S.F. bike couriers take union idea for a spin

Steve Schmidt
07 Mar 1999 Sunday

SAN FRANCISCO -- The gang's all here -- Sketch, Rasta Mon, Spaz, Freeway, the Lickety Split girls, Squeaker, Leather Pants.

They're at their usual hangout, the corner of Market and Sansome streets, talking.

"Man, you hear about Domey?"


"Domey's dead, man. (Expletive.)"

"Yeah, Domey's dead."

On one of the most colorful street corners in one of the most colorful cities around, the street rats of the corporate world mourn the passing of one of their own.

Steven Lee Beaufoy -- a k a Stevo or Chrome Dome or Domey -- died Jan. 31 in a late-night motorcycle accident. Several days a week, he was a messenger here, like Sketch and the rest of the gang.

In another place, it might be easy work.

But this is San Francisco, and being a bicycle messenger here can be a chilling game. Hundreds of couriers loop around this hilly city every weekday, trying not to get creamed by the trucks and taxis, delivering documents and packages from the Dilberts in one high-rise to the Dilberts in another, threading through the urban morass without armor, without a net.

At least eight messengers have died on the job this decade.

Shawn "Spaz" Via has been at it for nearly two years. He has three letters tattooed on the back of his left hand: B.T.B.

Bite The Bullet.

"I've got to obviously be somewhat crazy doing this every day, knowing that each one could be my last," he says.

The risks breed a sense of family. Messengers party together. They brand each other with nicknames. They're asphalt Musketeers with punk haircuts and scaggy clothes.

Many gather at a small, windswept plaza at Market and Sansome, a spot they call The Wall, to goof or wait for work or talk about another sister or brother who may have been hurt or killed, whether on the job or not.

And they worry where their livelihood is headed.

First, faxes and e-mail cut into their work. Now other changes, including a drive to consolidate the delivery business, has many couriers pushing for the creation of what may be the nation's first bike messenger union.

The pay is often poor and the benefits nil. It's no career ticket to a corner office.

Yet they're doing work few others would dare.

One thing's for sure: When you have to muscle your way every day through the helter-skelter city, everyone else seems like a chump or a pantywaist.

"We're bike messengers," says Sean "Leather Pants" Wilkinson. "The rest of the world is pedestrians."

Artful dodgers

Wilkinson zips through San Francisco's financial district, steering his junky 12-speeder through canyons of steel and glass.

It would make a good scene for one of those edge-of-your-seat IMAX films: Wilkinson peddles north, passing under the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Wearing a black knit cap instead of a helmet, he flies along the scenic Embarcadero, turning left onto Market Street. He takes another left, onto Spear Street. Buses and taxis choke the road. He goes through a red light. There's a cop car nearby, but nobody squawks. He blows through another red light, dodging cars.

He reaches his destination -- a high-rise at 150 Spear St. -- in one piece, ready for his first delivery of the day.

For such dizzying risks, he earns between $400 and $500 a week, working for a tiny courier company called Expresso. Many messengers make between $200 and $300 a week.

The Maine native says it's good work if you crave fresh air.

"I can honestly say that this is the best job I've ever had," says Wilkinson, 25. "I'd much rather be out riding, even in the rain, than sitting behind some (expletive) desk."

Just above his left eyebrow is an inch-long scar. He got it a year ago, when his front bicycle tire flew off, hurtling him to the pavement.

Injuries, even death, aren't uncommon.

Four messengers were killed on the job in 1997, including a 25-year-old woman who died after her bicycle got stuck in a grate and she slid under a moving van.

At least one more died last year.

Every messenger tells stories about being sideswiped or doored or smacked to the asphalt.

Many also seem to feed off the danger.

"I'm addicted to it," says veteran messenger Sean Hanlon. "It's like a video game. It's Frogger. I'm just out there playing a game of Frogger."

This PlayStation on wheels keeps the downtown economy spinning. Messengers serve as go-betweens for law firms, advertising and graphics companies and other outfits requiring door-to-door service.

Today, San Francisco has more than 20 messenger companies. Most are shoestring operations with names like Spin Cycle and Lickety Split All Girl Courier.

While bike couriers remain popular in Boston, Seattle and Germany, their numbers have thinned in many major cities due to the advent of fax machines and the Internet.

Some downtown San Diego law firms employ two-wheeled couriers, but many messenger companies stopped hiring them some 15 years ago.

In his black sweat shirt and baggy green pants, Wilkinson arrives at 150 Spear St. to pick up a package from one of San Francisco's most prestigious ad agencies.

His destination: the world headquarters of The Gap, only a few blocks away.

He slides the package into a brown canvas bag and hustles there in four minutes. (Next time you see a Gap ad in a glossy magazine, think of Wilkinson, muscling his way from door to door.)

He awaits word on his next delivery, his cell phone at the ready.

Messengers also wait for far more.

What this town needs, what we need, they say, is a messenger labor union.

Spin city

Almost since its birth, San Francisco has been known as an unabashed, rough-and-tumble union town.

The year 1997 offered a fresh reminder, when dancers at a North Beach nudie club became the first strippers in the nation to unionize.

So why not Wilkinson and company?

Bike messengers ride as many as 40 to 50 miles a day, rain or shine, getting paid per delivery. There are an estimated 350 cycling couriers here.

Few get vacation time or paid sick days. Many lack medical and dental benefits, or have minimal benefits at best.

"They have no collective bargaining agreement. And if you have no collective bargaining agreement, you have no rights," says Peter Olney, a director with San Francisco's International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The union, which brought San Francisco to its knees in the 1930s with a maritime strike, now wants to organize messengers and others in the delivery business.

Mayor Willie Brown and other elected officials back the idea.

"We're getting fed up," says messenger Schuyler "Sketch" Watts, 29. "I think having a union makes a lot of sense. We could get some real benefits."

Fueling the organizing drive has been the recent takeover of several messenger companies by an overseas firm, a move that some argue has led to lower wages.

But the owners of some messenger outfits say wages actually are rising for the better couriers.

Either way, labor organizers face perhaps a more vexing challenge: Can they create and sustain a new workers union from such a notorious gang of free spirits?

For all the kinship they forge on the streets, messengers are known for striking out on their own.

Shawn "Spaz" Via, 26, worries that a messenger union would rob him of his prized independence. "Unions have all these rules you have to put up with," he says.

Wilkinson left Maine in 1996, turning down a chance to work with a mail-order business run by his family.

After coming to San Francisco, he was a chef and then a motorcycle messenger, earning the nickname Leather Pants. When his motorcycle broke down, he got a bicycle.

"You just see some of the craziest stuff out there on the streets every day," he says. "I've seen some gnarly accidents. I've seen people pushing shopping carts down the street, and they're not wearing pants."

He wears a black strap across his chest, which holds a cell phone linked to his boss. His calves bulge with hard-earned muscle.

And he kicks about the messenger hangout, The Wall at Market and Sansome streets.

It's no quilting bee down there. Some messengers play Hacky Sack or toy around on their bikes. Most of the bicycles are junkers cobbled together from old parts, to deter thieves. Other couriers plow through the newspaper and trade gossip.

Sometimes a hash pipe or a joint gets passed around, in broad daylight.

On the streets though, there is tension. Some drivers resent messengers who flagrantly ignore traffic laws, along with cops who appear to give them a free ride.

Pedestrians worry about getting sideswiped. One messenger hit one woman so hard several years ago she went into a coma and was hospitalized for several days.

Then there's the persistent culture gap. Messengers see the suits in their high-rises and think capitalist stooges. The suits see the messengers and think lowlifes.

"I had this lawyer ask me once, how can you stand doing this?" recalls one messenger. "And I said, how can you stand doing what you're doing, being a lawyer?"

One more for the road

It's 10 in the morning and the talk over at The Wall centers on a fallen brother, Steven "Domey" Beaufoy.

Messengers rally together in these moments, recalling their own brushes with death.

And ritual kicks in. When a messenger dies, on the job or not, their bike is dropped into San Francisco Bay as part of a waterfront wake. A few days ago, it was Domey's turn.

"He zigged when he should have zagged," says one messenger.

Then the couriers climb on their bikes and get on with their day.

Leather Pants works the southern end of the financial district.

Squeaker flies down Market Street.

Sketch dances with the buses and the taxis.

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