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Vicious Twist Takes a Wild Ride

by Vicious Twist
Manuel Jimenez

April 2005, Mess Media

Bicycle messengers are cool.  Naw, man.  I mean KEWWWL.  Bicycle messengers are the infantry of the financial district.  They are the surly soldiers on the front lines.  They are scarred with tattoos and piercings.  All garish and grudge, they swagger and speak in exaggerations.

I quit my civil litigation job.  I couldn't take it any more.  I needed a break.  Litigation attorneys sit at desks all day, reading severely dry material, pushing paper and conducting ritual abuse on each other.  Your body weakens as your mind focuses on other people's problems.  Even in well-lighted offices, you breathe artificially processed air in temperature-controlled environments.  I quit one litigation job just to take another.  But in the interim, gave myself a few weeks of freedom.  I'd planned it so that I had a month to just kick it.  So started the events that would evolve my self-unemployment into a working vacation, and taking me from white collar professional to working class stiff.

For the first few days of my self-unemployment, I hit the frigid soup of the Nor*Cal surf, using my self made 6'1  thruster (a tri-fin potato chip of a surfboard), or my "long" board, a 7'6  hybrid (too short to be a long board, too big to be a short board).  I would rise after dawn, and drive across town to Ocean Beach.  I'd look over the horizon, rising sun to my back, and look at the green waves crashing into the perpetually abandoned beach.  Too small?  Blown out?  Closing out?  If the surf was good I'd, wetsuit up and dunk myself in the treacherously dangerous rip-tided currents near Noriega Street, which on a good day has world-class waves.  If Ocean Beach sucked, I'd prepare to dip in the beginner’s beach at Linda Mar down in Pacifica with the 7'6  hybrid board.

No matter where you surf, by early afternoon the west winds would come, blowing over the waves and junking up the surf.  My liquid vacation ended each day after only few hours.  I'd sit around the rest of the day, wasting time.  It was because of this oppressive free time that I began to realize that sitting around most of the day with nothing to do, blows.  A few days of this and I decided to make my self-unemployment a "working vacation."

When working as a civil litigator I fantasized about something other than an office job.  I wanted a different reality.  The fantasy had began to form well before my law career.  After I graduated from Berkeley in 1994, I worked for Morrison & Foerster (MoFo) as a paralegal.  I lived in the Sunset, San Francisco's misnamed, terminally overcast beach community.  I took the 'N' Judah train into the Montgomery Street station to get to work.  I'd get off the train and walk up Sansome Street toward California, passing through the intersection where Sutter and Sansome form a "V" as they begin life from Market Street.  There is a granite wall that curves from Sansome to Market at the place where the two streets meet at a 45-degree angle.  Bicycle messengers refer to it as the western wall.  Every day messengers sat on the wall.  Every morning I walked passed the mess of eclectic couriers to my climate-controlled cage.  I envied them.

I left San Francisco in 1995 and moved to New York to go to law school.  I lived the American Nightmare of upward mobility through myopic focus.  I worked as a prosecutor in the Organized Crime and Rackets Bureau of the Queens County District Attorney's Office.  I transitioned to civil litigation in New York and then moved back to California.  The resulting financial stability and freedom is good, the fight to get to that point sucks.     I fantasized about a different reality.  Bicycle "messing" was my fantasy.

Now, as a newly self-unemployed attorney surf bum, I decided to live out my long held fantasy.  I decided to become a bicycle messenger.  Why?  Bicycle messengers are cool.  Naw, man.  I mean KEWWWL.  Bicycle messengers are the infantry of the financial district.  They are the surly soldiers on the front lines.  They are scarred with tattoos and piercings.  All garish and grudge, they swagger and speak in exaggerations.

I searched the internet, looking around at a lot of small courier outfits with crazy names like Spincycle, Black Dog and Dragracer Messenger Collective.  How hard could it be to land a messenger job?  Damn hard is the answer.  The community is cliquish and suspicious.  I would later learn that the small outfits are staffed by people who know each other.  With no luck I headed up to the messenger Mecca at Sutter and Sansome.  I found a messenger there.  He was a Latino thrasher looking dude.  I asked him if anyone was hiring.  He told me to try to hook up with one of the big outfits like Western Messenger. I walked away from that conversation and made my way to Western Messenger.

Western messenger is located on Columbia Street, between Harrison and Folsom.  It's housed in an old warehouse.  The entrance is vandalized by visitor pass stickers issued by security desks from buildings around the city.  There is a bike rack, and four junk chairs.  The building is not just nondescript, it's ugly.  I entered and I walked into a dark hallway, up a few stairs, and was confronted with a counter topped off with security glass.  I spoke with Pattie, a severe woman standing behind the glass.  She gave me an application and pointed me to the break room back down the stairs.  There was a messenger inside the room, sleeping on a bench.  I filled out the application and handed it back to Pattie.  She asked me some questions.  I gave her some answers.  "There's nothing right now," she told me.  "When the weather's nice, people deliver their own packages. If something comes up, I'll let you know."  That was the end of my bicycle messenger ambition.  I thought nothing more of it.

A week later, or about ten days into my self-unemployment, I was instant messaging a friend while sitting in my home office.  She is a goth girl, kind of a girl noir.  The phone rings.  I pick it up.  It's Pattie from Western Messenger.  She tells me that there is an opening for a messenger position, if I was still interested.  I abruptly take the offer over the phone, then set out to prepare.  Eighty-five dollars for a Chrome brand messenger bag (on sale); $420 for a new bicycle; $35 for a bicycle rack over the rear tire, and $27.90 for a velcro cell phone holder that fits on the bag, a seat binder to prevent theft, and a cable to go with my Kryptonite lock.  I start work as the best-equipped messenger around.  I could tell that some of the other messengers were suspicious of me, thinking I was a narc or something.

The first day, I begin by filling out paperwork.  I am issued four blue polo shirts with the words "Western Messenger" embroidered in yellow, one similar sweatshirt, and a lightweight jacket of similar ilk.  I am also issued a text beeper, a bicycle license plate, and an identification card.  Pattie gives me a  brief overview of the messenger process, and BOOM, I'm sent out on my first mission.  In spite of my preparation, I begin working with some notable gaps of knowledge.  For instance, I don't know how much I get paid until over two weeks after I start working.  I never thought to ask.  Two weeks into the job, I forgot to pick up my first paycheck.

A Day In The Life

"The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly 'unskilled.'" (Ehrenreich, Barbara;  Nickel and Dimed; On (Not) Getting By in America 194)  How hard could it be to pick up and deliver packages?  It ain't easy.  First things first.  Once you become a messenger, you stop being a person.  You are not Manuel, John, or whatever.  You are assigned a number (mine having been 922) and are identified by that number.

The process goes something like this.  You sit around downtown, usually in one of three spots intersecting Market where messengers from the various outfits congregate (The Western Wall; Battery and Bush; Montgomery and Post).  You watch the people drift to work.  The courier community is small.  A lot of socializing goes on.  But the down time is minimal at the beginning, and nearly nonexistent for the rest of the day (I never knew that people could strenuously work for over eight hours a day).  As you sit talking with the characters of this surreal tribe, it comes; the first tag (I had a text pager, as opposed to the radio that most messengers have).  You are told the name of the pickup client, the client’s address, the delivery company.  You transfer the information into the manifest, and you're off.  As you head off to the first pickup, you start receiving additional tags.  Two, three or even four other destinations are coming in.  But you can't review the information because you are in flight.  As you move through the city, you pass other messengers who surf the asphalt waves on the way to their destinations.  Messengers acknowledge each other with a subdued, knowing nod, and move on; no pretense.

There comes a time when you have retrieved the specified parcels, and have no additional instructions to get anymore.  At this point you call in, to be told to either clean up or retrieve additional pickups.  This process continues almost non-stop for the rest of the day.  If you, reading this, work at a desk job or otherwise take for granted being able to use the restroom or take a smoke break when the need arises, imagine being so pressed for time that it makes such niceties difficult.  Granted, at some point, you'll get a lunch break.  But the timing and duration are uncertain, and if you need to piss at eleven in the morning, lunch at 1:17pm is a long time away.

Get Off My Freeway

When I say messengers are in flight, I'm being facetious, but just. There are, of course, rules of the road.  Cars stop at red lights.  People cross the street when permitted.  Traffic moves according to the direction required.  These rules don't apply to messengers.  Messengers run red lights, go diagonally through intersections, cut off cars, ride on the sidewalk, and ride the wrong way down one-way streets with oncoming traffic.  Messengers move with a liquid fluidity that transgresses the dangerous place in which they work and scares the drivers and pedestrian with whom they travel.  Why do they do this?  Because the job demands it and the infrastructure encourages it.

When you start at Western Messenger, you're  handed a couple of pages from the Caltrans web page delineating bicycle safety practices.  The information tells you things like, "Stop at stop signs and red lights"; "Use proper hand signals when turning, stopping or changing lanes"; and "Ride in the same direction as the flow of traffic." The pace of the work and the expectations of the dispatcher make following the rules folly for those who want to keep their jobs.

There is no way to keep pace and follow the traffic laws.  The situation is exacerbated by the fact that San Francisco's streets, especially in and around the financial district, are laid out to facilitate commuters, driving their fat ass SUV's from faraway suburbs, to aggressively travel at dangerous speeds in and out of the city.  This means a lot of one-way streets that act as dangerous inner city freeways.  This conscious policy decision explains the existence of dangerous streets like 19th Avenue in the very residential Sunset, both Oak and Fell Streets, and almost all of the Streets in the Financial District and SOMA.  Whoever is in charge must forget that people live here.  Would you let your kid play along 19th Avenue?  The liberal use of one-way streets means that cyclists have to travel twice the distance to get to a road going the right direction.  This may not mean much for a car, but if you spend your day cycling those streets under time constraints, it means a hell of a lot.

Because the roads are set up to facilitate automobile traffic to move fast on surface streets, drivers resent bicyclists because they see them as slow moving obstacles.  Regardless of the fact that bicyclists have a right to a full traffic lane (a 1996 amendment to California Vehicle Code section 21202, entitled The Safe Bicyclists Protection Act states "Bicyclists are entitled to the full use of the state's streets and highways, unless otherwise prohibited, including safe use and passage on the roadway."  Section 2(c).)  I can't count the number of times some indignant, self-righteous, irrationally frustrated driver (invariably on his way home to Petaluma or Alamo or somewhere) has tried to force me out of the way by positioning his urban tank dangerously close to me.

SUV's and other big vehicles give the driver a status.  I'm not talking about social standing, I refer to the power the drivers feel.  Drivers of big, power vehicles believe that the vehicle is reflective of their status as powerful people.  It's like people who drive slowly in the fast lane.  They feel that if they are in the fast lane, they must be going fast.  Often status is a crutch for some area of accomplishment.  No matter that most bike messengers could beat the crap out of the vast majority of office workers (from executives and lawyers to mail room clerks and receptionists), it is the vehicle that gives the office worker the feeling of being tough.  That's why even the most diminutive women in a SUV becomes an aggressive and dangerous driver on the city streets.  It also explains why messengers are so surly and aggressive on the road.

Think I'm exaggerating?  In Chicago, on April 26, 1999 in a fit of road rage, a man named Carnell Fitzpatrick driving an SUV, intentionally chased down a bicycle messenger named Thomas McBride, swerving behind the bicyclist over several blocks, he then accelerated his Chevy Tahoe and ran over McBride.  Fitzpatrick fled the scene, leaving McBride dying on the street.  (Scharnberg, Kirsten; "SUV driver accused of murdering bicycle messenger finally goes to trial", Chicago Tribune, 11/28/01).  On November 17, 2000, in San Francisco, Christopher Robertson was riding with 15 friends in a funeral procession for fellow bike messenger Joseph Woods, who had been shot and killed in his Mission Street apartment.  He was riding down 4th Street in the South of Market area of San Francisco.  The procession was a tradition of the San Francisco messenger community.  When a messenger dies, his fellow messengers take his bike on a ceremonial ride to Mission Rock and throw it into the San Francisco Bay.  Chris Robertson never made it to the water's edge.  A tractor-trailer came up behind the procession.  Enraged that the group was occupying the lane, the driver began weaving his tractor-trailer side-to-side and blowing his horn.  He then pulled alongside the group and shouted at them, before swerving into the group and crushing Chris under the right front wheel of his rig.  Christopher Robertson died on the streets of San Francisco.  (DeMocker, Judy, "When Good Drivers Go Bad", San Francisco Examiner, December 11, 2000 C1)

It is not only the abundance of SUV's and other vehicles on the road that create the circumstance.  Riding a bicycle on the streets of the city makes clear that San Francisco has no uniform, safe, and effective bicycle lanes.  It is unsettling that even San Francisco, the alternative Mecca for any and all causes, populated with a health conscious citizenry, has failed to facilitate bicycle and other less hazardous forms of transportation.

This mixture of circumstances has created the perfect situation for the messenger employers and the corporations that utilize them.  Say for instance that a messenger is maimed or wasted breaking some traffic law.  Everybody, except the messenger, is off the hook.  The driver that creamed you has an "affirmative defense."  Yeah, he killed you, but the accident is actually the messenger's fault.  The messenger's employer is shielded by the fact that they gave you the Caltrans bicycle safety instructions and never explicitly told you to break the traffic laws.  The corporation that demands the speed and efficiency of the messengers is shielded by "proximate cause" defenses to the situation, in that the accident was not a foreseeable consequence of utilizing the service.  In the end, the large institutions that rely on and benefit from the service, do so partly on the back of the messengers.  "To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else."  (Ehrenreich; Nickel and Dimed, 221).  The beneficiaries of the messenger's circumstance turn a blind eye toward these inherent problems because they bear no associated costs.

Men Behaving Badly

Once the beeps stop coming, and you've loaded up with envelopes and parcels, you call in.  "922 with six to go," means that you're carrying six pickups.  The dispatcher on the other end speaks to you with the civility of a drill instructor.   You are either told to deliver some of the pickups (often in a specified order), told to "clean up" or given a new address for a pick up.  The instructions come fast and the dispatcher makes no effort to make clear the instructions.  If you miss some vital detail and ask for clarification, the repeated instruction comes in a condescending, hostile tone, conveying the message, "Listen up moron.  I have no time for this."

As a messenger, there is no room for mistakes, and no thinking allowed.  Take for example my experience on a particular day.  I was at the intersection of Sutter, Sansome and Market.  My first beep was at 9:38am, directing me to a business on the fourth floor of 230 California Street.  I was subsequently beeped with two more pickups in short order.  At 9:45am I had picked up the first envelope.  I then made my way to the seventh floor of 475 Sansome, where I  picked up a second parcel at 9:51am.  I then made my way to the sixth floor of 930 Montgomery, where I picked up a third package at 10:02am.  I then received a beep at 10:03am.  I called into dispatch, "922.  Three to go."  The voice on the other end started yelling, "What's going on?  I gave you those tags over half an hour ago.  What's the problem?"  Now, my math ain't good.  But even I, a lowly attorney turned messenger, know that the elapsed time from 9:38am to 10:03am is only twenty-five minutes.

The dispatcher's transgression of the facts is less offensive than the basic disrespect he demonstrates for the work of the guy in the field.  Think about it.  Once you get that first beep, you have to record the instructions, cycle to the location, park and lock the bicycle, get past the security guard (sign in, leave an ID, get a pass or whatever), take the elevator to the appropriate floor, transact with the receptionist (who may tell you to take a detour to the mail room three floors down), get the envelope, make a notation of the pickup time, place it in your bag, go back down the elevator, deal with security, unlock your bicycle and make your way to the next destination, and start all over again.  Each of these little events takes time.

Not only are you under tremendous time pressure, but you cannot take the initiative to relieve the pressure.  For example, my first day on the job I had a round trip pickup at 101 California Street (one of the buildings that require messengers to use the freight elevator in the back of the building, which I'll discuss later) to go to 650 California.  I am then instructed to deliver to 650 California.   I also happen to have a deposit to a bank at 590 California, that I picked up earlier but have not been instructed to deliver.  On the way from 101 California to 650 California (you can see where I'm going here), I take the initiative to make the deposit at 590 California.

This rather innocuous detour might be seen as an efficient use of ones' time.  Yet, when I called in "clean" instead of "922.  One to go," the dispatcher went ballistic.  "What happened with the deposit?"  When I told her that I already made the deposit, you'd have though that I pocketed the money in order to buy crack.  The tirade that followed was abusive.  If this is the way your own side treats you, can you imagine how you are treated by the rest of the people you deal with?  This brings me to my next subject; disrespect.

Being treated with disrespect is an every day, several times a day, experience for messengers.  I assume this is because most of the messengers are young men without much life experience, resources, a network of support, or are from the fringe elements of the social fabric.  Disrespect is shown by a wide range of persons on the front lines of the business establishment.  From security personnel, to receptionists to mail room clerks.  Am I being thin-skinned?  As a former Marine, I know the difference between a rough and tumble work environment and the subtle (and not so subtle) attacks on one's very humanity.

One common situation that arises is exemplified by a pickup I had to make to a major California bank, let's call it...Wells Fargo.  I was directed to 525 Market Street and entered the lobby toward the security desk.  A pudgy little man briskly moved towards me.  "You're going to have to go to the back of the building through the freight elevator," states the pudgy little security guard, in a tone I wouldn't put up with from my mother.  He pointed me back out the front door.  This change of plan is a waste of my time.  "I have a pickup on the 12th floor," I respond courteously.  "You have to go to the freight elevator," he repeats more aggressively.  The freight elevator is located on the Stevenson Street side of the building.  I walk around the building, sign in with the unenthusiastic security guard, and wait for the one, slow moving freight elevator.

Even though the violation of building etiquette is totally innocent on my part, the violation of human respect on the part of all those security guards, receptionists, mail room clerks and all their low level ilk that messengers have to deal with every day is not innocent, but malicious.  This maliciousness is tacitly approved by the very tenants and employers in these buildings that create the circumstances to make such behavior acceptable and routine.

When I walk into a building to deliver an envelope, I'm obviously not carrying freight.  It's not like I'm holding a couple of two-by-fours.  Freight elevators are for freight, since freight tends to damage delicately decorated elevators or interferes with ingress or egress by the tenants and visitors.  Envelopes are not freight.  Secretaries, receptionists, executives, lawyers, visitors and even mailroom clerks carry envelopes and similar parcels through the lobby every day.  The requirement that I use the freight elevator is based purely on my appearance as a working person.  The statement is analogous to, "You have to sit at the back of the bus."  When security guards require messengers to use the freight elevator, what they are doing is relegating low wage workers to the "servant's entrance."  That's un-American.

Messenger Down

Who were my fellow messengers and what were they like?  They are all decent human beings.  Most were men.  There seemed to be no gay messengers, or at least none out of the closet.  A few were women, not many though.  They have more street smarts than you or I will ever have.  Most messengers fit into one of several archetypes.  Many look like competitive cyclists who belong in a velodrome rather than on the street.  They have high performance road bicycles and all the proper gear to do the Tour-de-France.  There are the Thrasher dudes, who look like skater kids who grew up.  Then there are the stoners.  These are the same type of stoner dudes you went to high school with, the long hair grunge crowd twisted with chemicals.  Of course, some don't fit into any category.  The messengers I thought looked bizarre were the ones that looked like me, clean cut, well-groomed Republican looking dudes.  I always looked at them and thought to myself, "What the hell are you doing here?"

Messengers look out for each other and they feel free to tell you when you're doing something stupid.  At the end of the day various messengers gathered in front of the building and trade verbal jabs, joke and mess around.  Every day someone lit up a blunt and others drink beer.  Not small beers, mind you, but large bottles of beer.  This initially surprised me, in that I had to take a physical, including a piss test to get the job.

One day after work, JP, an eight-year messenger veteran, stops me, blunt in hand.  "I saw you on Market hopping over the tracks," he states, " Keep clear of the tracks man.  You'll catch a rail and spill."

For those unfamiliar with San Francisco, Market Street is a disaster.  It has two lanes in both directions.  Even though Market is a major thoroughfare, its lanes are not wide.  Traffic on market is heavy, with automobiles, commercial trucks, streetcars and buses squeezed together.  The tight fit is exacerbated by bus drop off islands between lanes at various points.  The center two lanes of Market have streetcar tracks running down them.  At various points there are metal grates that look like shredders, which allow for the circulation of air for the subway trains that run under the street.  Not just one subway mind you, but two subways systems run under Market; Muni and Bart.  Market serves as the meridian for the streets that intersect it, meaning that the further you go from Market, the higher the address.  Market intersects every street north of it at a forty-five degree angle.  Each northern intersection has two streets that meet at market.  The streets to the south of Market are perpendicular.  At any given intersection you can have upward of four streets coming together at different angles.  These intersections are dangerous and unpredictable, as is Market Street itself.

As if to vindicate PJ's warning, the next day I am riding fast down Market when a pedestrian sprints in front of me.  I swerve to the left, and straighten before I ride into oncoming traffic.  As I pull straight, my front tire catches a rail and I go down, tumbling onto the opposing traffic lanes.  By the time I hit the ground, traffic going the other way has thankfully already cleared.  I live another day.

Deliver Me Home

My first week is drawing to a close.  It's 4:45pm on the Friday before the long Memorial Day weekend when I'm dispatched to make one more pick-up.  Ironically, the tag is for MoFo, the firm I left ten years earlier after a year long stint as a legal assistant.  The destination is to the building in which I live.  I'd be delivering the envelope to one of the doormen I pass by every day to and from my condo on Third and Folsom.  A nervous energy passes through me when I get the call.  I make my way to the pick-up.

I pick-up the envelope on the thirty-second floor of 425 Market.  I get into the elevator to descend back to my bicycle.  Joining me in the elevator to my right is a man I vaguely recognize.  Two middle-aged women stand to my left.  He starts speaking with the two women about having to drive his kids to their various sporting events over the weekend.  He talks about his three year old, who is apparently the only calm one of his children.

I realize that the man on the elevator is partner at MoFo, who worked on a case on which I worked as a legal assistant.  The case was an appeal to the District Court of a Billion dollar arbitration award made against a Japanese company, which MoFo represented. The litigation was so important to the client that they sent out a full time overseer, in the form of a diminutive and very polite Japanese executive, who spoke poor English, but whose English grammar was excellent.  This drove the attorney's writing the briefs insane.  I was introduced to the executive by one of my fellow legal assistants  is "copy boy."  The name stuck, and he forever referred to me as "copy boy."  It was during that time that the partner, now on the elevator, was scandalized because of a rumor that he had an affair with a legal assistant, which ended up breaking up his marriage.  The legal assistant involved in the affair was the same one who branded me "copy boy."

There I was, a newly minted bicycle messenger, standing there with my helmet and sunglasses, right in the middle of this conversation as if I were not there.  The strangeness of this  anonymity continued when I delivered the package to the doorman at the building in which I live, a person I see several times a week, without him registering even the slightest hint of recognition.  I felt like John Howard Griffin, author of the book Black Like Me, who went unnoticed as a human being by the southern white population after he had changed the color of his skin from white to black in the late 1950's civil rights era.  "[T]hey looked at me, but did not see me."


My life as a bicycle messenger was nasty, brutish and short.  At the same time it was definitely cool.  Unfortunately, the spiritual benefits of the job were outweighed by the ugliness of being a low wage worker who interacted with a contemptuous corporate world.  I think of the middle class riff-raff, commuting unbearably long distances in their urban assault vehicles, worried about joining their low wage contemporaries if they are displaced or outsourced by a business community only too happy to do it.  Is it their fear of this close proximity to their low wage brothers and sisters that produces the aggressive treatment bicycle messengers receive on the road and in office buildings?

It is a shame that the work done by the messengers is not only undervalued, but unappreciated.  I would like to personally thank the people at Western Messenger, including Pattie and JP, and my fellow messengers from all the different outfits, for the privilege of working with you as a bicycle messenger.  I think I would make a career of being a messenger if I could afford it.

The next time you try to push a bicycle messenger out of your way with your Hummer, think about the fact that the messenger may not only be in better shape than you, but also wonder if he may be better educated and more accomplished than you, as well.  Even if he is not, remember that he's a human being.  Back off and show a little respect.


Send comments or suggestions, to: mima@messmedia.org

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