BLIND:    PORTRAIT OF A CITY

                  I have been riding my bike in the city for the past few years but not in the wintertime. Last year, I rode my bicycle for the better part of the winter except on the few occasions when I needed to take public transportation. I don’t care for winter.  I like watching the Toronto Maple Leafs play hockey Saturday nights on television but you won’t find me ice skating at City Hall. The only snow I like is the fluffy stuff that appears on Christmas cards. I can do without the muddy slush and the layers of clothing.  The idea of using my bike during the winter intrigued me because it would challenge my mettle: braving the chill factors and the deep freezes - me against the elements. Well, I would save some money and it would be good exercise. That year it turned out to be a mild winter and there was not much snow. My bank account was a bit fuller and I was bit more fit. With winter around the corner; the fall temperatures mild and ready to plummet, I have been debating whether to continue riding my bicycle or travel by public transportation.  I hate to admit it but thinking about minus degree weather makes me shudder but the thought of taking public transportation leaves me irritated. The Toronto Transit System has a few good qualities but riding my bike for the last few years has left me thinking about other things.

 

                 Imagine, a clear night, the wind blows and your body sheds the day's skin on the road. Your mind fleeting from one thought to another, these dull nuggets vibrate against the darkness, sometimes dropping from the chamber, and sometimes resting at the edge of night waiting for a spore of light. Riding my bicycle allows my mind to roam through space and time. My imagination takes flight from the life’s little tasks. Though, I am restricted like any other vehicle, I have to obey the road signs and traffic signals, which I do most of the times. But, unlike buses, streetcars and other vehicles, I can cut through parks and alleyways. There are also the ravines, the hidden country, which are spread throughout the city. Riding by bike along the Don River, I am surrounded by hills and trees. I can see the traffic and smog from a distance on the Don Valley Parkway. I am far from the smog and the traffic shrouded by the trees and the hills. I can choose my route and ride at my own pace. Taking the public transit system means being at the mercy of the driver. Once you are in their vehicle; you are on their schedule. The trap launched for a leisurely ride towards the subway. It dawns on the bus driver, and this happens just as you get on the bus, that he is ahead of schedule, and from that point onwards, he will make all unnecessary stops where there are no passengers to pick up or drop off. He will wait at the green light until it turns yellow and make an attempt to cross the intersection. He will stop abruptly as if to say, sorry folks, I tried. Many times, I have thought about going up to the driver and informing him of my schedule and, that of the other passengers. I want to inform him that there is a reason we are on this vehicle at this time. We are trying to get to our destinations, on time.  I am sure it does not matter to you since you are already at work, on time. I don’t. There are times when the driver needs his caffeine fix. I don’t mind. I understand the need for the first cup. The second. Third. He speeds towards his favourite donut shop, Tim Horton’s, for a coffee and cream filled donut. I do not mind but he could ask if anybody on the bus would like anything. It would be the polite thing to do; after all, he is the host. .Fourth.  Fifth.  Sipping his coffee, Jack checks his watch and you guessed it. He is ahead of schedule, on time. I mind. Just give me the bottle. 

 

                 Riding my bike, I can meditate on possibilities: thoughts and ideas that have some grade. I am responsible for getting myself to work on time. I don’t have to worry about getting to the bus stop five minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive; only to see it departing for the next stop. I don’t have to wait at a shelter that doesn’t shelter me from the cold or any kind of weather. I do not have to rush down the subway station stairs to catch the connecting train: skirting around the other passengers going down and coming up; jostling for room on a crowded car. I don’t have to worry about delays because of breakdowns. I am on my own special schedule. But riding the subway train has many pleasures. Tired sleeping heads banging against windows; tired sleepy heads swaying back and forth catching themselves from falling as their necks snap back. Draping themselves over the person sitting beside them.  Recently, I saw two women head to shoulder; shoulder to head fast asleep without a care in the world. Their unadorned faces let me imagine their lives. These women, I imagine have just worked a shift at a part time job that helps them pay for their tuition. This morning, they are on their way to Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto for a first year Psychology lecture. Their life's dreams are etched on their faces; the long road stretching the length of Yonge Street. Some will drift. Some will fall by the wayside. Some will soar. But life has the tendency to be deceptive; they might just be two students going home after a late night getting drunk at a club on Richmond Street. Just the same, these unguarded heads show a more human face as oppose to those stone faces that hide behind the Globe and Mail, Alice Munro’s latest, or those completely oblivious, listening to music coming from their cassette or disc players.  I find all these mysterious commuters interesting. But those reading books – fiction, non-fiction, self-help - intrigue me the most. Did they choose the book or did the book choose them. All of sudden, I find my neck sloping parallel to my right shoulder trying to get a glimpse at the titles. What is it about the book that keeps them so interested? What is that I am missing? Is it for the simple pleasure of reading or are they trying to gain some perspective on life?  One of my favourite books that was given to me as a birthday gift was a second-hand copy of J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey. I was getting older and wondering what life was all about - totally unheard of in the boom of the nineties with the new technology driving the economy, people trading Nortel stocks like hockey cards. This was the age of information, the informed age.  There I was: playwright… writer …artist. The conversation begins on a high note – there is the first sentence and it is all down hill from there. Oh, how wonderful. Have you done anything I would have heard of? I pull out my mental C.V. Oh, yes um…oh. Nothing they have heard of but getting off on the idea of the struggling artist. Hoping for a chance to say, “I knew him when....Not here…Not in Toronto. I hate the term struggling artist. There is nothing romantic about the idea of living on baloney sandwiches in Southern Ontario, as our recently retired Premier would have you believe. I am bleeding heart vegetarian. What was I doing chasing dreams of becoming a writer? What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I want to take the shortcut to a good paying job being an IT for Any Company? According to the television advertisements I could. In just a few months and a few thousand dollars my future would be set with Any Company. Any Company, huh?  Anyway, nobody cared what I thought; I wouldn’t have to worry about my future. Get in on the gravy train. No, it’s made with animal stock. Did anybody care what I thought? Who was willing to listen to my story? Mama, it’s not Mia-sical nor is it Meow-sical but it was story worth a listen or read. I was second-guessing myself. I was becoming my parents – parenting myself. Who was I going to listen to Franny or her boyfriend Lane, maybe Zooey? Maybe, I’ll go through my phone book and ask all the people in it what they think I should do. Hum, I’m older not much wiser. I am resigned to the fact that I will always struggle with the question of life. I will always be cynical, but somehow the act of writing helps me find order, hope and humor; aware not to walk through life blindly. I get excited when I see a person reading Salinger’s book. I wonder if they are finding some meaning. I want to talk to them but hide under a newspaper or book. I am reminded of a Saturday morning when an older man – a recent immigrant from Eritrea got on the car at Eglinton Station. He sat down beside me and started to speak to no one in particular. He declared that nobody smiles in Toronto. My first reaction, like that of the other passengers, was to ignore him. No smile here. Stone faced, I continued to read my book. At that time I was reading Stuart Macleans’ Welcome Home, a book about the neighbourly charity of small towns across Canada. Some of these towns, once the beneficiaries of industrial plants, businesses and rich farm land that gave them their birth; luring thousands of new immigrants were now, victims of closures. Their children, steadily, moving away to bigger cities where the prospects for jobs were better. In the book, most of the town's people who were interviewed spoke of the coldness of the people living in the big city, referring to Toronto, mostly. After some thought, I put my book down and listened to his story. He told me, he had been to a wedding the night before. He had been drinking. Late that night on his way home he was mugged and his wallet was stolen. He called the police from a pay phone, and it took a long time for them to come. When they arrived, the police proceeded to question him. They treated him like a criminal instead of the victim. They asked him for identification. He tried to explain that his wallet was stolen but they pushed him into the police car and took him down to the station. He was detained for the night and released that morning. No explanation was given. I don’t know how much of the story was real or fiction but he thanked me for listening to him. I looked around the subway car; I wasn’t the only one listening to this man’s story.  As he left, a bunch of children burst in with their screaming, laughing, crying with curiosity, and unbridled enthusiasm. They drove their parents around the bend.  Opening the eyes of strangers; opening their minds. Ah, youth: with no preconceived notions except what they are taught.  No explanation is necessary.

 

            Riding my bike does not offer the same opportunities for observations or encounters. The voices I hear are usually mutterings to myself or one or two words ending with exclamation marks for the drivers of the other vehicles.  On the residential streets, I am confronted by cats and squirrels scampering across the road.  The cats are not so bad.  They hear the squeal of my tires, turn their heads, look at me, and continue to saunter across the street; flicking their tails in the air. The squirrels usually come out full trot without any warning. They hear the squeal of the tires; they stop, stand up on their hind legs, turn their heads to one side, and shield their eyes with their little paws - waiting for death. Alive, they look up, look at me and sure that no damage has been done scamper back towards the sidewalk. Suddenly, remembering why they where crossing in the first place - maybe a hidden nut or two in the neighbour’s yard - they quickly turn back into the middle of the road. Only to be confronted, once again, by the seams of my tires. Somewhere the lines of communication, in the squirrel community, have broken down. One would think, with thousands of squirrels dropping dead crossing the streets, that the message has been communicated to the other squirrels to look both ways before crossing. Did you hear what happened to Cousin Squirrel-Head? The bicyclist dragged his body all along Bloor Street. Dead, and for what? A few more nuts.

 

            The few times it did snow that winter, I enjoyed riding my bike and listening to the crunching crystals. I imagined, my pedals turning into hoofs, my bicycle into a horse.  As I galloped forward, time turned back. I rode into the darkness of the uncharted land: Yonge Street turned into a dirt road, and the street lights blossomed into trees. Riding my bike has its share of hazards. I am at the mercy of the car drivers who blindly pull out without looking.  They cut me off at intersections leaving me in a trail of black smoke. Riding the public transit system I have to abide by a set schedule. I have to endure unscheduled stops to donut shops and vehicle breakdowns. Riding my bike, I miss the little interactions on the public transport system: the possibility of encounters with total strangers: hearing bits of conversations and creating imaginary lives. On the subway, I miss the freedom my bicycle allows: the intimacy of my winged thoughts darting through nature’s landscape and coming back to me fuller and lighter. I miss those child-like moments, those softer times when curiosity and imagination kindled beginnings. In what we gain, we lose.