Spokes man

Ira Pintzuk trades his life in the business `rat race' for the freewheeling style of a bike messenger

25-May-1999 Tuesday

A bus barrels down Broadway on his right, an SUV squeezes past on his left,the sunshine beams down on his face and Ira Pintzuk couldn't be happier.

"Hi, Ira!" shouts a secretary as Pintzuk zips past her on Kettner Boulevard.

"Hey, Ira!" calls an attorney as Pintzuk heads the wrong way on one-way India Street and rounds the corner onto Ash.

On his red road bike, a satchel slung over one shoulder, Pintzuk is a familiar face to the men and women in business suits scurrying along the sidewalks between the high-rises of downtown San Diego.

At 61, he's the oldest bike messenger among about 30 whose curb-hopping, traffic-dodging antics between Harbor Drive and Hillcrest keep the corporate and legal systems humming on the spin cycle.

Faxes and e-mail may have cut into the business of bike messengers elsewhere, but here, where the downtown is getting busier and parking spaces are harder to come by, business is going strong. Some documents still have to be originals: subpoenas and summonses, divorce papers and blueprints, plane tickets and paychecks.

It's an unconventional job choice for a man who desperately wanted out of the rat race himself. For 30 years, Pintzuk worked in the commercial real estate business, negotiating deals on new locations for fast food chains including Burger King and Jack In The Box.

He worked long hours, traveled often and got paid really, really well.

Ten years ago, he went into a "quasi-retirement." Call it what you want, he says: fired, laid off, downsized.

That same week, he and Linda, his wife of nearly 34 years, became foster parents of their 2-week-old granddaughter. "It seemed a propitious time to take some time and not work," said Pintzuk, who lives in Clairemont Mesa.

It didn't take long for him to realize he missed nothing about his job. "What do you get for the stress? A few more possessions?" he said.

During the first significant time off he had during his adult life, he spent a good portion of it outdoors swimming laps, biking 175 miles a week and running two marathons -- including the Boston, even though he didn't qualify for it. He slipped in when a friend's son got ill and couldn't run.

Five years ago, he decided since he rode his bike so much, he might as well get paid for it. He starts his day at 9:30 a.m. in Cal Express, one of several courier services in San Diego. A few yards from the train tracks, the downtown office isn't much more than a worn couch, a few file cabinets, a row of battered bicycles hanging from the ceiling and a desk where co-owner Jim Koontz fields calls and dispatches messengers.

It's in stark contrast to the elegant office buildings that Pintzuk visits with skylighted cafeterias, huge vases of fresh flowers in the lobby, polished mirrors, mahogany and glass and spectacular views of the city.

Outside in the warm air, Pintzuk believes he has the best view of all. He whizzes over trolley tracks, misses a pothole, gets honked at, waves to another bike messenger and shouts to an attorney walking during his lunch break.

"Hey Dave! Back to exercising! That must be why you look so good!" Pintzuk says.

His bike hugs the broken white line that runs between the lanes on Broadway as a sports car and a white delivery truck roll by.

"When you're in traffic, speed is your friend," Pintzuk says. "I don't like being between the buses and the curb. I hate being out on the right side because they're watching on the left."

He takes assignments on a mobile phone. He locks his bike to trees, No Parking signs, wrought-iron fences, parking meters and, occasionally, even a bike stand. Bike messengers have been extra careful lately. Locked bikes have been getting swiped, even in front of the courthouse.

In an eight-hour shift, he makes about 40 deliveries.

"Don't tell me it's kicked," he says to a court clerk. In courier lingo, "kicked" means the document is unacceptable and the court won't accept it. A "dropped" document refers to one that has to go directly to a judge, so it's left in a drop box.

As he stands in an elevator in his shorts and cleats flanked by three men in suits and ties, he's thankful it's no longer him, even if he makes only $8 an hour.

Two years ago, Pintzuk's former boss, who also happens to be his friend since high school, asked him to come back to work for him. He went to New Jersey to start the job. After three weeks, he told his wife he hated it and wanted to come back.

"You better learn to like it," she said. "Because I just lost mine."

He stayed for an additional eight months and gave notice the day after his wife got a new job. His boss offered him a raise.

"There's nothing that would make it worth it," he told his boss. "Nothing."

Pintzuk knows the names of all the secretaries, receptionists and clerks he meets in the law offices and courthouses on his route. Teresa, Joe and Barbara in the civil filings and records room of the courthouse; Edwina in probates, Robin on the 24th floor of 401 B St., Chris at 620 Fifth St. and Patty at Sullivan Wertz McDade and Wallace.

"My friends in New Jersey said, `Why would you leave a job that could make you more than $100,000 to work for bupkas?' " Pintzuk said. "I say, `Come down and ride around San Diego for a day. The sun is shining. The weather is good. The air is relatively clean. I like it. I like riding around town where everyone says `Hi Ira.' "

back to the main articles page