In case you haven't been in the urban core of any major American city for the past few decades, bike messengers are those toned, tattooed daredevils who cut through exhaust and traffic all day long delivering just about anything that will fit in their shoulder bags: legal documents, settlement checks, X-rays, tax filings, architectural plans, silver flatware the judge has said must now be passed from the lawyers for him to the lawyers for her.
This would seem an important question to be asking, considering that next month, scores of messengers from around the world are going to descend on Seattle for the Cycle Messenger World Championships, an Olympics-style bike-courier competition. The contests will include sprinting, curb-hopping, cargo-pulling and skidding.
But it turns out that when it comes to bike messengers, "Who are these people?" is actually not the most important question to be asking. Remember the theory. The most important question is: Who are you, and where are you looking from?
Perhaps you are looking out from television sets across the city, as was Ken Schram, the local pundit who last summer went on air and fulminated against "these cycle-nazis" who "zip inside two lanes of traffic, run red lights and stop signs, make illegal turns or terrorize pedestrians on the sidewalk."
Or perhaps you are not someone with so loud a voice or so wide an audience. Perhaps you are simply someone who has been frightened by a zooming messenger while walking around downtown, or cut off by a messenger while driving, or flipped off by a messenger, or worse. Perhaps you are a pedestrian who has wound up flat on the sidewalk, staring at a haze of bike shoes and piercings and attitude after being hit by a messenger (this does happen, though no firm statistics exist on how often).
You see where we are going. We are now looking at messengers from the outside, from the perspective that many seem to have, the perspective that says messengers are, as Schram put it, "hazardous and menacing."
From June through September, I worked for the largest Seattle messenger company, ABC Legal. I earned $9 an hour, the starting salary but also not far from as good as the pay gets. I received no health benefits. (According to one of my managers, ABC is one of just two companies downtown that offer some health benefits, but at ABC you have to work a year before you get them.) I rode the hills, delivered the packages, raced to the courthouse to file the last-minute legal papers. I was 24, ready for a break from a writing job, and hearing plenty of advice that I was making a huge mistake. It turned out to be the best summer job I ever had.
For its brooding workforce of artists, anarchists, office refugees and other assorted misfits, messengering offers the perfect antidepressant cocktail: a daily dose of endorphins, regular booster shots of adrenaline and fresh air, plus a new mission every 15 minutes. The sense of accomplishment is continual. The highs from caffeine, from the sugar in those little candies at receptionists' desks, from illicit substances that some messengers partake in are perpetual. And the deliveries are stamped "SPECIAL," a fact that seeps into your mind after a while.
"There's not really that much at this age that would be better . . . I've worked office jobs before, and I know how much an office job can suck. You're basically just sitting doing mundane stuff all day under fluorescent lights. That basically drains your whole will."
Over the summer, I got to know Grrr and the other "cycle-nazis," people mostly in their 20s who naturally see themselves a bit differently than the outside world does. About 100 messengers rove downtown Seattle for about a dozen companies, and the ones I met saw themselves, first of all, as blue-collar workers doing a physically demanding and dangerous job. They believe in messengering the way lawyers or doctors believe in the excellence of their occupations.
But if messengers differ as to why they believe in what they do, they tend to agree that their self-image is defined by the hostility they often feel from the world in which they operate.
A few minutes after that man in the green Suburban yelled at me, I crossed paths with Grrr, whom I looked to as something of a mentor. When I told him what had happened, he said, "You gotta get used to it. People don't like us."
SO WE NOW HAVE two visions of the bike messenger. Looking in from without, we see reckless miscreants. Looking out from within, we see earnest athletes trying to do a tough job in a hostile environment. It is, of course, not that simple.
There is seeing from within, and there is seeing from without. But there is also this: Two reasonable people can stand on the same outside, look into the same inside, and see totally different things.
Then there are the outsiders like the lawyer in a gray button-down shirt I found myself standing next to at a urinal in a downtown office tower.
"Nice day," he said. "Better than all those gloomy winter days, huh?"
I agreed, said something about not looking forward to the rainy season.
"But you guys are pretty bullet-proof, aren't you?" he said back, shooting me a look that I took to be the highest form of admiration one man can safely express for another in a bathroom.
Yes, I nodded, we are bullet-proof.
Last year Dennerlein and another Harvard researcher, John Meeker, released the results of their study of occupational injuries among 113 bike messengers in Boston. No similar study has been done here, and the Washington Department of Labor and Industries doesn't have good data on injuries reported specifically by bike couriers.
But the size of Boston and its messenger community is roughly comparable to Seattle. The study there found high rates of injuries greater than rates for the meat-packing industry. And anecdotal evidence in Seattle suggests high rates of injury here, too.
"Everyone's time comes," a local rider named Brent told me with typical fatalism. "I've got scars all over me from being hit."
Last summer I saw a downtown biker dazed and bleeding after having gone through the back window of a car. I heard horror stories of being pinned between Metro buses, saw legs gouged by pedals, noticed the regular occurrence of casts, bandages and limps. I heard about the messenger who, in June 2000, was killed by a motorist.
In this environment, "wrecking" is almost a rite of passage. One of the times I felt most embraced by the messengers was when I showed up for work on a Monday sporting bruises and road rash from having crashed during a weekend ride. Joe, a dashing messenger with so little body fat his veins look like snakes slithering beneath his skin, came over to take a look at the hard crust forming over my scrapes. "Yeah, scabbers!" he said, smiling warmly.
The average age of those surveyed was 27, and most were men. They averaged 28 deliveries a day. Ninety percent said they had been injured on the job at some point. The most common cause of injury was collision with a motor vehicle; the least common was collision with a pedestrian.
Given the numbers, one surprising finding was that only 24 percent of the Boston messengers wore helmets. In Seattle, only some messenger companies require helmets, and many messengers ride without them. Yet most of the Boston messengers surveyed, and many in Seattle, say their job is quite risky. Another paradox.
The findings on helmet use seem to support the idea that bike messengers tend to be risk-takers or, if you are feeling less charitable, idiots. Trouble is, the study didn't assess who was at fault in the accidents or who else was injured. So the data can be used to support either the view that messengers are reckless or that they are victims of a hostile environment.
"The messengers have created a survival mechanism to live on the streets," he says. "Bicyclists are sort of locked between a rock and a hard place. They can't be on the sidewalks they're not pedestrians but they're not cars, either, and there's no room for them on the road."
And he saw their existence as an essential urban phenomenon.
"My view of them is that they're part of our working community," he says. "They're providing a service to the businesses of our downtown environment, and it's a service that's come about by way of necessity."
Imagine what would happen, Dennerlein says, if the thousands of deliveries bike messengers make each day had to be carried by car or foot. Traffic congestion would increase, delivery times would slow, the pace of commerce would slacken and the air would become more polluted. (In unpublished data, Dennerlein and Meeker concluded that in the year 2000, the fact that Boston's couriers delivered messages by bike instead of by light truck saved 16.2 tons of carbon monoxide.)
At the King County Courthouse, the largest downtown judicial center, messengers are constantly rushing through the metal detectors. This courthouse handles about 300 filings a day, and while there is no way to tell how many of those are done by messengers, hang out in the clerk's office just before the noon and 4:30 p.m. filing deadlines and it becomes clear who's doing the heavy lifting. The frantic click, click, click you hear on the marble floors is not from high-powered lawyer heels. It is from messengers' bike shoes dashing for the finish. The odor you smell is not fancy cologne; it is unadulterated biker funk.
In this sense, the entire apparatus of civil law and order in Seattle is supported by a bunch of scofflaws who run red lights and go the wrong way down one-way streets and scare the heck out of little old ladies all to please the court. Welcome to yet another paradox.
This paradox seems to have been with messengers since the beginning. The Greek god Hermes, the archetypal messenger who wore winged shoes, was the son of Zeus and presided over commerce. To the Greeks, messengers and their speed were indispensable to trade. Yet even in that time, it seems messengers were known not just for their physical prowess but also for their illicit tendencies and their artistry. Besides being the god of commerce, Hermes was the god of thieving and the inventor of the lyre.
What happened with messengers after Hermes? The history page of the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations' Web site picks up the story in 1894, when the Pullman rail strike shut down mail delivery to virtually the entire United States. That year, the site says, a man in California named Arthur C. Banta came up with a novel solution: He arranged a relay of bicycle riders to deliver the mail between San Francisco and Fresno. He even issued stamps with images of these proto-bike messengers on them.
Later, with the advent of the dense urban core, the idea of the bike messenger really took off. The federation now counts bike messengers in 29 American cities and 50 other cities worldwide.
IN SEATTLE, an entire culture has grown up around the bike-messenger trade, a mix of working-class toughness, athleticism, environmentalism, bike fetishism, artistic openness, mechanical ingenuity, hard living and rebel rage. Some messengers I knew moonlighted as members of the Infernal Noise Brigade, the black-clad anarchist marching band you may remember from the WTO protests; their water-cooler talk was of tear gas, tree-sitting and Dumpster-diving. And every third rider seemed to have a slogan affixed to some bit of gear. One popular helmet sticker: "YOU LOOK STUPID DRIVING WITH A CELL PHONE."
Local messengers have regular "Alley Cat" races around town. At the right abandoned parking lot, on the right night, you'll find them playing their trademark game of bike polo, in which bikes substitute for horses. Knock on the right door at the right time, and you'll find a meeting of the Courier Association of Seattle (note the acronym, CAOS), the muscle behind the push to bring the messenger world championships to Seattle.
It's an addictive way of life, full of us-against-the-world energy, and, because of this, messengers often compare themselves to junkies. A few actually are junkies, but most mean it this way: They can't quit the job or the lifestyle, and if they do, they frequently go back.
"I can't deal with a normal work environment," says A.J., a 29-year-old messenger who has been riding on and off for about eight years. "I refuse."
One reason A.J. stays is that messenger society accepts anyone with the will to ride, and collectively guards its members against the malevolence of outsiders. For A.J., this is particularly important because she happens to be a transsexual in transition from female to male. Unlike much of the rest of the world, she's found the messenger trade to be a bastion of warmth and open-mindedness.
"It's not even about accepting," she says. "It's just sort of indifference. It's just like, 'Oh, OK you're still a messenger, right?' "
CHICAGO MESSENGER Travis Hugh Culley recently wrote a book in which he lionized bike couriers as an "immortal class" of superheroes who are "somehow exempt from the so-called universal laws of life and death."
That's one view from the inside. When I told A.J. I was working on this article, she offered another.
"I'm scared, Eli," she said. "My nightmare would be you misrepresenting messengering as this dream job that's full of excitement and superheroism. Sometimes messengering is very humdrum. It's paper shuffling. It's not all excitement and 'Woo-hoo!' and 'I'm a hero' and 'I'm free.' . . . Sometimes it's very limiting. You don't always have the financial resources that you'd like; sometimes you're too tired at the end of the day to do what you want."
In the end, that's why I quit too little money, too little energy left after work. Plus, the winter was coming; if last summer taught me anything, it is that I'm only a fair-weather messenger.
About Culley's praise of the courier class, A.J. says: "I think it's crap. I fear death absolutely every day. That's what makes me good . . . I will admit that, maybe in my first year, I could have aligned with his ideology a little more readily. But after I got hit by a Cadillac, my views changed."
The idealization of messengers, A.J. says, is "common among people who have never messengered and among rookies and among young men.
"I think you grow out of it."
Eli Sanders is a Seattle free-lance writer. Harley Soltes is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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