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Fabled bike messengers seem to have hit the wall

On Bike to Work Day, a dying breed laments a dwindling business

San Francisco Chronicle, May 19, 2005

By Steve Rubenstein

A lot of people will bike to work this morning -- that being the thing to do on Bike to Work Day -- and a precious handful of them will even keep the pedals turning for the rest of the day.

It's a tough way to make a buck, and some days it seems like a buck is all a bike messenger makes.

Biking to work on Bike to Work Day is a feel-good thing. Biking, as work, is different. Biking around town on a heavy junker with a bag full of legal briefs is just as hard as it sounds. Especially when the per-job pay for pedaling through the war zone of San Francisco's Financial District -- where a messenger can fall prey at any moment to a car door, a pothole, a streetcar track or a pedestrian with a cell phone in his ear -- is less than the price of a cup of designer coffee.

"We're all on the verge of going broke,'' said the messenger known as Shark. "Nobody does this for the money.''

With e-mail, Blackberries, text messages and cell phones seemingly on every hip pocket in town, and with the economy still sagging like a vintage Brooks leather bike saddle, it's hardly a surprise that there are fewer and fewer bike messengers to transport those suddenly quaint items known as pieces of paper.

"It's an economic and technology thing,'' said Jamie Two Five, straddling his bike in front of The Wall, a low line of bricks at Market and Sansome streets where bike messengers hang out between pedal strokes. "You can't fight it.''

In San Francisco, three messenger services have shut down or merged in recent years. There may be only a hundred or so of the hardcore messengers left. It's a breed more endangered than condors.

In the 1990s, there were so many bike messengers in town that The Wall always seemed to be overflowing, and it was tough to find a place to sit down and "kick it'' between pickups and drop-offs. Now, only a handful of messengers are there, and their walkie-talkies are quieter. The dispatchers aren't dispatching.

Shark, a former avocado picker and bike mechanic from New York who doesn't seem to go by any other name, has been pedaling through the Financial District for more than half his 45 years. His bike, a rusty pastiche of old parts that he cobbled himself, is held together with cloth tape, duct tape, electrician's tape, plastic ties, pony-tail bands, two Grateful Dead stickers and no fewer than seven bungee cords.

"No one's going to steal this,'' he said as a pickup call, or "tag," came in over his walkie-talkie. "This bike is a tank.''

The dispatcher said a legal brief was waiting at a Spear Street law office. Shark, like many of his colleagues, specializes in carrying legal briefs from Financial District law offices down to the courthouses at Civic Center, and then carrying the filing receipts back to the law offices.

"In the '90s, there were a lot of times you'd do 40 a day,'' Shark said as he maneuvered over a sidewalk, down a construction ramp, around a pothole, past a taxi door, behind an antique streetcar and alongside a 1955 Rolls-Royce that was trying to make an illegal left turn on Market Street.

"Hasn't been a 40-tag day for a long time," he said. "Now, 20 is a good day.''

Shark gave the Rolls a wide berth. He has been knocked off his bike more than a dozen times in the line of duty, and a 1955 Rolls fender hurts as much as a lesser breed.

Shark obeys traffic laws faithfully and selectively. Some red lights are redder than others, and some sidewalks are wide enough to share with dubious pedestrians. Shark signals his turns, dispenses friendly waves to cabbies, but he is not above tossing a well-chosen epithet at oblivious drivers or walkers with cell phones clutched to their ears.

Shark emerges from the law office clutching the precious legal brief. The lawyers who drafted it may have billed four figures for the document that Shark will receive one figure to ferry across town, at peril to life and limb.

It's in the low one-figure, too, Shark laments. The fledgling bike messengers union is fighting for a $3 minimum per delivery to each messenger and a 50-50 split of the delivery fee charged to customers, but management has yet to go along with that one.

At the courthouse, Shark must remove his cell phone and walkie-talkie holsters and wait in line to pass through the security screening, and all this delay comes right out of his time-is-money pocket. Even worse, more and more courthouses are accepting electronically filed documents instead of hand- delivered ones, a troubling development to denizens of The Wall.

Like most messengers, Shark has carried the occasional odd item such as liquor, take-out food, flowers and, once, even a rocking chair and a case of martini glasses.

"But mostly it's envelopes with legal crap,'' Shark said.

Today, Shark and the rest of the dwindling messenger squadron will compete for bike lane space with the influx of bikers to work. Bike to Work Day is a little like Easter, drawing the once-a-year faithful to the cause.

There will be dozens of "energizer stations'' throughout the Bay Area dispensing free coffee, bagels and shiny packets of high-tech energy goop to the pedaling multitudes.

To Shark and the pros, it's just another day, although no one scraping by on bike messenger pay is going to turn down free coffee and a bagel.

"It would be great if more people actually biked to work,'' Shark said. "They might notice all the potholes, and something might get done about it.''


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