Thursday, March 11, 2010

Economics: Bicycling for Jobs

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It happened again today. For at least the fourth time since the recession began, I was walking down a major arterial in suburban Toronto when a bicyclist stopped to talk to me. It's always a man, carrying far too little on his back to look like he's taking a long trip, but always claiming to be on one, and appearing appropriately exhausted. He always claims to have heard about work somewhere relatively far away, and asks the best way to get there. Then, after asking if I know about any work locally, he pedals on.

This time, the man said he was coming from London, Ontario (180 kilometers away), and was heading to Belleville, Ontario (another 180 kilometers away). He asked me if the street he was on, Dundas Street West, would take him to Scarborough, where he claimed to have someone to stay with for the night. He asked how far it was to downtown, and how far it was to Belleville. I tried to answer these questions. He asked if I knew of any jobs around, or if I was working. When he found out I was unemployed, he accepted my wish of good luck and continued eastbound.

I've also encountered men with similar stories on Airport Road, Bloor Street, and other places on Dundas Street. They're always riding bicycles. They're always headed east, sometimes claiming to be going not nearly as far, perhaps just to Whitby, though I've heard Belleville before. I've heard origins from Windsor to Kitchener. They always inquire about local jobs (the man on Airport Road was especially interested in hearing how to get a job at Pearson Airport). What these men never do is beg, or make any specific request of the person they have found.

I don't know what to make of this phenomenon. I've had enough encounters now, in different places around Toronto on different days of the week, that I can't pass it off as a one-time phenomenon. If the whole thing is a made-up story for begging, it's not a particularly effective one, as they haven't gotten a thing from me other than directions and a wish of good luck. If this is all for real, then there are a number of quite desperate men out there who do have a bicycle that they're willing to ride hundreds of kilometers on the rumor of a job with not much more than the clothes on their back and their wallets. They apparently don't have access to a car or any other transportation. At least one has mentioned leaving his wife behind. All claim there are no jobs where they started. All of the incidents have been since the fall of 2008 when the recession began; I lived here for more than two years before the first encounter.

I've never had an encounter like this in the United States, either. There are certainly migrant workers all over the United States, but they don't tend to move by bicycle. Is this something peculiar to men in Canada down on their economic luck? I'd certainly like to know; next time, I guess I need to ask questions.

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