“What’s It Like to Be a Bike Messenger?”
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!
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.
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:
Here are some pictures of actual bike messengers:
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.