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Riders on the Storm

New York Times, May 9, 2004

By Thomas Beller

(See the letter to the editor below)

There are buildings in New York that do not exist. Take 200 East 42nd Street, for example. I was sent there for a pickup on a foggy morning not long ago. They were tearing up the asphalt on 42nd Street, and a layer of dust rose up to meet the thick air as I rolled past Grand Central, the wheels of my bike jittering on the road's stubbly surface.

I had just made a harrowing pickup at 60 East 42nd Street. That building has its own messenger center. You duck out of the lobby down a staircase and find yourself in a semi-public tunnel on the way to the subway. There are two battered doors with the word "messenger" on them. I went through the wrong one; it was the in-house messenger service for a company in that building.

"Wrong door," barked the guy behind the desk without looking up. A roomful of bored eyes fixed on me.

For a messenger, there is only one thing worse than not being able to find the place where you are supposed to deliver a package - not being able to find the place where you are supposed to pick it up. I stepped out of one door and into the other. It was the messenger center. It held my message.

My first pickup in hand, I headed for another one nearby. When you are a messenger, you pick up and deliver. Each gesture has the whiff of cash; you hear a little register chime whenever you handle one of these items. I was about to collect another little chime, but 200 East 42nd Street was not where it ought to have been.

If you are bored with your job, there is one surefire way to improve matters: take some time off, even a couple of days, and work as a bike messenger. If your cubicle is too small, if the hours are too long, if the boss is too psychotic and makes your days hell because she suspects you of being happy at home, if your underlings are too snotty, if you wonder what it is like elsewhere, spend some time as a bike messenger, where elsewhere is the only place you will be.

You'll return to work realizing how great you really have it, how good the pay is, how warm the office is, how many nooks and crannies exist in the day for leisure and your own private time. Or, conversely, you'll never come back, because you will have seen some of the world outside and decide you want to stay in it. Somewhere on the spectrum of self-improvement, between cucumber facials and psychoanalysis, a new contender is due to emerge - call it bike messenger therapy - that combines going to the gym with a kind of urban version of Outward Bound.

That was my idea, at least, when I called Rob Kotch, my old boss at Breakaway Courier, where I worked briefly in the early 90's, and asked for a job.

"Of course I remember you," he said. "I promise to never touch the flesh of another human being."

"What?"

"That's what you said when I gave you the Safety and Respect for Pedestrians speech. 'I promise to never touch the flesh of another human being.' I'll never forget it. So what can I do for you? You want a job?"

Here he laughed for a while, until he realized he was laughing into silence. "Nooo!" he said. "What happened to the short stories? The journalism?"

I explained that I had long held the fantasy that if I didn't seem to be appreciating the opportunities I had, if I felt I wasn't applying myself enough, I would be a bike messenger for a while to see if the experience changed my perspective.

"I had the exact same idea!" he said. "I wanted every company to give me their fattest, laziest, most overpaid employee, and I would put them through a kind of bike messenger boot camp for a week. It would shape them up. And the companies would pay me a fee. Plus, I would get the messenger work for free."

So far the idea had not caught on.

I VISITED Rob in his office on West 35th Street. When I last saw him, he was a gaunt man in a tracksuit and a beard, possessed of that utterly lean body you see on professional bike racers like Lance Armstrong. He had been a messenger himself once; when he started Breakaway, he hired a single employee to dispatch the calls and did the deliveries himself. Now he has a crew cut, no beard, his face is rounder, and he employs 300 messengers, more or less. There are pictures of little children on his desk.

His office is spacious and, as décor goes, a bit cold. There is a view of a sea of cubicles where his 20 dispatchers huddle over computers, phones pressed to their ear all day like bond traders. Otherwise, the main thing I notice upon entering are two mousetraps in opposite corners of the room, each sporting a big hunk of cheese.

Breakaway Courier is now a big-time player in the messenger business, but it barely survived the dot-com boom when publicly underwritten companies like Kozmo and Urban Fetch threatened to put it out of business.

"There was so much Arrayan talk going on back then," he said.

"Aryan?" I asked, wondering if in addition to the many sins of the dot-com era, there had been some sort of overt component of fascism.

"Arrogant talk. We're the future, you're history, that kind of thing."

Besides the dot-commers, Wall Street has, improbably, gotten into the bike messenger business, underwriting several giant consolidations. Of the four mammoth companies that Wall Street underwrote, buying up mom-and-pop-size operations like Breakaway, three have gone out of business.

According to Noah Budnick, projects director of Transportation Alternatives, some 5,000 active bike messengers work in the city. Breakaway has been on a buying spree of its own, acquiring 15 messenger services since 1988, though business is still touch and go, and nowhere near the levels before Sept. 11.

Nevertheless, Rob tells me I can have a job, provided I go through the Safety and Respect for Pedestrians talk, which is now a formal two-hour class complete with final exam.

"I'm not going to be a reliable, full-time worker," I tell him.

"That's all right," he says. "It's like in 'Tropic of Capricorn,' when Henry Miller talks about being a dispatcher, and how you have your core messengers and your driftwood."

After discussing Miller's philosophizing about the messenger business, we stand up and shake hands, with the agreement that I am going to be driftwood.

ACCORDING to Mr. Budnick, bike messengers have been around for about 100 years. Their numbers in New York began to dwindle in the 1930's as the use of cars became more prevalent. But with the ensuing traffic congestion, the practice revived starting in the late 60's and boomed after the subway strike of 1980. In recent years the increasingly electronic nature of business has thinned their numbers somewhat, but at the same time bike messengers have become a global phenomenon.

They ply their trade on topographies as disparate as Los Angeles, Washington, Denver and Chicago. There is even a Breakaway office in Paris. But I can't help thinking of the activity's ideal environment being Manhattan, partly out of sheer provincialism, I admit, but also because it is a vocation whose essence is navigating density.

If there are 5,000 active bike messengers in the city, as Mr. Budnick estimates, I set off on my first delivery, making it 5001.

Out in the city, things are happening all the time, as individual and numerous as whitecaps in the ocean, and for the most part, as out of sight. As a bike messenger, you see them. In fact, there is something vaguely nautical about the work, as though Manhattan were a giant ship over which you scamper, in and out of small trapdoors and up masts, helping to keep the whole thing afloat. When you are a messenger, you are in transition. Therefore you see a lot of people in a similar mode, stepping out of one life and into another.

You see the young man with the bright red shirt, matching baseball cap and baggy jeans, the beard running along his jaw trimmed to the width of an eyebrow, pausing outside a building to remove a blue button-down shirt from his bag, which he slips on with the sly air of a hip-hop Mr. Rogers putting on his work costume. You see the solitary elevator man smoking a cigar at 315 East 91st Street relaxing in his elevator with a radio on.

At St. David's School on 89th Street near Fifth Avenue, where the kids wear blazers and a nervous father jiggles his tasseled loafer as he waits outside the school office, you see a poster on the front door announcing a lecture titled: "Loving without spoiling."

I picked up at St. David's and delivered to the G.M. Building, where they don't let messengers upstairs, and there is no messenger center. The lobby of that building is a sea of lost souls holding a sandwich, a package or an envelope, scanning the arrivals from the elevator banks, looking for a person whose face they have never seen.

The Ritz-Carlton at 10 West Street, just a few blocks from ground zero, has a great lobby, but messengers are directed around the corner to something called "the gray door." Around the corner is a battalion of identical gray doors, each with a camera pointing down at the hapless messenger who goes from one door to the next in search of the nonexistent buzzer.

At 3:15 in the afternoon, the waiting room at Abrams Talent, at 275 Seventh Avenue, looks like a day care center or the waiting room of a pediatrician. Small children sit next to their parents, boys and girls and mothers and fathers in equal number.

"Does Abrams specialize in kiddie talent?" I ask a woman walking in with a cup of coffee.

"No," she says. "It's just that time of day."

All over town one sees the bright rectangles of parking tickets. Some are on the sidewalk. These discarded tickets represent an existential statement, gone today, drowning in the gutter, but certain to return in another, even more expensive form. Then there are the tickets stuck on the windshields of moving vans and trucks. Do the owners leave them under the windshield wiper out of spite or out of a kind of superstition that they will inoculate against any more tickets?

In the elevator at 44th Street and the Avenue of the Americas, a bald man wears a giant green jade Buddha dangling from a necklace, and discusses office politics with another man in the elevator. Each one has a Dunkin' Donuts coffee, large, in his hand.

"Do you kiss up to your boss, is what all this comes down to?" the man with the pendant says. "That is the question." The elevator is quiet for a moment. Then he answers the question. "Hell, no! You quit before you do that.''

BIKE messengers and writers have a lot in common, I discover. In both activities, every forward motion is self-propelled. If you stop trying, you will shortly stop moving, and stop earning. Both activities involve gathering things and dispersing them. Bike messengers are given specific destinations. Sometimes writers have specific destinations in mind, too. And sometimes they don't. In both cases, however, how you get there is for you to figure out.

Looking for 200 East 42nd Street, I biked east, past 150 East 42nd Street, which stretched all the way to Third Avenue. Across Third Avenue was the New York Helmsley hotel, at 212 East 42nd Street, which is the skyscraper version of a really shiny black car with black tinted windows and chrome hubcaps.

Back across Third Avenue, to No. 150. Then back one more time to Third Avenue. An entire building was not where it should be. It was my second day of work. When I used my two-way pager to communicate with the dispatcher, I had been instructed to use my courier ID number, "until I get used to you," he had said.

I considered how it would sound: "This is B521 here. I can't find my building."

I went back to No. 150, locked my bike, and entered the lobby. Later, I would find out some facts about this building - that it was originally called the Socony Mobil Building, that Socony stands for Standard Oil of New York, that it was built in 1956, that it was designed by the firm Harrison & Abromovitz to serve as company headquarters, and that it is now owned by a Japanese family named Hiro. But none of that will tell you what it was like to walk into the giant whiteness of the lobby, its marble floors so solid beneath my feet as to make me feel almost weightless in my anxiety about my lost building.

Looking for No. 200, I went into No. 150 and headed to the front desk, which was a good distance away, and above which hung a huge painting, a colorful abstract that somehow managed to convey a vaguely United Nations feeling, as though the small squares of color against a white canvas were all little flags. Behind the desk stood three neatly dressed men arranged as though on a Motown album cover: red jackets, white shirts, well groomed, one sitting and the two standing on either side, each at a slight angle, facing toward the sitting man in the middle, the lead singer.

They all turned in unison as I approached, like a dance move, a slight pivot. Their conversation stopped. The movement was so subtle and well timed, it seemed mechanical.

"I'm looking for 200 East 42nd Street," I said.

"It's that way," replied the man in the middle, pointing east.

"But. . . ."

"This is 150, so it's got to be that way," he said. His eyes explained that that was all he had to offer on the subject.

I turned and headed for the front door, and then halfway across the lobby, which was curiously empty, I turned again to look at them, and the giant painting above them. A single line from their resumed conversation drifted to me across the empty marble. It came from the lead singer, speaking to his two backups: "He only deals in cash."

I came out of 150 East 42nd Street no closer to my destination of 200 East 42nd Street, and feeling very sorry for myself. I rolled down Third Avenue and looked around, up and down the avenue. There I found my building, which is also 655 Third Avenue, between 41st Street and 42nd Street. The Third Avenue address is prominent, while the 200 East 42nd Street is in small letters. The man in the lobby directed me to a special messenger entrance halfway around the block. The mystery of 200 East 42nd Street was solved: it was on 41st Street.

Thomas Beller is a novelist and editor of Open City magazine and books and Mrbellersneighborhood.com. His collection of essays, "How to Be a Man," will be published next year by Norton.


More Dangerous Than Meatpacking

New York Times, May 16, 2004

To the Editor:

"Riders on the Storm'' (May 9), Thomas Beller's portrait of New York bicycle messengers, misses the mark. The same job that Mr. Beller worked more than 10 years ago pays the same wage it does today. The rates have not changed since the 1980's, when a messenger earned $3.50 or less per delivery. Suggesting this work as "therapy" is beyond ironic.
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If Mr. Beller wants the true experience of being a bicycle messenger, he should try paying his rent on a messenger's wage. Or he should profile average workers, who are not college-educated journalists. Many are people of color, immigrants, people on work release, drug users or alcoholics. This is an industry in which getting fired for filing for workers' compensation, working 10- or 12-hour days and having accidents but no health insurance are the norm. It is a job that researchers have found more dangerous than meatpacking or playing football.

The New York Bike Messenger Association, which was formed in 1999, has an accident fund for injured messengers. The group also helps messengers get insurance and hold charity rides, memorials for fallen co-workers and messenger races. We are also planning our first legal clinic.

Sarinya Srisakul
Woodside, Queens

The writer is a messenger and member of the New York Bike Messenger Association.


 


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