Writer went from messenger to the Marines
Stars and Stripes, European edition, Wednesday, August 11, 2004
By Fred Zimmerman
Fred Zimmerman / S&S
Lance Cpl. Rebecca Reilly spents 10 years working as a bike messenger and
wrote a book about the business before joining the U.S. Marine Corps at the
age of 34.
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa - Marine Lance Cpl. Rebecca Reilly isn't your typical
Marine. Most junior Marines are just out of high school, but Reilly traveled
many miles - literally - before joining the Corps.
|Fred Zimmerman / S&S
Lance Cpl. Rebecca Reilly spents 10 years working
as a bike messenger and wrote a book about the business before joining the
U.S. Marine Corps at the age of 34.
She has seen the world as a bike messenger, writing a book about the business
along the way, before becoming a Marine at age 34.
Her journey started in 1993 after she graduated from Lake Erie College with
a degree in equestrian studies. She said she could've gotten a job working
with horses but the pay wasn't enough to cover her bills. And a job as a
bank teller in Washington, D.C., taught her that working indoors wasn't for
"For me to work in an office was like clipping a bird's wings," said the
Buffalo, N.Y., native. "I could've been a secretary but if it's a girl's
job, I don't want it."
So when a bike messenger who often came into the bank told her she should
try being a courier, she listened. That advice started a journey that lasted
10 years and took her across the United States for work and around the globe
She began her courier career in the nation's capital, where she soon realized
bike messengers had their own subculture. After a year and half in the business
and after hearing many messengers' stories, she decided to write a book about
the business. "Nerves of Steel: Bike Messengers in the United States" was
published in August 2000.
"I thought that since I have this crazy lifestyle, I should have something
to show for it," Reilly said. "They called me the 'messenger for the messengers.'"
Over the next 10 years, Reilly traveled throughout the country, taking messenger
jobs in major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago, New York and Boston.
She was somewhat of a pioneer at that time; bike messengers typically stayed
in one city. Her purposes were two-fold, she said: gathering material for
her book while completing her goal of traveling throughout the States.
Whatever city she worked in, Reilly said, bike messengers always were treated
poorly, "like a criminal ... always regarded with suspicion." Unlike workers
from other delivery services, she said, couriers often are made to go through
back entrances to buildings and often must check their bags when entering
buildings. Messengers are even prohibited from using the restrooms in many
buildings, she said.
Even more difficult for messengers than building managers, Reilly said, was
Reilly said that was another reason she wrote the book: She wanted the public
to understand what it's like to be a bike messenger. Sometimes, for instance,
drivers try to scare riders on purpose, she said, and couriers must defend
their lives every day.
"Everyone I know knows someone who has been maimed or killed," said Reilly,
who added that New York City is the most dangerous. "You sit there and imagine
being crushed in the wheel well of a semi ... it's not a pleasant thought."
Why take the risks?
"If you're willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, you'll get
paid," Reilly said.
And while the everyday job was dangerous, there was time for fun. She competed
in the Cycle Messenger World Championships from 1994 to 2000, traveling overseas
three of those years to Barcelona, Spain; Zurich, Switzerland; and Copenhagen,
She took top honors two years in a row as she was named "Fixed Gear Queen"
in 1998 and 1999. For work and competition, she rode a bike with only one
gear and no brakes. She still rides the bike on Okinawa.
After eight years of traveling and collecting information, Reilly began writing
her book, which took one year to complete. The book was self-published and
put her in debt, she said, so it was time to return to the road.
She went back to Washington, where, along with making deliveries and trying
to publicize her book, she also was elected president of the local courier
She said her life was going full speed when it came to a screeching halt
on Sept. 11, 2001.
After the terrorist attacks, the bike courier service stopped cold for a
week, and became worse when letters filled with anthrax surfaced in the Washington
Sisters in the Navy and Air Force recommended she sign up. She opted for
"If I'm going to go to war, I wanted to be surrounded by the best," she said.
Drill instructors were extremely tough on her because of her age, she recalled;
she was 34 when she went to boot camp. But after years of riding, Reilly
said, she was physically ready for the challenge.
Reilly, a Marine now for almost 18 months, has big plans for her future.
She hopes to one day become an officer and would like to become a linguist,
she said. She's now studying 10 different languages and plans to specialize
As for continuing work as an author, Reilly said she has some ideas in the
works, "but now I must be the best Marine I can be" - which right now includes
Marine Corps Institute courses. There are many books she wants to write,
she said, "but now I have MCIs to complete."