Business Cycles

Pedestrians May Swear At Bicycle Messengers,

But Companies Swear By Them

by William H. Duvall III.

Chicago Tribune, November 3, 1991


Rolling down the center of a Loop street, pumping hard on the pedalsof his mud-spattered black mountain bike, riding the median with its cracksand bumps, flowing with and against mid-morning traffic, stopping at stopsigns and red lights only when survival dictates, the bicycle messengergoes about his appointed rounds servicing commerce and industry and, occasionally,even senders of flowers.

Dropping off, picking up, vulnerable to all the vicissitudes of Chicagoweather, even more vulnerable to injuries inflicted by cabs and car doorsand road conditions, he is a hardy, hustling breed of urban cat. No matterthe weather, the pollution index or their physical or mental state, thetwo-wheel couriers pedal for eight to ten hours a day, racking up a minimumof 60 miles in the process and invariably pushing into the city`s omnipresentwind, their most dreaded adversary.

The world of the bicycle messenger is a blend of hurry-up commerce andgritty aerobics and comprises a revolving roster of characters and personalities-students,family men, multiple jobholders, free spirits and transients-nearly allof whom speak of the sense of freedom, a word not often used in job descriptions,that they experience when mounted and moving.

Of the approximately 72 messenger companies in Chicago, Cannonball Inc..and Chicago Messenger Service are the largest. Cannonball, with 75 to 100two- wheel workers, and CMS, with 80, also have large fleets of driversservicing the city and suburbs. The two firms deliver anywhere in the countryand offer worldwide service. Cannonball is the city`s oldest such business,dating to 1933, and receives between 1,600 and 2,000 phone orders a dayin addition to its regularly scheduled daily routes. Chicago MessengerService isn`t far behind.

A few firms employ messengers on foot who usually work assigned routes,but these couriers are a relatively small percentage of the messenger force.

``Bike messengers,`` says Jack Rozran, Cannonball`s chairman, ``arethe fastest, most efficient method of carrying and delivering light packagesin the downtown area.`` Says Milt Buzil, general manager of Chicago MessengerService, ``There is no quicker way to get around Loop traffic.``

And get around it they do. Adherence to traffic laws often takes a backseat, making the maneuvers of the bike messenger-the darting between movingvehicles, the traveling the wrong way on one-way streets, the riding onsidewalks (also illegal), the scattering of pedestrians-as common a downtownsight as panhandlers and gridlock.

What is so important that it must be transported so feverishly? It isn`talways a question of importance or urgency but simply a matter of beingthe quickest, most efficient way of conducting business. A video, of course,cannot be faxed; nor can an oversized graphic illustration; nor can a signature.And, of course, the couriers are paid by the delivery, not by the hour.

Accounting firms, law offices, banks and other financial institutionsare the biggest daily users off messengers. Arthur Andersen & Co.,which uses four different services, averages about 250 orders a day, accordingto Carloss Chavarria, the accounting firm`s operations manager. ``On busydays, such as April 15, we may do 300 or 400 orders,`` he says.

Video and film postproduction companies, publishers, newspapers, talentagencies, photographers and design studios also rely on bike messengersevery day. Computer parts and just about anything under 10 pounds can besent by bike.

The messengers, though, usually do not know what they`re transporting--theirjob is simply to pick up and deliver. When they do find out, though, itcan be a shocker. Dave Janis, a Cannonball dispatcher who worked the streetsfor five years, once picked up a box at the First National Bank of Chicago,put it into his bicycle basket and blithely made several other stops, notrealizing that there was $30,000 in singles neatly packaged and stackedinside the carton. Someone had made a mistake, though: Messengers, as amatter of policy, do not transport cash.

They don`t carry contraband either-not in Chicago. But in New York anenterprising soul used bike messengers to run a $30,000-a-day drug operationthat delivered marijuana anywhere in Manhattan. Before he was busted, theentrepreneur, one Michael Cesar, the self-styled ``Pope of Pot,`` woulddispatch a biker with marijuana after a customer placed an order on histoll- free line, 1-800-WANT-POT.

The rigors and frustrations of the job, which also include waiting forslow elevators and dealing with imperious security guards, not surprisinglycontribute to a high turnover rate. That fact, coupled with the reluctanceof some firms to reveal employee counts, makes it difficult to accuratelycalculate the number of bike messengers in Chicago. Estimates, though,range from at least 400 to as many as 600 or 700. Only a comparative handfulare women.

The maximum number of deliveries in a day for most hard-core messengersis generally considered to be in the 60s. But Cannonball`s George Christensen,who has been riding three to four days a week for a year and a half, mighthold the one-day record with 73.

``It was a complete fluke,`` Christensen says. ``I think I worked 11hours.`` He was already having ``a really good day,`` he says, when hemade one pickup that entailed having to deliver press releases to 24 differentstops.

Speed, quite obviously, is key, and a number of companies claim to bethe fastest. Two, Velocity and Deadline Express, guarantee 30-minute serviceand treat every order as such unless one-hour service, which is cheaper,is specified. Velocity`s half-hour rate of six dollars is the lowest inthe city. Deadline charges $6.50. These rates apply only in the downtownarea.

All of this pell-mell pedaling is sure to generate an appetite, yetthere`s no such thing as lunch hour or break time in the messenger racket.When a delivery is a rush order, that doesn`t mean after you`ve finishedeating. Cannonball`s Christensen says he usually eats on the run, betweendeliveries, while he`s waiting for the dispatcher to call his number overthe radio. He always comes to work with his bag well supplied with nuts,bite-sized candy bars, fruit and sandwiches. When his food supply is depleted,he knows he can always stop by the Wacker Drive ad agency that sets outbaskets of apples for hungry passersby.

Christensen`s eating habits and health consciousness may be more theexception than the rule. Most bike messengers tend to be junk-food junkiesrather than health-food freaks, so most opt for the fast and cheap.

``Everything downtown is expensive,`` says one delivery man, ``so Iusually just grab a dog, a burger or a beef sandwich. I can`t think aboutwhat I`m going to eat for lunch at 6:30 in the morning, let alone makeit.``

The weather? The worse, the better, the real pros assert-it means theday will be all the more lucrative. Bad weather usually does not affectthe demand (for deliveries), but invariably it will influence the supply(off messengers). ``When it rains,`` Christensen says, ``it means the dispatcherswill be calling my number more often, which means I`ll be making more money.``

Inclement weather, seasoned riders say, separates the men from the boys.Only the hard-core courier can wake up in the morning and smile at thenews of an overnight blizzard or a period of heavy rain, high humidityor subzero cold.

One messenger who not only accepts the harsh realities of the streetbut seems to thrive on them in some twisted way goes by the name Rock `n`Roll (otherwise, Jonathan Elseng). The 35-year-old Rock, a man who probablyis lucky be alive, is the godfather of the hard-core messengers, the rebelrider ``with an attitude problem,`` a man well known in messenger circles.

Currently with Deadline, he has been riding for 10 winters, a measureof time used by the veterans to calculate true tenure. Hardy survivor Rockhas a steel plate in the back of his head, several pins in his right knee,scars all over his body, and he walks like a cowboy who has been on horsebacktoo long. He has fractured his skull, broken his right shoulder, his tailbone,his right ankle, both knees, both wrists and many ribs. In 1981 he wassandwiched between two buses, and both his knees were crushed. In 1987he slammed into an open car door. The edge of the door cut through severalribs, the momentum causing him to flip over the door and land under thetailpipe of a cab.

Such life-threatening experiences might cause some people to considera career change or, at least, to exercise more caution. Not Rock. ``Theyactually made me more aggressive,`` he says. ``Does Richard Petty stopracing just because he crashes? I`m a concrete cowboy riding with steelcattle.``

Gabriel Morales is another messenger notable, but for a different reason-he is arguably the fastest and the highest-paid messenger on wheels. Andperhaps the most independent. Unlike 99 percent of his brethren, he doesn`twork for a messenger company.

After a period of dues-paying-3 1/2 years with Cannonball, a year eachwith Metro Express and On Time Couriers Ltd. and a short stint with DeadlineExpress-Morales approached the owner of a graphics firm about being itssole, private messenger.

Though skeptical at first, Chuck Anzo, owner of Anzo Graphics, finallyagreed, and Morales has been riding for the company exclusively for thelast year and a half.

Many of Anzo`s deliveries are urgent and on a deadline, requiring immediateattention and expeditious transport.

Handed one such envelope recently, one destined for a client in theAmoco Building, Morales bolted through the glass doors of Anzo`s officesat LaSalle and Chicago. Mounted on one of his dozen or so bikes, he burneda zigzag trail south on LaSalle, east on Illinois, blowing through theintersection while casually sipping a can of 7-Up, steering with one hand,his head cocked toward the sky. Then it was south again, on State, wherehe dismounted and carried his bike down a flight of stairs to continueeast on Hubbard, then south on Lower Wabash. Dismounting again, he climbedanother flight of stairs to emerge from behind the Wrigley Building, thenhe headed south on Michigan, east on Wacker and south on Stetson Driveto 200 E. Randolph, the Amoco Building, where he hopped off his still-rollingbike, swung it against a pole, secured it with a black U-shaped lock andmoved through the revolving glass doors.

Walking through a lobby filled with businessmen and women in pin-stripedsuits, Morales, wearing black Nike leggings, a blue Gore-tex windbreaker,lightweight mountain boots, fingerless gloves and his helmet and bag, deliveredthe goods.

That one delivery was worth $5 to Morales, which may not sound likea lot, but it is at least a dollar more than he`d receive working for amessenger firm. As an independent contractor, he keeps 100 percent of whathe bills the graphics firm, minus taxes.

Morales` personal quota is 40 runs a day, although he has no controlover how many he will get. But 40 at $5 each is $200 a day, or $1,000 aweek. Some weeks, however, aren`t that lucrative. In fact, during the lastsix months, Morales, because of the recession and other business fluctuations,has had weeks that were worth only a couple of hundred dollars.

Some of that income, of course, must be invested in his rolling stock.The day he was first hired as a messenger, Morales borrowed $13 to buya heavy old bike from a thrift store. His most recent purchase, though,was an $800 Cannondale mountain bike that can be lifted, literally, withtwo fingers.

Successful or not, Morales is still vulnerable to his occupation`s hazards.Last February he was hit by a car doing about 30 miles an hour. It wasdark, the car had no lights, and Morales, riding south on North Wells Street,had run a red light at West Ontario. The impact lifted him and his bikeonto the hood of the car and carried them almost a block away, where hewas dumped back onto the street when the car abruptly stopped. Amazingly,he suffered only minor cuts and bruises. But it could have been different:A large four-inch chunk of plastic was missing from his helmet.

``These things are 90 bucks a pop,`` he says, incredulously, ``and thatwas the third one in six months.``

Yes, Morales concedes, the world of the bicycle messenger is ``not foreverybody. I`ve got three kids to support. If I could make the kind ofmoney I`m earning as a messenger sitting behind a desk, I would.``

But not all would agree. ``It`s the greatest job in the world,`` saysa fellow man of the street. ``I hope I`m doing it until I`m 50. The onlyother thing I`d really like to be is a stuntman.``


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