[ Robert Silverman ]
[ Guest Gems ]
[ Cybernetically, Bicycle Bob Xe-Dda.p ]
The Don Quixote of the Bicycle
By Merrily Weisbord


The two-room co-op apartment is filled with light, and Vietnamese music plays softly as 58-year-old Bicycle Bob Silverman munches organic nuts and begins the task of explaining his unique world. By way of introduction, he “reads” one of the 40 poems he has composed and knows by heart, modulating and projecting his unexpectedly youthful voice:

Killed by a car
Reborn by a bike
That's the story of my life.


Bob is a founder of and the chief English-speaking spokesperson for the Montreal bicycle-rights group, Citizens on Cycles, Le Monde à Bicyclette. “A beautiful name in French,” it strikes Bob. “Everyone on a bicycle, and the world on a bike.”

No one in Canada has done more to promote the bicycle as urban transportation than Bob Silverman. Covered with fake blood, he has lain down in rush-hour traffic to protest the “auto-cracy.” He has gone to prison for painting illegal bike paths in the small hours of the night. He coins phrases and concepts that would do Madison Avenue proud: “Bicycling is cyclotherapy. It releases pent-up energy and combats auto-eroticism.”

Silverman describes the car as noisy, smelly, space-grabbing and polluting. All too personally, motorized vehicles are associated for him with death: a car killed his first wife; a motorcycle caused the death of a friend, a respected Vietnamese scholar who had survived the French and American occupations. Bob himself, as the above poem suggests, almost died in a car. The bicycle, on the other hand, is a saving grace: sport and transport, easy to maintain, small, nonpolluting, quiet and “nondestructive of others' life and space.”

“Biking used to be straightforward urban ecology,” he says. “Now we have global arguments for it - acid rain, the green house effect, the ozone layer. It's a fun fight. No one can speak against us.”

Today, the mountain bike and the bicycle path seem to be integral components of both urban transport and weekend recreation. In Edmonton, for example, cyclists used the city's river valley bike trails a mere 100,000 times during 1988. That figure exceeds 1,200,000 now. In Montreal and Vancouver, recent bylaws stipulate that all new buildings include parking for bicycles. Increasingly, cyclists are being allowed to us bus-only lanes in Canadian cities.

But when Bob Silverman cofounded Le Monde à Bicyclette in the mid-1970s, “bicycle path” and “bicycle parking” were new concepts in North America. Bob and his cohorts made the normal overtures: they wrote letters, met with city councillors and lobbied. But they also invented yippielike media events called “cyclodramas.” With reporters in tow, they held a rush-hour race through the city between a car and a bike, proving the bicycle's superiority as a commuting vehicle. They hauled toboggans, baby carriages, ladders and a stuffed hippopotamus onto the the Métro to make the point that public transit discriminates against bikes. They dressed up like Moses to “part the waters and ferried bikes in canoes across the St-Lawrence River to dramatize the need for bicycle access to bridges.

Bob fights for safe bike paths, secure parking and the right to take bikes on buses and commuter trains, all to avoid “cyclofrustration” - any impediment to cycling. This, he says, can be resolved politically: “Amsterdam just banned all cars, save taxis and delivery vans, from the city centre. Copenhagen banned car parking downtown. Zermatt is a beautiful city in Switzerland - no smell, no noise - people park outside and train in.”

But as time passes without diminishing his enthusiasm, Bob begins to consider his bicycle path in the larger context of his extraordinary journey toward a harmonious life. On a shelf in his sunlit room is a framed photograph of teenaged Bob, round-faced with protruding ears. On the wall, a 1960s portrait shows him with goatee and thick glasses, a Trotsky lookalike. Now the youthful pudginess and Bolshevik look are gone. Trim, with short dark hair and a gently etched face, Bob, when serious, resembles Leonard Cohen or, when spontaneously enthusiastic, Alfred E. Neuman.

At the table where he sits is a black-and-white photograph of Bob's mother. When he looks at it, he sees his middle-class “phoney” family and hears its refrain: happiness rises with income; virtue is normalcy, doctor, lawyer, banker, money - a childhood so miserable that, at the age of 21, he tried to commit suicide in a car by leaving its motor running inside a garage. In the late 1950s, marching with others in a ban-the-bomb demonstration, Bob got his first taste of the solidarity that would keep him alive, a feeling his psychiatrist dismissed as illusion. Searching in the 1960s, he went to Cuba and cut sugarcane, opened and alternative bookstore in Montreal and then worked for the Quebec Committee Against the War in Indo-China. “I cried during the 1972 Christmas bombing....I felt it was my own flesh burning.”

Bob drove a cab, he taught himself to speak fluent French by listening to the radio and reading newspapers, and he learned to live frugally. When the bookstore closed and the war ended, he found himself “in a void.” Then one day, asked to help organize his Milton Park community in central Montreal against a development project, Bob discovered volleyball. It was, as he gleefully proclaimed in the Volleyball Manifesto, the anarchist's dream activity: participants change function and position constantly. Everyone participates equally. There is no elitism. “Volleyball”, he exulted, “is six hearts that beat as one.”

At first, people were perplexed, but Bob easily persuaded the city's recreation departments to give the community some courts. He still plays there three nights a week, along with people of 100 nationalities and volleyball friends who have played together for 18 years - “the harmonious family I always wanted.” Bob concentrates his brow to “read” a volleyball poem that ends:

For our jobs are tough
And the nights are short
So let's be king on the volleyball court.


Now he is making a case for the harmonious ordering of his world through the letter V: Vietnam, where he would like to live and where he helped organize the first international bicycle tour through the beautiful - and car-free - Mekong Delta; volleyball, a truly democratic game; Vélo (French for bicycle), which gave him a reason to go on living; an Vision improvement, beginning with Aldous Huxley's The Art of Seeing, through William Bates' stress-reducing exercises and Robert-Michael Kaplan's therory of undercorrected glasses and, finally, to the deep emotional repatterning (“memory tapes, forgiveness - most myopes turn away from something”) of Janet Goodrich.

People again crinkled up their noses, but Bob shed his Coke-bottle glasses entirely. This summer, he will attend a three-week vision-improvement retreat. “I was blind,” he says. “I'm trying to bring to light what I refused to see. I want to have perfect vision.” So interconnected for Bob are inner and external vision that the nicest thing he can say to anyone is, “You're making my vision improve.”

Vietnam Bob, Volleyball Bob, Vélorutionary Bob, Visionary Bob. Now that Bob has made his life as coherent as anyone else's, he tucks his white short-sleeved shirt into his black slacks. These are the same clothes he wore to an interview at a Montreal television station and for a speech at Kingston City Hall. He probably wore these clothes to the Second International Conference on Auto-Free Cities in Toronto in May and on a recent Cuban study tour that he helped organize to see how oil rationing is changing Havana overnight into a bicycle-friendly city - with a growth from 50,000 to 500,000 bikes in one year. As he spreads the word (and the word is “bicycle”), Bob has his own definition of what is “enriching.” It is not clothes.

Outside, he stands at Jeanne Mance and Sherbrooke, while cars block the street, whirring and spewing, and then he steps sharply back as they cut robotically around the curb.

“I hate cars,” he spits. “There's an old folks' home here. A lady was killed because she couldn't make it through the light, not enough time. We did a die-in here.”

His walk is punctuated by curses at selfish motorists, disgust at cyclists on the sidewalk, anger at overpasses that frustrate pedestrians' and bicyclists' easy access to Mount Royal. Unstoppable, Montreal's Bicycle Bob is largely responsible, along with Le Monde à Bicyclette, for hundreds of miles of city bike paths, for bike access to the Métro, secure bike parking at most universities and a growing number of public buildings and for 350,000 people every year being able to pedal over the bicycles-and-pedestrians-only bridge from Montreal to the South Shore. Of course, Bob's battle for the bike continues: an east-west bicycle path in Montreal, access to commuter trains and buses and a movement to turn unused rail lines into bicycle trails - Rails to Trails.

Now in a restaurant, Bob orders in Vietnamese, smiling with the boyish happiness that contact with Vietnam evokes in him. “A journalist once wrote that I was “the Don Quixote of the bicycle,” he recalls. “Didn't Quixote say that a life without passion is nothing?...Ha!” And he explodes in his unpredictable enthusiastic yawp.


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From Local Heroes, Harrowsmith Magazine, Ontario.


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© Robert Silverman 2000