It is November 14. I am awakened by the phone. The hotel in Whitby alerts me that I must be up and off downtown. I cannot miss the event today. This morning at 7:30 we are commemorating the death of Jenna Katherine Morrison, 38. Wife. Mother. Cylist. And pregnant for her second child. I cannot be late.
The traffic is reasonably heavy but not worrisome. I make it into town with 15 minutes to spare, but how shall I get downtown in my car? Miss Jackson sits in the hatch, waiting to be released. I decide my best shot at arriving on time is to park near the Eglinton West station and cycle to Bloor and Spadina.
When we reach Spadina, I hesitate. There are so many people crowding the lot that I am overwhelmed. I want to shout, “The Kingston Contingent has arrived!” but my heart is in my mouth. Riding across, I walk into the pack, looking for familiar faces. I see Derek and Matt and Geoff, I see Tino and Hamish and Yvonne. Several of my interviewees have come, yet there are a lot of unfamiliar faces here. There are media vans along the street, and several bike police stand on the fringes, waiting respectfully.
Within minutes, ARC signals that the ride should begin. We take Spadina, southbound. Both lanes are gently taken. The mass pours into the street endlessly. I must stop and catch my breath. Who are these cyclists? What am I seeing here? Standing on the sidewalk, I watch them ride past, slowly and kindly, their faces drawn and silent, alert to their role. Several wave at me in recognition. I see Rui and Layne, Chris and his family. Tammy from the dandyhorse magazine. Tomasz on his spectacular fixie. There are cyclists of all ages and sizes and shapes. The bike parade is equally astounding. Cargo bikes and single gears, mountain bikes and racing bikes and cyclocross bikes, banana seats and Brooks saddles and fat seats and skinny seats, babies in carriers and children in child seats leaning forward to hold their parent’s hand, businessmen and shoppers and messengers, panniers and carriers and baskets, flowers and streamers and cards threaded into spokes, and everything. Everything is here, represented. It flows on and on. I join the crowd.
We turn at Harbord, taking the entire lane, plus the bike lane. It is gloriously freeing. Traffic slows to watch. There are spectators, families with their children, foreheads furrowed in explanation. A young man rides alone and when we stop at a light, I beg his age. He smiles. “I’m 13.” I want to hold him close, I feel such pride.
As we cross the next intersection, the corker is urging us at the back of the mass to move more quickly through the red light. “Monday morning. Sadness going on!” he explains. We smile and comply. Ahead, I see a tandem. The young man rides solo: the rear seat is empty. Symbolic?
At Dundas, people become more alert to the road because of the streetcar tracks. The bike police cork earnestly, and many many riders thank them openly. We are a consequential community in this moment.
At the Lansdowne intersection, I feel myself tense. This is the intersection that Scott described as sketchy. That’s putting it lightly. The approach and rise is painful in many ways, because the traffic at this hour is dense and you sense their need to get to work. Turning the corner, the crowd has banded around the mouth to the rail trail. Bikes are parked everywhere, and people are hugging. The sadness is tangible, yet there is no drama here. It is authentic. We are sad.
I cannot get close enough to see and hear, so I park Miss Jackson along the barrier on the sidewalk and head back into the crowd. Miss J is safe in the midst of this throng of 2000 people, all of whom today get cycling.
I stand beside a woman, also straining to listen. There is a helicopter hovering above us. She says to me, “That thing is really intrusive.”
All bells ring, and then there is silence, except for the helicopter. Rick Conroy speaks on behalf of ARC. We cannot hear his first words, and then his second sentence is repeated by everyone who can hear, for the benefit of those of us at the back. It is the human megaphone.
“I loved Jenna,” the crowd repeats, nearly shouting. “Her passing fills me with great sadness.”
Derek calls for a moment of silence as the banner is gently opened and displayed.
A cyclist died here last week.
I remove my helmet and close my eyes, thanking God for getting me here in time, to be a witness, to support and encourage, to help heal my beloved community. To be healed in turn.
Rick tells the crowd, with the help of everyone there, that his brother-in-law died in a similar accident seven years ago, and he appeals to the government to make sideguards on cube vans compulsory. Peggy Nash then announces that she is collecting email addresses and will be travelling to Ottawa this morning to meet with Olivia Chow. They are halting all private members bills today to pass just such a bill. The bike bells ring loud support.
Once the banner is rolled up, people begin to disperse. A few ride calmly down the rail path. I watch Geoff speed elegantly down Sterling. Turning, I notice Tom at my elbow. He is waiting for me to stop writing, to thank me for having emailed the group about this event. He is a changed man; I can see it in his eyes. What else can I do? they seem to beg me. “Write a letter!” I tell him. “Change depends on you.” He nods with some determination, and then climbing onto his dear bike, he rides off down the hill.
By the memorial, people are adding their names and email addresses to Peggy’s sheet. As I get in line to add my name, I notice a family burning incense together and I am moved by the flowers and candles, and pine cones, all piled near the photograph of Jenna Morrison.
“Who are these people?” I wonder to myself. It is an extraordinary groundswell of grief, because the victim this time was a pregnant woman, who died in a way to which we could all relate. Off to one side, two men are arguing about how it happened and who was at fault. I want to scream that it doesn’t matter how we got here, what matters is what we do now. Blame helps no one. Instead, I hug the one I know and smile at his friend.
Beside me I hear the voice I am seeking. It is Dave Meslin, and he is speaking ardently with two other mourners. “Oh screw advocacy. Let’s get some paint,” he blurts out playfully. He has agreed to an interview after the ride; we nod recognition and he points to the rail path.
Ten minutes later, we are cycling companionably down the path considering our breakfast options. At the far end of the rail path, Mez (the name by which nearly everyone in town knows him) suddenly spots a dog running free. He feels obliged to catch it and return it to its owner, but the dog has other ideas. It begins to run along Cariboo and then into traffic on Osler. A train is crossing the intersection, holding traffic. The dog races toward the tracks. Mez screams in horror, “No doggie! Come back!” When the dog reaches the crossing it hesitates, and then races back toward us and into a nearby school yard and park. Mez and I race after the dog on our bikes. While I try to exhaust the dog with a high-speed chase, Mez gets on the phone with Animal Services. The dog doubles back not once but twice through neighbourhood alleys and yards. I am momentarily flummoxed but the dog clearly knows its way around.
Suddenly, the train completes its crossing, at which the dog scoots across the tracks and into its home on the other side. The dog didn’t need us after all. I stop cycling, infuriated at how much time we have lost on what turns out to be just a poorly managed dog. Worse, now I seem to have lost Mez. Riding back along the dog’s circuit, Mez and I finally spot each other. Unlike me, Mez takes the dog’s actions with great even-temperedness and we continue our ride.
At the restaurant, I ask Mez if he names his bikes and his eyebrows shoot up. With some surprise, he analyzes his reponse to this question. “No! I name everything else, though—teddy bears, my girlfriend’s car… I give nicknames to people who already have names!” He describes his bicycle as a “big pragmatic device”, declaring that he sometimes pats the seat but that’s all. He has had his bike for ten years and while he loves it, well “we have a relationship, but it’s purely professional.”
His bicycle is very simple. There are no cables and no gears. It has foot brakes. There are no markings or brandings on it. Nestor from the CBN built this bicycle. Mez relates how he had a mountain bike years ago and had been invited to join a group ride to a party on Lake Simcoe. He objects that he is not a long-distance rider, so the trip up Kennedy was very long for him. The next day he could hardly walk, so he agreed to take a drive back into the city and leave the bike at the lake. It seemed silly to travel back just so he could bring the bike back, so he decided to get a new bike. This was the new bike and he’s had it ever since. “I wouldn’t part with it easily but I won’t personify it.”
“I had a car named Alfred once,” he offers helpfully.
“Why do you start bike unions and lead advocacy rides? Why do you chase lone dogs down streets? What makes you tick?” I ask hesitantly. “Why? he wonders.
Everyone cares as much as Mez does, at least that’s his theory. They just don’t have the faith that they can make a difference. It’s either that, or we believe someone else will step up. It’s not apathy, he assures me. Apathy would mean you didn’t care about the outcome, and he believes the cycling community cares very much about the outcome.
Have I watched his Ted Talk, he asks. I realize that I have seen it. The Ted Talk had originally been called Redefining Apathy, but the organizers had changed the title to The Antidote to Apathy, which Mez says misses the point: in his mind, apathy doesn’t exist.
Our culture discusses leadership in terms of fairy tales, where there is always a defining moment in the character’s life—a beam from heaven or a friend’s intervention, maybe—where they know they are called to action. To demonstrate, the Ted Talk offers a list of popular Hollywood movies in which the recurring theme is about a chosen leader, or of prophecy. Mez rhymes off several: Star Wars; the Matrix; Harry Potter; the Green Lantern; The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Yet in real life, there is often no defining point and no one grows up with a lightning bolt scar on their forehead.
“If that’s how we teach leadership—that you should expect to get a call… ” We lack the understanding that most leaders must be self-motivated. In fact, we dissuade ourselves with excuses. “We also glamorize our heroes and we worship our leaders,” Mez reminds me. “The higher the pedestal, the more disempowered everyone feels.”
To underscore this point, Mez refuses to allow the media to take photographs of him alone. “I always work with a team.” A photo of him alone would tell the reader, ‘Mez has it under control,’ which begs the question ‘How do I insert myself into this picture?’ The only way you’d see yourself in that picture would be to replace Mez, which isn’t going to happen. You’re unlikely to think of yourself as the replacement for a hero. A team photo on the other hand allows the reader to see themselves as part of this team.
“There needs to be a shift from the singular to the plural. Those are the things that prevent others from doing what I do.”
He takes another tack. “Everyone wants that dog to get home, so why aren’t they doing something about it?” He’s right. I didn’t have the slightest desire to help him with the dog until I could see he meant it, but of course I don’t mean the creature any harm and want to see it safely home.
“People don’t see the world as being malleable. There’s a sense of hopelessness.” He uses home ownership to explain this. Home owners put a lot of time into keeping their carpeting clean. If you spill coffee on your rug, you immediately take responsibility for cleaning it up. The same attention is not paid to public space, however. How many times do we walk past litter or broken glass?
“We need to take collective ownership.” In the same way we take responsibility for shovelling our front sidewalk so no one slips, we should also take care of all our public spaces. Public space doesn’t belong to the city, it belongs to each of us.
In 1998 – 2000, the global street parties Reclaim the Streets were held. Mez organized the Toronto event. People blocked just enough of Bloor at Brunswick to make a point, but not enough to annoy drivers. It became a celebration until the police intervened. They shut down the sound system and closed the street. Approaching the police calmly Mez said, “Listen, it’s symbolic. We won’t be long, or violent. Let’s agree on a time to leave, and we’ll leave peacefully then.” Surprisingly, the police responded favourably. They reopened the street to the party and the officer shook Mez’s hand, smiling. “There won’t be any other surprises, right?” As he said this, Mez could see the officer’s smile fade as his gaze followed something looming over Mez’s shoulder. It was Tooker Gomberg in a dump truck, delivering an impulsive load of sod for the dance party.
“Over the years, I’ve shifted to a political approach rather than a guerilla approach,” he grins. This new approach culminated in some amazing projects. One was a new advocacy group, called the Toronto Bike Union. Partnering with the union was another project he wanted to see started, which became known as dandyhorse magazine. In 2001, he started something called the Public Spacing Committee, from which Spacing magazine was launched.
Lately, his focus has shifted to transportation and mobility, among other things. He is heading a campaign for safe drivers. He also wants to get back into advocacy at the neighbourhood level, directing his attention to ways to make our streets safer.
Another of Mez’s side projects is to get people to analyze the pitches we hail as progressive these days. He worries that we have a lot of the messaging wrong, or even backwards. The ‘Reclaim the Streets’ campaign for instance, should be rethought. Im Mez’s mind, kicking all vehicles off the streets makes us seem anti-transportation, which isn’t the case at all. He spotted a No Bicycles sign on Ryerson campus lately, which sent the wrong message entirely. “It becomes cars vs. pedestrians”, which isn’t what anyone wants. Further, if the message is to widen a sidewalk or to reduce the size of the street entirely, the result can never be to include a bike lane.
Another phrase he dislikes is Transportation Hierarchy. ‘Why should there be a hierarchy at all?’ he wonders. No single mode of transportation should be assigned precedence. They are all useful, depending on how far you are travelling and your load. You just need to use common sense. Further, he sees lots of groups across North America describing themselves as ‘Walk and Bike’. What they should be combining is cycling and transportation, since no one is going to argue the feasibility of walking a city this size. It would be too slow, and drastic changes in land use would be required. The modal shift required has nothing to do with walking, in fact. We should all be considering a bicycle as an affordable, simple, green alternative.
I hear myself repeating several of these key phrases as I write, nodding in agreement. For the second time today, I am a human megaphone. The first time, while I didn’t love Jenna personally, I do love what she represents and I felt compelled to sign that petition. This time, I can honestly say that I do love Mez for the work he has accomplished on my behalf—the union, dandyhorse and Spacing magazines, his John Street audit, to name just a few—and I repeat his words, hoping to inspire others to get involved with this community.
Like those 2000 people who came out today, I too want to change attitudes on behalf of the entire cycling community.
Photos generously provided by Warren McPherson