From Mad Messenger to More Peaceful Cyclist
Streetsblog, January 14, 2008
By Alex Marshall
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a bicycle courier.
It was in the fall of 1979, during the semester I took off from college
to start a rock band in Washington DC with friends. When not playing
guitar in a roach-infested apartment in Takoma Park, Md., I cruised the
streets for a courier company, picking up thick envelopes from the
American Petroleum Institute and other public-spirited institutions and
taking them over to Capitol Hill. Stuff like that.
I think about that sometimes these days, as I poke along Bergen Street
Brooklyn, or Lafayette Avenue in Manhattan, on my mountain bike with my
bad back, weak right knee, and other afflictions.
Bicycle messengering had a certain cachet back then, although fewer
people know about it. It had not evolved into the almost cult-like
institution I sense it has become now.
Does bicycle couriering teach you anything practical? A little,
although not much.
What it does mostly is to acquaint one with cycling in traffic, which
is useful in New York City. You either become comfortable with cycling
amid a herd of cars, or you stop. Despite two minor accidents with cars
while being a courier, I came to love mixing it up with city traffic.
I can still feel that urge to merge now course through my middle-aged
body, when a car cuts me off or I'm jockeying for position at a traffic
light. It's something to watch out for. Through the lens of age, I can
see now that good cycling, safe cycling and civil cycling comes from
striking a balance between aggression and passivity. Too much of either
is not healthy or safe for the people around you.
I did get better at simply steering and staying on a bike. I used to be
amazed at my ability to keep the two wheels of my bicycle inside the
white stripe on the edge of a road, when I felt like it.
Also, sort of like a fish being accustomed to the water, you became
very accustomed to balancing on the two wheels of a bike. At day's end
when I lay down to sleep on the mattress on the floor in our
roach-infested pad, I would close my eyes and start to drift off to
sleep. Then I would often jerk awake, because I would catch myself
losing my balance and falling off my bicycle. I was still mentally on
the bike. In a curious way, I got to like this feeling and would
sometimes imagine falling off my bicycle as a way to put myself to
Most lessons I learned while being a courier did not have much
applicability outside the industry. Like how to get in and out of a
building quickly. This was more important to one's total daily
commissions -- and one did work by commission -- than riding fast on
The principal time sucker at buildings was waiting for an elevator. To
avoid this, I learned a few tricks, one being that one can actually
often pull the doors of an elevator open after it has closed, if only a
second or two or has passed. This led to frequent scenes of a car full
of people seeing the doors that had just closed on them being pulled
apart by a tall, scruffy looking youngster.
All in all, it was a fun job. And I made a lot of money, or what seemed
like a lot of money at age 19. But eventually I left it and went back
to college. Our rock band didn't get far. But I retained my love of
cycling in traffic, which I still do, albeit in a more middle-aged