Dufferin Grove watershed, Toronto.
In the principal city of my adopted country—a northern land famous for accepting runaway slaves and the artful dodgers of various drafts (what else were we doing here, after all?)—I was meandering along on the sidewalk enjoying the evening sun. There was an American car across the sidewalk—the cars here are unselfconsciously American—and a young man with a Tree Hugger t-shirt emerged.
“You should be in the bike lane,” he told me.
I looked from the car with its American logo to the lad with the green logo, but said nothing, suspecting irony. The car was blocking the bike lane.
“I’m just loading some stuff,” he said. “I won’t be long.” It was near sunset. I scanned the area for more irony, but detected none. It seemed safe to proceed.
I permitted myself a final arched eyebrow at the car/tree juxtaposition, but as I squeezed my bike past the car I had to admit to myself that it was even worse than the young man had thought. Even if he hadn’t been blocking the bike lane, I might not have used it.
I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of users of these spillways, the kind who pretend that they aren’t perfectly positioned for parked cars to swing doors into, and those who don’t. The non-pretenders are fewer in number, but as they inch across the city, they imagine a thousand deaths, and so move from disaster to disaster and become, with such a hesitant manner, something of a traffic hazard themselves. It’s hard not to compare the confident ones and the whimpy ones to the righteous and the wicked in the book of Proverbs. “The wicked flee when no man pursueth,” says the good book, “but the righteous are bold as a lion.”
Of this select group of wicked ones I count myself a member. We slouch awkwardly through the city, looking for love in all the wrong places—in the street till we can bear no longer the thought of our own deaths, on the sidewalk till we can brook no longer the muttering and looks of contempt. We lurk in alleys, park our bikes too far from our destinations and walk the rest of the way. Free at last from the shackles of our bicycles, we come out onto the sidewalks of the boulevards and admire the righteous, their prim clusterings at red lights even when there is no cross traffic, their gallantry and confidence in the bike lanes reminiscent of the Charge of the Light Brigade or something equally valiant, their willingness to imagine bike lanes even when the lanes fade in and out, as they do every few blocks, their swank little bells like the ones on children’s tricycles, which they deploy to let the cement trucks know that they, like the cement truckers, are legal and bold and righteous. This is a city that used to be called “The Good.” Goodness is still rife.
My first time in the city, arriving from smokier and badder lands abroad, a whiff of brimstone lingering about me, I saw a quiet tableau of seven righteous bikers stopping two lanes over from a streetcar as a passenger boarded, and the righteous looked neither to the left, nor to the right, but held firm in their resolve, and I knew I was among the pure in spirit, and I fell onto my knees. That time it was because I had tripped on a pigeon while craning my neck to look at the bikers, but truly the air of sanctity is a marvel, and there is so little discord between the righteous bikers and the people in the American cars you’d almost think that they were the best of friends. And indeed when I talk to the righteous they assure me that they are working for a common good, and I understand that they hope soon—in 2013, I think—to be rewarded for their excellent behavior by being given still more bike lanes in which to express their gallantry.
It’s such a chummy vision of politicians and citizens in unison that it seems ungenerous to point out that bike lanes, like their disastrous parent democracy, are a form of institutionalized anarchy. Democracy was founded in, and flourishes amongst, slave-holding societies. Here’s how to be a democratist today: take an American car, give your soul away in Faustian bargains to American military adventures and backroom corporate deals to get it, fill it (the soul, the car) with gas obtained from other implicit concessions to the American Sixth Fleet in a process called “being a close friend and ally” (exchange a “good” war in Afghanistan for a bad one in Iraq), drive to get food which has been delivered to the store in a truck which parks in the bike lane, spew cancerous fumes on the children on the way, flatten a squirrel or two to let the children know they shouldn’t play hockey in the street, park your car, open your door into the bike lane and don’t check your mirror. If anything goes wrong you can be shocked—shocked—at the bicyclist who comes out of “nowhere.”
This nowhere, where does it begin? Is this not a nowhere, now here, of our own devising?
The China-helmeted democratist righteous biker, fresh from nowhere, glued to the inside of an American car door. Can you think of a better icon of democracy in action? A wash-and-wear action figure to accessorize your basic Detroit box.
In nowhere, a place too depleted to have a capital ‘n’, live the laborers who make our clothes and the gimcracks and gewgaws we got so cheaply at Walmart. We cannot pay them properly now, but if they are good, we will give them democracy, starting in China. Then they can be like us, righteous, and bold enough to send their anarchy elsewhere. And they can have righteous cities like ours, where if everyone stays in his or her proper place, one day almost two percent of the open spaces will be for people and the space for cars will drop from 99% to 98. Perhaps even then people won’t know what those two long thin things that hang from our buttocks are for, but we will know how to vote, and how to send someone waddling off to the capitol to do stuff for us, and then we can continue not having to do it ourselves.
Each generation of democratists threatens the next with the folly of not doing their bit, as if this having done a bit to bring slightly less ruinous politicians, and therefore ratifying the ruinous system itself, were not the greatest of follies.
Time long past for the gentle wicked. Leave anarchy and radicalism for the anarchist radicals in Washington. This is my neighborhood, my shit to take care of. Now is the hour of gentle wickedness and love, slow bikes on sidewalks, pedestrians stalled in X-walks to admire birds, more and bigger potholes, potholes big enough for trees, children sprung from daycare playing in the street. Time to admit how many “pedestrians” are actually drivers getting to their cars. The delivery trucks and the cars can’t take back the bike lanes, because they already own them, both physically and spiritually. Let the bikerighteous and the cementers have as many bike lanes as they want. Perhaps today we’ll pick up litter in the parks and place it in its appropriate receptacle, the lair of the righteous.
Drivers love bike lanes, because such official marginalia acknowledges the right of drivers to dominate the city. We acknowledge no such right. We are the wicked, and there is a wicked heart in each of us who has hungered to walk simply beneath the cope of heaven.
One day this, one day that. That’s bike lane talk. But in the real city, there is no “one day,” only the now, this moment. And in this moment the city is already ours. Democratists interlope, Detroitist detritus comes and goes, but we are here right now. Sun’s coming up in the city. What kind of day is it going to be?
DAVID KER THOMSON (Ph.D. Princeton) is in the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, where he teaches graduate courses on cities and ethics. He is finishing a book on traveling in England with his family entitled, View from a Kettle.