By 6 pm on July 10th, Front Street is blocked due to the PAN AM Games opening Ceremony at the Rogers Centre —of course—but not for us. Three cops wave us in: two bewigged-costumed dames, on a tandem bicycle with a huge eyeball, loaded with four large black Tupperware boxes—no potential terrorist risk here! Thank you, Canada!
Actually, it’s been bizarre and totally mysterious in terms of cops in general. First, it was on my list to find out if we needed a licence. One day I happened upon a gaggle of five bicycle cops gathered on the sidewalk at the Starbucks on College Street—perfect. I asked, “What would you do if you saw a tandem bicycle with big training wheels and a huge eyeball cycling the streets of Toronto?” Two cops with blond ponytails strikingly similar to those favoured by athletes looked at me like I had stepped off a spaceship, the other two searched their mental infractions list and simultaneously, bleary-eyed, shrugged their shoulders. The fifth cop, after apparently going through the same mental list, harrumphed, scratched his head, and asked, “An eyeball? Can you describe that, please?” I laid it out in detail and they unanimously smiled and nodded, conservatively but positively confirming that our creation was basically street-worthy and legal. Or at least it didn’t break any bylaw they could think of.
It’s a green light, legally. It’s hard to believe, but at this point it’s our third time on the road and cops are helpful, friendly, or seemingly unaware of our blaring presence from as little as three feet away. In general, it’s not even a blank look; in fact, the only time I have witnessed this particular glazed blindness was in my dear Minette’s preferred tactic when sensing a raccoon presence. Our guess is that we don’t fit on any list so we might as well be met either with genial complicity or curiosity, or not all.
Photo ops galore at the ticket gate of the Rogers Centre, then we head off to City Hall, where the opening ceremony will be diffused on large screens along with live entertainment and whatnot. Well, first off, we don’t fit under the concrete archways surrounding City Hall. Just as well. We get to hang out with the trucks selling the irresistible junk-food options ranging from hot dogs, sausages, and fries to megalicious fudge-stuffed Fudgsicles. These have to be the most ridiculously super-sized, over-the-top invention of the frozen treat world! We undeniably almost have it all. It’s only our third night out and we haven’t fully taken in the extent of the physical exertion involved. It’s more like a night at the circus and the clowns get to eat too—and it’s definitely more than a green smoothie operation.
Legal ridiculousness and culinary toxicity aside, our creative experiment is presenting us with a glowing eyeball that disperses the protective and generally non-interactive bubble people wear in public spaces. One of the many encounters that have blown our minds and hearts was on the heels of our Fellini-esque junk-food blitz at sunset. A young woman in her twenties beelines for us, gleefully taking in the spectacle like so many others but approaching with more purpose than most. “I love books too!” she says rather poignantly. “This is certainly a different take on celebrating literature! It makes me so happy. I am so grateful for books. Literature has shaped my life.” I mean, I love books, and reading has saved my life. It certainly was the first, and has always been the most, reliable resource to cultivate my personal power, but this young woman’s story leaves me full of admiration, inspiration, and love. Despite the white pancake makeup, red eyelashes, and patent-leather Docs, or rather because of it, I am blessed by her presence and her willingness to share her hope, enthusiasm, rage, intelligence, political acumen, and joy.
She is in her last year of her master’s degree in the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh, and is travelling in Canada and the United States for a few months. Though her family is Muslim in one of the most conservative—read patriarchal—cities in the world, her immediate family’s core religion, one could say, is education and reading. She tells us that her father’s most significant life-changing experience in university was his exposure to international literature. He quickly developed a profound and, in his part of the world, radical and revolutionary respect for women and girls. I don’t know how many men like him live in Riyadh, but I assume he is a minority. We are agog—her father is actually going through with it and putting his money where his mouth is—he is raising his three daughters with respect, devotion, and concern for their well-being in a world he now perceives as threatening to their birth-right to agency, autonomy, and the fulfillment of their life purpose and gifts. The glow in this young woman’s eyes when she speaks of her father and the transformative power of books is bright enough to inspire an army of videogame-stunned children to read more.
And wait, it’s not just her father. She also tells us of her mother’s brave protest days, when she and her friends and colleagues gathered in a supermarket, settled behind steering wheels, and drove cars in a procession through the busy downtown streets of Saudi’s capital city. Perceived as a most provocative act of rebellion—we are talking about women simply driving cars—they were not only brutally arrested but, more importantly, many also lost their jobs and were blacklisted. Their names are apparently still on all kinds of lists, and it is impossible for some to leave the country or have a stable government job. I’ve heard of all this before, and read about it, but to hear it live from someone actually living it is a great honour. She confirmed for us that books can be powerful tools of resistance, especially in contexts where they’re banned/devalued. Now that’s my kind of action on a Saturday night on Queen Street.