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Courier wears out socks and columnist
Veteran deliveryman works hard for his money pounding pavement

Joe Fiorito, City Columnist
National Post, Tuesday, November 09, 1999

When the newspaper columnist Richard J. Needham -- oh, for pity's sake, ask any old geezer to tell you about Rasputin J. Novgorod -- was pushed out of his paper and onto the street, he ended his days as a foot courier.

Rudolph J. Needleberry --dammit, child, where's your sense of history? And while we're it, quit interrupting me! -- was a cross between Thurber on a bad day and W.C. Fields on a good one, with a little Dali thrown in for good measure.

Few of that ilk now.

It is because of Needham that I went walking with Ray the Courier the other day; call it career planning. Ray and I walked and talked, which is to say he walked and I did my level best to keep up with him; whenever I managed to catch my breath, I asked questions.

Here's what I learned:

Foot couriers are more discreet in appearance than bike couriers, perhaps because they take fewer chances.

Ray dresses simply in jeans, a fleece jacket, a baseball cap, and plain old runners. "I buy the cheapest I can find. They have to be comfortable, that's all. They wear out in six months. Actually, it's socks you go through quickest; a pair lasts maybe three weeks. I buy in bulk."

A sensible economy.

Couriers don't get rich.

Ray works freelance; he is engaged for tax purposes as a private contractor, grossing 60% of the fee for each of the 30 to 40 envelopes he handles in an average day; if he pulls in $400, then it's been a good week.

His turf is downtown from Queen to Front, and Yonge to University. The route is simple to cover, and the direct result of seniority; he's been in the business for 18 years this month.

Happy anniversary?

Let's just say he's reached the age when his knees are stiff by the end of the day.

On the other hand, the job gives him career flexibility. He's a musician.

Not unusual -- half the players in the punk band Stark Naked and the Fleshtones were couriers; all the members of the rock band Bungled Coup were couriers.

Ray's no punk.

He was a choir boy with a golden voice who went to Catholic school. The nuns taught him good manners; he still holds doors for others, even other couriers.

It's a slow morning.

He's made a leisurely six deliveries by 10:15 a.m. Leisurely for him; I'm exhausted. During a lull, we stop for tea in a food court. Moments later, Ray's pager skitters across the table -- a rush job. Off we go, tea undrunk, me still winded.

Ray's pager message tells him to pick up and deliver seven envelopes in the next 45 minutes; priority stuff from a brokerage firm. "Let's go," he says, inquisitively.

We go.

He dashes up an escalator, darts across the street and dodges a cab; I do my best to dash, dart, dodge. He spins through a revolving door, ducks into an elevator and turns up his nose at the combined perfume of hairspray, donuts and milky coffee; I also spin, duck, and turn up.

Finally, he strides across lush carpet, sheds a seasoned smile on a receptionist, gathers his envelopes and speeds off. I stride and shed, but my speed is gone.

A courier's lot is one of instant rewards and penalties. If he's late, he loses money. But once during a delivery, he met the actor Gary Farmer and they had a merry chat; and once he shared an elevator with Gordon Lightfoot.

Gord was silent; Ray, tongue-tied.

And there have been adventures. A man once jumped out of nowhere, said he was Hitler's son, and waved a knife in Ray's face. It ended harmlessly; Hitler's son walked off.

Ray makes his rush deliveries on time in spite of me, and says he'll work through lunch. He's too much a gent to say so, but I think I held him back a step. He wants to make up lost time.

Him and Proust.

As for me, I'm sticking to the column for a while. I'm not as mad as Novgorod -- not yet. And though my job is every bit as hard as that of a courier, I figure I'm ahead of the game.

Look at the money I save on socks.


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