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  Active Transport Workers Guild



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Those Crazy Messengers

Hideousewhitenoise #56, 2003

By Mr Forehead

“Those damn couriers always getting in my way. Hey that little fucker just cut me off. Why do they let those idiots ride like that? Nice Ass! What smells? I wish I could ride my bike outside on a day like this. I am glad I am not riding my bike outside today. Wonder what the weather is outside, maybe I will ask this soaking wet bike messenger.”

Messengers have been around longer then highways. A famous messenger who brought word of failure in battle was put to death. Hence the term, “Don’t kill the messenger.” Modern day still exists on the messenger to get their stuff delivered. The modern Bike Messenger has been around longer then automobiles.

The first messenger came quickly after the invention of the modern day bicycle. This would be around 1890. Even rich people who could only afford bikes were making deliveries on their boneshakers. Bikes have been used to deliver all sorts of sundries of every day life. Prescriptions, meat, organs, sperm samples, couches, you name it and it has probably been delivered on a bike.

In the thirties, Toronto bike messengers use to hang their bikes up at Temperance and Bay and smoke cigarettes. Now a day they can be found at Temperance and Yonge, hanging out and smoking. Some things never change.

But the bike messenger has. From the nattily dressed messenger kid for Western Union, to the tattooed stoner kid, the fashions, events and legal problems continue to change and grow.

With the advent of the automobile, bicycle messengers like most cyclists disappeared into the cultural landscape. It was not until the seventies that people started to take the bicycle seriously again as form of transportation. The Bike Messengers were at the forefront of this renaissance.

By the late eighties, 1980’s that is, it was hip to be a daredevil bike messenger dashing through traffic like a leopard. Not a care in the world. Making sweating a cool pass time, Messengers love to hang out with other messengers. They are family. And there is no sight better then a pack of messengers moving through traffic like sharks in the water.

It wasn’t long before these fit young people started to race and that was when the action really started. AlleyCat racing had been around for a long time, but the modern version came out of Toronto in the late eighties. It wasn’t long before it spread to the rest of the messenger world.

In what now seems like a logical transition messengers from other cities started to race against each other. It was a camaraderie thing, race, hang out, and drink beer. The first World Championships were held in Berlin in 1993. Messengers from around the world showed up to race. Then came the European Championships, the North American Championships, the Australian Championships and the Dunhill AlleyCat scramble. Being a messenger was the balm.

But being a messenger is not all about racing, drinking, and having fun. A book called, “The World’s Most Dangerous Places,” ranks being a Bike Messenger number 6 in the top ten dangerous jobs. This is between a Smoke Jumper and a Goon.

Not only is the job increasingly dangerous, the pay gets shittier and shittier every year. While police, who didn’t make the list, are paid a huge amount of money to drive around in relative safety, Bike Messengers are continually ripped off and underpaid. The average pay of a Bike Messenger has dropped. From a nice average of $500.00 a week, the pay has toileted from $200-300.00 a week. It is the only business, besides sweat shops, that where a profit is made, but the average salary continues to drop.

But crappy pay is the least of a bike messengers problems. There is the constant danger of getting run down by a homicidal driver. Ask any bike messenger about drivers and you are sure to get a story.

Chris Robertson, while riding in a friends wake, was killed by truck driver Reuben Espinoza. At the time, Chris was riding in a friends wake. The truck driver became incensed when many cyclists took the lane, in a light traffic part of town. He hurled a wooden bloke at the riders. Words were exchanged and he ran Chris down. Cyclists detained the driver until police showed. The drivers abstract showed a history of aggressive driving. The truck driver’s own attorney thought he should go to jail. The verdict, innocent.

Thomas McBride was riding his bike in the 5300 block of West Washington Boulevard, Chicago when he had a near collision with a motorist. Words were exchanged. The driver ran him down and then fled the scene of the crime. He later turned himself in to police. The verdict, guilty. The driver was sentenced to 45 years in jail. Justice, in this case, was served. But it still will not ping back Thomas McBride.

Bike Messengers face death on a constant basis. And what do they receive in return. Harassment, ridicule and getting ripped off and this is from the companies they work for. Bike Messengers are paid by the amount of packages they can pick up and drop off in a given day. This is why they usually look like a rat on crack. All jittery and looking for sugar.

Rates have been dropping faster then the .com industry. Companies continually look for ways to under cut other companies by giving deals. Most company owners will tell you that they don’t make money on bike messengers. These are the same owners that drive porsches and have large houses.

In Canada there is a federal law that says messengers cannot deliver packages for less then $2.31. This law is constantly contravened by 99% of courier companies. Yes there are a few good companies. Couriers deliver packages for less then the cost of a stamp. Of that they receive 60%. Of that 60%, they have to pay radio fees. There is not much left for rent, food and an occasional beer. Not to mention bike repairs, clothing and those other necessities of life.

So why be a bike messenger? Freedom, exercise, camaraderie and of course the racing. Messengers have a worldwide circuit. There is of course the Alley Cats and world championships and now it would appear the Japanese have announced a messenger championship of their own. Tokyo anyone.

Being a Bike Messenger is like going to war. You will meet friends that you will keep for the rest of your life, you will be swapping stories of near misses and stupid mailroom people and you will keep the world a better place for one and all. Being a bike messenger may have gone out of vogue, but it is still the best job in the world

Ride to live, live to ride!


Send comments or suggestions, to: mima@messmedia.org

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