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
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
"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
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."