have continually been reminded of Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the rich man. The rich man has all that he needs, but he has separated himself form Lazarus, a beggar. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say that what the rich man had created was something like a first-century Near-Eastern version of a suburb; it was a place where he could retreat and be alone with what was his, leaving those with less on the outside. Lazarus remains “at his gate” and cannot move himself, even when dogs came and “licked his sores.”   Perhaps the saddest aspect of the story of Lazarus and the rich man is the rich man’s paltry request that Lazarus bring a “drop of water” to cool his tongue. The rich man is still counting the cost, still understanding the world using the same old paradigm of scarcity. It seems that he has already decided that God must be as stingy as himself. His punishment is that he is allowed to keep what he can’t let go of: his autonomy, his own laws about the way the world is parceled up and handed out.

I decided to spend this Labor Day watching a Cubs game in Wrigley field with my north-Chicago neighbors. While this may sound nice, it is a long way from the bucolic idyll of picnics and camping that many people seek out on their Labor Day weekend, and even further from the capacious Kansan highway of my youth. Riding the CTA red line on a game day means, more often than not, a ride home that involves struggling to clutch the last remaining hand hold with a stranger’s beer-breath and bombast mercilessly violating one’s personal bubble.

But I’m glad I went. And honestly, despite (or because of?) the smells of sauerkraut and Old Style lager, and the jeers at the visiting team’s batters, and the oversized red foam hands making the sign of a number one, and the T-shirts proclaiming “White Sox Suck,” it wasn’t hard to see why Dante imagined that heaven was something like a stadium. In fact, so teeming with action is Dante’s idea of heaven that he describes the saints as bees zooming around God in the shape of a rose. His descriptions are full of swarming, buzzing and singing, the beating of wings and general cavorting about. Everything is full of the clamor of being, light and uproarious, until his senses are finally too overwhelmed to recall any more. Dante was a poor man, but so divinely rich in imagination, so unlike the rich man in Jesus’ story.

Each time when I pack myself into an already full train car on the red line, I imagine — with varying degrees of success, I will admit — that we are pressed together because we are bees sharing a flower, that the jostling is that strange dance that bees are know to do, that the baby crying and the cell phone ringing are the sounds of joyful buzzing, and that beer breath is the smell of pollen.

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