For Jon, who hales from Winnipeg, a city I’ve never visited but have loved from afar for many years.
We agreed to meet at Well’s Hill Park, near the Nordheimer Ravine. While I couldn’t find this park name on a Google search, I assumed I knew the ravine well enough to find it.
At the appointed time, I combed the bottom of the ravine. Jon Benson waited patiently at the top. I climbed to the reservoir. It was deserted. Jon pulled out his book and read. Swinging up to St. Clair W on Spadina Road in despair, it occurred to me that he meant we’d meet at the subway entrance. He hadn’t. As I rode past the park, Jon was collecting his things. He headed home to find an email waiting. I headed home to send him that email, apologizing profusely.
Jon graciously agreed, as energetically as before, to try again at the same spot. I landmarked the meeting point multiple times in my email response so we would both feel some confidence.
When I arrive, Jon is there already. His blue Bianchi is leaning against the picnic table, the best advertisement available. Jon has the trademark ready smile and has obliged me by leaving his helmet on, which blessedly hides the distracting mass of hair. He is also happy to note my Weakerthans shirt: Jon is from Winnipeg.
“I’m not a big city person. I only came to Toronto because of a girlfriend,” he says, grinning.
Many of the park’s other enthusiasts are native Indians. Each year I visit this park for pow-wows. Seeing these people gives me a Manitoulin moment, that I am surrounded by my home.
“Tell me about your bike,” I begin.
Working as a courier in Winnipeg, Jon wanted a fixed gear because they’re low maintenance, ideal for riding through five months of slush. Jon thinks they’re safer in winter conditions. He considers single-speed and geared bikes akin to driving a car without ABS brakes. If you brake and the wheels stop, you risk skidding out. Fixies offer more control over speed and balance, and because fixed gear wheels continue to move, the chance of a skid is reduced dramatically.
Jon found this Bianchi abandoned at a bike shop, the perfect bike except for the seat post: it had been chopped off very close to the frame and couldn’t be pulled out.
“Restoring it was a labour of love,” Jon reminisces. He strapped a handsaw onto a piece of wood and cut through the post until it could be removed from the frame. Because he used to race, Jon recognizes this as “a beautiful classic bike” from the ‘80s.
“This bike was preloved and then passed onto a new home,” he declares.
One sticker identifies it as Made in Italy. Another sticker is of German origin, so Jon believes it was sold at a bike shop in that country. To continue the historical trail, Jon added a small Natural Cycle sticker, to announce its Winnipeg courier era.
Jon points to the curved handlebars, which he has left untaped intentionally, unwilling to cover up etchings that appear there. You feel like they could have some historical significance, yet there are no clear images. The bike modestly bears witness to remarkable past lives.
This year, Jon is apprenticing as an electrician. The Bianchi gets him between George Brown and Etobicoke, where he is working. I ask him about transporting his tools, and he points to his courier bag. When I wonder at its weight on his shoulder and whether he gets overheated, he laughs.
“I feel naked without it,” he says with a touch of embarrassment.
In Winnipeg, the courier business was all cyclists doing a city-wide service.
“When I say ‘city-wide’, I mean beyond the perimeter of town, which deteriorates into a series of secondary roads.” Jon once hauled a thirty-pound package of fireworks—which extended a full foot out of the top of his bag—to a customer across town and down a couple of gravel roads.
“Riding through Toronto streets with a bag of tools for twenty minutes is not daunting.” We both laugh at this idea.
“What’s your favourite bike activity?” I ask, wondering about his suggested meeting place. Jon enjoys exploring the city. Last month, he started looking for the Nordheimer ravine, which he knew was near St. Clair W and Bathurst. He found the entrance with some trouble.
“Dipping into the treeline, I suddenly lost the traffic and had this big moment of ‘OK, I like this city!’”
Then, coming home from work one night, Jon noticed a path at Scarlett Road and Eglinton. The path wound gently around the Humber River, and on into James Gardens. In the end, the path took him all the way from northern Etobicoke to Bloor Street.
“There’s lots of great stuff here that’s closer than you think,” he says.
While he will never be as attached to Toronto as he is to Winnipeg, surprisingly he feels safer here than there, on his bike. His biggest complaint is the density of any city, and how hard it is to get away from the noise and the tall buildings. You can escape that by heading for greenspace.
Jon had said he needed to leave by 10 a.m., and I suddenly realize how long we’ve been talking, so I ask some passersby for the time. They are all native Indians, and they apologize that there isn’t a watch among them. Perhaps that fraction of Ojibway blood in my veins is where I get my uncanny ability to waken early without an alarm, and to arrive at destinations punctually, without a watch. If only I could arrive on time at the correct destination.
We hug, promising to keep in touch, and then ride off separately into the city, both confident of being surrounded by our own big moments of OK.