Two weeks ago to this hour, Jack Roper collided with a car on his bicycle.
A week ago to this hour, Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC) rode a ghost bike to the site.
Today, I honour the memory of Jack Roper, cyclist.
What Will Survive Us Is Love
InsideToronto.com August 9, 2011
East York resident Jack Roper, 84, who died after he and a car collided while he was cycling on Friday, Aug. 5, is being remembered fondly by his many friends in the community…
Born in England, Roper joined the British Army towards the end of the Second World War. He worked as a mailman when he moved to Toronto.
Roper was riding his grey and purple bicycle westbound on Plains Road, on his way to a grocery store, when a 2007 Toyota Corolla heading south on Greenwood collided with him at 9:02 a.m. Roper was thrown onto the car’s hood and then rolled off, coming to rest underneath the vehicle. He was taken to St. Michael’s Hospital where he died at about 10 a.m…
Roper leaves behind his sons Shane and Christopher, granddaughter Sarah and a great granddaughter Katie.
It is Friday, August 12, 2011. As per standard Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC) practice, a Ghost Bike Ride has been arranged for this morning, timed to arrive at the intersection a week to the hour from when impact occurred. As requested, Tino has alerted me to logistics so that I may pay my respects. When I arrive at the corner of Bloor and Spadina—the meeting point for many organized cycling activities—I note that so many of the beloved bicycles I have carded this year are in attendance.
Beside me is Derek Chadbourne’s trusty blue Marinoni, on which he will carry the ARC’s memorial banner. To one side is Tino’s playful white Bianchi with the green seat and the green and white braided leather handgrips. Hamish Wilson is standing nearby with his bike. David Meslin pulls in just shortly after I do. There is a Marin, a Concorde, a Miele. I see a DaVinci, a Kona, a Peugeot. A Miyata with bright pink handlebar tape. There is a Masi pulling a Wike trailer. I even spot a dark bike that bears an unknown name brand in Japanese characters. Several bikes have been so heavily used that the brand has long since disappeared; these are much loved, highly treasured bicycles nonetheless. The cycling community is large, yet it feels very small and comforting at moments when it matters.
And then, there is Geoff’s Bilenki, leaning against the artwork in the parkette, solitary and exposed. Lashed to the front of the Bilenki is the ghost bike. It is laying prone on the front cargo space. The frame, wheels and drivetrain have all been painted a pure yet vivid white; it is beautiful, fragile, delicate. I cannot gaze at it for long. Geoff himself has wrapped a thick chain over his shoulder and around his torso, giving him the look of one heavily burdened. This chain will permanently bind the ghost bike to its final resting place.
There are also nearly 50 postal workers gathered beside the cyclists. They have come from the postal station at this intersection to show their respects to Jack Roper, a former employee at this very location.
Geoff leads the procession onto Bloor Street, and we all take to the street in a sombre procession, travelling east. Cars respectfully give us a bit more space, and they do not rush past or honk impatiently, despite it being a Friday. Passing cyclists recognize the ghost bike and salute the dead by ringing their bells gently.
Everyone in our procession has tacitly worn dark or indistinct colours today. Everyone, except one man. He is wearing a yellow t-shirt that bears the slogan Share the Road.
As we take to the Bloor Viaduct, I consider the irony of this circumstance. I am riding along one of my former commuter routes, one that I had always considered a death trap because the bike lane was narrow and drivers regularly strayed across the painted line, cutting me off at the turn. And yet, here am I, following this route to honour the dead.
At Danforth and Greenwood, the light changes to red. Cars line up. Geoff and Derek signal silently, and as one we take the lane. We weave around the waiting cars gently, kindly, courteously, signalling our intention to take the intersection. Everything stops to watch the procession, and as they realize what we bear, the atmosphere loses its sense of entitlement and each face become thoughtful, generous. We are all here, together in this moment. Several of us wave our thanks to drivers as they wait for our 18 bikes to pass through, and they nod in acknowledgement.
As we approach the intersection of Plains Road and Greenwood Avenue, we are greeted by an elderly couple. The woman is bearing a bouquet of black-eyed Susans. They are smiling sadly, heartened at our arrival. Everyone dismounts, leaving their bike against a curb, leaning against a pole or a hedge, or lying on the sidewalk. Suddenly, the 18 bikes become 45. Others have joined us. There are other elderly people, two reporters, a few cyclists from the neighbourhood. Shane, one of Jack Roper’s sons, has come. Mary Fragadakis and Janet Davis are here, because the former is the councillor for this ward and this other was Jack’s councillor. The MPP, Peter Tabuns, is also here. There is a police presence, which is common for these memorials. No one seems sure why the city feels we need them, yet it is somewhat reassuring.
Some of the organizers of the event are discussing the best location for the ghost bike. Geoff carefully removes the bike from his Bilenki and leans it, standing now, against a curb in the intersection. It is highly visible.
Everyone maintains a respectful distance from it, unwilling to approach it.
I hear some of Jack’s friends speaking with attendees about their dear friend.
“It was his transportation in the city: he rode!”
“He was in great shape. He was 84, but he had the body of a 60 year-old!”
“He was a hard-core, all-year cyclist. We’d see him trudging up Woodbine in a snowstorm!”
“Jack rode his bike all over England as a boy.”
Someone asks them about the traffic at this intersection, and one of them volunteers, “Cars approach the intersection too fast. They come peeling off the Parkway, one block north of here, and they’re still in that ‘Parkway mode’.”
I look up and note the flashing light above us. Apparently, something has happened here already to recommend the city taking extra precautions.
Jack and his friend Jim had worked together at the post office for 35 years. When they had both retired, they would meet at the gym and then go to the Karma Cafe to socialize with other friends from the neighbourhood.
“He was gonna do that walk at the CN Tower, you know? But he couldn’t find anyone to go with him.”
I look over to see Tino and Geoff discussing where to chain the bike. Someone comments that the only likely spots are all on private property, which is tricky. Tino touches Geoff’s arm, and then leans across to another cyclist and pats his shoulder. Distracted in my note-taking, I step carelessly into the intersection, hoping to beg a detail from someone on the other side of the street. Behind me, Hamish gently chastens, “You’re going to get hit… ” I look up to see a car rolling slowly towards me. Apologizing to the driver, I step back and thank Hamish, blushing. This sleepy intersection feels safe enough that, in a moment of distraction, you can forget where you are.
At this moment, Tino nods to Derek. He and one of the younger cyclists walk into the centre of the intersection. Derek announces that we will begin, and the cyclists close in, taking the intersection to prevent traffic from moving through. Jack’s family and friends move in close enough to see and hear, but they seem uncomfortable with being on the road. They gently open the banner, and Derek asks if anyone has anything they would like to say. When no one steps forward, he announces that we will honour Jack Roper with a moment of silence, asking everyone to politely remove their hats and helmets. And then, all eyes turn to the simple black letters on yellow background.
When the minute of silence ends, the banner is moved, still open, off to one curb of the intersection. Two other cyclists relieve Derek and his companion; the banner remains on display for half an hour, courteous but decisive in its message. I watch drivers pull up to the intersection distracted, and then noticing the sign, they hesitate, pulling through slowly, with a sense of presence. Some drivers signify their support.
The organizers have received permission for an appropriate lockup location. The ghost bike is moved from its curb to the northwest corner of the intersection, where there is a pole on a private lawn. The pole is a stop sign. This location is probably the most visible to motorists, cyclists and pedestrians travelling through. Geoff removes the chain from his torso and locks the bike against the pole. Jack’s friend places her bouquet of flowers tenderly onto the bike frame.
A cyclist attaches a single black rose, made entirely of recycled bike parts, to its handlebars.
Cyclists begin to mount their bikes and ride off to work. One young police officer bids a new friend, “Ride safely, sir,” to which the cyclist thanks the officer warmly. The banner is rolled up and stored on Derek’s bike. Helmets are collected and people smile again, encouraging. Jack’s friends and well-wishers depart quietly. A group of us mount and ride down Greenwood together, happy to be among these, our friends who are still here.
Later, I am riding home across the Bloor Viaduct, alone. I am looking down, pensive, when I notice suddenly how much wider these lanes appear. It is true. The original line has been painted black and a new line has been painted farther into the road, making the bike lane at least a third as big as before. Looking across and down, I notice the Don Trail winding its reassuring path through the green landscape below me.
At Church Street I turn north, and when I reach the Davenport/Dupont intersection, I turn north again. North seems a good direction today. The route is peaceful. Before me lies the Poplar Plains hill, and I decide I might just take this challenge, when out of my peripheral vision, I see the trail entrance to the Nordheimer Ravine. Into the welcoming arms of the trees Miss Jackson and I travel. I live, and I continue to cycle with exhuberance.
It is very early Saturday morning, the next day. I have agreed to meet some of Jack’s coffee friends at Karma Kafe, to hear his bike stories. Secretly, I have a second agenda in mind.
At 7:00 AM, I climbed into another trusty steed, my car. Three years ago, the health of many of my elderly family members started failing dramatically. Within three months, a dear aunt and my father had both died, rather unexpectedly. My two remaining uncles had been diagnosed with serious complications, which they would likely not survive. Some of my elderly friends were undergoing surgeries. Virtually all of my family live in other cities and towns across Ontario, and I did not own a car. I had had to rent vehicles five times over that short period, frequently at short-notice. It became apparent that, for a time at least, I would need quick access to reliable and environmentally intelligent transportation. When I bought a Honda Fit, I immediately named it Pia, which means clemency. For the most part, Pia sits in the driveway, but too often, I use it to say good-bye.
I must confess something here. I am an impatient driver. I don’t like being behind another car. Wherever I drive, I like to be just a kilometre or two below that speed limit ceiling many of us consciously respect. I don’t mean the enforced limit. I mean the one 20KM above that, above which you know the law will ding you. I drive safely, conscientiously, and illegally. As a cyclist, I often follow the same mindset: I am impatient on the road, regardless of my mode of transportation. There. My dirty little secret is out.
I live near the Eglinton West subway station, so it makes sense to take the Allen Expressway to the 401, across to the Don Valley Parkway. I arrive at the Don Mills south turnoff at 7:14AM. There are several cars ahead of me on Don Mills, even at this hour. I take the left-turn lane at O’Connor and wait for the light to change behind a car and a truck. Turning the corner I am almost immediately at the Greenwood intersection. As expected, I realize I still inhabit DVP land at this moment. Here is my secret agenda, facing me. I watch my reactions carefully. I drive the single block to the accident scene, following another car into a clearly residential district. You know the traffic should be slower so you don’t hurry exactly, but your impulses have not yet switched from highway to residential. The ghost bike is in plain view. The car ahead of me slows and then races through the intersection. Approaching the intersection of Greenwood Avenue and Plains Road myself, I pull up to the stop sign, just as another does. This one is heading east. My impulse is to rush through. I got there a nano-second ahead of her, so I am entitled to do so. What holds me back? That this is a test and I want to be considered a safe driver? That a ghost bike is gently tugging at my sleeve? My cyclist mentality, which makes me consider other vehicles that might cause me harm if I am careless? I expect her to do the same. Instead, she happily appropriates my right of way. In response, my entitlement boils over. And yet, I had to make myself stop.
Why do I feel this way? I am both a cyclist and a driver. Pia is parked where Miss J stood yesterday. I am still unable to look at the ghost bike for very long, but perhaps this time it is for other, more disturbing reasons. Walking through the intersection, I sit beside the bike on a retaining wall and begin to capture my thoughts. Yesterday, I blindly stepped into oncoming traffic here. And now, I have been tempted to drive aggressively into the same intersection, heedless of others. In my life, whenever there is a disagreement, I like to believe that both parties are at fault. Now I have proven to myself categorically that I, both cyclist and driver, could have erred on either side. There were no witnesses, so we cannot say how this happened. Therefore, it is unjustifiable, for me anyway, to believe that this accident was caused by either party solely.
An older fellow rides his bike up at that moment. We greet each other, and he inquires of the ghost bike. He tells me there is always southbound traffic at this intersection, regardless of the time of day. In this neighbourhood, this is “the key corner” for traffic. At rush hours, there is always a lineup. “This bike will be seen by thousands of people.”
This man is part of the gang with whom I am about to share a coffee. He tells me that Jack rode for 60 years here, and that he had been taking this intersection for a good 30 years, almost every day. If there are no cars apparent, a cyclist will “coast through”; drivers know this. His assessment of the situation is very similar to mine. “I think there was a judgement error on the part of both cyclist and driver.”
Karma Kafe is part of an entire block of businesses built strip-mall fashion on Coxwell. As I order my tea, I notice a small sign on the counter. It reads “What Will Survive Us is Love!”, and is credited to Philip Larkin, 1822. The group is at the back, in elegantly padded chairs. Donna, Dianne, Murray and Helen have saved me a seat. They are understandably upset. Dianne tells me she had driven through the intersection just after the accident had occurred, before the ambulance had arrived. There was the usual amount of vehicular traffic, and a lot of people had already gathered to assist, so she felt her duty was to clear the area. Looking across, she noted an unfamiliar body lying on the ground in front of the car. Later she discovered this was the driver, that he had gone into shock and had passed out when he realized he had hit a cyclist. Driving through the scene, she had looked at the bike panniers for a recognizeable sign. Jack had a pair of beat-up old panniers, and this one was brand new, so it couldn’t be him. Hours later, she remembered that Jack had just bought himself a new pannier.
When I turn the conversation to Jack as a cyclist, they warm immediately. Jack was seasoned, knowledgeable, never in a hurry. He was not a “get me there fast” sort of person. In fact, Dianne tells me that she and Jack used to ride all over the city together on adventures and his favourite line was, “Oh, we’re just gonna poodle along.”
Jack owned two bikes. His winter bike was a beater and they cannot tell me what brand it was. His summer bike though, that was a Trek. They are beaming at me, proud of their friend.
He liked this neighbourhood because he could get onto the Don Trail easily, and used to do so frequently. Every morning before their ritual 8AM coffee session, Jack would go for a long ride. Many mornings, he would travel down to the Leslie Spit to watch the sun rise. He would describe it as “glorious”, that there was “nothing better in the world”.
Once, he rode down to Centre Island with his friend Frank.
Another time, he and his friend Gay went to Morrisburg to do a well-known trail ride in the area. They rented a couple of “old, heavy bikes” and took to the trail. Unfortunately, the trail took them onto #2 highway, and they were forced to travel on the gravel shoulder for a bit. Jack was concerned for Gay’s safety.
One of Jack and Dianne’s favourite routes was to ride to Edwards Gardens. They would dismount at the gardens and walk around, chatting.
Donna and Helen encourage Dianne to tell me how Jack got into cycling in such a big way. Murray grins widely, pleased that he will hear this again. I am told that he used to be a long-distance runner, that he would often head out for a two-hour run before breakfast. He had also been a boxer. And as I heard yesterday, he rode all over England on his bike, staying in hostels with friends and cycling around the countryside. Ten years ago, Jack had to have his kneecaps replaced. The doctor told him he could not run anymore, but that yes, he could cycle if he chose. Cycling became his lifeline. Jack loved to be outdoors, doing. The bike “became an extension of Jack, more important to him than his own legs”. Dianne relates how one day he awoke to find he had the ‘flu. He wanted to go for coffee with everyone, but someone pointed out that he might make them all sick. Unwilling to stay home, Jack got on his bike and went for a long ride. “He needed to be free.”
As people begin to leave, Helen places a small, hand-scribbed note into my hand. In the hot weather, she and Murray habitually put a frozen water bottle on the porch for their letter carrier. Their carrier left this note to them last week.
My deepest condolances to you and your friends, friends of Jack. I read all about it from many articles. I read your quotes in the paper, too! May he rest in peace.
On the way back to the car, I walk the seven blocks from Coxwell along Plains Road, interacting with dog walkers. There are lots of people out on their porches, greeting one another across the street and waving amicably to passers-by. As I approach the intersection, I notice how sped-up the southbound traffic feels, and I recall the inclination uncomfortably. Someone casually takes the right-of-way from another driver at I watch. It is not uncommon here, then.
Just once more, I must sit on the retaining wall. An older woman walks past and bids me a cheery “Good morning!” A van drives up to the intersection, and then pulls across to where I sit.
“Do you know if that bike is for Jack?” When I tell her yes, her grateful response is, “I’ll bring flowers.”
There is an abiding sense of community here, in this neighbourhood and at this intersection. And now, there is abiding bike energy.
I lean across hesitantly and, for the first time, I touch the bike. “Salut, Jack. Think I’ll just poodle along, now.”
ARC has been doing ghost bike memorials since 1996. To view a google map of all ghost bike locations, visit http://is.gd/5YKGBV