Bike messenger wannabes don’t get the message

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

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 Before taxes were withdrawn, my best 40-hour paycheck in the past nine months was about $325.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  julian.root@temple.edu.

18 Comments

  1. Hi, could you help me figure out where I can apply for a Bike messenger Job? I am living in Spokane , WA.

    Thanks
    Mark

  2. Maybe some of us love what we do? The only hullabaloo being made is that of your own… And you sound like a bitch anyways. Work at Starbucks? yeah…probably.

  3. I know for a fact that people who don’t ride bikes on the street to get to places or to make a living are for the most part unforgiving and arrogant in their cars. Bicyclist like me don’t pollute and don’t create traffic. And we don’t need gym memberships! Put that in you smoke and pipe it!

  4. so, i totally understand where you are coming from. all of you, but im thinking that although you might think that the “cool” image thing is in fact important to bike messengers it is not, but it does always feel good to look good and recognize the perks i.e. non-pollution, exorcise, etc. etc… no one can deny that. the only reason why you might think a bike messenger is “cocky” compared to someone who might be delivering food on a bike is simply for the fact that the job of a bike messenger is heavy and fast paced, “city like” if you will. most places have about a 20 to 40 per messenger delivery requirement on a day to day basis. its like working at a mom and pop shop verses a corporation in some aspects. just to clarify what i observe… im not even a bike messenger but i’ve weighed out the pros and cons. the only con that i notice are people thinking that im going to be a cocky asshole. haha… which really isnt even that big of a deal.

    BLAM!

  5. “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.”

    This isn’t completely true. The true advantage for bike messengers comes from the parking situation. You go right up to the building, lock your bike up, and you’re in. With a car, you’d have to spend 20 minutes looking for a spot, finally find one a half a mile a way, then walk to the building and back to your car afterward.

  6. Actually, his statement was completely true. The parking situation, I believe, falls under the category of “bikes can go places and do things cars cannot. They are simply more efficient than cars.”

  7. its interesting to me that you claim to understand all about being a bike messenger in philadelphia but none of us know who the fuck you are. ive been a courier in philly for 6 years, worked at almost all of the companies and still, until now ive never heard your name. stop writing articles about shit you really dont understand dude. nothing personal, but just because you worked a couple of months at rapid does not give you the right to speak for the others who have been in this business for years. oh, and by the way, maybe if you worked a little bit harder and got a job at a better company, you’d start making more that 350+ a week. some of us do do this for the money and not just the cool factor of being able to claim that we’re bike messengers.

  8. You don’t sound like a lifer… messengers I know do it because they wouldn’t be caught dead in a cubicle.

  9. Dude, that sounds sick though. How can you sit there, ride your bike ALL day, and get paid for it by the way, and not be happy as all get out. I ride my bike in the rain, in the snow, and in the cold everyday to work at a minimum wage job that will support while I am in college and the once I am out of college ill be making more money and still be just as unhappy inside……give me your job, i make more money than you and you can have all of it, as long as I can ride my bike as fast as I can whereever the fuck I want.

  10. So I don’t get the disrespect for food couriers. I mean we essentially do the same job, messengers just occasionally carry more important shit. But really what’s the difference between carrying a rich lawyers papers and his spoiled college kids sandwich? We have to move fast for better tips and to keep food hot…and to keep the dispatcher/manager happy. We deal with the same traffic and assholes and weather. Only real difference I see is that messengers have way more pressure to move fast and have to deal with office folk. Food couriers are less glamourous for sure but we have our own strength and move plenty fast. We also know how to pack a bag better than most and have the added worry of keeping food in top shape. Some call us road rats but I embrace the term.

  11. I only meant to be a bike messenger for a couple of years until I graduated from college. The two years turned into five and ultimately the job went double digits on me. I was grateful to get as many years as I did and was lucky for avoiding mishaps. I’m in the Twiin cities. Minneapolis is obviously the hub for messengering but St. Paul has always had two legal couriers. No more no less. So, I made it through the winters and all that shit but the numbers of ‘possengers’, especially in Mpls. was miniscule back in the nineties, compared to now. Every year has seen a steady increase and it seems that in the last few, the messenger fashion dealio has gone completely mainstream. You can’t tell who is and who isn’t a lot of times, unless you are one and then of course you can tell who is fronting and who isn’t. Possengers can be annoying at times but it is like the guy in the car who cuts you off. It really doesn’t pay to waste you energy on him/her because there is always going to be another asshole right around the corner who thinks the universe revolves around him/her and who almost always considers the cyclist an annoyance,someone in the way basically. I’d rather have these types of people on bikes than cars as they’ll do less damage. Supposedly the Twin Cities has the second largest contingency of bike commuters after Portland or something. There numbers are increasing every year here despite that six month period between November and April. The more the merrier. Cars are coffins for sure. Now I’m stuck driving every night for a job. Enjoy it while you can, because once it’s gone from your life, it is gone!

  12. Part of the problem with these discussions, about any career field, is that they always stoop to treating all [insert vocation here]s as a single individual guilty of all a profession’s sins as well as all its virtues. Some cabbies are rude and can’t speak any English while getting lost and over charging for a lack of service. Others are alarmingly polite, knowledgeable, fast and deserving of a fat tip. To make any sort of generic claim about cabbies, or any vocation for that matter, is to render such an observation irrelevant. Not all cabbies are terrible and not all cabbies are great. When I hear complaints about a vocation in general its always from a person who just dealt with a poor representative who is granting the mercy of anonymity to a guilty party. Or, as is more often the case in today’s increasingly narcissistic society, a single representative of a certain vocation has been scapegoated for a bad day, event, emotion, mood, etc being suffered by the accuser. To wit, the accuser is attempting to make verification more difficult by blaming all of a certain profession instead of being specific enough to allow the poor bugger to defend themselves.
    In example, a cabbie isn’t watching and nearly runs over a messenger, much to the horror of a potentially tipping passenger. Naturally, the cabbie has to blame the whole incident on the messenger (or preferably all messengers,) and loudly. Lest his passenger think him an incompetent undeserving of said tip. In spite of the bad messengers take blame for, there is something to be said of a messenger who can break all the rules, get there fast with delivery intact and all without causing a massive disturbance in the force. To my mind one of the most beautiful things about a bustling and crowded city is the sublime flow state its participants can sometimes achieve.
    A messenger who screws up and destroys his own bike, and then proceeds to lash out at the universe by throwing whats left of it at a passing car does much to upset this living art that a city can be. Likewise, the motorists who refuse to play nice make contributions of their own to a turbulence that makes using the force so difficult at times.
    In my opinion there is nothing inherently noble about riding a bike or evil about driving a car. Cabbies, and teamsters are not the source of all that is evil and messengers are not an oppressed people group who would otherwise be saving the universe from itself. Some messengers are an embarrassment to their chosen profession (just like certain cabbies and teamsters.) In contrast, some are shining examples (as is the case with all other professions, except lawyers and politicians.) Meanwhile, in the middle, where most working stiffs of any profession reside, are people doing what they do to pay bills and live life without getting in the way of others trying to do the same.
    In short.. quit blaming each other, and focus on what you can control, your own actions, attitudes and words.

  13. I clicked the link expecting an article about wannabes. Instead it was a rant about people complaining about their jobs and who has more of a right to complain.

    • I checked out this link hoping to get a feel for the work they do. Having just seen the movie they should have called “Messenger Madness” and being a cyclist who rides in New York City frequently, I was curious how messengers feel about their work. It is obviously competitive. If you can get something there faster you are worth more to the courier company and they will throw you the work. At 69 I am in better shape than most cyclists in their 40’s. I am savvy on city streets and can move around in traffic. with great focus and concentration. Speed is not always the fastest way to get somewhere but cycling skills are critical to a successful and timely delivery. I will get a job and keep it through next winter or longer if I’m healthy and good enough. It will give me something to write about, which is my real job. They complement each other. Yes, I think it is cool to be a bicycle messenger. All the elements for an exciting life; danger, respect, teamwork, competition, fitness, agility, courage, intelligence, and balls.

  14. That is the biggest pile of delusional, self congratulatory crap I’ve ever read in my entire life.

  15. I see this is an older thread, I’m posting regardless. I just want to say that riding a track bike isn’t just an aesthetic thing. I am year-round cyclist originally from Minnesota and I started riding a fixed gear a few winters after starting to ride throughout the snowy icy season; it’s much safer, if your wheel starts to do something unexpected like spin out on snow, ice or slush, you can feel it and fix it. You have more control. Also, isn’t it just plain fun to skid stop sometimes? Not to say that I don’t agree with many of the points in your article, nicely done.

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