To be a bike messenger is to be professionally inconvenienced, and yet it continues to be one of the most romanticized and sought-after positions for young people in cities. Any messenger who denies the implicit “cool factor” is either lying or blind. But what is it that makes this job seem so much “cooler” than similar jobs, like delivering food on bicycle?
Short answer: nothing other than a slightly arrogant, albeit completely ingenuous, sense of solidarity.
Unfortunately for most Philly messengers, this sense of solidarity is often more exciting on the street than it is on their paychecks. Before taxes were withdrawn, my best 40-hour paycheck in the past nine months was about $325. Considering what most eight-hour days of messenger entail, this is hardly worth it in the eyes of most levelheaded people.
It must be the work itself that elicits so much enthusiasm.
On an ideal day of messenger work, life is good. Jobs come in at a steady, comfortable pace, the weather is good, no flat tires are sustained and motorists are generally complacent. However, these days – particularly in the wintertime – are few and far between.
“What can I say about y’all? I got a lot more respect for all the bikers after working here a few years,” James Thrower, a radio dispatcher at the Rapid bike messenger service, said. “The s— you guys put up with is amazing. I used to curse out bikers when I’d be driving, but now I sympathize. You guys ain’t got it easy out there, and I gotta respect you for sticking with it.”
It’s impossible to explain to a cabbie why you had to cut him off as you flew through that red light. Why should there be any explanation, anyway? The idea behind bike messenger services is that bikes can go places and do things cars cannot. They are simply more efficient than cars in the city. If every messenger obeyed every traffic law, it would be an obsolete business.
Generally speaking, bike messengers stick with the job because they are good at what they do. Pedestrians and motorists are as fundamental to urban life as the concrete itself, and every good messenger knows this and adapts accordingly.
Unfortunately, many people don’t realize this and curse the messenger for taking what may seem to be insane risks in traffic. The irony is that the messenger is, quite literally, only doing his job. Anyway, for all that lawyer in the Benz knows, I could be delivering his next mortgage payment!
Next to traffic, the most contentious element of many messengers’ jobs is the brakeless bicycle. Designed originally for use in a track with other brakeless bicycles, these rudimentary fixed-gear bicycles are controlled entirely by leg strength. Legs are as crucial to stopping as they are for starting. This raises eyebrows not because it is impractical, but because it is completely unnecessary.
Yes, I ride without brakes. No, I do not condone it.
Riding without brakes is certainly manageable, and with a little experience, it’s easy to do for many months without any significant problems. It’s desirable because it looks sleek to have a bicycle with no brakes. The purity of complete self-reliance also makes it appealing.
However, with brakes, you can go faster, since you can stop faster. And your knees, which play a key role in slowing down while riding brakeless, will thank you. On one grueling, brakeless morning, I covered the distance between downtown Philly and Second and Somerset streets six times. That is almost the equivalent to riding from Temple’s Main Campus to Doylestown, and the trip made my knees feel set to explode.
Riding brakeless simply adds to the solidarity aesthetic of messengers. Like any group of similar people, they endure similar hardships and similar gains. There is an immediate connection felt between two messengers who share a glance outside in the pouring rain: “I am tired, cold, and soaking wet, and I will continue to be in another six hours. Knowing you will be, too, makes it that much better.”
After navigating through ice, wind, rain, snow and triple-digit temperatures, there is little the bike messenger cannot quickly adapt to. It is rare that a messenger will complain about the weather. The messenger often has to struggle to keep his or her mouth shut in the company of businessmen and women riding elevators, who complain about the conditions outside while sipping lattes in their warm, dry suits.
Frankly, any hullabaloo about bike messengers is insubstantial. It’s a job like any other outdoor job. It rains; they get wet. It’s nice out; they laugh at the suits stuck in office buildings. The pay generally sucks, regardless. Add some flashy gear (sleek track bikes and fancy messenger bags), and suddenly people think there is some special, esoteric knowledge the messengers possess, which they certainly do not.
Julian Root can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.