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Chicago's bike messengers slow down and catch up

At Cal's, a 50-year-old bar in the financial district, Chicago's bike messengers slow down and catch up

by Darryl Swint

Medill Reports Chicago, November 06, 2007

The well-worn road and track bikes locked to, leaned against and stacked near the sturdy, U-shaped bike racks at Van Buren and Wells streets are as weathered and colorful as the language their owners use inside Cal’s Bar and Cal's Liquors.

From about 3 p.m. every Friday, Chicago’s bike messengers roll in from all parts of the city to Cal's. Their adopted, week-ending hangout, Cal’s is a place to relax, exchange stories and most of all, make sure everyone is safe. After 50 years in business, Cal's Bar and liquor store has embraced its counterculture clientele for more than a decade.

On a recent Friday inside the smoky, dimly-lit bar lined with old photos, neon Pabst Blue Ribbon signs and large Coltrane and Dylan posters, 40 to 50 messengers of different races greet each other with soul handshakes, hugs, shout-outs and rounds of $2 PBRs.

They catch up and swap stories and laughter over beer and cigarettes. If someone is away or out of town, another messenger usually knows.

This weekly convergence means more these days.

In August, the group lost one of its own. While riding the wrong way down a one-way street, Ryan Boudreau, 27, was struck and killed by a truck. He was running a personal errand before returning to work.

“If this job takes one of our lives, then we all come together,” said Anthony Fleming, 29, who works as a messenger when he isn't acting on stage or screen.  The Albany Park resident portrayed the character “Trumpets” in Fox's “Prison Break” series and has worked in theatre in Chicago for 10 years.

“We all ride together," he said, "to the wake, to the funeral … We all raise money for that person if they’ve got a family or kids. We set up a fund for that person. That’s family. For some of these guys out here, it’s the only family they’ve got.”

If the messengers are a family, Gina Depcik, owner of a Reggie's pizza truck usually stationed in Chicago's financial district, is their mom.

Sitting on a corner stool at Cal’s, having a drink with her husband Rick, Depcik, 55, says messengers look out for her as much as she looks out for them. They often stop by her truck for slices, to talk or to leave messages for each other.

“People discriminate against them and look at them as not good,” Depcik said. “So that’s why I’m always on their side. They’re a bunch of good kids. They would do anything for anyone and they work very hard, but people don’t look at it that way."

Fred Feirstein and his brother Cal, the bar's namesake, co-own the bar  and celebrated its 50th anniversary on Nov. 1.

“You try and attract a niche client,'' said Feirstein, "but it doesn’t always work.” Now in his 70s, he is proud of his diverse clientele. The bar still closes early on weekdays, around 7 p.m.,  but a few years ago, Fred’s forty-something son Mike began booking live music on the weekends. Bands play on a tiny stage with no sound system, and Cal’s has became a haven for the punk scene.

“You have to please the public or you won’t be successful,” Feirstein said. His regulars — a mix of incomes and careers including messengers, futures traders and other Loop workers--coexist pretty well.

“They don’t tell what they do sometimes because it is a stigma,” Feirstein said.

Feirstein enjoys the bar’s long run and appreciates the perspective it has given him. “You can’t see things when your nose is pressed against the glass,” he said. “But its only when you step back that you see the changes.”

After helping another customer, Feirstein offered words of wisdom that would make his punk patrons proud.
“You can’t eat the money and you can’t make love to the money. But you can use it as toilet paper,” he said, laughing.

Mitch “Mad Max” Goldstein and Gerald “G” Edwards unwind over beers at the bar. Max, 46, began working as a messenger in 1998. “G, ” now 36, had his first assignment in 1990 and was enticed into the job by his first commission paycheck, $300. Both have been coming to Cal’s for about four years.

A former messenger started bartending at Cal’s year’s ago, said Max. Once the word got out, Cal’s became an after-work hangout. for increasing numbers of messengers.

“Friday you get off and everybody groups up and then they say we’re all going to Cal’s,” said "G." “At first, we were the only ones there, but as people saw us out there, more people started to come.”

Jeff Perkins, 24, and a messenger for two-and-a-half years, said he learned of Cal’s from another messenger.In the warm summer months, the group gathered outside.

“It was just like a nice weather joint,” the Fort Dodge, Iowa native said. “You go there on Fridays after everyone gets their paycheck and just spend until we all get kicked out.”

Perkins, a Chicagoan for almost seven years, said the bar's business hours are flexible.

"They close when they feel like closing,” he said. "Sometimes they close at seven, but when they have shows, they close around midnight.”

Aside from catching up and toasting another week of safe and sound deliveries, Fleming said the feeling of acceptance from Cal’s owners and staff won the messengers' loyalty.

“There aren’t a lot of places where messengers can gather without raising a lot of flags and a lot of eyebrows,” he said. The tight-knit group knows it may not be welcome everywhere, but Cal’s Bar is a place of comfort.

“You know we can come in here funky, dirty, tired, cursing and it’s okay," said Fleming. "This is a good place for us to congregate and make sure everyone is all right and just hang with each other and pow-wow a little bit.”




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