Bicycle Couriers In Love With Life On Mean Streets

By Peter Cheney

TORONTO STAR, February 1993

They live the life you may have dreamed of but never had the courageor foolish disregard to try: Out on the fringe, up on the pedals, lungspumping, eyes and ears keen to a thousand dangers.

The life of the bicycle courier .... You have a primal dream about it:Living by your own skill and cunning, like a gladiator in the Roman amphitheatre,surrounded by fat and decadent citizens who have never known the highsand low of unrestricted experience.

You stride on muscled thighs through offices filled with suited drones,then take to the streets your natural element. You go to the parties thestraights never hear about, develop muscles they have never known, andyes, they're all thinking it: You have the kind of sex they would givetheir fortune for.

And you don't wear a tie, either.

It's 10 a.m. at the Breadspreads restaurant on Temperance St., justoff Yonge. Outside there are more than a dozen bicycles parked in the snow,an eclectic mechanical collection made up of scavenged parts, some withframes wrapped with black hockey tape, some with fenders lashed on withwire, one with a skull-and-crossbones sticker.

Inside, the pilots of this funny squadron sit at the red Formica tables,taking a respite at the restaurant that is, from Monday to Friday, oneof the city's premier bicycle courier hang-outs.

The place has the mildewed ambience of a Haight-Ashbury coffeehousevisited during the Summer of Love. Gray planes of smoke hang in the air,a mossy fan spins in its beaten frame, and Cream's "White Room"is playing.

Already, there is a good crowd, dressed in the barbarous finery thathas become the hallmark of the courier, a wild melee of fabrics and hairthat give the room the look of a gypsy encampment or an urban Road Warriorset.

Some wear the Spandex tights and nylon jackets of racing cyclists, whileothers opt for torn hockey sweaters, Mexican ponchos or perhaps cut-offthermal underwear worn beneath pants with the seat torn out, giving anunrestricted view of the hind quarters and delivering an unspoken messageto following drivers.

And why not? It's a combat zone out there.

Craig Rass, for example, has just finished taking a ride on the hoodof a cab that T-boned him on the sidewalk near the Sheraton Centre.

Rass saw it coming and absorbed the energy of the crash by leaping onto the hood, like a matador riding a bull. With his free hand he held uphis bike, his money-maker

Now Rass is calmly reflecting on the morning's excitement: "Nobig thing," he says. It happens. You worry about that stuff all thetime, you better do something else for a living,"

Rass is 29. Heís been a courier for six or seven years now. He wearsa red pirate headband and jeans flecked with chain grease. He spends hisnights playing bass in a band called Boozass. He took a hiatus from courieringa few years ago by taking a job in a dark- room. But soon be was back onthe street.

"It started getting to my head," he says "You spend allday in the dark, then you come out and it's dark again. When you ride you'reout in the light.

"This is the life. You can be outdoors. You can be whoever youwant to be. All you have to do is make the deliveries."

Where else could you hang out with so many different people? Acrossthe room is a muscled young courier with a fresh wound in his cheek andthe antsy, hormone-ridden look of a thrash- metal guitarist. His thighsbulge like a centaur's. He's slugging back an Export and chain-smokingPlayers Navy Cut cigarettes.

At the next table there's a young courier sporting a huge set of dread-locks,a monstrous woolly carapace that no helmet could ever hope to cover.

"You come here, nobody judges you," says a courier who hasjust arrived. "Nobody cares how much money you have. You're just whoyou are, Anyone can fit in here."

Standing by the cash register is a rider known only as Art. Accordingto courier legend, he was once a professor of chemical engineering butgravitated into the courier trade after a nervous breakdown.

This seem plausible: Art resembles the eccentric doctor from the movieBack To The Future, right down to his white, blown-back hair the look ofa man who has just staggered away from a chemistry lab explosion.

His face is in constant, silent contortion, as though he were holdinga raging argument behind soundproof glass, His age could be anywhere between40 and 70. Every minute or so, Art slaps himself hard in the face.

"Hey, it's the sound of one hand and drinking that coffee too"

Art is" also famous for his refusal use bicycle locks, an act ofhopeless defiance that ranks up there with NHL, goalies refusing to wearface masks.

"He just parks it," says a rider. "No lock. Nothing.He loses a lot of bikes."

John Zeidman is 21. He used to work in the parts department of a motorcycledealership and a bar, but nine months ago he decided to become a courier,He's been hit by cars three times since then.

The money sucks," says Zeidman. "But it's a great job're outdoors. You stay in shape... being a disillusioned, GenerationX kind of person, it's nice to do something that's environmentally friendly,that isn't blowing a hole in the ozone or anything.

But there's a lot of people who think we're nuts. We're a misunderstoodrace, man."

Dwayne White, 26, came to Toronto from Newfoundland to play in a rockband and become a pilot. He studied sculpture and painting at the NovaScotia College of Art and Design. But he's working as a courier. He ridesa beaten mid-'70s vintage Peugeot 10- speed he picked up for $100.

"Itís outdoors," he says of his trade. "Back to the landyou might say. Too bad it's all concrete.

He takes a laid-back approach to couriering: There are guys doing 50miles a day. Not me. I might see St. Clair Ave. twice a week"

Bob Byers is 46. He used to be a bookbinder and earned $22 an hour,but quit after an 18-month strike and became a courier.

"I lost 20 pounds the first two weeks," he says. I love thisjob. I love being outdoors, and l love the people. The people are great.Ninety-nine per cent of them are naturally nice. And they all like me becauseI'm old.

"Byers smokes Export A's as he speaks "Itís weird isnĎt it?I bet 90 per cent of the riders smoke. Why is that? You got me, Maybe it'sthe stress"

Lynne Bachelor, 24, is one of a handful of female couriers who workin Toronto, She knows the other women riders, if not by name:

"Let's see... thereís the blonde, thereís the dark-haired one,then there's the freako bag-lady....

"Bachelor has been riding for about 18 months.

I was working for a landscaper doing interlocking bricks. I was racingbikes, and I just sort of slipped into this, I guess... You've got to havethe right attitude, You've got to be independent...I used to work in retailand stuff. I couldn't stand having a boss.

"The thing about this is, itís never boring. It's's different everyday. But it's a dead end. What do you do when you write your resume? Whatdo say I've been out riding around on a bike for four years?"

The St. Valentine's Day Massacre is the biggest courier race of theyear. Like the others, it is a clandestine affair, known only to the couriersand their closest friends so as to avoid the unwelcome presence of thepolice.

The police would no doubt crimp the eventís rare style: The racers gatherat 9 p.m. in front of The Silver Shack, a Kensington Market bar and restaurant,several preparing for the gruelling time ahead by passing around a fragrantjoint the size of a Cuban cigar.

The street is filled with snow and sheets of glare ice, but dozens ofriders tool around as if they were on a parking lot in summer, wheelingand spinning like acrobats.

Last year's Massacre champ, Joe Dias, is on hand, wearing tights anda jesterís tricorn hat. Dias has the lean, muscled look of a coyote, andwarms up by sprinting up and down the street, performing effortless brake-standspulling on the front brake so hard that the rear wheel rises into the air.

Tonight it's anybodyís race," Dias says. "But I'm ready.

As always, the course has been kept secret, and is announced only atthe start of the race. This fakes out the police and forces riders to usetheir ingenuity.

"It's not just about being fast," says Dias, "It's aboutfiguring out short-cuts."

And they're off, sprinting away into the darkness, moving at more than50 km/h (31 mph) over the ice and snow, hooting and yelping like a packof jackals nipping at the flanks of a wildebeest.

The race will cover more than 25 kilometres (15 miles). Dias will winfor the second year in a row. But who's counting? At the finish line anotherstogie-sized joint is fired up and beers are cracked.

Fear looms on the bike courierís psychic horizon, a dark angel thatmust be kept at distant bay.

According to government statistics, there are about 4,000 bicycle crashesa year in Ontario. But you can't dwell on that. Instead, you must believethat death or maiming are not your karma, that you are not to be the onewho shall be mowed down by a cab, T-boned by a van or strained throughthe grille of an oncoming truck.

You must believe that you are the charmed one, the one who will eludeall dangers, the one who will find away to deke out of every crisis.

If your psychological armour cracks, you start having nightmares aboutlunatic cabs and trucks with no brakes. And when that day comes, your daysas a courier are numbered.

Brad Burgess,, been thinking about that. He's been working as a courierfor a year and a half. He dresses like a bicycle racer and looks fit andhealthy, the kind of guy you'd see at the Golden Grain health food storebuying a tub of natural-culture yogurt.

But within, a kernel of anger and fear has taken root.

I'm kind of in the middle of denial and acceptance," says Burgess,"If you think about all the things that could happen, you won't beable to work. But let's face it: You can get killed."

Brad recently had two courier friends taken out when a cube van pulledout in front of them as they turned.

It can get to you," says Burgess. "Man, the stuff that driversdo is just unbelievable! They make one stupid move and you get whacked.You know what they could do to save everyone a lot of trouble? They coulduse their turn signals! Thatís all they'd have to do lift their fingerand put on the signal! But they can't even do that. It's too much troublefor them!

"People do something that's their fault, then they get out andstart screaming at you.... It can really blow your mind. I've lost it sometimes.I've yelled at and not even realized what I was saying. I've learned whattemporary insanity really means. I can relate to people who plead that."

A courier must be in a constant state of high-tuned awareness, keento a thousand dangers and their subtle clues the slight movement of a driver'shead that precedes an unsignalled turn, the textural changes that reveala hidden ice patch, even the fat tires and hood scoops that tip off a testosterone-crazedstreet warrior.

And then there is the constant surveillance of parked cars, watchingfor a door opening the courier equivalent of the anti-personnel mine. Onceyou've hit one at 30 km/h (18 m.p.h.) or so youíll never feel the sameagain.

Lately, Burgess keeps having this fantasy: He has torn off a car doorwith his bare hands. He holds it up like a shield, and car drivers arefired into it, like human cannonballs, one after the other, You start thinkingstuff like that," says Burgess, "well, itís not a healthy sign."

The late l980s were a golden age for bicycle couriers. Business wasbooming, and fax machines still cost a fortune. Then, a top rider couldearn as much as $1,000 a week, and plenty were pulling in $700, Now theyírelucky to make $350.

"It's a dying way of life," says one rider, You work and youwork and you don't make a damn thing. In the old days business people wouldpay $80 just to get something across town in an hour. Cost was no object.Now, they just say to hell with it, tomorrow's soon enough.

"We're like the pony express. Some day there won't be any moreof us, We'll just be a memory. So the way I look at is, I'm going to enjoyit while I can."

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