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Don't shoot the messenger

Those cyclists you see speeding through the city on deliveries are less reckless than you might think

Boston Phoenix, May 7 - 13, 2004

By Nina MacLaughlin

On a Thursday evening in April, a group of eight bike messengers kicks a hackey-sack around in Winthrop Square. Bicycles lean up against benches; beat-up bags slouch on the ground, filled with locks, docs, tools, and two-way radios. The messengers - a sinewy pack sporting Lycra beneath their Carhartt pants, some with ink up and down their arms and calves and piercings in their faces, all exuding a comfortable confidence - jab and joke with each other, trying to keep the sack in play. After a full day on their bikes, they've got energy to spare.
THE PROFESSIONALS: Breakaway Courier Systems employs 15 mostly highly experienced messengers.

Which is hard to fathom, given that an hour before this laid-back scene, these messengers were streaking through rush-hour traffic in the heart of downtown, making late-afternoon deliveries of architectural blueprints, legal documents, and plane tickets, pedaling with high-speed ferocity.

Collectively, Boston's bike messengers' who number approximately 150 make 3000 to 4000 deliveries per day. And it's tempting, when describing the way they navigate the streets, to use words like "bomb" and "barrel." But it's more like ballet - a traffic dance, calculated and precise. There's a rhythm to the way messengers ride; it's a combination of anticipation and intuition, of always being a block or two ahead of yourself, judging which cranky commuter is going to make the next right without signaling, whether that pedestrian with the cell phone to his ear is going to step into the street without looking, all while keeping track of your pedals and your packages. Messengers ride as fast as they can: the more they accomplish, the more they get paid, and it's their job to make speedy deliveries. Contrary to their reputation, though, they are not generally reckless.

But the anarchist aura surrounding couriers, their reputation as modern-day rogue warriors, cowboys, pirates, pick your favorite outlaw,  is more accurate. It's a dangerous job, more dangerous, according to a 2002 study by the Harvard School of Public Health, than playing professional football. Being a messenger requires a certain tenacity, a healthy dose of derring-do. Injuries and accidents are part of the job description.
NO BIG DEAL: messenger Mike Reinhalter recently crashed head-first through the windshield of a parked car. He's fine.

Mike Reinhalter, a 23-year-old who's been a Boston bike messenger for the past five years, has a chipped front tooth, as though his face had been the unfortunate target in a barroom brawl. In fact, he was run off the road by a speeding car and smashed head-first through the windshield of a parked car. He broke his tooth, but not his skull or his neck. "Oh, yeah," he adds as an afterthought, "and last week I was hit by a truck." He pulls up his shorts to reveal a dark scab on his knee. No big deal, he explains. A dump truck grazed his elbow and sent him flying over his handlebars. "At first I thought I broke my finger, but I think it's fine now."

Most bike messengers feel that slumping in front of a computer would be a fate far worse than risking cuts, contusions, and concussions on the road. When messengers are asked about the best part of their job, the word that inevitably gets used is freedom. "You are your own enterprise," says Keff Dolan, an ex-courier who now works at J.J. Foley's, historically a Financial District messenger haunt, where bankers and lawyers in Burberry raincoats mix with earring- and tattoo-bedecked messengers dressed in worn-out canvas pants.

"I can't stand being inside," says Sara Cohen, 22, who studied political communication at Emerson College and got a job as a messenger nine months ago. "Offices suck. Dressing up sucks." Cohen, with a strong build and a pierced lip, is one of about 12 female bike messengers in Boston; she estimates that she rides between 50 and 90 miles a day on the job.

"I was averse to not moving at my own speed," say Pete Rubijono, known as Ruby, a lean and articulate 28-year-old who studies graphic design at MassArt, works part-time as a messenger, and spent eight years in the military. Rubijono knows he won't be a messenger forever. "I take school seriously," he says. "Some people have saving accounts and 401(k)s, but I keep graphic design in the back of my head so that when my body breaks down, I have a back-up plan." He talks of the appeal of the job's utilitarian nature. "You're equipped with exactly what you need to get the job done."

"If you get a flat," echoes Dolan, "or something goes wrong mechanically, it's up to you to fix it, to be equipped with the tools to keep the package moving."

And messengers keep packages moving through snow and sleet and rain and heat. Self-reliance begets confidence, and messengers tend to be a self-assured group. They revel in daily challenges like riding across Longfellow Bridge in six inches of snow, getting the job done on freezing February days when it's 22 degrees and sleet bangs against knuckles and foreheads, and dealing with surly office workers giving attitude. "Some people treat you like shit," says Cohen. "I asked to use the bathroom in an office one day when it was 30 degrees and raining, and they said, "Nope, sorry."

As with any job, messengers need to pay their dues and work their way up. But all you need to start is a bike and some sense of the city's layout. Breakaway Courier Systems, which Cohen, Rubijono, and Reinhalter all ride for, employs 15 mostly highly experienced messengers. "We used to be a training ground," says Tom Cromwell, Breakaway's general manager, "but we made the decision to compensate our messengers well," and now there's a waiting list for open positions. Two of Cromwell's best riders recently pulled in $900 in a week; the average pay is around $650 a week.

The dispatch offices are in Downtown Crossing. Like cab companies, Breakaway uses an open radio channel, so that everyone on the road knows where everyone else is, streamlining the back-and-forth between dispatchers and messengers on who's the closest to a run. "Working off an open radio really builds a team culture," says Cromwell. And indeed, at the end of a warm Wednesday, the couriers trickle into the office, grab cans of Schlitz from the mini-fridge, and lounge and joke and talk about the day. It's not a cult, but it is a culture, a shared passion for bicycles, beer, and independence, and the couriers certainly enjoy their camaraderie.

For people looking to cut their pedal-pushing teeth and break into the messenger scene, City Express is one of the largest courier companies in the city. USA Couriers also hires less-experienced riders. Both are good places to start, and have solid reputations in the city.

Any ride, or run, walk, or drive, around town reveals a huge choice of bicycle shops where you can pick up spare tubes, extra locks, shoes, bags, and frames. Across from the bus terminal at South Station, a black bicycle functions as a sign hanging over the forbidding-looking doorway of Garage de Velo, a new messenger-run shop that features rotating cycling-themed art shows in its foyer. Couriers often drift in after work, and despite the dark entrance, the atmosphere is welcoming. Rubijono recommends the South End's Community Bicycle Supply, as well as Revolution Bikes on Green Street, in Jamaica Plain ? so new, its phone number and address have yet to be listed. Across the river in Cambridge, a block away from MIT, there's Cambridge Bicycle, which caters to messengers and casual commuters alike.

A good general resource for messengers and wanna-bes is the International Federation of Bike Messenger Associations (IFBMA) Web site. It features messenger history, news and information city by city, links to other messenger-related sites, and information on the Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC) taking place July 1 through 5, in Alberta, Canada.

"It can be an intimidating scene to break into," acknowledges Cohen. Her advice? "Just do it."


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