HazMat Flashback

A few weeks ago, I'd just come out of the grocery store when I noticed a strange smell in the air. At this particular geographical point in the neighbourhood, if it smells of anything other than vaguely downtown-ish, it's usually freshly baked/slightly burned bread from one of the bakeries in the market. This was not that smell. This smelled more like... well, it's sort of hard to explain, but the best description I can come up with is that it smelled as if God had farted. Vaguely puzzled, I didn't pay much attention and continued on my way home. As I headed towards the corner where turn onto my street, I heard a fire truck behind me and turned to look. I don't normally do that - when you live close to Toronto's busiest fire station, howling sirens is not an unusual sound. But turning around, I saw the unusual sight of the fire department’s Hazmat truck flying past me. I have never before seen a Hazmat truck in person and lets just say it piqued my interest. After I'd been back home for a little while, I noticed a smell coming from the hallway vent and investigated. It was a very strange. Like burning tar. Long story short, it turns out that a shingle factory to the east of where I live was on fire and there had been some concern that it might contain toxic materials, hence the Hazmat truck. No harm done, except property damage and an afternoon of stinky air.

The funny thing was that during the couple of hours it took to find out what was going on, I wasn't as alarmed as you'd think I'd be (nearby shingle factory fire + wind from the east + Hazmat truck = concern, one should think). And it was because it reminded me of my bike.

When I was about four years old, we move from an apartment to a tiny rowhouse. There were four streets like this and on both sides of every street was a long line of rectangular houses, one connected to the other and you could walk from one end to the other on the flat roofs. Every year, usually in the summer (I think), workers would come to tar the roofs. Or maybe they used asphalt. The neighbouhood would be suffused with the smell and I remember riding my bike along the street breathing the smell of tar. I liked that street and that little house with its tiny, stamp sized backyard and an apple tree that had the best apples. And I loved my bike.

I'd had a bike before, a little girl bike. The only thing I really remember about it is learning to ride it without training wheels, the first time with my dad running behind me with a hand placed lightly, but securely on the back of the bike so I wouldn't fall. I remember feeling sure that only two wheels couldn't possibly stay upright, but one day, I was riding down the street with my mom running behind me. I remember exactly where I was - a few houses down the street when I realized that mor was standing still in front of our house and I had done it alone.

But the bike I always think of when I think of My Bike was my second one. It was beautiful. A metallic dark champagne colour that changed to black at the end of each steel tube. It looked a bit like the brown horses that have black socks and since I was pretty horse mad at that age, it wasn't long before the line between bike and horse blurred. I lived on that bike like a feral child on the vast grasslands, riding it everywhere, sharing my life, my joys, my sorrows with it. One of the places I went to was a riding school. Every day after school, I would ride that bike through the streets of the suburb where we lived, through the park and down the steep hill that we used for tobogganing in the winter. I remember that if you didn't apply your brakes on the hill - which was a delicious thisclose to out-of-control feeling - it would give enough speed to carry you through the straight part of the path and with a bit of extra pedalling, once you turned right where the park changed into forest and the path changed from paving to hard-packed earth, you had a choice: you could continue on the path or you could veer off to the trough carved by endless children's bikes. Riding fast through that would actually make the wheels slip off the ground and you’d fly. I did that every day and it was like a secret entrance to a magical world of warm stables, of diving into the blissful smell of horses, of the sounds - the quiet whickers, the clop of hooves, the brushing of flanks. Losing yourself in sound of a horse chewing a carrot treat, your hands full of the softest nose and warmed by its breath. Then I would ride home again, eat my afternoon snack and do my homework. And after dinner, I would ride my bike with the other children in our street and I taught myself to do so with each end of a rope tied to the handlebars like reins. And so, my bike transformed and became my horse.

I miss that bike.


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