I was a New York City Bike Messenger

Five Days as a Rough Rider in The Big Apple's Hard Corps

Bicycling Magazine, March 1990

By Don Cuerdon

Wednesday, September 27, 8:52 a.m. - It's nearly October butthe temperature this morning is already close to 80 degrees (with 100%humidity) as New York City suffers the atmospheric anomalies created bythe passing of Hurricane Hugo. My shoes have been wet for 2 days. Littlegeysers squirt from the vent holes with each pedal stroke. As I crest the59th Street Bridge on my daily commute to Manhattan from my sister's placein Queens, I see the city sprawled below me. It seethes like a dragon inrepose - mist enshrouded, dirty, wheezing with acrid, sulphuric breath.

There comes a day in many a life when the dragon must be faced. Slayor be slain.

For a New York City bike messenger, that day is every day.

9:03 a.m. - "Yo, man. It's Dondo. I'm 59th and 2nd and I'mempty." I shoot into the telephone in a machine gun staccato. Theadrenaline is already flowing and I want to get on the road. You don'tmake any money in this business by standing still.

"Well, well. You're picking up the lingo pretty fast for a rookie,"says Wayne the dispatcher. But that's it for the morning greetings. Timeis money. "Okay, I've got two for you."

Wayne gives me the addresses of the pickups and their destinations.Both are uptowns headed downtown. My nose is already dripping sweat asI write the slips.

"Talk to me before you go below 42nd." says Wayne. The line'sdead before I can say, "Okay."

This is my third day on the job, and I'm fortunate in a lot of ways.I'm not dead. I still have my bike. and I'm working for Rough Riders Messengers,Inc., a top-notch delivery service that doesn't normally hire rookies.

If I'd come to New York without press credentials in pursuit of theclassic yuppie cyclist's dream "chucking it all" and becominga bike messenger I'd most likely be working for some sweat shop deliveryservice with lots of sleazy clients in the garment district. But RoughRiders's clientele is at the other end of the business spectrum doctors,travel agents, stockbrokers...nice. respectable folks.

If, like most other journalists, I'd only ridden for a day and thenwritten a first-person account of the messenger's life, it would be a muchlighter tale of frolicking in traffic and playing outlaw than the storyyou're about to read.

It's a quick trip down 2nd to 55th but more happens in these 4 blocksthan during an entire week in the sleepy Vermont town where I live.

Trucks, buses, taxis, pushcarts, and cars are vying for space and tyingthe traffic in knots. I weave an intricate pattern around them on my trustycyclocross bike while dodging car doors, jaywalkers, and the innumerablesteel plates that act as "temporary pothole patches. These platesare slicker than ice when wet, and this morning they're still glazed fromyesterday's monsoon. I'd almost rather take my chances with the potholes.

Lower Manhattan (below Houston Street) is a convoluted, unpredictabletangle of narrow streets established long before New York was a unitedstate. Some streets are so short they can be circumnavigated in a matterof blocks. I know. I circled Orchard Street 3 times on Monday and got caughtin a street fair before I figured out where it was.

Upper Manhattan (above Houston) is laid out in a well planned easy-to-followgrid. The avenues increase from east to west (with the exception of a fewthat bear names) and the numbered cross streets increase from south tonorth. With practice, you can nearly pinpoint avenue and cross-street coordinatesfrom address numbers. Fortunately, Wayne's taken pity on me and is doinghis best to keep me busy with uptown work.

I spot the address on 55th; look for a good parking place. Street signsare best. They're cemented to the sidewalk and too tall to lift a lockedbike over. Parking meters are easily beheaded by thieves who then liftthe bike off the post, toss it in a van, and drive away to compromise thelock at their leisure

I lock up and dig into my black Manhattan Portage shoulder bag for theslip, I've written "C D- man." This means seethe door man. aneasy pickup. I don't have to sign in, get a building pass, hustle an elevator,banter with a receptionist, track down an executive, or parry other suchdelays.

The D-man gives me an envelope, calls me "sir" (you calleda lot of things in this biz, but rarely "sir"), and I'm backon my bike in less than a minute, headed crosstown for my next pickup.

Bike messengering is a straight commission job. Messengers get paidby the delivery, not by the hour, so speed is of the essence. Commissionsvary among companies and are sometimes commensurate with experience. Therange is typically 40 to 60% of all the business you do. Rough Riders ispaying me 55%.

So the name of the game is volume. But you don't get volume with bruteforce and ignorance. Fast bike riding is only half of the success equation.You need to be quick with your locking procedure and know the best waysin and out of buildings. You need to know which elevators are fast andhow many floors to send one up when you step off (so you can grab it againon the way down). And you don't do volume by picking up a single package,delivering it, then getting another, It's best to pick up a bunch of itemsat one end of town, deliver them to the other side of the city, get a bunchof pickups there, and so on.

This is where a good dispatcher can make or break you. It's a 2-waystreet. You do good work get things where they're going on time and ingood condition and he'll make sure you've got plenty of it. Screw up orcop a bad attitude and you wonít be getting those sweet pickups anymorelike the big office buildings where you might score 12 at once.

A rookie can average about 15 deliveries a day and gross roughly $350for a 5-day work week. Thatís serious poverty by New York standards, wherea converted broom closet in a crack house rents for $550 a month you survivethe first 2 years you'll be doing about 25 deliveries a day for $500 to$600 a week. The best messengers are rumored to make $800 to $1000 withthe weekly record some where around $1,400.

Rumor also has it that surviving the first 2 years isn't as hard assurviving the first 2 weeks. Messengering is a lot like combat. If you'regoing to "get it will probably happen in the first couple of weeks.Unfortunately I'm both a rookie and a short timer. Two days down. 3 togo.

By noon I've made 7 deliveries. I'm on pace for a good week. But onmy next call Wayne says, "Come on down to the office and meet someof the gang. I've been so enthraled with making runs that I forgot I waswriting a story. But at that point I'll welcome any excuse to get off thestreet, reduce my exposure. and increase my chances for survival.

I'm cruising south on Park Avenue with limos and taxis that are cartingtheir precious yuppie cargo (safely insulated from the mean streets) intothe financial district for a day of pillage and plunder.

That's when I spot him. The real McCoy.

From out of nowhere, this African-American dude on a fixed-gear bikereplete with cowhorn handlebar and no brakes cruises into my peripheralvision. When I turn my head to look at him. I see lots of jangley chainsaround his neck, a black beret on his head, a few dreadlocks peeking fromunderneath, and a brass whistle poised in his lips.

The look he gives me says, "What you doin' on my road, you dimestore honky cowboy? Then he cuts left around a braking taxi and dodgesthe opening rear door. (Park Avenue yuppies are really into flinging theirdoors open.) I avoid it, too, and take up the pursuit.

There's a funkiness to his style. We're riding the lane marker in midtraffic,yet he seems completely at ease, swooping side-to-side to scrub off littlebits of speed, and jumping the rear wheel every so often, backpedalingslightly in a skip-skip-skip motion when more braking is needed.

I'm severely outclassed and he drops me easily. I watch as he swoopsonto a side street and disappears several blocks ahead.

Like rock musicians, truck drivers and cowboys, bike messengers enjoya certain outlaw mystique. A lot of it comes from the early days of bikemessengering, back in the late 70s when guys like the one I chased werethe norm and not the exception. Thatís when bikers established their "turf" in New Yorkís traffic.

In those days, so the story goes, if a cabbie or trucker cut off a messengeror acted in some other aggressive fashion, the biker was likely to haulthe offensive driver out of his vehicle and beat him within an inch ofhis life.

Things are better now, and I've noticed more respect from other roadusers than I'd anticipated. Even jaywalkers, who'll challenge a motor vehicleof any size with nary a blink, step back on the curb when they see a bikemessenger bearing down on them. I'm enjoying this mystique-bi- association.I'm not a city kind of guy. Actually, I hate cities. And of all the citiesI hate, New York tops my fear-and-loathing list. But not on a bike. Ona bike dressed like a messenger. I'm part of the menace. I'm my own worstnightmare. And it's a blast!

At Grand Central Station. I take 45th to 2nd Avenue and continue south.On my first trip down 2nd on Monday. I noticed how dirty the street was.Besides the common garden variety litter, dirt and oil, there's animal(and maybe human?) feces and empty crack vials. When it rains like it didall day Tuesday, you're immersed in this filth. It trickles down your browand into your mouth. It permanently turns any clothing a dismal gray. Anddon't make the mistake of riding behind a garbage truck. Exposure to theplume of trash water will make you smell like a fish cannery and alterthe genetic structure of your unborn children.

Left on 4th, then over 2 and 1/2 blocks past Avenue A. and I'm there207 East 4th Street the home of Rough Riders.

This Lower East Side neighborhood is more than just a little scary.Two blocks north is Tompkins Square Park, where a demonstration by homelesspeople a couple of summers ago turned into a horror show of violence. Acontroversial videotape allegedly shows policemen beating allegedly innocentbystanders. A Rough Rider is one of the alleged victims on the tape. That'sprobably how he got that alleged limp.

On Monday of this week, the New York Post's lead story told of a formerlyhomeless man who had cannibalized his girlfriend, then hid her bones ina bus station. She lived (and died) 5 blocks from here. The article describedher as a foreign exchange student who liked to take chances.

But behind the silver door at 207 East 4th is a sanctuary for the RoughRiders. Besides, who would want an outlaw hideout in a neighborhood whererespectable folks might drop in?

Inside Wayne and "Bluesy" Susie are behind the desk handlingthe phones. Wayne is company co- owner and president and has a bachelor'sdegree in small delivery services from Boston College and spent severalyears "on the road" - as messengers describe their active servicetime - before starting Rough Riders with a friend.

Wayne is a blur of caffeine and nicotine induced frenzy, punching buttons,barking orders, writing notes, puffing, slurping, puffing, slurping. He'svery good at keeping the chaos at bay. He's also the only person I've evermet who wears out telephones. The remains of his latest victim are piledon the couch behind the desk.

Susie spent 5 years on the road before burnout landed her behind thedesk. She's a mean lead guitar player ina progressive rock band, and likemost messengers, sees her life in the delivery biz as temporary detouron the road to bigger and better things. But she still has that aloof outlawair about her. Although the office interior is dimly lit by a few weakbulbs and a neon wall sculpture, she wears sunglasses so dark you can'tsee her eyes. I imagine if I could, I'd see the same thousand mile stareI'd noticed in other messengers - the kind of distant, unfocused, lookyou get from too much stimulation over too long a time. It's the starethat Green Beret's get from too many tours of duty.

Bike messengers, like homeless people, live on the fringe of society- always present but somehow invisible to humanity's mainstream. The officeis their safe house. It's a place where they can use the bathroom withoutgetting chased away, drink coffee, or have a few beers.

The Rough Riders are a hard crowd. Rick's been a messenger for 10 years.He's 45 but could easily pass for 55. He smokes a cigarette while he rides.He also likes to smoke crack once in a while.

"Isn't crack instantly addicting?" I ask him.

"Nah, I can take it or leave it." Rick claims. Somehow, Ibelieve him.

The cramped office is strewn with bike parts, oddball bulletins, obscenemagazines, newspaper clippings, maps, dead cockroaches, and bicycles. LikePony Express riders, messengers are proud of their mounts, but they knowbetter than to get attached. Some riders have lost as many as 10 bikesin 5 years to theft and damage.

The standard messenger bike is a road machine (mountain bikes are toopopular with thieves) with either a fixed gear or single free wheel (derailleursmalfunction and get stolen), narrow clincher tires, 2 brakes, and not muchelse. Bolt-on wheels are popular because you don't have to remove the frontone when locking up. Another option is to keep the rear wheel's quick releaselocked to the chainstay with a small padlock. Then you secure the frontwheel and frame with a U- lock.)

Murdoch's Bike Shop (around 45th & 9th) caters to messengers. Youcan get a serviceable ride for about $175. The left and right crankarmsmay not match, and the frame may look like it saw duty in Vietnam, butit works. Ask for "Rambo." He'll set you up.

The messenger world is rife with nicknames and pseudonyms. 'Repo' neverwent to college, but he's witty and has a penchant for comic book collecting.His long-haired visage is one of the still images in the early momentsof Quicksilver, a movie that never comes close to depicting the real livesof messengers."

"Blaze" plays electric bass and wants to start a new bandwith Bluesy Susie. When I tell him I'd like to sing vocals. he says,"Weneed a girl.""I can sing like a girl" I jest.

"Not until we make some adjustments", says Blaze. His handdisappears into a shoulder bag, there's a whirring sound of steel and I'msuddenly on the business end of a butterfly knife pointed at my genitals.The pause before we all laugh is agonizingly long.

By tomorrow night, Jan, one of the few female Rough Riders will be hospitalizedwith a spiral fracture of her tibia. The driver of the car that hit herstopped and even drove Jan and her bike to the hospital but she won't beable to collect damages because she checked in under an assumed name tobeat the bill. Most messengers don't have health insurance.

Jan will get by during the next 2 months in her ankle-to-hip cast bydoing some odd jobs and accounting around the office. Fortunately for her,Wayne takes care of his own.

Thursday, September 28, 8:45 a.m. - "Yo, YO! It's DonDo!I'm at 59th and 2nd and emptier than the mayor's head"

"Hey, hey," says Wayne. "Me and Repo were just layingodds that since you'd worked a couple days, gotten the photos done andgot you interviews, you'd be on your way home by now."

"No. I said I'd do 5 days. -Okay. Grab your pen. I've got 3 foryou."

Friday, September 29, - 7:15 a.m. This is my fourth breakfastof coffee and ibupfofen this week. My swollen knees can barely supportmy weight as I stagger down flights of stairs to the street. I've got about10 minutes of easy spinning along Roosevelt Avenue before I'm back in theheavy traffic on Queens Boulevard.

Sprint and recover. Sprint and recover. Working as a messenger is harderthan any stage race I've ever done. Although I'd guess I'm only riding30 to 40 miles a day, it's all sprinting. You never get a chance to shakethe crud out of your legs. And at 7 p,m., after 10 or 11 hours on the road.I'm not in the mood for more bike riding, even if it would help my recovery.

There s hardly any time in the day to eat or drink, I just go. ThenI drag myself home, shower, eat, and drink as much as I can, trying tobeat back the overexertion insomnia with lethal doses of Ballantine Ale.It's not a health-and-fitness lifestyle. We do it for the money. We doit for the lack of structure. We're outlaws.

I look in my bag. I'm out of slips. Perhaps an omen. Something's notright with the traffic, too. The escape holes and common courtesies I'dfound earlier in the week have given way to some sort of pressure cookeranxiety. I m gonna get it today, I know I am.

Yo, man. I'm out of slips and headed for the office," I tell Waynefrom the coinbox.

After a careful cruise down 2nd, I collect my slips but can't quitemake it out the door. Wayne has runs on the desk and asks if I want any.I keep dawdling. I'm scared. I want to do 5 days, but I've made it through4 without a mishap. The odds are against me.

"Hey man," says Wayne, "You're a short-timer. If youdon't want to go out there today, I'll understand."

Itís enough to keep me inside, but I still feel like a wimp until Rickarrives. He's got the willies, too, and never makes it back out the door.Then Blaze shows up after making only a few runs. Like jungle animals,messengers survive by instinct.

So we hang out and swap war stories. Rick drinks 14 beers be tween 1:30and 5. Blaze and I join him after the first dozen. the feeling that Rick'sjust warming up for Friday night.

Blaze is bummed because he has to vacate the "squat" (unoccupiedapartment) he's in and move to another this weekend that has no runningwater. Repo has housing problems, too. He's got 8 days to move out of theapartment he's lived in for 8 years.

But soon we're too blitzed to worry about much of anything and I startmy last, long, wobbly commute home in the dark. I pause at the highestspan of the 39th Street Bridge to urinate into the river I wonder if thefirst drops will hit the water before the last drops leave my bladder.

Below me the dragon sleeps.

"I'm alive," I say to the beast. -Let s call it a draw."

Epilogue

Monday, October 2, 10:15 a.m. - "Yo, man. It s Dondo. I'mat the corner of South Road and Ames Hill Road in Marlboro."

[A brief pause.] -What's the matter?" says Wayne. Bored with thecountry life already?" "Nah. I just wanted to see if you werebusy. Got any runs on the desk?

-Yup. But you wouldn't be asking if you weren't hooked. This stuff getsin your blood.- says Wayne.

-I m having trouble writing this one up. It's too close to home, ifyou know what I mean." Hey man, says Wayne. -Call it like you sawit.

So I did.


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