It’s day one with Michelle Polak. I’m immediately reminded that she is a trained actor when she lays on her makeup in a few deftly directed strokes. She is less streaky in the first two minutes on the job than I have managed to perfect in my five weeks in the street. And within thirty minutes on the bike, she has uttered one of her apparently famous Mama lines: “We are not on the Titanic yet!” This after we find ourselves seemingly shipwrecked at College Street and Spadina Avenue. “I just had the rear wheel and gears replaced! What now?” The bike’s tendency to lean and veer to the right has nonetheless reached epic proportions [GROAN]. Even with Michelle hanging off the eyeball at a forty-five-degree angle in an attempt to counter-balance us, I fail to keep the bike off the curb. Unperturbed, Michelle combs through a construction site for a sandbag. Though she emerges empty-handed, she deftly shifts to Plan B, which I execute: Epsom salts from the Rexall drugstore on the corner. I emerge with the heavy loot to find Michelle discussing bike construction logistics with two engineers from the MaRS Discovery District. They gladly help us duct-tape the bottle of salts into the eyeball and off we go … well, more or less. We huff it and puff it to Bay Street, only to realize that we must seriously reassess our options. We are definitely not making it to the Taste of the Danforth—we might as well be trying to make it to Newfoundland by morning! Plan C: “I know! Let’s turn south on Yonge Street, cruise downhill, and hang out at Yonge-Dundas Square?” Well, why not?

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After we’re kicked out of the public square for handing out pamphlets on private property, we find the perfect manifesto distribution spot in front of the Hard Rock Café alongside some fifteen or so Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Oh my god, what a scene, because it’s not just the fabulously over-the-top machines, it’s also the cluster of riders and wanna-be-Harley guys hanging out on the sidewalk. Despite the stunning motorcycles, the somewhat daunting presence of the Harley guys and the visual and aural cacophony of megawatt advertising, our arty flair creates a stir. Apparently, the usual scene (we’re told that these guys hang out here every Friday night) is suddenly not so usual when two Space Age nymphs on a glowing bike with a huge eyeball touch down on Harley real estate.

 Several soft-spoken Harley enthusiasts want to take a picture of us on their bikes, as do a flood of tourists from around the world. Under the watchful eye of our self-appointed Harley bodyguard, we pose for snapshots with respectful kids, mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, couples, friends, rockers, Goths, etc., from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Korea, China, Brazil, Switzerland, France, India, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Croatia, Chile, Trinidad Tobago, you name it. With our gentle giant hovering nearby, the sleazy, dubious, if
lonely, types steer clear enough. This safe yet madcap zaniness is topped off by three sexpot Russian girls who unabashedly climb on our bike to ham it up, not stopping short of sticking their pushed-up silicone wonders under our noses. The Harley guys are now convinced that we two strange, arty angels should touch down every Friday night—they want to know our secret. How do we attract such beautiful creatures and, more to the point, end up with them on our bike with all manner of curves under our noses?

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All silliness aside, we still talk books with an academic, a lawyer, several artists and activists, a few authors and most memorably with a survivor of the conflict in Sarajevo, a man who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and shares with Michelle his disillusionment with the Canadian psychiatric system as well as the discrimination he has experienced as a refugee in Canada. After hearing about Katja’s book, he expresses even more vehemently his frustration that his voice is not heard or wanted, despite the fact that he was a lawyer in Yugoslavia. His distress and disempowerment are palpable. “It’s unfair,” he rails. “What is Canada doing for me? What solutions is this country offering? Nothing. I get nowhere. It’s always the same thing.” The canary is flailing in the cat’s jaws.

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My question is, How much can he change from within? What can he access in his heart that can shift his narrative enough to allow him to soften out of flight, fight, or freeze? How can he bring himself to peace? Is it really a question for the government or psychiatric services? Or is it a deeper issue, one that speaks of a fracture in his spirit? Thankfully, a powerful web is growing every day, one that is successfully catching thousands of individuals when they are spiralling. The courses offered in hospitals and other venues under the catch-all phrase of “mindfulness training” are helping many learn how to carve out time and space in their tumultuous lives to sit and soften into presence. The notion that we can find freedom from within by clearing out the debris and clutter created by constant distractions and numbing is wisdom that is already changing lives.

Quite unexpectedly, everyone, their dog, and we the Steampunk art-bike enthusiasts enjoy a fabulously layered taste of Toronto at the Yonge-Dundas Square!

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