Places of transition have a certain gravitational pull for me. I find terminals as intriguing as an art museum or sporting event might be for others. Airplane. Bus. Train. These are the tangible liminal spaces of our culture. People enter these places, stepping out of one realm on their way to another and are, for minutes, or hours in a transitional space – neither the place they left or arrived to the place they are going.
A few years ago I had a job that required me to fly quite a bit, and so I spent significant amounts of time in Terminal Space. I saw the wonder and awe at the size of airplanes and flight itself through the eyes of children or hear two strangers have an unexpected conversation about their families; there is a the quintessential cowboy – hat, boots, an snap shirt – reading a copy of the Times or the first-time mom with time and space to do nothing but delight in her daughter. From the moment I enter an airport I am always looking around at the people around me, watching how they carry themselves in this place that isn’t a destination. People-watching might be the best hidden secret to travel. Where else in our world do all ages, genders, sizes, shapes, histories gather in one place in such an unplanned yet choreographed manner?
Then there’s a train station - be it as big and kinetic as Grand Central or empty and sleepy as Denver’s Union - they have a different kind of liminal space. Maybe it is because the people passing through know they are getting nowhere fast and so there are more naps, more books being read, more staring into space. Even the buildings have the smell of worn, aged oak and over a century of polish and oils wafting through the air. You can still grab the scent of cigarette smoke from the thousands of butts that burned for decades before health codes shut them out. Train Terminals carry ghost of travelers past, aged like some precious whiskey, lingering. Even an empty station has a life and warmth that must be from all the stories on their way to being told.
I once sat in Grand Central’s main lobby for close to an hour as I waited to meet someone. I moved to a wall on the edge and sat down and listened and looked. There I heard the accents of so many immigrants now called New Yorkers, the lingo of two Transit Authority workers bantering about such and such train, the clipping and clapping of all those hard-soled shoes and pumps across marble. I saw smiles and blankness, and preoccupation and fear. Goodbyes and hellos and plans for the evening. All happening in a space between the places they wanted to be.
In contrast, I have done a few photo walk-abouts in Denver’s Union Station both in the middle of the night and the day. The nighttime Union is lit from another era and accents the aged woods as if in some period-piece film, sepia and glowing. Strange enough that so many trains leave in the dead of night as I saw more people about the station near midnight than I did in the day. But they still moved slow and sleepy, as if they were already sitting in their seats on that long, diesel train to somewhere. The space is liminal still, but with a since of time passed, the slow-lane into somewhere else.
Unfortunately, many people simply complain and gripe when they are stuck in these liminal, transitional spaces longer than they expected; as if to complain is going do anything but make the time in such space less tolerable. They miss the beautiful moments, and maybe a serendipitous conversation they could have experienced with another traveler. To be preoccupied with what’s not happening in such a space as this is to lose out on the gracious reminder of how little we actually control.
And how much more these truths - the delights and missed moments - are played out in the liminal and transitional terminals of the soul….