Mess Media




Wings on Their Heels

The City Visible

New York times, November 16, 2008


“IT’S Russian roulette every day,” said Cassandra Castillo, a tough, tattooed 26-year-old who is one of the city’s handful of female bike messengers. “Every day we’re two paychecks away from disaster.”

Each morning, Ms. Castillo removes her bike from its hook on the ceiling of her apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, pulls her short dark hair into a ponytail, checks (“Messengers live by,” she said) and hopes that the day’s hustle will treat her well.

According to the New York Bike Messenger Association, of the city’s approximately 2,000 bike messengers, 50 to 100 are women. The messengers, however, say they know of only about 30 women, and Ms. Castillo estimates that a mere dozen of them work full time.

Many of them know one another, if only by the color of their bikes or the type of bags they carry. Carmen Burkart, a slight, tight-bodied 43-year-old who smokes and drinks only hot coffee for hydration, even in the summer, can think of only five women who ride full time.

“They want to be safe,” said Ms. Burkart, who, before emigrating from her native Germany in 1998, worked as a bicycle mail carrier in the city of Karlsruhe. “They want to dress nice. You have to really have guts the first time a car goes right by you.”

In Manhattan, cabbies curse and spit. Cigarettes flicked from windows hit messengers as they pass; pedestrians step into their path seemingly from nowhere. Sweating and dirty, rained on, snowed on or baked by the sun, they spend a considerable amount of time waiting for slow and often foul-smelling freight elevators.

Some are paid by the hour and others by commission, so messengers usually earn $300 to $800 for a workweek that can run from 40 to 60 hours for full-time messengers. It’s the hustle, though, that keeps them coming back — “chasing the dollar around town,” as Ms. Castillo put it.

“I wouldn’t want to have your job today!” people often tell her.

She replies: “I wouldn’t want to have your job any day!”