Mess Media




You're Killing Me!

by Joe Hendry

Mess Media, September 22, 2010

Toronto Winter

Appreciation is something I rarely experience on the road. I show up every day ready to ride hard in every imaginable weather condition and under any circumstance. In one sense it is understandable. There is little time for appreciation because as soon as I complete one job there may be a more important one already waiting.

Deliver or die. It doesn’t matter if it’s bad weather, traffic, mechanical problems or any other extraordinary circumstance. The client does not care.  They want their package right away; otherwise they would probably call UPS or FedEx.

Although customers seldom admit it, they often rely on the bike messenger to be their hero. They need someone to keep them from going to jail or someone to save them from losing millions of dollars or someone to make up for all the inefficiencies, office politics and  procrastinations that led them dangerously close to missing a major deadline.

Now it’s all on me, the bike messenger. If I succeed it is expected and I am on to the next tag immediately. If something goes wrong, I’m expected to fix it. I’m the fall guy. If the client had the wrong address, or the wrong contact name, it doesn’t matter. I will be expected to spend some time trying to fix the problem and save the client. Some companies will charge extra for the time, others will not. Most will charge some of the time but ultimately I will not know if I will be paid for my extra time and effort until long after the tag is complete.

I face these types of situations day after day, sometimes many times in the same day. In winter and especially in bad weather they become more frequent. Jack Kugelmass, an anthropologist, in Natural History magazine, accurately wrote that "bad weather sets the stage for the heroic aspects of messengering.”  Snow storms, freezing rain, blistering cold and wind, any bad weather empties people from the streets of Toronto.  Everyone hides indoors or they use the underground tunnels that join the office towers in the downtown core. In bad weather, I rarely see people outside. I may catch a glimpse of them through windows or in cars but they don’t seem real. It is like watching them on TV. Everyone inside avoids the reality of bad weather outside and for the few people that do venture outside special precautions are sometimes necessary.

Bad weather means good business for bike messengers. Office workers never deliver packages themselves in a storm.  Snow slows down the car drivers as they are paralyzed by gridlocked traffic or their cars won’t start and when they do they often slide off the roads or into each other. Bad weather means the car dispatchers make excuses to customers for late packages but not the bikers. We are forced to handle calls that the cars cannot.  If our packages are late, it is not due to the weather it is due to the overwhelming volume of work.

I love working in bad weather, especially snow storms. I have had a whole week of poor earnings saved by one storm. One week I had the flu so bad I stopped and slept for an hour in the lobby of 150 Bloor Street West. Although I don’t like to take pills, I popped Tylenol every four hours attempting to keep my temperature down and my sinuses open.  By the time I dragged myself home at the end of the day I didn’t care about the money I was losing. I didn’t care about the pride I had in my job. All I wanted was relief and the only relief was sleep.

Queen and Leslie

In a couple of days I regained my strength, determined to earn back all the money my sickness had cost me. The forecast was calling for snow so I left my house early at about 7:30 in the morning and turned on my radio. I was living on Alton Road just east of Leslie Street at Queen Street East. As I turned right on to Queen Street I rode through a trace of broken glass. I reached down with my gloved right hand and gently held it against the front tire to brush away any glass that may have embedded itself in my tire. I lowered my head to monitor my hand against the moving wheel. Just as I raised it back up - BAM! I was airborne over the hood of a red Honda Accord and landed on its front windshield.

The Honda had turned on to Queen from the side street ahead. The driver was driving on the wrong side of the road intending to merge into traffic on the right side of the road. He didn’t see me. Fortunately we were both moving at slow enough speeds that his front windshield only cracked and did not break. I was in shock. Not only was I alive but other than a few bruises and a sore head, I seemed to be fine. My bike took most of the impact.  My front wheel looked like a metal pretzel and my front fork was squished against the frame of my blue Gardin road bike.

As I climbed down from the car fuming, the driver of the Honda got out of his car and he was already apologizing. It confused me. Drivers never apologize. I didn't know what to do or say. His behaviour was so foreign that I was completely disarmed and all my anger left my body. I was so grateful for the apology I told the driver not to worry about it and I trustingly wrote down his contact information.  I called my dispatcher, George, over the radio to let him know what happened and I lugged my bike the short distance home.

By the time I reached home, I had a message on my phone from my boss, Frank, the owner of the courier company.

 “I’m glad you’re OK but I need to you to come in today and walk for me... We are going to be very busy. Call me.”

I may have still been in shock from the accident but the message didn’t surprise me.  Frank started his company from scratch.  He put a lot of his time into it. His company meant everything to him. His workers did not.

Frank had a Jekyll and Hyde personality that was driven by the stress of the business. During the work day he was extremely high strung and he panicked quite easily. Many times when I was in the office waiting for work, I witnessed him impatiently grab the headset from the dispatcher’s head to scream into the radio.  At the end of the working day his personality completely changed. He was calm, relaxed and friendly.

I didn’t call Frank back. I wasn’t about to spend the entire day working on foot when I had my backup bike, the orange Peugeot road bike ready and waiting.  I pulled it out of my storage closet, checked it over and headed back out to the road.

Frank was right it was very busy. The snow started around ten o’clock and as the roads and sidewalks became snow covered, the calls came faster and more frequent. After an hour of snow we were one biker down. “Two-zero” Pete dropped the key to his u-lock down the gap in between an elevator and its door. His bike was locked outside and his spare key was at home in Etobicoke, more than an hour’s bike ride away. Pete was forced to walk the rest of the day.

Streetcar in the snow

Later that morning “Four-six” Dave fell outside the TD Centre and hurt his back. He bravely worked the rest of the day determined to survive the excruciating back pain.

By this time it was so busy that Frank sent our dispatcher, George out on the road in a car to help the drivers cover the work. It meant that Frank would take over dispatching the bikes. He ran a successful courier business. He was a former driver and he knew the city well but Frank wasn’t a very good dispatcher. Often I dreaded hearing him call my number.

 “Let’s see. Let’s... go... to.... number…..” He would pause there as he looked over the dispatch board and I would say to myself “please don’t say one-twelve, any number but one-twelve.”

More often than not, it seemed like he would continue with “One-twelve Joe, where are you?”

But my answer would be irrelevant as Frank would dispatch me the call he had had in his hand. It didn’t matter where I was or where I was going, he reasoned, because I could always pass it off later. Although I would never get a chance to pass it off.

Busy days can be chaotic and stressful. Calls come from everywhere. Everything is urgent and everything changes quickly. On days like that I try to find a rhythm. Whether it is riding through traffic or planning my route, anything that might smooth the chaos and offer some predictability. A few moments of predictability in a hectic day are like an office worker’s coffee break. Only for a messenger, they are not a break from work but merely a break from chaos.

It is much more difficult to find my rhythm when Frank dispatches because he is so unpredictable. When he dispatches I avoid the radio and I try to go into the office as often as possible so that I might see what calls he has and suggest which ones would go with the packages I already have in my bag. I often write down my next few stops so he can see where I am headed. It worked much better for me.

Queen St snow

I found my moments of rhythm and I was flying, picking and dropping, dropping and picking. It was so busy that I was never able to empty my bag. Shortly after lunch I came down from Eglinton with a full bag of deliveries for the core. I was heading south on University Avenue approaching Gerrard Street with my first drop of the run, a super hot for 20 Queen Street West. I was standing on my pedals when my right crank arm snapped. My chest slammed down on the crossbar, my chin hit the handlebars and I scraped my right calf on the broken crank arm. My bike fishtailed on the street and I dug my shoes in to the ground scraping into a Fred Flintstone stop.

 “Not again” I thought to myself. How much can my body take in one day or one week? I put the broken crank with the pedal still attached into my bag and I pedaled with one leg down to 20 Queen Street. “Five-Four” Greg was sitting outside and he started laughing when he saw me approach.

I stopped and called in over the radio to tell Frank what happened. In anticipation of Frank’s reaction Greg moved his arms to mimic an explosion.

Frank’s voice came back over the radio.

 “One twelve Joe, my friend. …first you get sick, then you get hit by a car and now your bike is broken”

His voice was calm. Perhaps he was concerned for me. For a second I imagined he was going to thank me for my determination, my effort and my hard work this week. Finally I would get some appreciation!

Instead he screamed “YOU’RE KILLING ME! You need to take better care of yourself and your bike. I need you to keep going and fix your bike later.”

Both Greg and I burst in to laughter.  I rode the next few hours in the snow storm with one leg on one pedal and crank.