After a quick but inspiring visit to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn where I viewed an amazing exhibit titled Coming to America, I headed back to downtown Detroit to check out my options for crossing into Canada and to see if any of my leads for contacts in the area would pan out. I learned that I would have to take a cab across because bicycles aren’t allowed in the tunnel or the bridge.
Afterwards, I rode by the boardwalk to view the lake and met a man on a bike who commented on the fact that I was really “geared up.” His name was Chuck and he was riding a bike with a small two cycle engine over the front wheel. He was very interested in my trip and told me that he co-owned a wine and liquor store with a partner. He said he considered his partner’s grandchildren like they were his own and that he wished they could meet me because I seemed like a nice guy and he liked introducing them to interesting people. Chuck told me that he’d thought of riding around the country on his motorized bike that got 100 miles on 1/3 of a gallon, the size of his tank. I, in turn, was fascinated by his bike and we discussed the limits of electric bikes I’d seen (less distance and power). Chuck wanted to hear stories from my trip and since he’d lived in the south we spoke about our shared Jim Crow experiences that were always in the back of our minds but which we agreed we couldn’t let limit us. When I mentioned I was from Houston, he brought up the brutal killing of James Byrd in Jasper, TX in 1998. He was heartened to hear about the good experiences I’ve had and we talked about the disposition one has to have to interact with strangers and make them feel at ease. He said his dream was to get a mobile home and go “dig for gold in California, diamonds in Arkansas, and, fishing for Marlins in Florida.” He took me for a ride around the boardwalk and insisted I try out his bike. I was sold on it! He asked if I thought I would ride more regularly once the trip was done and I said, absolutely. He shared with me how important he thought it was for people to explore alternate modes of transportation, not just for the environment but for one’s own health. He said after leaving work, riding on the bike made him feel free and alive. He said he’s trying to get his grandkids into bicycling and that he always tries to give them positive affirmations by telling them how good they are because they hear so much about how bad black kids are. I gave him one of my cards about the trip and told him to ask the kids how to get on the website so he could read more stories from my trip and see his picture posted. After about a half-hour together we parted but not before I let him know how inspiring and important it was to me to meet people like him. Thanks for taking the time to hang out with me Chuck!
From the boardwalk I went to Mexican Town. When I first heard about it I had to wonder if it wasn’t just a tourist trap. It wasn’t. As I rode down Vernor St. I felt like I could have been on Canal St. in Houston, Zarzamora in San Antonio, pre-gentrified 6th St. in Austin, or Lake St. in Minneapolis. I bought some lunch from a taco truck and sa in Clark Park. It was then that I realized somewhere that morning I’d misplaced my helmet–or should I say I simply left it somewhere. I had no idea where it was and it would have been too time consuming to try and figure it out, so I headed towards the International bridge without it. Near the Greyhound Bus Station I saw a line of cabs and one of the drivers agreed to take me over for a reasonable fee. While I was loading my stuff, the small group of 4-5 drivers asked me a bunch of questions about my trip, especially about how much it was costing me. When I told them I was going to write a book, one guy said, “Well, you tell them us cab drivers that hang around the bus station are hard up.”
Getting across customs in Canada was easy and the driver let me off at a McDonald’s immediately across the bridge. I asked him about getting to HWY 3 and he approached a couple in a car who came over to help me with their map. They were emphatic about welcoming me to Canada and told me they lived near Toronto. By this time it was after 3:00 and after a short stop at a welcome center to get a map and suggestions for a good stopping point a few hours up the road, I left and rode the 50KM to Leamington.
When I arrived I drove around this town of about 26,000 looking for a store to get a new bike helmet. I didn’t have any luck at a large superstore but outside when I was unlocking my bike, I began talking to a Latino. He didn’t speak much English but we met halfway and I was able to ask him a number of questions in my imperfect Spanish. Herman Diaz moved here about 6 months ago from Tlaxcala. He told me about a recruitment program that he’d participated in that brings a number of men to work in the tomato fields and in home construction. He said he’d worked near Jackson, TN before that the constant worry about immigration had made him decide to go back home. He, too, was fascinated about my trip and waned to know my route. I gave him a card which he was glad to have. He said the mexicanos were treated very well here and that there was very little racism. He also mentioned that there were very few mexicanas here as they recruitment programs didn’t bring women to work. In the picture I took of him he is pointing to his sunglasses that hide a black eye he said he got the previous week in a futbol game. He pointed me in the direction of a store where I could get a bike helmet and we said our good byes. On the way there I saw a number of Mexican restaurants and the rest of the evening where ever I was I seemed to run into mexicanos in the stores or on the street (many of them on bikes)–all of them speaking Spanish. Herman had told me that few of them knew English.
While I knew there were Mexican and Central American immigrants in Canada, it hadn’t occurred to me that they were fulfilling the same roles in the workforce and buttressing small town economies as they do in the US.