September 25, 2008
By Erin Hale
The Daily’s Erin Hale catches up with some of Montreal’s bike
messengers – the ultimate urban daredevils
It’s midday, and I’m sitting with a group of bike messengers at the
Beach – a hangout known by most passersby only as a cement bench near
Place Ville Marie. At the moment I’m speaking to Papa, who, at 47, is
one of the older messengers in the group. He’s standing a few feet away
holding his bike and a joint, and telling me how he quit his job at a
rubber factory to become a messenger.
“At this job, you’re outside; you have central control over what you
are doing,” he says. “Me, I can smoke my joint a couple of times a day,
and no one bothers me. I can smoke it all day long, that’s it. Couriers
aren’t in boxes.”
Maybe I’m wrong to begin with this image: While it’s not surprising
that Papa is so open about getting stoned on the job, not all
messengers smoke. Like he said, bike couriers don’t fit into any
definite mold. A huge variety of people take on the job, so I should
mention that my experience is limited almost solely to the guys at the
Beach: this article is really about them.
Couriering works something like this: individual couriers are
contracted out by dispatch teams to deliver anything from cheques to
blueprints. Since fax machines and the Internet have become the major
mediums for document exchange, there has been concern that the bike
courier could go extinct, but there are still some things, like signed
documents, that need to be delivered by hand. For now, the community is
alive and kicking.
Kole was the first messenger I met. I accosted him on the street one
day, and later, over coffee, he hashed out the basic details of his
job. He explained that there are three different kinds of messengers:
those who approach it as a nine-to-five profession, those who only
stick it out for the summer – the despised “butterflies” – and those
who treat couriering as a lifestyle. To me, the lines seem a bit blurry
– the professionals and the lifestyle couriers fade into each other –
but for Kole, who has couriered around Europe and North America, the
distinctions are clear.
Later in the interview Kole vents about couriering in Montreal,
claiming it’s the worst city he has worked in. According to him,
couriers are treated with little respect here.
“On like six separate occasions, I had people ask me what a courier
was. [People will ask] ‘Is it, like, a mailman?’” he tells me. Kole and
another friend later conclude they are basically “squeegee mailmen.”
There is an interesting paradox in Montreal: messengers face a lot of
hostility, and yet aspects of their lifestyle have been appropriated
into popular culture – everything from fixed gear bikes to messenger
bags. I even heard one go so far as to complain that a lot of hipsters
were trying to dress like geeky messengers.
Most messengers insist that their job is far from glamorous. Couriers
are paid commission of a per-delivery basis. An average messenger earns
between $50 and $70 a day; those with a particular knack for running
red lights and weaving in and out of traffic may rake in $100. Though
messengers sign contracts with dispatch companies, the companies are
not legally or financially responsible for their employees. The
messengers are technically self-employed, and thus have no job
security, disability insurance, or other benefits. They pay for any
mechanical problems with their bikes, and for the consequences of their
accidents. After a crash, one messenger tells me, “I radioed in to say
I’d been hit, and they were like ‘Alright, take 15 minutes.’”
Furthermore, Montreal messengers aren’t unionized, and their efforts to
join the Postal Union have failed repeatedly.
Denied financial and physical security, people don’t become messengers
for the job perks, but because they do not have the skills – a
university degree, proficiency in French – to work elsewhere.
“I don’t have the choice of another job...here I only make $50 to $60 a
day at most,” says Houman, a lone courier I met on the other side of
Place Ville Marie. When I ask why he keeps going, he tells me what I
would hear again and again: that if he has to work for a minimal wage,
he’ll at least do something he enjoys.
Kole feels the same way. “The money isn’t so good. But I don’t do it
for the money. I do it because I like the job. I like the freedom, the
exercise. We work eight hours a day non-stop. Fuck the Olympics, these
are the people we should be respecting,” he says. “You have five
minutes here to grab a cigarette, five minutes there to grab a coffee.
On average you have 32 jobs a day – [but it can get up to] 64 pickups
over an eight-hour day. That’s one building every seven and a half
minutes, including distance, the elevator, and the signature.”
Couriers take exceptional pride in their work, mainly because of the
danger it involves. Many messengers carry themselves with a certain
bravado stemming from their consciousness of precisely how much work
goes into the job. In Montreal, a courier-wannabe can only break into
the inner circle by biking through an entire winter – a trial by fire,
given Quebec’s climate.
But messengers are quick to recognize who genuinely deserves
recognition and who does not. There is definite disdain for “hipsters”
who dress like messengers without doing the work. When Jesse, who has
been a courier on-and-off for five years, sees kids on fixed gear bikes
he yells, “Hey buddy! It’s a full time job!” The Beach guys, at least,
try to keep these “possengers” away.
“For sure it’s one of the subcultures that exists for real – and its
not just something you can sell,” says Naki, one of the guys at the
Beach, of the messenger culture. “You don’t have to go to school for
it, and you have a lot more fun than you’re supposed to.”
Although couriers are able to build reputations within their inner
circles, many remain on the periphery of mainstream society, as
observers or ghosts. Almost every messenger I spoke to has a tale of an
important event they witnessed before the media arrived, though they
seldom partook in it themselves. One messenger remembers hearing a
co-worker over the radio say: “Hey guys, I’m down by Dawson, and
someone just walked in with a gun.”
Many messengers have trouble finding their own space in the city. The
job is all about mobility, but there is still some downtime, and it is
in these periods –between calls, for example – where messengers’
marginalization stands out. The Beach is often an alternative to their
bikes, but it’s hardly a haven. Even there, couriers get pushed around.
Chris, a former messenger, says that for 20 years messengers have
struggled to claim the space.
“We always kind of move around Place Ville Marie because of our
smoking. We’ve gotten pushed further and further down the cement
promenade lately. Then they put Starbucks in, and now they’re
complaining about the weed smell,” he says.
I have to note that the Beach is definitely a boys’ club. There are
very few women in the industry, which some couriers attribute to the
job’s physical demands. While I expected to witness some misogyny,
overall the guys I interviewed seemed extremely respectful of their
female counterparts. When it came to ineracting with women outside of
the industry, though, they acted a bit like teenage boys.
It took me some time to wrap my head around how couriers get on their
bikes every morning, knowing how many risks – and how few rewards –
they face throughout their workday.
Papa does not deny that the danger, though seductive, is a source of
stress: “As much fun, and as easy as it seems to be a messenger, one of
my friends died, another was in a coma for two weeks, and another is
not walking. [The weight is] right on your back, but at the same time
it’s the knowledge of all the difficulties the industry goes through
every year that makes it interesting. Otherwise it wouldn’t be that
It seems that because they work outside of the city’s norms, in some
ways messengers make their own rules. Several told me they enjoy
breaking laws all day long, running red lights or bypassing traffic.
Some push their limits even farther, and take revenge on aggressive
drivers by kicking in their rear-view mirrors. For some, the danger and
excitement make the job. One messenger describes himself as a “terminal
“You want the danger to bother you – you know you need to take concern.
But I think I like the danger,” says Sebastian, another messenger at
the Beach. He is aware, however, that though this is part of the fun,
his attraction to dangerous situations is not necessarily
self-contained – others could pay the price for his recklessness.
Messengers pose a danger to pedestrians and other cyclists, even if
they try to be careful. With non-couriers adopting messengers’ clothing
style, it’s not hard to imagine other bikers would also copy their
Bike messengers are by no means class warriors, but there is a certain
amount of class-consciousness among the Beach guys. Papa, Kole, and a
few others are very aware of the middle class lives they chose to
“I could’ve gone to school and been a lawyer or in middle management,”
says Kole. “I’m 36 and have older friends with kids and houses, and
once in a while I say, ‘you should’ve done that.’ But it’s not about
making lots of money, but enjoying life – living.”
As a McGill student, I felt I had to cross a significant barrier – one
that may still be there, in the messengers’ eyes – to make it in their
crowd. They joke about people with disposable incomes, who ride with
their specialty cycling gear. Though I suspect my bike, which I bought
off the street, was stolen, I still felt as though the messengers
placed me within that category. Still, it was the messengers’ rejection
of a materialistic lifestyle and my own romantic notions of living
outside of middle class norms that inspired me to write this piece in
the first place. I am happy to say that the people I met managed to
dispel a lot of my preconceived ideas. I admit, though, that I became a
bit of a groupie. Like the Beach messengers themselves would put it –
“it’s hard not to be seduced by the danger.”