“I come from a Health background,” Jesse Cranin explains, “ … studying how to beat obesity.” He’s pointing out the coffee shop window at a parked car.
“Driving everywhere hasn’t done us any favours that way,” I suggest, a little worried that our conversation might be deteriorating into ‘us vs. them’ territory already.
Jesse nods agreement. “And they’ve sparked the downfall of culture because we’re become less creative as a society.”
“Do you really see a connection, between our use of cars and our being less creative?” I ask.
“Well,” Jesse says, “We don’t walk anywhere anymore. I studied community in Toronto. In 2004, only one per cent of people cycled.” He looks across at me soberly. “And only half a per cent of Kingstonians cycled that year.”
I gasp. Is that even possible? Then I realize that only three years ago, I complained to my book interviewees that I was riding around Kingston almost entirely alone, on some remarkable bike infrastructure.
“That statistic has improved dramatically in the past few years,” Jesse assures me.
“So, you think there’s a correlation between activity and creativity,” I say. “I’d agree with that. Lots of good ideas come to me while I’m cycling.”
“I studied Urban and Regional Planning, under Patricia Collins. Her specialty is Healthy Cities and my research is on Active Transportation.” He looks out the window again. “I don’t hate cars. I hate the way we use cars. Cars aren’t inherently bad, but we’ve adapted both our urban and our rural environments to fit the car mindset.”
“Yes, it’s true,” I agree sadly. “Look at what’s happened to the west end of Kingston. All those drive-in malls, where the assumption is that you’ll get into your vehicle and drive from one store in the mall to another.”
“I wonder why we think we’re inferior if we don’t own a car,” Jesse states. “I’m richer financially and emotionally—did you know that the rates of clinical depression are fifty to seventy per cent higher in those who drive into work?”
“I did hear a statistic somewhere, that suggested that non-cyclists take eighteen per cent more sick time than cyclists.”
“It’s the stress,” Jesse tells me, “the anxiety of having to drive forty-five minutes to get into work, then having to apologize for having to pick up the kids from soccer and all that chauffeuring everyone around.”
“I know,” I say. “I hardly see my sister in between her driving her three kids everywhere. It stuns me how dependent they are on her. I don’t know if my father ever drove me to anything. I think I went everywhere on my own steam, as a child.”
“Then there’s the whole, ‘I’m gonna hit traffic’ worry,” Jesse says. “Even on the weekend, when what you want is to just go to the lake, we know we’re going to hit traffic.” Jesse grimaces, and then relaxes. “On a bike, you never worry about hitting traffic.”
“It’s true,” I say. “The only time I have to factor in extra travel time is when I take a car somewhere.”
“Even worse still, cars have removed our sense of community and made us anti-social.”
“I despair at people who live in these huge subdivisions but have never met their neighbours,” I say. “Cars do contribute to that. You know, you drive home at night and are tired and irritable. You drive through the neighbourhood, push the automatic garage door opener, drive into the garage, and close the door behind you. You haven’t engaged anyone that way. Heck, you haven’t even made eye contact with anyone. It’s a soulless existence.”
“I know!” Jesse says, nearly out of his seat and stabbing the air. “I’m from Boston originally. People here are friendly. When I go home, I’m disappointed. In general, if you’re in a public space in Canada, people will stop and help you.” He hesitates to find the name. “Do you know Candy Chang’s work?”
“She’s done all sorts of artistic community-building exercises,” Jesse tells me. “You know those ‘My Name Is’ name tags? In one city, she put those up all over abandoned buildings, replacing the phrase ‘My Name Is’ with the phrase ‘I Wish This Was’. People could write their thoughts on the tags. It was stunning.”
“Wow,” I say. “That really makes you think about your public space.”
Jesse looks out the window again. “Kingston is perfect for cycling,” he says. “It’s relatively flat, it has decent bike infrastructure, there are enough eyes on the street—you know, people around to prevent theft. And Kingston is interesting! On a bike, you pass stuff that’s appealing to the eye. The architecture in this city is so beautiful, what we call ‘five kilometre architecture’—what you can see easily as you cycle past. You don’t want to look at those awful billboards downtown, or those big-ass hotel signs. The downtown is made for cycling and walking.” He pauses. “I lived most of my years here in what I like to call the Student Village. I hate calling it the Ghetto,” he confides. “If you live there, you look like a doofus if you drive a car, because it’s not made for that. On my current street—just outside the village—a sense of community is hard to find, so that’s why I like public life studies, considering how people interact with their environment.”
“I agree that you have to go out of your way to interact with others in your neighbourhood,” I say. “But it’s always worth the effort. I like surprising people when I pet their dog or speak to their children, or ask if it’s okay for me to join their street hockey game.”
“You know that dirt parking lot across from Milestones, on Princess Street?” Jesse says. “I walked by there one day and stopped. I sat down and imagined it as a park. That would be a great place to sit! People would come out and use that space, I bet.” He groans. “Car infrastructure is so ugly—all those giant loops and elevated highways.”
“Like the Gardiner in Toronto,” I suggest.
“Exactly!” Jesse says, stabbing the air again.
“You don’t realize Toronto is on the waterfront because the frontage is covered up with the Expressway. When I moved back to Kingston, I could feel myself relax on seeing the water again. You don’t feel so hemmed in, and seeing natural colours like greens and blues is so calming.”
We stop momentarily, aware of how much we have in common, and of how much of our souls we’ve spilled in the last hour. Two hours ago, I didn’t even know Jesse existed. “How did you find me?” I ask him. “It wasn’t through a card on a bike … ”
Jesse smiles. “Brenna Owen, from CFRC, was telling me about you on her front porch. I listened to the interview you did with her on Alternative Frequencies yesterday. It resonated with me and I wanted to meet you, because so much of what you had to say was meaningful for me.”
“So you found me through an interview someone did with me, about my book. Interesting. Usually, it’s me doing the interviews.” We both mull over the sweet irony of this. “Tell me about your bike,” I say, unable to resist.
Jesse laughs. “It’s an Oryx,” he tells me. “From a Canadian company that’s since been bought out. The bike is probably ten years old and should have sold for $700. I got it for $70.”
“Really?” I say. “Where did you get it?”
“Through the Queen’s Facebook group, Free and For Sale,” he tells me. “They sell dishes, night stands, all sorts of things. I used to live at Aberdeen and William, and I was moving to Albert and Birch. I saw that distance as ‘far’, and started looking for a bike. I saw one and liked it, but you know,” and then he looks off out the window again, his eyes taking a distant look, “sometimes fate happens. This is somehow a sign: this is the bike for me but also this is the career for me.” Jesse spreads his arms open before him to take everything in. “Transportration. My career is in transportation. I ride my bike every day for at least thirty minutes. I work from home, on my laptop, but now that I’ve got a bike, I go everywhere. I’ve been from Union Street West to Bath Road, from the top of Sir John A to the water. I ride every night between seven and eight.” He muses an instant. “My bike has racing grips. It’s really light.” He considers an instant longer and then says, “My bike is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.” HIs face is full of passion. “It’s not only changed my transportation, but how I see Kingston, and cities. and the future of cities. I didn’t own a bike all through university. The student village is so walkable, so I didn’t see a bike as a necessity.”
Like so many people here, Jesse is almost apologizing to me, as if he needs my forgiveness for not having gotten it earlier. For me, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ time to start cycling. Just get on a bike!
“The other thing the bike does,” he continues, as if it’s imperative to convince me that he understands the advantages of cycling, “it’s that I spend a lot of my time on my phone, Facebook, texting … I get on my bike and I don’t need my phone. I take a lot of photos, so when I go out on the bicycle now, I only take my bike, my camera and my waterbottle.” He’s captivated with the idea of being on a bike. “You see how people live, how they use their public space.” He stops and sits forward. “Do you know that park between Napier and Regent Streets?”
“Oh!” I say, now leaning forward myself. We’re almost nose-to-nose. “You mean Churchill Park! I grew up across from that park. Spent most of my childhood there!”
“I love the big X,” Jesse tells me, and the fountain in the middle. I love to see people sittling, reading books in the shade, people taking photos.”
“There are always so many things going on in that park,” I tell him. “I had a favourite climbing tree—a red maple—I’d climb into the tree and watch the world go by. One day after school, two of my Grade Six classmates had agreed to a fistfight, under that very tree. I climbed it before the agreed hour. The entire class gathered to watch. Just as the fight got well and truly underway, Hans—the gardener for the park—I always loved that his name was Hans!” I tell Jesse, taking him on a sidenote to my story, in my enthusiasm, “We called him ’Hands’ because we understood that he was a manual labourer but not that he was German.” Jesse chuckles, and I suddenly blush at my naivete. “Anyway,” I continue, “Hans showed up just as the bloody noses were starting to gush. He paid both boys a quarter and made them shake hands. The whole time, I was quivering up in the tree, terrified that he’d have a much worse punishment for me, for being in his tree!”
“Going through the city is so different on a bicycle,” Jesse laughs. “I like seeing the giant cannon in Skeleton Park, or the tulips in Churchill Park. You don’t see any of that from a car. Just get on a bike and explore a city. A bike isn’t necessarily two wheels to get you to work. It’s not just exercise. A bike isn’t just what gets you from A to B.” Jesse pauses. “A bike is about exploring.”
“It’s true!” I say, hardly believing he’s given me yet another reason to espouse bicycles to the uninitiated. “Bikes are for explorers! I wonder if cars can be for explorers, too, with the right mindset. Our little family used to take the car to country roads at sunset and watch for rabbits. My kids loved that.”
He looks down at my business card, which I’d been showing him earlier, as an interesting social commentary on how I interact with my public space. “I look at the cog on your card,” Jesse says, “how all those spokes come together and work as a team, through the chain. They all come together for one overarching reason.”
“Just like people do, when necessary,” I say, pleased that someone sees subtext in my card. And then, I get a big, fat idea.
“You know that frontage on Princess Street that you were talking about earlier?” I say.
“That piece of awful parking lot, you mean?” he asks me.
“I’m gonna find out who owns that land. And then, let’s set up a chalk board that says, ‘I Wish This Was … ’ and see if we can spark some imagination.”
Jesse’s eyes go distant again. “I want that to be a park, where I can get a coffee and people watch.”
Marvin Pontiac—In a Car