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“What’s It Like to Be a Bike Messenger?”

July 15, 2009

There is a dream not very deep within the bike fag collective subconscious: the dream that one day he will wake up, put on his custom Pabst Blue Ribbon R.E.Load messenger bag; mount his ironic purple track bike; and go downtown to work as an honest-to-God, real-life bike messenger.

Imagine it: riding down a huge, crowded avenue on your purple bike.  Cutting through a sea of yellow cabs.  Two-way radio.  Manifesto.

Running red lights with purpose!

Getting paid to ride a bike!

You’re a bike messenger!

BikeMssngr

As Part of the Bikefag’s unrelenting pursuit of street cred, he moved to New York City last winter and wound up accidentally doing just this.

That’s not to say that the Bikefag (who shall henceforth refer to himself in the first person), like every other bike fag, didn’t always want to be a bike messenger anyway.  It’s just that whenever anyone suggested the occupation, I’d usually just shrug my shoulders and be all like, “ahhhh..  I don’t knowww..”

But after unwittingly stumbling into the epicenter of a global financial crisis, where the only job I could find was canvassing for the Human Rights Campaign, I was forced to lay my velobitions aside and answer Craig’s call when a bike messenger job showed up one day on da CL.

I worked 22 days as a bike messenger in New York City.  Here’s what it was like:

Well.  First of all, what often gets overlooked in the “get paid to ride a bike all day” messenger fantasy is that the job of a bike messenger is a bitch job.  You’re being paid to move something from one rich asshole’s secretary to another rich asshole’s secretary (to be fair, I did deliver some extremely expensive booze to Jimmy Fallon once).

And in the post-9/11 NYC, a bike messenger is usually not even allowed to make face-to-face contact with the secretaries of rich assholes anymore.

MessengerCntrEntrnce

All of the skyscrapers in Manhattan have messenger centers with separate service entrances around the sides of the building that are either out of sight or camouflaged to be completely unnoticeable to a normal person.  So when you’re new and stupid (which I was the whole time), you have to go to the main entrance, try to ask the security guard where the messenger center is, and get gruffly waved out of the beautiful main rich person’s entrance, around the side to the messenger entrance.  Then you ring a buzzer, show some security guard your ID, ride a freight elevator down to some dimly-neon-lit, underground hallway that leads to the messenger center, where you wait in a line of other messengers for a guy to sign for your package.

Messengers are paid on commission, so while you are always in a hurry, the guy who signs for your package doesn’t give a shit how long you wait.  All he has to do is deal with packages, so if he can figure out way to not take your package, he will.

Also, the “independent contractor,” paid-by-commission status of the bike messenger causes you a lot of other problems.  Since your company doesn’t have to pay you hourly, it’s no sweat off their backs if you’re not doing any work.  A lot of the more exploitative companies will pay shitty wages and have too many messengers on staff so that they always get their deliveries done quickly and don’t have to pay much for it.  Meanwhile, the messengers sit on their ass at the dispatch and can’t make a living.  They’ll either quit or move on to a less-exploitative company.  But that’s no problem for the exploitative company’s, because they can always hire more messengers to fuck over for as long as they’ll stand for it.

There was a guy I met in New York named Tropicana who had been working as a messenger for years.  Back in the 90s, he said, he’d make $800 a week.  Now he can only make $400, and it just isn’t worth it anymore.  And he must work at a decent company.  I was working 4 days a week and making $300 if I was lucky.

But like Tropicana said, there’s always some new kid who’ll do it cheaper.

Between all of the sitting around in a messenger center, trying to find other messenger centers, walking around underground, showing people your ID, waiting for someone to sign your manifest, waiting for runs (tags, I guess, in some parts?), waiting for your dispatcher to respond, waiting for elevators, waiting for security guards, and waiting for secretaries, there isn’t much time left in the day.  But finally, after you wait around the dispatch for long enough and get a good run lined up, you get to ride your bike.

There is very little waiting involved when you ride in Manhattan.  There’s always something to pay attention to.  There’s always a cab pulling over in front of you.  There’s always a door about to open in your path.  There’s always another messenger to race.  Something is always about to happen.

To give you an example of the feeling of what it’s like, the riding in this video went from striking me as “totally rediculous” before I was a messenger in BYC to “somewhat reasonable” within two weeks.  This is definitely what riding on the streets of NYC looks like.

Eventually, after seeing enough people around you do it, you learn to ride the avenues without ever stopping (riding down 5th Ave is my favorite (yet I hate going up 6th Ave..)). You become ok with the idea “threading the needle” at high speeds through huge throngs of people in Times Square.

What a lot of people don’t know is that NYC is probably the easiest place on earth to get a bike messenger job.  And also, the majority of bike messengers in New York are not hipsters on track bikes.  A lot of messengers are old alcoholics riding Huffys.

Here’s what a messenger does not look like:

Pharrell's Brooklyn Machine Works

Pharrell's Brooklyn Machine Works

Here are some pictures of actual bike messengers:

BikeMssngrBusted1

I got beat by this dude in almost this same place once.

I got beat by this dude in almost this same place once.

BikeMssngrBusted5

Not as glamorous as you thought, huh?

Yeah, yeah, yeah…  A privileged bike fag like me from suburban Colorado would want you to believe that my job as a New York bike messenger for 22 days was “hard” and “gritty”…

In all seriousness though, being a bike messenger was pretty awesome.  I’m too much of a roadie to want to do it during the “season.”  Working as a bike messenger isn’t very good “training” since you never ride for more than twenty minutes at a time.  And after working everyday, the only thing I wanted to ride on the weekends was the subway.

The pay is shit if you don’t work at a good company.  The danger of riding in New York City every day is very real.  Eventually you will get mixed up with a car or a door.  You’re always dirty and wearing bizarre clothing and quickly get too lazy to ride for 30 minutes to get home and take a shower and put on normal clothes just to ride 30 minutes back to Manhattan to go out and so something after work.  So you end up hanging out in shorts with tights or in wet pants all night after rainy workdays.

But it’s a good job to have on any bikefag resume.

Riding down Broadway at 6pm or so, sort of racing the other mesengers, sort of riding with them, was always a fine feeling.  Over to Bowery if I wanted to ride fast or through the East Village if I wanted to go slow, then to Delancey and onto the bridge for one last race against all the other bikers, sometimes giving up and just letting them have it.

We were all beat as hell coming over that bridge, and once in awhile I’d see a guy I knew and just ride with him, standing up the climb, talking about how many runs we made that day.  Talking about where we were from.  Talking about bikes and work and the assholes we had to deal with.  And then we’d go down the other side and start spinning too fast and going our own speeds and the conversation would usually be lost.

When we got over the bridge, we’d fan out to our apartments all over Brooklyn and get to go home, eat a shitload of food and get ready to do it all over again the next day.

But I’m really glad I got to do it.  There’s a reason bike messengers are such a part of the lore of any big city.  The shit they do is fucking gnarly.  I’m glad I got to do it – especially in New York.

What my employer didn’t know was that I was only living in New York for three months and that I had a plane ticket to Paris on March 31st.  So on Friday, March 20th, before I went out for my last run of the day, I gave them my week notice.

“It turns out I’m leaving the country,” I explained.

But my boss Corey wasn’t surprised.

“Dammit!” he said.  “I knew this was gonna happen.  People like you never stick around.”

And so it goes in New York City.  The old alcoholics keep riding their Huffys.  The hardened messengers keep getting up every morning and looking out the window and deciding whether or not to call in sick.  And the bikefags who worked so very dilligently for six weeks get their fill of the streets, go on a trip to Europe, then move away to go to graduate school.

But, like Tropicana said, there’ll always be some new kid to do it cheaper.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. cmurder permalink
    July 16, 2009 2:37 pm

    Living the dream, waking up to the nightmare.

  2. 10thousandfeet permalink
    July 16, 2009 3:15 pm

    I don’t know if it would be beneath bikefaggery, but you should submit to cycling magazines. There are tons of urban ones. Your story-telling is phenomenal, especially about topics we all think we know something about, but really don’t. I LOVE reading your blog!

    • bikefag permalink*
      July 17, 2009 6:34 am

      Thanks, 10thousandfeet. Writing for magazines is the plan. I’m working on getting something in Dirtrag.
      BTW, I rode a ride with 10,000 feet of climbing two weeks ago. It was one of the best rides of my life. Is that what your name is about?

      • 10thousandfeet permalink
        July 20, 2009 9:46 pm

        Hey bikefag, No, the 10thousandfeet reference is because I am a pilot, and like to tool around in small airplanes at that altitude. But maybe someday I’ll grow some climbing legs. Hard to do living in south Texas.

        This might be a stretch, but I know someone who used to work in advertising at Dirtrag – he was there when the mag started and hung around for over 10 years, I think. I can check and see if he knows anyone there anymore and try to get in a good word, if you like.

  3. July 16, 2009 7:06 pm

    I have to agree with 10thousandfeet. I already followed your blog to see if it would keep up the level and this post hit the mark. Awesome story telling and it seems pretty much like what I would imagine when I think realistically and I’m not all swept-up in the Pedal docu..

  4. Tristan permalink
    July 17, 2009 12:45 am

    2 years in Montreal, I felt bad about calling in sick today with a “broken axle” until I got to the last part. Keep it up!

  5. July 17, 2009 9:46 pm

    re: “bitch job”
    sure is, especially in NYC. all the glamour articles tend to ignore this. it’s manual labor, and it’s dangerous and physically difficult. also spring generally brings a month or two of 40-50 degree rain days, which is worse than mid-winter by far. you get used to it, i guess.

    on the plus side, when economic times are good (not now), and if you’re good at it and work for a good company and have earned enough respect/sucked up enough to get good tags, it can pay well and keep you in shape and be fun.

    in recession times it’s survival money, but that’s about it.

  6. July 18, 2009 7:47 pm

    Love the article Bikefag (hard to type that without laughing)..I have been a messenger for over a decade now and I think you left a few very important points out of your article, “bitch work”.. yeah sure call it that.. its the only time in your life you will deliver goods and no one will tip you.. not like food delivery.. on occasion you get the odd cash trip and you might get two or 3 bucks to go get a coffee. The big thing is what about the the freedom you had?.. what other job will you ever have in your life where you have your bike with you at all times and can basically go do what you want whenever you want?..if its not busy you can go get some chicken and chill at the park with your friends.. go have a coffee at a bike shop and check out new parts .. this is a huge part of why I am still a messenger .. there is no boss looking over your shoulder to see what you are up to .. no scheduled breaks.. some days you get too many , other days you work like a dog and rarely have time for a smoke.. You never mentioned how many calls you were doing a day.. I know in the beginning its hell .. no idea where to go .. confusing mail rooms hidden deep in the ass of some sky scraper next to the smelly dumpsters .. but each day you learn a new route.. a new shortcut ..you understand the flow of traffic better..you get ..faster!.. Faster means more money .. and what a great feeling that is .. Speaking of money .. if you had to stay in New York and live on your messenger wage could you?.. this is probably the worst year ever for a lot of messengers because of the recession but it won’t last forever. And finally “A lot of messengers are old alcoholics riding Huffys.” .. yeah big whoop .. I know you are just putting it out there because a lot of people still think its about 20 – 30 year olds on fancy bikes with army surplus cut-offs and tattoos and stuff .. but to tell ya the truth .. the guys with the huffys are not calling in “sick” when the weather is shitty .. they are down for whatever to do some trips and make some money.. I know a lot of alcoholics and drug addicts that are not messengers too . just look at that cop over there with the big red nose rock’n a bad-a-tude.. just waiting to write me a ticket.
    “But, like Tropicana said, there’ll always be some new kid to do it cheaper.”
    yes the industry can be nasty .. but I am that kid .. I can do trips cheaper then a big company and I make more money because I am not giving back %30 to said company .. I will be able to pay my friends who I hope to hire when I get enough clients a higher percentage than any larger company ever could ..and messengers all over the world have been doing this ..they are creating a better place to work for veteran messengers who truly embrace this as something they love to do. And when you do something you love all day .. it isn’t even a job anymore.. its called I get paid to ride my bike around all day and I love it!

    Hope your trip to Europe goes well ..New York is such a amazing city.. I am dieing to go back .. and keep on bloging Bikefag….

    • Chris permalink
      August 14, 2009 7:33 pm

      I have applied at a few messenger companies in Philly and are waiting to hear back. I am really excited because I’ve always wanted to work as a bike messenger, as I truly enjoy riding my bike in the city as fast as possible, all day, even when I am not making money. I don’t care if I am doing “bitch” work..I’ve had a lot of other jobs that made me deal with a lot of assholes…because that is every job.

      Anyway, Do you think that the market will rebound? I didn’t live in a US city while in college so I couldn’t do it then, but now with new technology it seems that no one will need legal documents and such sent physically? How much longer do you think that the bike messenger market will last?

      How much smaller are the companies compa

    • Messenger permalink
      September 23, 2009 10:33 pm

      The Faster you are the more money?” Nah, I have to disagree with that Cork. Not in todays world mate.

  7. Ben permalink
    August 2, 2009 6:58 pm

    This is by far one of the better blogs concerning cycling I have found, and that is mostly due to the writing. I applaud you on that. I am, like you, native to Colorado, and am currently living in the bike capital of the world, Copenhagen. While this has been a great learning experience in urban design, I’m craving a ride with more of an adrenaline rush. Unfortunately my trip to Europe is coming to an end too soon, but New York is my next stop and what better way to learn it than by bike. I was wondering if you had any tips on getting started in the bike messenger circle. Where to apply? People to contact? References? Any and all info is appreciated. Thanks

  8. Howard the Duck permalink
    August 12, 2009 12:01 am

    Well written piece. I enjoy your blog.

  9. Messenger permalink
    September 23, 2009 10:21 pm

    Um….”whats it like to be a Bike Messenger?” IT SUCKS! simple as that.

  10. June 17, 2013 3:43 am

    A dirty, fast, dangerous, underpaid, wet and gritty job….yet still an ambition of mine here in Copenhagen! Why?

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