The hyper-glamorized job is simply that: a job. BBB dispels bike
By: Julian Root
Temple News, January 22, 2008
To be a bike messenger is to be professionally inconvenienced, and yet
it continues to be one of the most romanticized and sought-after
positions for young people in cities. Any messenger who denies the
implicit "cool factor" is either lying or blind. But what is it that
makes this job seem so much "cooler" than similar jobs, like delivering
food on bicycle?
Short answer: nothing other than a slightly arrogant, albeit completely
ingenuous, sense of solidarity.
Unfortunately for most Philly messengers, this sense of solidarity is
often more exciting on the street than it is on their paychecks. Before
taxes were withdrawn, my best 40-hour paycheck in the past nine months
was about $325. Considering what most eight-hour days of messenger
entail, this is hardly worth it in the eyes of most levelheaded people.
It must be the work itself that elicits so much enthusiasm.
On an ideal day of messenger work, life is good. Jobs come in at a
steady, comfortable pace, the weather is good, no flat tires are
sustained and motorists are generally complacent. However, these days -
particularly in the wintertime - are few and far between.
"What can I say about y'all? I got a lot more respect for all the
bikers after working here a few years," James Thrower, a radio
dispatcher at the Rapid bike messenger service, said. "The s--- you
guys put up with is amazing. I used to curse out bikers when I'd be
driving, but now I sympathize. You guys ain't got it easy out there,
and I gotta respect you for sticking with it."
It's impossible to explain to a cabbie why you had to cut him off as
you flew through that red light. Why should there be any explanation,
anyway? The idea behind bike messenger services is that bikes can go
places and do things cars cannot. They are simply more efficient than
cars in the city. If every messenger obeyed every traffic law, it would
be an obsolete business.
Generally speaking, bike messengers stick with the job because they are
good at what they do. Pedestrians and motorists are as fundamental to
urban life as the concrete itself, and every good messenger knows this
and adapts accordingly.
Unfortunately, many people don't realize this and curse the messenger
for taking what may seem to be insane risks in traffic. The irony is
that the messenger is, quite literally, only doing his job. Anyway, for
all that lawyer in the Benz knows, I could be delivering his next
Next to traffic, the most contentious element of many messengers' jobs
is the brakeless bicycle. Designed originally for use in a track with
other brakeless bicycles, these rudimentary fixed-gear bicycles are
controlled entirely by leg strength. Legs are as crucial to stopping as
they are for starting. This raises eyebrows not because it is
impractical, but because it is completely unnecessary.
Yes, I ride without brakes. No, I do not condone it.
Riding without brakes is certainly manageable, and with a little
experience, it's easy to do for many months without any significant
problems. It's desirable because it looks sleek to have a bicycle with
no brakes. The purity of complete self-reliance also makes it appealing.
However, with brakes, you can go faster, since you can stop faster. And
your knees, which play a key role in slowing down while riding
brakeless, will thank you. On one grueling, brakeless morning, I
covered the distance between downtown Philly and Second and Somerset
streets six times. That is almost the equivalent to riding from
Temple's Main Campus to Doylestown, and the trip made my knees feel set
Riding brakeless simply adds to the solidarity aesthetic of messengers.
Like any group of similar people, they endure similar hardships and
similar gains. There is an immediate connection felt between two
messengers who share a glance outside in the pouring rain: "I am tired,
cold, and soaking wet, and I will continue to be in another six hours.
Knowing you will be, too, makes it that much better."
After navigating through ice, wind, rain, snow and triple-digit
temperatures, there is little the bike messenger cannot quickly adapt
to. It is rare that a messenger will complain about the weather. The
messenger often has to struggle to keep his or her mouth shut in the
company of businessmen and women riding elevators, who complain about
the conditions outside while sipping lattes in their warm, dry suits.
Frankly, any hullabaloo about bike messengers is insubstantial. It's a
job like any other outdoor job. It rains; they get wet. It's nice out;
they laugh at the suits stuck in office buildings. The pay generally
sucks, regardless. Add some flashy gear (sleek track bikes and fancy
messenger bags), and suddenly people think there is some special,
esoteric knowledge the messengers possess, which they certainly do not.