Jessica Gross | Longreads | September 2018 | 11 minutes (2,864words)
In January of 2014, I rode a train from New York to Chicago, then back again. My little cabin had been provided by Amtrak: a “test run” of what later became the Amtrak Residency. In an essay for The Paris Review Daily, I tried to explain — that is, explain to myself — what trains offer writers, and, particularly, me. I arrived at the sense of containment I felt, bound by the train car and, even more so, by the little private bedroom that ensconced and held me.
What I didn’t say in that essay is that, when I began the journey, I was very, very lonely. On the overnight train trip to Chicago, I rotated between crying, reading Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. (which, by absorbing and distracting me, would make me abruptly stop crying), talking on the telephone, taking notes for my essay, and frantically researching a last-minute freelance assignment. When I got to the hotel in Chicago — my plan was to stay over that Saturday night, then take another overnight train back the following day, to arrive back in New York on Monday — I called my mother, forlorn. She suggested I go home early. Instead, I took myself to dinner and people-watched. But it wasn’t until the next day that I was lifted out of my loneliness and into delight, or maybe peace.
On Sunday, before my train home and after an obligatory visit to the Bean, I took myself to the Art Institute of Chicago. There, wandering the basement in search of a bathroom, I happened upon the Thorne Miniature Rooms, a collection of intricate dioramas. Nestled into the wall, behind panes of glass or plastic, were almost 70 tiny scale models of interiors from different eras: European homes from the 1200s through the 1930s; American homes from the 1600s through the 1930s (the models were constructed between 1932 and 1940). I spent many minutes peering into these rooms: the replica of a New York parlor from the mid-1800s; the early-1700s-era English library; the Virginia dining room from around 1800. I suppose another person would have viewed the rooms in their proper historical context, or concerned themselves with what the designs revealed about the styles of the time. I — a person who has just listed several rooms out of chronological order — viewed the rooms from a position of purely personal need. I projected myself into their spaces, imagined sitting on the tiny couches and lying in the tiny beds. Their very littleness gave me a way to contain myself; and suddenly I was not lonely anymore.