Death on Dufferin

December 9, 2020

The pineapple was buried in the snow. I didn’t see it at first.

What I noticed, on my morning walk with the dog, was a stop sign converted into a memorial. The sign sits at a lovely corner of Dufferin Grove Park, where the land dips down from Dufferin Street and a wooden staircase leads up into the park. On the sign post, mourners have tied dozens of bouquets of flowers.

A fresh coat of overnight snow transformed the spot, adding beauty and mystery to the colourful tribute.

At the base of the sign stood a row of artificial candles with battery-operated flames, flickering alongside real candles. Tucked among the floral arrangements lay a ziploc sandwich bag. From the bag smiled a photograph of a fresh-faced young woman, her skin bronzed from the tropics, her face radiating happiness, sucking a cold drink through a straw.

I opened the plastic baggie and read the letter tucked behind the photo. It was a couple of pages torn from a lined notebook, like a student’s notebook. The letter was in pen, written on both sides of the paper. “Dear Alex,” read the letter. “I could never imagine that the next letter I would write you would be one that you would never read.”

I wondered if I was being creepy, reading a letter by a young woman, addressed to a young dead woman. Still, the writer knew Alex would not read it; she presumably wants us to read it, so that we may know something of Alex.

I’d heard that a woman was killed on a bicycle on Dufferin Street the other day. Seeing the memorial made it real. I cycle, at all times of year. I have written countless stories about cyclists killed on the streets of Toronto. It never gets any easier.

The letter recalled the first time the writer met Alex, in Guatemala. The pair travelled through Guatemala. They often shared a pineapple. On their last night, they stole half a bottle of tequila, and drank in the next day on a layover, not wanting their travels to end.

Their friendship endured. Later, the pair travelled to Costa Rica, where they ate more pineapple.

“My best memories of us together,” writes the young woman, “are on long bus trips, travelling through the tropics, sharing stories and eager for our next adventure.” Something like that. “Because pineapple was so important to us, I thought I’d add a pineapple.”

I stood there with the dog, getting to know Alex. In my 20s, I enjoyed the marvels of Central America during several trips. Alex was sort of a younger version of me. As I put the letter back in the baggie and returned it to where I’d found it, I saw the pineapple at the base of the stop sign, half-buried in the fresh snow.

I came home and read about Alexandra Amaro. The story became even more personal: she just graduated from the Ryerson School of Journalism, where I teach. I never had Alex as a student, but I can imagine her, from the tributes online: eager, boisterous, curious. She was 23 years old: cut down by two motorists in the prime of her youth. Police have not yet decided on charges, but that’s hardly the point. In Toronto, too many cyclists die every year. Virtually every death comes from a collision between a car (or truck) and a cyclist. Bikes are no match for heavy hurtling boxes of steel.

The City of Toronto, to its credit, has done a lot since COVID hit to make cycling safer, putting in wonderful bike lanes on major arterial roads like Bloor Street and University Avenue. (They have done nothing to make space for cyclists on Dufferin, however). I have heard it said the city will remove these lanes when the pandemic ends. That would be criminal. For Alex, and for every cyclist living and dead, we need safer streets, with room for bikes.