A man lurches into the street wearing a platinum blonde fright wig and booty shorts, talking to someone no one else can see, oblivious to oncoming traffic and (most importantly for me) my bike.
“Hey, f**k you motherf***er!” yells a fellow cyclist, handlebars eclipsed by a dozen plastic bags overflowing with a full day’s bottlepicking spoils. I wonder how anyone can maneuver a bike that’s essentially a miniature recycling depot, but people make it work. Both parties manage to avoid each other, me and catastrophe.
Welcome to another episode of The Show.
Most people know it as the stretch of Toronto’s Sherbourne Street between Queen and Carlton, home to some of the city’s roughest real estate. I call it “The Show” because you never know what’s going to happen from one episode to the next: it’s often entertaining, sometimes hair-raising or tragic, rarely predictable and never dull. I don’t use the term in a condescending or judgemental way. I don’t know the people who live or pass through The Show, their stories or how they ended up on it. Some choose to be there. Many don’t.
Sometimes you just need to give something a nickname, to take a bit of the edge off the seriousness and the occasional tragedy. Hence, “The Show.”
Bikes, Prayers and Quarters
“Hey, brother. Can you spare a quarter?” It’s a line straight out of a 1930s dime store novel. In 2019 you’d need a stack of quarters to get anything worth begging for, but maybe asking for a quarter is a more effective strategy in the long run than asking for a loonie. I have nothing to give, as my wallet’s in my messenger bag, and I’m not about to flash cash on The Show. Cyclists at work speak of it in fearful tones. They’ve warned me off biking it at all. They say unwary cyclists have been knocked down, watching from their butts while assailants make off with their ride. I was skeptical at first, but as I started biking The Show, my doubts evaporated. It’s a rough ride, and emergency services are as likely as not to make an appearance on any given day. I see police, fire, ambulance and public housing security all the time. And once, a guy peeing in the park.
I don’t worry about bike theft. My 20-year-old workhorse screams “Beater bike! Not worth stealing!” I worry more about the more fragile cast members on The Show, people with obvious mental health issues. I worry when they act unpredictably, lurching into the bike lane from the sidewalk. I worry about the guy with one hand on his handlebar, one on his phone, and eyes nowhere near the road. I worry about random behaviour, but I still bike The Show every passably clear, warm day. It has the only dedicated bike lane into downtown Toronto, and I figure the odds of surviving a collision with a human body are better than those of surviving the Door Prize (getting launched ass-over-elbows when a motorist decides to open the driver-side door without looking).
Many years ago a guy outside one of the missions on The Show promised to pray for me if I gave him a quarter. That seemed like a bargain at the time, given everything that can go wrong on a bike, but I didn’t have the time to stop. Fifteen years ago he was an old man. Given the reduced lifespan of people on the street, he’s likely long gone. I wonder if anyone prayed for him.
A Cast of Thousands
A guy is talking to himself outside the community centre on Dundas St. In the old days it was easy to identify people talking to themselves. Now you’re never sure if they’re on a headset talking to someone, or chatting to an invisible friend. I passed a guy on Queen St. once who was mumbling something about NASA beaming radio signals into his fillings. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t a headset conversation.
A man shuffles down the street, singing Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love,” ad-libbing lyrics that sound like something about garlic. Another bikes down the wrong side of the street, oblivious to impending disaster until my “Heads up!” grabs his attention.
There’s a ton of characters on The Show, some one-offs, many recurring. They’re the residents of public housing and cheap apartments lining the route; users of the community health services, missions and safe injection sites; people doing fine and folks who’ve hit rock bottom. I tell myself not to judge the less fortunate ones, the ones I see each day on my journey, and not to act self-righteous about the privileges I enjoy. A good education, stable upbringing and host of other factors have given me an advantage others don’t enjoy.
Deep down, none of us are any different from the cast of The Show, broken or whole, coping or not, clean or using. Different circumstances, different backgrounds and different luck leads us down different paths. I try to remember that each time I bike it, while watching out for pigeons and people. It gives me perspective.
I made a sort of new year’s resolution to give back by volunteering to help those in need in the neighbourhood. I’m not sure what that will look like, when I’ll start or how long I’ll stick with it. I know I’m fortunate, and I see the folks who have fallen through holes in our social safety net each day I bike The Show. I know I can probably do something about it, however small.
Maybe I’ve got a guest spot on The Show.