The deeper we get in to the COVID-19 pandemic, the more strange the past seems. Just nine days ago things were still open in town. We were encouraged to keep a safe distance and wash our hands but otherwise everything with the exception of libraries and community centres was open.
And so on that last Sunday – the day before the first big change – I am disappointed. The group bike ride I was going to go on is cancelled. It’s for the best as there were going to be several of us there – a much bigger group than we should be. But I am really looking forward to a ride so I resolve to stay close to home and go out. My plan is to ride for 40-50 kilometres but in the city itself.
Sage and Daegan get inspired and give me a long list of things to be on the lookout for. It’s -7 C out so I get dress a little more warmly – a sweater, a windbreaker, gloves, a neck gaiter to keep my neck and chin warm, and a hat under my helmet.
When I get outside I’m immediately aware of how much things have changed. Even at 9:00 AM on a Sunday the roads are incredibly empty. So empty, in fact, that everywhere I go I’m given an entire lane to myself. There’s no traffic and so I can make good time. I head toward downtown. The streets are mostly empty of people except when I get to Moss Park – an area with a number of homeless shelters. There are a number of people outside, talking, smoking, and noticeably coughing. There’s a palpable level of stress as some yell at each other and others just yell to nobody. I’m just warm enough now after cycling hard. I can’t imagine what it must be like to just stand somewhere for 10 minutes let alone all night.
There’s one item on my list which is “The biggest thing” and I figure the CN tower will fit this. But before I do, I come to an intersection across from a Tim Horton’s coffee shop and I see a woman sitting in the shadow of a building in a wheelchair with an empty coffee cup she’s using to ask for spare change. The wind is howling there so it’s easy to see why she’s here – it’s the warmest place you can find without getting indoors. I get off my bike and maintaining my distance I ask her if she’d like anything from inside Timmy’s. She tells me she’d like a dark roast coffee with two creams and four sugars and a donut. “I’ve been outside all night.” she tells me.
There are several people inside but most everyone is getting coffees to go. I order the coffee and a couple of donuts. Then, knowing she was outside all night I order her a hot breakfast sandwich and hash browns as well.
When I get outside I hand the food to her and she’s glad. She tells me a woman had just given her a cigarette so she’s happy for that. We talk for a while, making physical distance but connecting socially. I think it’s been a while since she’s had a chance to talk to anyone. She tells me she auditioned for The Fly Girls (from In Living Color) and says she met J Lo. Now, though, she says her daughter kicked her out of the house. She’s upset and says that she could have her daughter charged (for what, she doesn’t tell me) but that if she did that it would hurt her granddaughter so she couldn’t do it. Now that I’m standing still, though, I’m getting cold and say my goodbye. Within a block the heat of my effort cycling has made me toasty warm even in my light jacket and sweater. I wish I knew how to find a way for her and all of the other folks outside in this neighbourhood to feel warm and safe.
A few blocks later I’m near city hall and I find another item on the list: “Flowers”. Clearly they were trying to find something difficult to find on a subzero day. But I managed to. But the success brings about mixed feelings:
There are flowers on this bike. It’s a ghost bike – a memorial for a cyclist who was killed on the road. This one is for a particularly sad reason. On August 1, 2009, Darcy Allen Sheppard, a bicycle courier was killed on Bloor Street.
On the evening of August 31, 2009, Bryant and his wife were driving home in his Saab convertible after celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary. At one point, they passed a cyclist, Darcy Allan Sheppard, who according to an interview with Bryant was tossing garbage and holding up traffic by executing figure eights on his bike. As they neared a pedestrian crossing Sheppard pulled in front of Bryant’s vehicle at a red light. Subsequent events were captured on security camera.
According to Bryant his vehicle stalled when he stopped behind Sheppard. His car then lurched forward from his attempts to restart the vehicle which brought the car close to or in contact with Sheppard’s tire. Expert analysis of security camera footage confirmed the car’s headlights dimmed in a manner consistent with this explanation and that the vehicle had a “sensitive and light clutch”. The Crown also determined that no damage to the bicycle’s rear wheel rim was evident. Witnesses said that Sheppard confronted Bryant and his wife “loudly and aggressively” while they “remained passive”. The car’s next movement resulted in Sheppard ending up on the hood of the car. The car travelled 30 feet, lasted 2.5 second, the car’s speed was between 9 and 13.4 km/h and brakes were applied after 1 second. According to Bryant he was looking down trying to restart the vehicle and applied the brakes when he saw Sheppard on the hood. The crown determined that there was no evidence Sheppard was seriously injured at this point and there was not enough evidence to justify a separate charge based upon Bryant’s driving to this point.
The fatality occurred when Bryant drove away while Sheppard was holding the side of the vehicle. At no point did Bryant attempt to stop. The car veered into the opposite lanes, Sheppard’s body struck a fire hydrant knocking him off the car and his head hit the pavement. There were also witness reports that Sheppard reached into Bryant’s convertible and grabbed Bryant or the steering wheel. Bryant parked his car around the corner and called 9-1-1, 3 minutes later. Sheppard later died of his injuries in hospital.Via Wikipedia
This shocked the cycling community which already felt very vulnerable on the road. Most of us have stories of drivers behaving unpredictably and so it hit nearly all of us very close to home.
Michael Bryant, the driver was a former Attorney General and hired not only a legal team but a public relations firm after he was arrested. And in May of 2010 the province decided it would withdraw all charges because there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction.”
For many cyclists this added insult to injury. And this ghost bike above, is called “A Ghost Bike for Justice”. (Apparently according to ghostbikes.org, the original bike, along with its sign “This is a reminder that cyclists rights were killed on this spot [Old City Hall – the courthouse] by the Ontario justice system – May 25, 2010. Safe rides everybody.” was removed.
As I stand there I see a lump of blankets on the sidewalk to my right. Next to the lump is a pair of boots. A pair of bare feet stick out of one end of the blankets, and a thick head of long hair out the other side. I realize then that a man is sleeping there on top of an exhaust grate from a nearby building, getting what heat he can from it.
While I stand there, I hear more sounds from the south, another upset person is shouting incoherently, echoing between the highrise buildings. I’m reminded of “The Monster Shouter” from Stephen King’s “The Stand” which I had just finished a few days before. This character runs around a nearly empty New York City shouting about the monsters that were going to come and get everyone. This is not very comforting in my own nearly empty city today. Perhaps reading a book about a highly contagious and 99% fatal flu was not the most wise of choices for this month.
As I stand here a couple more notifications come in from Sage with suggestions from friends. One asks for signs in six different languages. I get back on my bike and head further west toward Spadina and Chinatown.
I turn north on Spadina, a road so busy under normal conditions that I avoid it as much as possible. Another ghost bike on this street further explains why I avoid it. Today, though, there is hardly anyone on the road and like on all the other streets I’ve been on I’ve had tons of space – almost always an entire lane to myself. It’s heaven.
I manage to find a couple more of my items on the list in Chinatown:
When I get to College Street I decide to head back east. I don’t really have a plan anymore as to what direction, but I manage to find a bunch of my goals:
Libraries were closed two days before but fortunately for me I grabbed all of our available holds and we have a number of books at home so we’re good. I joked earlier this weekend that while everyone was out hoarding toilet paper, it was the paper in the library that I was most interested in hoarding. By the way – if you’d like to see what this closed library is like – and the rest of the Chinatown neighbourhood, visit this Toronto by Library entry.
At the University of Toronto I stop across from the most beautiful library I’ve ever visited, the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. (You can see that one here). And there I find a telecom box that gives me several more of the text in other languages I was looking for.
When I get to Yonge Street I can see that it, too, is nearly empty. I turn right, heading back south. Once I had turned in to the wind my hands in their thin cycling gloves got really cold. I need some warmer gloves if I’m going to stay out longer. I know of an store that is hopefully open back on Queen Street where I can get some more appropriate gloves.
I’m shocked by how quiet Yonge street is. Normally it is one of the busiest streets in the city filled with people and traffic. I see one or two people, am passed by one or two cars in the kilometre or so I am on it. This is shocking because this is normally what it looks like on an average day.
I go past Queen to Richmond and pick up the bike lane there. Not that I need it – drivers have been beyond courteous but I want a change of scenery. I pass another Tim Hortons and decide that I can get a cup of coffee and a muffin to warm up for a couple of minutes. Everyone there is maintaining tons of distance and I eat and drink quickly. Then I pop in to the bathroom for a quick break but also to see if I can get another one of my scavenger hunt items.
I head out the door, unlock my bike and am back up on Queen Street where I pick up a pair of heavy winter cycling gloves. Now I’m happy. I head back on to Richmond, with a plan to get a photo of “The Biggest Thing”. But the CN Tower is a boring answer. In the Fashion District at Spadina and Richmond you can find this “Biggest” thing:
Not far from there I see another item for my list. “A construction site” – it’s easy to do in this city.
I’m a little sad to see some of the street art from “Graffiti Alley” now are not accessible and aren’t looking as good as they did when I took the photo of the art in the background for the post I did about places I’d show visiting tourists in Toronto.
I decide to head further west and see what the bike lane is like further west. Beyond Bathurst it ends where Richmond ends. And I find two more things I need. Another language (Vietnamese) and “Ice Cream” (not the real thing but at least the words)
I’m excited to see a diner that also serves Vietnamese food. Another day I will definitely have to come back…
A few of the items on my list will be found down near the lake so I head south on another busy street, Bathurst. It’s not busy today, though. I’m almost the only person. On the way I meander past another library I’ve visited on better days – the Fort York branch. I head for the same bike lane I rode along in that entry. Today, though, there is hardly anyone there. I need to be a little permissive in satisfying my item of “the biggest crowd you see”.
I also manage to find “Something nautical” and “water”. I’m surprised to see so many planes taking off and landing from the island airport.
Riding along the Queens Quay bike lane is usually a little stressful. When it’s empty you can go quite fast. But it almost never is empty. In the summer it’s filled with inattentive cyclists, tourists walking who don’t know that it’s not the sidewalk, and people lining up for the island ferry. It’s fine if you just resign yourself to relaxing and enjoying the slow ride though. Today there’s no such issue. There’s hardly anyone to speak of. There is an icy headwind now though so I can’t go as fast as I might like.
Eventually I get to the east end and find my way to the beach. This area is surprisingly popular but people are maintaining their distance between family groups and couples. I lean my bike up against a post and take a break. I drink some water and eat an energy bar and watch the water. It is so beautiful here. I take a picture because “beach” is on my list.
By the time I start off I’m chilled. I had sweat a lot as I rode and now that sweat is cold on my skin. I ride harder to warm up and head in the general direction of home. I take a little detour to get one more language since I had lost count.
I am hungry by the time I get there and so I decide to go inside and grab lunch. It’s not terribly busy so I can find a space far from anyone else but close enough to the window that I can leave my bag on the bike and watch it through the window.
This dish, a veggie combo with several lentil dishes, beetroot, cabbage, carrots and potatoes and greens was delicious. And it would be my last meal out in a restaurant for some time. Even a day later, the idea of going to a restaurant for anything other than takeout would seem insane. A state of emergency would be declared in our province and from the 17th of March I would only go outside for essentials and to volunteer at the food bank and drop in breakfast.
And today, March 25th, I’ve crossed another threshold. While I have no fever, exhaustion or any other major symptoms, I have a little chest congestion. If it were a year ago, I would chalk it up to allergies and continue as normal. But this is 2020, and if everyone in the population self-diagnosed and said “I’m sure I’m OK” then we could have an even longer road ahead than we already face. And so I’ll be staying in for a while.
But if you’re feeling good and your local rules allow it. Do try to get outside – alone or with those you are already socially-distancing with. See the sun, get some exercise and breathe the air. It’s a lot fresher now than before with all of us resting at home waiting for the world to return to as close to normal as it can.