One of the great recreational activities for kids on the Island, and on much of the Rez it seemed, was to ride ATVs. Four-wheelers and three-wheelers seemed to be everywhere. The kid down the road from me had a full-on Fat Cat motorcycle.
I had a ten-speed. Someone else’s ten-speed. I think it was my aunt’s.
I used to take my borrowed ten-speed and pedal my way up and over the Seaway International Bridge (not quite as long as the Golden Gate Bridge, but not much shorter), inexplicably fearless of the traffic on the bridge and the lack of a bike lane. I pedaled across the bridge at 10, 11, and 12 to get to the smelly little industrial town on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River; the town where my skate-rat friends lived and my middle school used to be.
I was pretty envious of the kids and cousins who had full-sized and miniature ATVs to sport around the Island; to take the back trails down by the river or to ride the paved road from one side of the Canadian Customs Crossroads to the other. To an adolescent with a ten-speed the ATVs were ubiquitous. And fast. And awesome. They were an escape that didn’t involve a ride over a terrifying bridge hoping that today wouldn’t be the day a car spun you over the safety rail into the St. Lawrence below.
It never crossed my mind that we were poor, even by rez standards; that we just couldn’t afford the kinds of toys some of the other families could, or that no one (apart from me) put much value in those big outdoor toys when compared to things like making the bathroom in the house safe for human use. I don’t think we were poor. But I don’t know. I had a Nintendo. And a Power Glove. And a tv in my room. But maybe we really were poor. One Christmas the Basket Wagon showed up with a food and gift basket for us. That was weird and unexpected, and my mom wasn’t home when they arrived so when my sister and I opened the two gifts in the basket I ended up with a pink plastic doll set and she ended up with, I think, a bunch of cars. That one Christmas may do a lot to account for how I am now.
Another Christmas my grandfather, my tota, showed up with a gift for me that I could never have imagined. He was always taking a special interest in me, or so I felt; my sister and I lived off the rez for most of our childhood, but he was a fixture in our lives even off the rez: he was a legendary lacrosse player, and he taught me how to play well enough that I was moved up a couple of levels in the Nepean Knights lacrosse organization as a kid; seeing how scrawny I was he tried to teach me how to box, because there was authority in violence on the rez; noting my interest in pool he helped teach me in his bar and his basement; discovering that I was thinking about delaying my entrance to the University of Toronto for lack of funding (I didn’t apply for any student loans until late) he brought me back to the rez and pressed a roll of hundred dollar bills into my hand and told me I was going to school; I was supposed to be the first Burns with a college degree (despite his efforts I still managed to drop out after a year, move in with a girl, and stay out of school for a long time; my sister was the first, and she’s the writer of the family). I never felt like anything except his grandson when I was around him. I never felt like the white kid in an alien world.
That Christmas he brought me outside and opened the garage door, the garage door to the house my family was living in, the house he had built decades earlier to house his own growing family. He revealed, behind that door, my very own motorized vehicle. He must have heard my bitching and moaning about the other kids and their ATVs; he must have known that I was feeling, once again, like a bit of an alien on the rez. I was the kid without a four-wheeler; the kid who flipped three-wheelers over on himself; the kid who didn’t understand how to ride one while owning the throttle. I was the kid who biked off the rez, over the bridge into the smelly little industrial town at every opportunity, to play with skate-rats and smokers, non-Indians and white-trash, because I never felt at home on the rez.
But being a grandfather he could hardly be expected to understand that bringing me a mo-ped wasn’t exactly going to make me one of the cool kids on the Island. It was orange. It had pedals. It ran on some mixture of gasoline and oil that I never did figure out.
I was miserable in my gratitude. I understood what he had done, but I also understood precisely how he had gotten it all wrong.
I feigned enthusiasm, and I rode the mo-ped. I used it like a bike (being between ten-speeds at the time), but it didn’t have the kind of pedal power to take me over the bridge. Being young and underappreciative I never tried to fill the tank with the gas/oil mixture it required to run; I would use it as a bike, but I’d never embarrass myself by trying to out-motor the kids who had real ATVs.
When I wiped out on the ice the first time and bent the right pedal arm far enough that it struck the motor housing every time I pushed, I was certain my days of riding it were over. But I had no other transportation. So I rode it, pedal-click, pedal-bink, pedal-rattle, pedal-crack. When I wiped out on the ice the second time (I kept taking it on the back trails as I would a bike, but it wasn’t a bike) and broke the hand-brakes off the handlebars I had to stop riding it. I had no way to brake. So not only was my propulsion impeded by the clicking pedal and the lack of multiple pedaling gears, but my braking was at an end. I could neither go nor stop on this orange geek-maker.
And so I returned my moped to the garage attached to the house my grandfather built to house his growing family, the house now occupied by his daughter and her two children, and I hoped another bike would come along. Because in the realm of ATVs I couldn’t be seen on an orange mo-ped with a bent pedal and no brakes. That would be wearing not only my geekiness, but my poverty on my sleeve for everyone to see.
I did have a Nintendo and straight A’s. But I couldn’t ride a four-wheeler to save my life.
And when a bike came along I once again returned to the smelly little town across the river, and forgot about the orange mo-ped in the garage with the bent pedal and broken hand brakes. And about the effort my tota once made to try to make me feel at home.