Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 26, 2022
Visitors to London often hear the phrase “Mind the gap” when alighting from the venerable Underground tube trains, the city’s equivalent of our CTA subways.
The gap is the space between the floor of the train and the station platform, which might in some places be as wide as a foot. Tread carefully, or as we Yanks would say, “Watch your step.”
But “Mind the gap” has a wider application, possibly even as a metaphor for life itself, a thought brought to mind by a terrific recent week exploring this greatest of cities with my son Dan.
We have been traveling together since he moved to Los Angeles in 2008 to build his budding music career. I would fly out to explore the city with him and then we’d drive north on I-5 to San Francisco and after a few days of sight-seeing meander south down the Pacific Coast Highway, following the 17-Mile drive, touring San Simeon and wandering in awe among the Redwoods at Big Sur. On one trip we rented a Gulf Stream trailer on Airbnb at Joshua Tree National Park, two hours east of L.A., and hiked for two days through the desert.
After a few years exploring the west coast we headed east. The first such foray was in 2012 to Austin, Texas, where we visited dear friends originally from Evanston who had relocated there. “Keep Austin weird” was the city’s unofficial slogan, but it was obvious Austin’s rapid expansion and gentrification would no longer accommodate much weirdness.
From Austin we drove a rental car to New Orleans and stayed in a fashionable downtown hotel, from which we walked the amazing French Quarter and took our chicory coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde. While there one morning a guitarist and singer serenaded us with a rollicking version of St. Louis Blues.
Dan and I decided we liked visiting two cities on one trip so the following year we went to Philadelphia and then took the train to New York, visiting friends and family. The next year we flew to Seattle and drove to Vancouver, stopping for a Boeing factory tour en route.
The following year we flew to Washington and took the train to New York, the only city we’ve visited twice.
Dan moved back to Chicago in 2017 but that didn’t impede our travels. If anything they seemed to grow more ambitious, starting with a visit to Anchorage, Alaska. From there we took the fabulous Wilderness Express train to Denali National Park, where we enjoyed river rafting and loved the late-night sunsets. Bear sightings were common, so we armed ourselves with rocks and sturdy tree limbs when we set off for hikes. Thankfully no bears challenged our cockamamie defensive strategy.
In 2018 we flew to Havana for a memorable five days of guided sight-seeing, which included a cigar factory, the wonderful Fusterlandia (site of artist José Fuster) and Hemingway’s home.
And in 2019 we flew to Denver and rented a car to drive through Utah and down to Arizona. Along the way we stopped for lunch outside Moab at a diner run by a former Marine from Cicero, Ill. He whipped out a gun from behind the counter and regaled us with a story about the time he used it to shoot his cook, messed up on meth, who had attacked his son with a butcher knife. Wow, turns out the Old West isn’t so old!
From there we drove down to Monument Valley and then the Grand Canyon – both spectacular – and toured a stretch of old Route 66 before reaching Phoenix and Tucson, getting as far south as the border at Nogales. Near Tucson we toured the Biosphere 2.
In city parks and sometimes even along roadsides or at train stations we’d stop for a daily session of frisbee tossing, much as we do in Evanston on pleasant days.
Then came the pandemic. Like most other people, we chose to forgo traveling, relegated for two years to looking at photos and reminiscing about this city or that attraction.
Finally, fully vaccinated and boosted, we resumed our travels earlier this month, deciding on London. I lived there in 1969-70, going to college and traveling extensively. I booked an Airbnb apartment in the Queen’s Park neighborhood, where as a student I had boarded with a London family. Our first stop when we arrived in London was to visit the family home, where the owner agreed to show us around. It looked nothing like I remembered, but that was more than half a century ago!
We walked an average of 10 miles a day: to St. Paul’s, Westminster Abbey, Abbey Road, Highgate Cemetery, Hampstead Heath, the Tate galleries, the House of Commons (to hear discussions about Ukraine and Iran), Portobello and Spitalfields street markets, a raucous football game. We sailed down the Thames on a guided boat tour and took a Chunnel train to Paris for a day of sight-seeing there.
And always, there was food: at nice restaurants, fish and chip dives and cozy mom and pop diners. We found a great pan-Asian fast-food franchise with restaurants throughout the city as well as a tiny West End confectioner where we sipped nightly hot chocolates at a streetside table and watched the parade of locals and tourists. One night we imbibed stouts at a local pub.
It was an amazing, exhausting, exhilarating trip.
But it wasn’t all sensational. The excessive walking took its toll on my aging legs and back, and my occasional miscues getting us from place to place sometimes taxed my son’s patience.
That’s where “Mind the gap” comes in. Sometimes the gap is that inevitable space between expectations and reality, when we have to reconcile ourselves to do the best we can in a world full of challenges, uncertainty, disappointment and the limitations of aging, when friendships fray and we misspeak or act badly. Sometimes the best option is to grit one’s teeth and soldier on, because the alternative is unacceptable. Faced with the woeful inexactitudes of life, sometimes we have to remember that perfection is unattainable, as Kant famously said: “From such crooked timber as humankind nothing entirely straight can be made.”
And always, to appreciate every moment of these annual vacations we have to ourselves and afterward savor the precious, lifelong memories that forever bond father and son.
That’s what I took from the trip too.