This river I step in is not the river I stand in

By Joe Hendry

“Hey, there’s blood on this envelope!” said Mary, the receptionist.

“Sorry about that, it’s mine,” I answered, pointing to the blood dripping from the knuckles on my right hand.

“But the cheque is here in plenty of time, right?” I said, in a plea for some appreciation.

After all, I almost died getting that multi-million dollar cheque to Mary in less than twenty minutes because she forgot to call it in sooner.

“Yes, plenty of time,” she said as she signed my manifest.

I didn’t blame Mary. It’s the nature of my job as a bike messenger. My job is to deliver one hundred percent on time, all of the time, with no exceptions and no excuses. I never seek appreciation but this one time I hoped for just a little.

The delivery for Mary started back in the core of the financial district. I picked up her cheque at the TD Centre at King and Bay Streets. It had just started raining. After making a quick drop on Queen Street east of Jarvis Street, I headed to her office in Leslieville.

As I rode across the Queen Street Bridge over the Don River, I looked up to read the words above the bridge as I often do as a reminder. “This river I step in is not the river I stand in.”

I could see the 501 streetcar ahead. 501 is the designated route number for the Queen Streetcar.Toronto’s streetcar system dates back to the nineteenth century and it is concentrated in the core of the city. It’s an old school system. The streetcar tracks are usually in the middle lanes of four lane roads, so the streetcars share the road with cars and bicycles. The streetcars are not tourist attractions. They are the major surface transit service for some of the most heavily used routes in the city.Toronto’s streetcars have doors on one side and can only be driven from one end so the streetcar is required to do a loop to turn around at the end of the line and passengers can only exit on one side.

The few cars around me began jockeying for position to pass the streetcar before it reached Broadview. The stretch of Queen Street east of Broadview could be very slow for motorists if they were stuck behind a streetcar. Although the street is two lanes in each direction one lane is usually occupied by parked cars so there is scant opportunity to pass the streetcar after Broadview.

I watched as a black sports car accelerated into the inside lane in an attempt to fly by the streetcar only to hit its brakes because an upcoming parked car blocked its path to open road. The driver failed one more attempt at passing before settling in behind the streetcar.

I rode faster to catch the sports car. I looked over as I passed it to see that the driver was a middle aged man with thinning light brown hair and a slight build. He was smoking a cigarette and had the window rolled down about half way. I could see the gold ring on his middle finger as he flicked the ashes from his cigarette out of the window. The ring had what looked like a lightning bolt made of diamond-like chips in the middle of it.

The light ahead at Broadview turned to red and I pulled to a stop in front of the sports car that had moved to the inside lane. I waited behind the streetcar’s rear doors as the streetcar stopped to let passengers on and off.

The driver of the sports car started honking his horn. I looked back and he was flailing his arms, pointing and yelling at me to move. I pointed at the streetcar doors, shook my head and turned forward again. He honked his horn longer and louder. I could still hear him yelling. I couldn’t understand what he was saying so I just ignored him and continued to wait behind the doors.

Then I felt it.

He pushed his car slowly forward bumping me. It was just a little bump, a warning shot to tell me to move – or else.

I didn’t move. Instead I turned around and yelled at the driver.

“What is wrong with you? Don’t you see the streetcar’s doors? Don’t you see people getting on and off,” I screamed.

When the streetcar started moving, I stayed in the middle of the lane and proceeded to adjust my front brake to make the sports car wait. As expected, the driver honked his horn non-stop. After a few seconds I started moving slowly. I would let him pass as I would be much safer behind his car rather than in front of it.

As he passed he veered his car toward me forcing me in toward the curb in an attempt to run me off the road. I smashed my hand against his car as if to push it away. I was really just trying to let him know how close he was to me but of course he already knew. He was deliberately trying to knock me off my bike. He quickly turned in toward the curb again, bumping my bike and almost knocking me to the ground.

He rolled the passenger’s side window down and screamed, “You hit my car. You hit my car. You’ll pay for that.”

He was completely out of control. I accelerated, pumping my legs as fast as they would move. My heart was racing. This was no longer a threat. He wasn’t bluffing. He was trying to hit me. His car was the perfect weapon. It threatened me and protected him. It would enable him to explain away any harm to me as an unfortunate accident. I would be collateral damage from the accepted belief that drivers cannot be expected to control their vehicle’s every movement.

I heard his car screaming behind me but the loud engine roar was quickly coming closer and closer, chasing me. I looked around for an escape. I stood up on my pedals and turned my front wheel toward the curb. I pulled on the handlebars to lift my front wheel up over the curb and then I quickly bunny hopped the curb by pulling up with my legs clipped in to the pedals to lift my back wheel up and over.

Just before I made it over the curb, the sports car clipped my back wheel sending my bike into a spin. Time stood still as everything around me moved in slow motion. I was facing south but moving east. As I fell from the bike, I reached out with my hands to absorb the impact, ripping skin from the knuckles of my right hand. I hit the ground and my body scraped and rolled along the wet pavement. I lay there motionless, in shock, as I listened to the sound of the sports car racing away.

After a few seconds I got up and inspected my bike. The back wheel was slightly bent but I could still ride it. I opened my messenger bag to check that nothing had fallen out. I saw Mary’s cheque and I remembered it was a super hot rush so I quickly got back on my bike and sped off to make the delivery on time.

But Mary would know none of this. I didn’t have time to explain how the blood got on her envelope, so I limped out of her office in to the wet streets. The rain was getting heavier and the winds were picking up so I headed back to the downtown core to take advantage of the bad weather.

On high wind days like this, the wind swirls along Bay Street creating a “wind tunnel” in the concrete canyons between the office towers. The wind tunnel occurs when the wind is funnelled among the sky scrapers. The faster moving wind at the top of the buildings is pushed down to the streets below. The congestion of multiple buildings concentrates the wind flows causing the downwash to double or triple the wind speed by the time it hits the street. Once in a while the wind will be so intense that it literally blows people over.

One of the worst spots in the city for downwashed winds is in front of Commerce Court West at the Bay Street entrance just south of King Street. On days when Toronto is blasted by severe freezing rain and high speed winds, the interlocking bricks on the pedestrian areas become as slippery as ice and the security guards are forced to tie yellow rope along the railings of the steps to help pedestrians walk on the dangerously slippery surface.

The office workers in their business suits resemble penguins as they waddle along the pavement determined to keep their balance while the security guards, clad in matching yellow jackets, act as rescuers to those hapless pedestrians who slip on the walkways and roll down the road, like human tumbleweeds. The rescuers hold onto the rope, form a human chain and stretch out their hands to grab the fallen suits before they are blown into Bay Street.

The voice of my dispatcher burst over my two-way radio.

“One-twelve what’s your twenty?” said George.

“I’m standing by, watching the entertainment at Commie Court West. The rescuers are out today and the penguins are marching,” I said.

“Great, I need a super hero for one of the seven sisters at CCW. It’s only going up to 390 Bay but it’s super hot and some suit’s job is riding on it,” said George.

“Ten-Four, I’m walking in as we speak,” I said.

I rode the elevator up to the thirty-eighth floor. I arrived at reception and the client was still filling out the waybill for the delivery. He was a typical Bay Street suit, a middle-aged man of slight build and a few inches shorter than me. I could see the thinning light brown hair on the top of his head. His red power tie was tied in a tight Windsor knot around his neck and his black shoes were newly polished.

“You’re already here, good. These are very important contract papers. They need to be delivered right away. In fact we only have about fifteen minutes. They must be there by four o’clock,” he said.

As I reached for the manila envelope, I banged the knuckles of my right hand on the edge of the receptionist’s desk.

“Damn!” I yelled.

“Sorry about that. Some guy ran me off the road this morning and I banged up my hand pretty bad,” I said.

I grabbed the envelope from his hand and I froze. I couldn’t believe it. It was the ring. The Bay Street suit had the same lightning bolt ring on his finger as the sports car driver. It was him.

I looked directly at him and said “Nice ring.”

He looked back uncomfortably. I was sure he recognized me.

“Don’t worry I’ll give this all the attention it deserves,” I said.

“Umm, ok but make it fast” he responded.

I turned and walked to the elevator and looked for his name on the waybill. There it is, Matt Bolton. As I waited for the elevator, I thought about how I could get my revenge. I could lose his envelope or just deliver his contract late and cost him a lot of money, maybe even his job.

When I was a rookie on the road, one of the vets told me true story of nineteen year-old Toronto bike messenger, Robbie Thompson. In 1938, Robbie fell from his bike into the path of a streetcar onQueen Street West. His legs were almost severed at the thighs and he lay there slowly bleeding to death. Before he lost consciousness Robbie pulled three telegrams from his pocket and made bystanders promise that his telegrams would be delivered safely. I would ensure Bolton’s contracts were delivered safely and on time too. That’s what Robbie would do.

Just as the elevator arrived, I heard someone calling out.

“Wait, Wait.” It was Bolton.

“I changed my mind. I’m going to deliver it myself,” he said.

I could see the recognition in his face as his eyes struggled to avoid my gaze. He knew who I was. I was quite happy to give the envelope back to him but I was disturbed that he thought I would do anything less than my job.

“Here you go. Good luck”, I said.

I got on the elevator smiling. There was no way he could make it in time. He couldn’t take his sports car. It would take too long to go down to the parking garage. Traffic was a mess and there was nowhere to park anyway. He would have to walk. Actually he would have to have to run most of the way to make it there on time.

I stood inside the lobby of Commerce Court West for a few moments before heading back outside. While I was waiting Bolton came barrelling out of one of the elevators with the envelope in his hand. He rushed through the revolving door and outside.

Bolton only took a few steps before the wind hit him. He lost his footing and slipped on the icy pavement. He rolled and tumbled as the wind pushed him along the slippery interlocking bricks. The rescuers were ready. They stretched out, grabbed him and helped him to his feet. Bolton held on to the rope as the rescuers helped him back inside where he sat down.

Moments later, Bolton quickly jumped up.

“I’m ok. I’m fine. I’ve got to go. I’m in a hurry. Where’s my envelope? Those are very important papers, he said”

Bolton and his rescuers looked around. The envelope was gone. It was blown away by the wind when he fell.

Bolton didn’t notice me standing off to the side. “I better get out of here. I don’t want to be blamed for any of this,” I thought to myself. I would go to my dispatch office and explain everything to George in person.

I unlocked my bike, pedalled across the street and rode south on Bay Street toward Wellington Street. I stopped at the red light at the corner. I stood there waiting and I saw a manila envelope, blowing in the wind near the entrance of the Royal Bank Plaza.

I quickly rode towards it. I rolled my front wheel over the envelope to keep it from blowing away and then I jumped off my bike and picked it up from the ground next to a garbage can. It was Bolton’s contracts. I looked at my watch. It was seven minutes to four.

I looked at the garbage can and I looked again at Bolton’s envelope. I looked up Bay Street and I could see another messenger struggling against the wind and the rain, heading toward Old City Hall. I stuffed the envelope in my bag, hopped back on my bike and sped up Bay Street towards Queen Street to deliver Bolton’s contracts on time.

7 thoughts on “This river I step in is not the river I stand in

  1. I would like to know who wrote this,,,its amazing.
    I have been an on and off courier in toronto and vancouver for the past several years.
    rubber side down.


  2. Amazing story, passion is opne of the most important things to have in life, and this guy showed us that his passion for the job is unscathed.

  3. Yes, good one – thanks for sharing and caring.
    I didn’t know about the 1938 death from streetcar tracks – so there’s been an earlier death.

  4. And with that you transformed his negative energy into something positive. The only way people seem to be able to change: get confronted.

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