My Mother, the Midway, and Meditation

While often maligned, South Campus is the perfect escape.

By Henry Cantor

“Ughhhhh!” Though my dad serves us daily with inaudible groans, usually marked by climbing out of a hole in the couch, this one was surprisingly communicable. While sitting in between my parents, I opened my housing assignment: “Renee Granville-Grossman.” My dad, who—like all dads—seems to know the urban planning of every neighborhood in the country, pinched his two fingers on my phone until “Midway Plaisance” revealed itself in the illustrated grass.

“What’s wrong with the Midway?” my mom chimed in.

“In my day, you didn’t cross the Midway,” my dad said incredulously.

“Is there someone we can call?” my mom asked.

While families explored the buildings, botany, and balloons during welcome week, you could find my dad searching for blue emergency lights and neon vests: “When should he NOT cross the Midway?”… “How many incidents happened here last year?”… “Are there personnel stationed along the Midway?”… “How long does it take to cross the Midway?”

My parents left me on South Ellis with three pieces of earnest advice: “Wear shoes in the shower, get used to walking, and never cross the Midway at night.” However, I soon dismissed their premonition of danger and shin splints after my first few treks across the Midway, and now, I wouldn’t want to walk anywhere else.

The infamy assigned to the Midway is twofold: students who complain about the distance and parental fear about walking in the South Side. To the latter point, though parental concern isn’t speculative, it’s undoubtedly lodged in the history of violence in the South Side. The investment in protective mechanisms (blue lights, security guards, cameras) and stronger University investment (Rubenstein Forum, Logan Center, Woodlawn Residences, etc.) make it a safer commute than 40 years ago and it feels safer—in my opinion— than living toward North Campus, where the continuity of campus is interrupted by businesses, retail, and off-campus housing, lending to a greater frequency of potentially violent encounters.

While discussions of campus safety have potent consequences for the well-being of current students, so too does a reputation from 40 years ago have potent consequences on the psyche of incoming and prospective students. While my parents' fears are real and important to consider, we must also give ourselves the space to evaluate for ourselves what feels safe in our time.

While I certainly could engage deeper with the approximate safety of the Midway, I’m hoping to not make an argument for or against safety and the University’s growing, and arguably parasitic, presence on south campus, but instead address the perception of South Campus as disruptive and inauspicious to a student’s daily convenience.

That said, Max P and North collectively occupy a place parallel to a penthouse on 5th Avenue: the most navigable and enviable home base on campus. Though the proximity to infinite things is exciting, I find it overwhelming. Just passing through the center of the quad, I feel that I am in a landscape of unremitting mirrors, searching for open space to partition the day’s tormenting itinerary.

If I were to live a stone’s throw from my classes, the sterile repetition would be oppressive, like a hug from that one relative, where you can’t unfold yourself and become all too familiar with being painted in lint, dust, and skin, and saturated in an aroma of musk and grease. But instead, I’m forced to find respiration in the Midway. The Midway is an antidote, an unwinding, connected and unconnected, an intermediary. Its name says it all.

My short walk feels like permitted idleness while in constant motion, a delicacy at a place where there are never enough hours in the day. Luckily for my family, this walk is the only time I find an excuse to call them. And luckily for Chase Bank, this is the only time I remember to pay my credit card bill.

Unexpectedly, I find comfort walking back to my dorm at the end of a long day, like grinning at an empty plate, satisfied that you’re at the end and you can unbutton your jeans. At night, the Midway seems to protest measurable space and time; seeing nothing but the deadened rays of streetlamps, I can enjoy the absoluteness of silence since all that’s left is the practice of thinking. At these hours, by some strange alchemy, I feel that I walk alone, even in the company of others, and the private dialogue in my head performs a sort of intellectual dieting.

My daily migration feels like walking through a telescope, able to process our university with a modulating perspective. The further south I travel, I’m able to detach our campus from its collegiate utility and instead see a constellation of Gothic monuments. I can look out at Harper Library and appreciate it without the shadow of academic labor. I can see each stop as a constituent in a greater pattern only after turning my back to it for some time.

I'm not trying to romanticize a slab of asphalt. Do not expect to find me reciting John Keats's “Ode to Autumn” to the Midway or licking buttercream off its cheek. All of this is to say that I find relief in my daily escape. Call me a disciple of the Midway if you like. I welcome the distance.

Many students still share my dad's view of living on South Campus and the Midway from forty years ago: inconvenient, undesirable, and sometimes impassable. To me, the Midway is not a barrier, quite the opposite. It's a healthy distance between work and home, a conduit of space and meditation that doesn't have to be dangerous or difficult.

Some of you may feel this article is ingenuous, dictated by disinterest or ignorance of safety. Hopefully I didn't superimpose an image of false security and inspire you to go camping on the Midway. At reasonable hours, I feel safe walking across campus—and if you don't, that's ok. I encourage you to find your own no man's land where you feel comfortable. I'm simply saying it's nice not to shit where you study.

Stay tuned for a retraction following the first blizzard of winter quarter.

Henry Cantor is a first-year in the College.