"I saw you"

So it’s a gorgeous autumn morning and I’m riding east along Queen Street, having just made a side trip to one of my favourite stores on the way to the office. I’m approaching a green light at York Street, with pretty much no other traffic around. There’s a westbound car at York, the driver signalling a left turn and waiting to turn south onto York. The car is motionless and there’s no sign that the driver is going to do anything other than wait for the one car, three pedestrians, and one cyclist (that would be me) to clear the intersection before turning. I continue in my straight line, and just as I reach the intersection, he decides that he’s going to make a run for it and guns the engine, leaping into the intersection.

At this point, he’s turning straight into me and whether I keep going or screech to a halt, slow down or speed up, there’s nothing I can do; if he continues, he’s going to hit me broadside. At the last second, he slams on his brakes, the front of his car diving deep down from the inertia. He stops about two feet away from my bike. He’s just accelerated hard from a standing stop across almost two lanes of road straight at me before realizing that he’s about to hit me. I come to a stop a bit further down the road, just out of his way should he start up again. I’m upset, but more bewildered than angry. I look at the driver and he looks back, a little sheepish. One of the pedestrians in the intersection is almost right behind me, next in line to be hit had the driver continued on his path. The other two pedestrians are standing on the corner looking shocked at what they’ve just witnessed.

The driver puts his palm up in a conciliatory gesture and rolls down the window to say something to me, looking more concerned than angry. “I saw you.” What? You saw me? I was expecting “Sorry,” or “My bad,” or even, “Get off the road.” But “I saw you”? It seems like such an odd thing to say. “Hey, I know I accelerated straight at you and came within a whisker of T-boning you and sending you flying across the road on this beautiful day, but no worries mate, I knew you were there.”

“Really?” Bewildered, it’s the only response I can come up with. I say it in the same tone I may use if someone tells me that the Earth is flat or the Leafs are going to win the Cup this year; we both know that you’re just bullshitting me, but there’s always that small chance that you actually believe what you’re saying.

“Yes, I saw you,” he repeats.

“It didn’t seem like you saw me.”

“I did.”

“Is that why you drove straight at me?”

At this point, the peculiar assertion turns a little nasty. “If I hadn’t seen you, you’d be flat on the ground now. Are you on the ground?” His demeanor changes from misguided cover-your-ass to misplaced aggression. He’s not blaming me so much as telling me that I’m lucky he’s not a psychopath. It’s in his tone as much as his words. He begins inching forward again. Wonderful thing about cars; moving forward can be both fight and flight.

The pedestrian standing behind me pipes up at this point. “You did not see him.”

“Yes I did. I didn’t hit him, did I? If I’d hit him, he’d be lying on the street.” At this point, the penny drops. When he says that he saw me, he means that he woke up halfway through his turn and managed to recover just in time. Avoiding a collision set into motion by your actions is as good as not setting it into motion in the first place. I call this Dodge’s Theory of Driving Relativity: From any given observer’s frame of reference (most commonly the driver’s seat of an automobile), nothing that happens outside that frame is your fault. As long as contact between your frame of reference and someone else’s frame of reference is indirect (“a close call”) rather than a direct hit, you are absolved of responsibility for anything that follows.

You can be the hero who defuses the bomb, even if you’re the one who planted it in the first place.

The pedestrian continues arguing with him. The two pedestrians on the corner have graduated from shock to amusement. No one is hurt, and they’re laughing and shaking their heads as the driver continues arguing with the pedestrian that he was in the right. As for me, is it time for fight or flight? Neither. It’s too nice a day to argue with a brick wall and it’s obvious that nothing I can say will change the version of the story that the driver will be telling at the office this afternoon. So I’m just going to shrug my shoulders and continue on my way. “I saw you,” eh? What happened to, “I’m sorry”?

People reflexively say that they’re sorry over so many little things: sorry I have to slip past you in the supermarket aisle, sorry I’m trying to get through the same door as you, sorry that you’re trying to get on the elevator at the same time that I’m getting off the elevator, sorry you stepped on my toes while walking backwards (I must have been in your way), sorry we did a little two-step on the sidewalk while trying to figure out how to pass, sorry I don’t have exact change, sorry that I’m paying with pennnies, sorry, sorry, sorry. Why is sorry so difficult for the things that really matter?

The warning clause

The introduction to the otherwise standard warning on this plastic bag would seem to illustrate the perils of sending an email to a translation service and blindly accepting the result. It reminds me of this prime example of a translation request gone awry, though on a much smaller scale, of course.

R.E. Dietz, famous American manufacturer of hurricane lanterns, is run out of China these days.

Licence play

IAM VAL

It’s funny, the things you keep around in your photo albums. See the last picture in the gallery below for the story about the photo above.

A couple of years ago, I spent the better part of four months examining every truck, tractor, piece of heavy equipment, and work site I passed, looking for warning labels. The end result was the Travails of Mr. Stickman. It was fun, but boy howdy, was I ever ready to stop looking for warning signs after I was done. Soon after I finished that project, I embarked on another: taking pictures of vanity licence plates. Two years and a few fits and starts later, here’s the result.

Compulsively looking at, taking pictures of, and remembering licence plates has an interesting side effect: it can somewhat de-anonymize people in cars. Other than the familiar ones I see on my street or parked along my regular commuting route, I don’t really think that I encounter any individual car more than once in my life. For the most part, people in cars are anonymous to everyone else, and you don’t really attach any significance to one Honda Civic versus another. Is it the same car and driver that I passed last week? Different? Does it matter?

Several times, I’ve seen the same plate twice in two completely different places. In North Toronto and on the Danforth; Deer Park and the Home Depot on Laird.  Somewhat more startling, I’ve occasionally seen the same plate on two different cars, with the sightings separated by weeks or years. I may not know anything about the owner of the car, but I do know that the complete stranger whose licence plate made me laugh on Merton Street in the spring traded in her Land Rover for a convertible that she was driving up Pape Avenue last week. Last week, I completed my first triple sighting of a single plate: first on Summerhill Avenue, then on the 401, and finally in Liberty Village.  I wasn’t able to get a picture of the car in any of those encounters. Fourth time lucky, maybe.

And then there was the driver who blasted his horn at me as he passed me way too aggressively on a wide-open street two weeks ago. As he cut inches in front of me on a quiet residential street (and signed bike route, no less), he almost certainly didn’t realize that I not only recognized his peronalized plate, but that I knew exactly which driveway it was parked in three minutes earlier, where I see it virtually every morning. The wronged cyclist’s dilemma: let him know, or let it go. I’m still undecided.

IM URSThrough all of this, there was only one complaint about a guy on a bike (usually) with a camera stopping to take a picture. The vast majority of drivers that I spoke with were not only amused to be part of my project, but also told me the story behind their personalized plate. The owner of IM URS, for example, told me that he’d inherited it from his mother and it was one of the things he remembered her by. Most of the time though, the cars were empty and no one was around to tell me the personal significance of a plate.

Of course there were almost too many to count that got away, passing too fast for a picture, in weather I refused to subject my camera to, or just at the wrong time of day while I was too busy scurrying along my way. Many them were better than the ones that I did catch. Oh well. For the next post.

Check out the full gallery below the fold. Those of you reading through the RSS feed should visit the original page for the full gallery effect with commentary.

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Which way to Mount Pleasant Sema…Seme…Cema…Ceme…burial ground?

A misspelled wayfinding sign in Toronto

This wayfinding sign recently appeared on the Belt Line, just outside the entrance to Mount Pleasant Cemetery. At least the arrow, complete with hand-lettered spelling correction, is pointing in the right direction, unlike some other signs I could mention. There’s an old saying in woodworking: measure twice, cut once. Surely there’s a similar axiom in the sign-making business.

Remembering the Don

Cover of the book Remembering the Don

I’ve mentioned Charles Sauriol and his book Remembering the Don before in this space and have used it dozens of times to educate myself about the social history of the Don Valley. I’ve made more trips than I remember to the library to borrow Remembering the Don and Pioneers of the Don, both long out of print and seemingly destined to remain that way. So imagine my surprise when I saw a small stack of new copies of Remembering in Book City on Danforth today, selling for the princely sum of $3.99 each. I snapped one up without a second thought. I figured that someone had finally reprinted it, but as far as I can tell, this is a genuine first edition, first printing from 1981 and has probably just been sitting in a box in a warehouse somewhere for almost thirty years. I swear that I’ve scoured the city and online for new copies of this book with no luck before, but now even Amazon has a single copy in stock.

This gives me an opportunity to share a passage from Remembering the Don that forever altered my impression of voyageurs when I first read it some twenty years ago. I’d always thought of voyageurs as rough, hardy adventurers who criss-crossed the wild expanses of pre-Canada in the name of commerce. These were Real Men (and they would have been Real Women too, if any of them had been women) who would have made the Old Spice guy look like Rudy in Meatballs. Then I read Sauriol quoting artist Fred Finley on the voyageurs’ route through southern Ontario:

Each Spring, in the early nineteenth century, the traders of the great North-West Company of Montreal set out for their posts, scattered far across Canada. When their laden bateaux reached York—now Toronto—the voyageurs turned up the Don River, ascending it until they reached the juncture of the Don and Yonge Street. Here the boats were lashed to wheels and pulled bodily up the old road to the Holland River, where they continued their voyage by water to the West. Thus were trading goods carried far across the continent during Canada’s early years.

Sure, it takes a Real Man to paddle and portage his way across a wild continent. But what’s this guff about strapping their canoes to carts and wheeling them up Yonge Street? It seems like cheating.

Best (& Worst) business name, 2010

Dead People's Stuff Antiques

Finally, some truth in advertising; after all, what are antiques if not (usually) the stuff of dead people? Calling this spade a spade is brilliant (& daft), so “Dead People’s Stuff” in Bloomfield is the clear winner in the race to the zenith (& nadir) of business names I’ve encountered in 2010. I’m not entirely sure how this came to be an annual tradition, but I’ve bestowed the honour (& disgrace) on a different business for four years running. Congratulations (& condemnations).

Play us out, Pudgy

Betty Boop wears a piano while Pudgy plays

From the “People put the damnedest things on their lawns” file comes this wonderful front yard display in Brighton, on the road leading to Presqu’ile Provincial Park. Nothing like seeing Betty Boop striking a pose while Pudgy belts out some tunes. Too bad (or not, depending on your point of view) there was no soundtrack accompanying the visual feast.

The evidence on Google Street View suggests that the piano stays, but the scene rotates. Betty may have moved on next year.

There's a co-op for that

Canadian Pallet Council office

The latest entries in the “Who knew?” file are the facts that the Canadian Pallet Council exists, has more than 1,200 members, maintains a prominent storefront office in downtown Cobourg, and is responsible for “setting, monitoring and enforcing policies, procedures and standards” for the manufacture and use of shipping pallets for its members. It also offers pallet-tracking software to its members, pallet administration training for members’ employees, as well as a new pallet inspection program. I know little about shipping pallet economics other than the fact that old ones make good firewood, but I wish the Council luck in its Strategic Focus to “resolve Pallet Imbalances” by next year.