A couple of weeks ago, I was alerted to an upcoming celebration at the Jet Fuel Coffee Shop, on Parliament Street. The more people I spoke with, the more I realized I was the only cyclist in Toronto who didn’t know about it.
The Jet Fuel Coffee Shop has been open for nineteen years. Its owner/operator is John Engler, an enthusiastic supporter of cycling in Toronto. The café boasts a competitive road bike team, La Bicicletta. And because John is involved in the messenger community, it is a known hangout for couriers.
Every year since its inception, John has thrown a party to celebrate. At each anniversary, the agreement is that the number of kegs of beer available equal the number of years the café has been in business, and further that said beer must all be gone before closing time. Did I mention that the shop has been around for nineteen years?
I contacted my friend Steve, whom I would meet out front, to confer on our plan of attack.
Never having been to the shop before, I turn at Carleton and Parliament not sure what to expect. Nothing on the west side of the street is clearly marked, but by the quiet I have to assume I’m not there yet. The next block is equally disappointing, and I have a moment of despair. What if I can’t find it? I stop. A heavenly beam is descending on the sidewalk directly across from me. There, on every conceivable lockable element, are stacked bikes. People are coming out of the woodwork on bicycles, singly and in groups, and locking up against street signs, bike racks, hydro poles, and other bikes. It is the most beautiful mayhem imaginable.
The closer I get, the more bike energy I can feel.
“Wow!” I shout to Steve, who is approaching from the other direction. “Can you feel that? I want to put a card on every one of these!” He giddily points to the stack nearby.
“Yeah!” he agrees. “And every one of these bikes is unique.” Some are brightly painted, others drab and banged up. Some have white or coloured tire walls, others are plain black. There are both slicks and knobby wheels; road, hybrid and pure mountain bikes. The variation in handlebars is unbelievable.
“Who rides this, I wonder?” I point to one set that remind me of the horns on a steer. I tell him I just interviewed an ex-messenger last week and that Nate had explained how there is no “messenger style” of bike. Here is living proof, on the hoof. Each bike is well maintained and appreciated by its owner. I’m completely stoked and suddenly terrified.
“How do you want to do this?” Steve asks, feeling the same level of intimidation.
“Let’s see what happens,” I tell him. I figure messenger + beer is a better combination than messenger + competition (as in, Icycle) but we’re about to find out.
Agreeably, the messengers in the doorway smile and welcome us. It’s only 8:30 p.m., so it’s not a dense throng yet. The café is long and narrow, brightly lit, with pounding music; the walls are decorated with posters of cyclists in Jet Fuel cycling jerseys. Partway back is a table on which stands a keg; several full cups await. Steve asks how much. The servers laugh.
“It’s free, but you can put something in the tip jar, if you like.” Surprised, we both do as suggested and grab a cup.
We head to the back together, where many people seem to be heading out a door, to the back yard. The door opens to a narrow walkway, which then opens into an enclosed yard. It’s already nearly packed. You can’t walk around, but around the edges are benches on which cyclists are catching up. The air is a little thick, so I head inside before my thinking gets too clouded for the task at hand.
“Anything interesting?” Steve asks.
“Well,” I explain, “I think I should get as many interviews as I can now, because the crowd is about to become awfully mellow.” He looks over, eyebrow raised, and then sniffs the air. We chuckle. The first person I approach is the most colourfully dressed. I like her open face and affectionate manner with almost everyone here. Her name is Leah.
When she first started as a courier, it was summertime. One day, she was cycling along Bloor St., the other side of Mt. Pleasant Road, when a call came in. The cranky dispatcher was screaming that the priority on a package had changed and she needed to hurry. Leah sped up. Seconds later, she realized she was heading into the on-ramp to Mt. Pleasant, in the middle of traffic. There was a car only inches to her left, cutting her off.
The next day she had a softball-sized bruise on her hip, where she had hit the mirror.
She is wearing brightly marked full-body technical gear, and her long hair is shorn in the back, adorned with flowers and tied in unusual but becoming styles. There are bangles on one wrist and a goth band on the other. She is wearing a startlingly pointy choker. In fact, Leah is covered with metal. I am not the least nervous. Her warmth is infectious. I thank her as she heads off to her friends.
Moments later she is back with another messenger. I must interview him, she insists. The man smiling behind her has long, unkempt hair, broad shoulders, and a warm smile. His name is Brian and he wants to tell me about his Death Defying Moment. I wonder if they will all have one of these stories.
Brian tells me he was one day moving as fast as he had ever gone on Adelaide just past Peter Street, when out of nowhere a minivan cut in front of him. It appeared suddenly from around the side of a parked bus, leaving him no room to proceed. In that moment, he decided to “take the van.” Inches from it, he threw his hands into the air and bounced off its side, landing a full eight feet back.
The van owner jumped out and rushed to his side. He wanted to know if Brian had hit his head. Brian looked up and realized that the side of the van was still shaking from the impact.
He looks into my eyes and says, “I was trying to hold off killing him for having cut me off.” Instead, he walked away. I look at his kind face.
“I shouldn’t have been able to do that, you know,” he explains. “You have to know how to take a hit.” It upsets me to realize we might not be having this conversation, if the accident had ended badly. He laughs. Brian likes being a messenger. He is a musician, and this job allows him the flexibility of working around his other interests.
In the yard, I find a very pretty blonde woman with a generous smile. Her name is Rebecca and she is very happy to chat until I tell her what I want. All her bike stories involve near death experiences. She tells me that, while she is not a messenger, she does ride a lot and loves it. She does not have a story to share, but she does have a strong political statement. Rebecca tells me that she prefers to ride in the downtown core to anywhere else, because once you get to say, the Danforth, you are jockeying with cars in bike lanes and a general lack of courtesy and it gets dangerous.
“There are certainly places in town where bikes receive less acceptance,” I say.
“Acceptance is the wrong word,” she corrects me. “We should not need to feel acceptance. Cycling for me is a fulcrum for everything in my life where I feel myself in the minority: my gender, my sexuality, my chosen field.” She tells me that it’s all got a similarly unfortunate sense of having to prove something that shouldn’t require proving. She is a very strong, very intelligent, very rare woman. In many ways, her story is my story. I have just become numb to it, while she has not. She is not angry, but she is not going to pretend it doesn’t bother her. I thank her for sharing her thoughts, and she smiles warmly, pleasantly.
It is an interesting collection of people. Every age is represented here, as well as a variety of ethnicities, incomes, style aesthetics and sexual persuasions. There are bike bags everywhere. The place is now packed to near implosion. Faces are engaged, friendly, genuine. There is no posturing. On the waiver forms I’ve collected tonight, I note a wide range of educational levels. Some interviewees have email addresses and their handwriting is confident, while others can barely print their names.
Steve looks over the crowd. “These people are evolving faster than others in this city,” he says. “They love their jobs. If only everyone felt that way.” He calls them “totally alive” and I suggest that it is because they are not one-dimensional, but very artistic in their approach to things. We have both noted how often people greet each other with a hug.
It is at this moment that he spots someone he knows and becomes unexpectedly excited. Following him down into the crowd, Steve gets the fellow’s attention, standing directly beneath the posters decorating the wall. These young men are involved with Jet Fuel’s competitive racing team. One of the young men in the group, who has been quietly watching, shakes my hand. I ask him how he is involved, and he points at one of the riders in the race lineup, in the poster overhead.
“That’s me,” he says modestly.
“You’re famous!” I tease him, and then realize I sound like a bike bunny, and blush. Or, maybe I am a bike bunny. Either way, it would be fun to hear his story, but it will not happen tonight.
Back upstairs, I find myself beside Leah again.
“How it is that all the messengers know each other? Surely they don’t all work for the same company?” She laughs. No, but they do congregate together as they wait for calls to come in. Because they are a “modestly boisterous lot”, they have to change their venue regularly. They also see each other on the road all day long. Leah explains that the downtown core for courier territory has generic boundaries; say, College to the Lakeshore, and perhaps Church to Bathurst. Intrigued, I ask for more details.
There are actually three kinds of messengers. She herself is what’s known as an intercept rider. She goes into the offices and collects packages, and then takes them to a second messenger who awaits in a car. The driver then takes the package out to the suburbs. The second type of messenger is fondly known as a “core whore”, someone who collects and delivers to the law firms, banks, printing firms and whatever else is located within the core boundaries. The third type is called a distance rider, someone who delivers packages as far north as Eglinton.
Everyone has their own style. Some carry enormous bags of deliveries, while others have smaller, more portable bags. Some have a militaristic style, some attach things to a chain, and one man has been known for years to only carry a single package at a time.
“In fact,” she states, her finger stabbing the air, “he’s even looked exactly the same for years!”
She looks out over the crowd with me. “It’s not so much a melting pot as a salad,” she declares. Each person is “an individual, intricate part of the whole.” She describes how she came here from Barrie years ago, and how her family disapproved.
“I told my mom that I’d rather be homeless in Toronto than employed in Barrie.” As it turned out, Leah was indeed one of the working homeless for several months.
“How did you manage?” I want to know. You couchsurf. Friends put you up. These are some of the pluckiest people I have ever encountered, with a passion for their work. She has no stress, apart from the occasional traffic altercation. And cycling is the best way to vent frustration.
When I moved here, someone in Kingston had pointed to this sort of character as “Toronto colour.” While I don’t think the intent was particularly flattering, I find these people winsome and they have an undeniable strength of character that I admire intensely.
Beside me, George the Bike Guy is swaying on his feet, more inebriated than most. But then, it’s nearly midnight. George used to have a bike shop in Kensington Market called Parts Unknown.
He exclaims expansively, “John always throws a good party.” John used to also have a bike shop in the market, and the day he closed down to start Jet Fuel, he showed up at George’s shop with a thousand bikes. A remarkably generous man, this John fellow.
At home, I check my Twitter account to find the simple report from Taddle Creek: “Jet Fuel Café beer gone.” All nineteen kegs have been consumed, as required.