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Messengers pay tribute with 'ghost bike'

Death of one of their own shows group's tight bond

Chicago Sun-Times , August 19, 2007

By Mark Brown

Ryan Boudreau was a bike messenger, and a good one by all accounts, a young man of 27 who was respected by his peers for being quick on a bike and loved for being even quicker with a smile.

Bike messengers, though, don't get much respect in our society, a problem the messengers have solved by creating a little society unto themselves.

On Friday evening, about 100 members of their distinctive tribe rode their bikes to the corner of 18th and Clark to mark the spot where Boudreau was killed Monday in a collision with a truck.

They chained a "ghost bike" -- stripped down and painted white -- to a light pole to create a makeshift memorial, then lit candles and shed tears, which were wiped away with tattooed arms.

Aloud, they shared memories of their friend. Silently, they shared the knowledge of the danger of their job -- racing through city traffic to make both a delivery and a living.

Earlier, I spoke with many of them about their work as they gathered at Cal's Liquors, a dive bar at Wells and Van Buren that is a favorite hangout, before they made the ride to the accident scene.

Boudreau was a regular here, stopping by during the day to buy a Gatorade to drink with his lunch or making the after-work scene to get a beer and swap stories with other messengers.

"How many runs did you make today?" is a common greeting, owing to the fact that most bike messengers are paid by commission -- usually half the delivery charge. That means they are rewarded for going fast and taking chances, which is part of what makes them the bane of pedestrians in the Loop. Most American drivers, of course, treat all bicyclists with contempt, the messengers perhaps bearing the brunt of it.

An average messenger will make 25 runs in a day and make maybe $300 a week. Ride fast and a little crazy, and they might do 40 runs and make up to $600.

"Ryan was a fast biker. The faster he was, the more runs he made, the more money he made. There's a reason we ride the way we do," said Lumes Glenn, 53, a messenger for more than 12 years.

Police said Boudreau was riding in the oncoming lane when he was struck. The truck driver was not ticketed.

A dispatcher for Boudreau's employer, Dynamex, said Boudreau was running a personal errand at the time he was killed, but messengers said that shouldn't distract from the fact he was hustling so he could get back to work.

So why do they do it?

"They all love it. Everyone wants to try it. You can ride a bike and make money," said Gina Depcik, 55, known around town as the "bike messengers' mother."

"But they don't know the companies treat them like meat," said Depcik, who formed her bond with messengers while working out of a pizza truck.

By the time they fully appreciate the poor work conditions -- no benefits and often no workers compensation coverage in an accident -- many are already hooked.

"It becomes this bond," Depcik said. The bond is partly us vs. them -- them being the messenger companies, motorists, pedestrians and maybe even society as a whole. They know everyone looks down on them, and they revel in it.

"We're misfits," said Theo Forand, 26, who has been doing this for six years while in slow pursuit of a college degree. "We're a collection of people who didn't fit in, and we each fit in together."

"One time a guy yelled, 'Get a real job.' I don't think it gets much more real than this," said Joe Norton, 35, who looks like he could have played tight end for the Bears but says he's actually a musician.

'It takes a certain kind of person'
They also enjoy the physical activity, being outside and the relative freedom that comes with it.

"It takes a certain kind of person to be a bike messenger," Lumes said. "You know, can't everybody do this."

Boudreau's death has become a rallying point for the Chicago Couriers Union, which is trying to raise money for his two young children -- ages 3 and 5.

Boudreau, a messenger for about two years, was a proud member of the tribe and always ready to lend a helping hand, said his friends. But he also was apparently aware of the limitations.

Julie Schabel, 19, said Boudreau showed her the ropes, both on the job and off, persuading her to stay in college at the School of the Art Institute.

"You don't want to be a bike messenger when you're 27 like me," he told her.

He won't get a chance to be a bike messenger at 28.




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