My first gig after I graduated college was with IBM, in the Office Product division, in Rockville, MD. The Office Products division sold typewriters, and copiers. When IBM introduce their first home computer, the IBM PC, in August 1981, the company reorganized to create two system divisions, and sold off the Office Products division. As a result, I was laid off. I collected unemployment for a couple of months, and hung out at the Bethesda, MD community pool. One day, a roommate, Tom Dunham, gave me a Natural History (magazine) with this article about bicycle messengers in NYC. I was so intrigued by the concept, that I searched out, and discovered, that Washington, DC also had a thriving bicycle messenger community. I rode as a messenger from 1982-1985. Best job I ever had.

Pick from the Past
Natural History, August 1981

I’d Rather Be a Messenger

New York City’s bicycle messengers prefer the independence
and excitement of dodging traffic to the routine of a nine-to-five job.

I’m speeding across town, weaving in and out of traffic. I’ve already done sixteen runs. Good messengers do twenty-five, but I’ll settle for twenty. I’m tired, and it’s late. But I’m trying for that magic number. So I pedal harder. I’m pushing, trying to reach the front of the line of traffic. As I move up to take the lead, I no longer feel tired. My mind is working fast, checking out openings. I hug the curb, keeping clear of the traffic. But I’m riding too close to construction debris: there are mounds of dry cement powder on the road. Before I realize what’s happening, the hike skids out of control. I pump the brakes but still can’t keep my balance. I can feel myself going down. The impact on the cold pavement overwhelms me. I remember there is a truck behind me, but my body won’t move. My head can turn, so I twist it backward and stare helplessly at the driver seated high above me. I feel like a conquered gladiator. The driver motions to me to lie still, not to move until I’m ready. The shock passes. I pick myself up unsteadily and walk my bicycle over to the curb. Still shaken, I get back on and begin to ride, a little slower, a little less arrogant, no longer trying for that magic number.”

So ended my first week as a bicycle messenger. I took the job in order to study bicycle messengers, but after a day or two I had become more concerned with magic numbers than with researching the story. Although it made me hesitant to continue riding, the accident on the cement powder put me back on the right path: I began to concentrate on meeting and arranging interviews with other messengers. I also began to understand the attractions of “messengering” as a way of life, particularly the romance of danger.

The 600 bicycle messengers who ply New York City’s Borough of Manhattan are a diverse group of people. They cross over class, ethnic, and racial lines, and although a small minority, there are women riders too. But all share a kinship with the heroes of the Wild West. They are romantic adventurers who prefer the exhilaration of danger to civilization’s deadening routine.

The streets of Manhattan are a frontier, a no man’s land. In the main business districts, they interrupt the flow of civilized behavior, contrasting with the sterile, almost hermetically sealed world of high-rise offices. If there are laws regulating New York City traffic, they are barely enforced. Bicycle messengers are fast and contemptuous of the rules. They intimidate pedestrians and alarm the drivers of other vehicles competing with them for space on the road. Messengers sometimes wear outlandish clothes that go well beyond what is functional attire for riding in town. Some wear gas masks to filter out particles of dirt from automobile exhaust fumes. Others wear special racing gloves from which their knuckles protrude in a vaguely menacing way. And they all have one identifying mark—an oversized bag slung behind their backs.

Bicycle messengers consider themselves part of an elite. Their sometimes stimulating and often hazardous work puts them in a different class from Manhattan’s thousands of foot messengers, who are mostly unskilled youths, mentally impaired persons, or older men, past retirement age.

Speed and maneuverability make the bicycle messenger an indispensable part of New York City’s most time-conscious and competitive industries—film and advertising. The public at large, however, gives scant recognition for the service they provide. Because messengers generally look scruffy, people respond to them accordingly.

Working conditions in the industry do not support the bicycle messengers’ sense of their elite status either. Messengers are independent contractors. They are not eligible for vacation pay, unemployment compensation, or accident insurance. Some messenger companies blatantly miscalculate paychecks. They refuse to compensate the messenger for dispatchers’ errors or they penalize riders for lateness.

Despite the drawbacks, the pay can be good. Although many messengers make less than $150 per week, good ones earn close to $250, and ace riders earn $350 or more. At least one rider, by nibbling nuts and dried fruits throughout the day and seldom stopping to rest, makes $500 a week. Good messengers do close to twenty-five runs per day. Most earn $2 per run, or about half the gross fee. Rates vary according to the distance of the run, the size and weight of the package, and whether the client requests a “rush,” that is, immediate delivery.

Using a client’s phone, a messenger checks with his dispatcher to get additional assignments. Messengers are often selective, since they profit most if the runs are close together and can be combined.

Part-time riders are almost always docked 5 percent of their week’s earnings for each work day they are absent. Thus, a rider who works one day a week receives as little as 30 percent of the delivery fee. Messenger companies encourage part-time riders, both to guarantee enough personnel to handle the volume and to lower the base rate. But the good riders, particularly the ace riders, are given preferred treatment. They receive a higher percentage of the gross and they get the most profitable runs—those that are shortest and closest to one another. At least one company tries to minimize the exploitative aspects of the industry by providing a flat rate of payment that applies to all riders. This company also provides compensation for job-related injuries and gives carte blanche to its riders to talk back to difficult clients.

Earning a good living at messengering is by no means easy. Despite a frenzied effort on my part, I was consistently unable to earn anywhere near the middle or higher income range that the better messengers earn, so I quickly abandoned any idea of messengering as a career. My age (thirty) was not a factor. Although most messengers are in their twenties, some of the better messengers are in their thirties, and a few are in their forties, fifties, or sixties. Most people who become bicycle messengers do so because they are desperate for a job, and they give the work up after a short while just as I did. Only a small proportion continue to ride on a long-term basis.

Long-term messengers share certain character traits in common. Like the heroes of the West, they are mavericks, resentful of conformity and rebelling against it. Often, they are loners who have run into trouble while pursuing more conventional careers. For them, the excitement of bicycling helps to counter the reality of defeat.

Andy is a former psychiatric social worker who abandoned his career after his plans for improving home care for patients were thwarted, he felt, by his coworkers’ lack of motivation. Andy’s boss, Hank, lost his job doing quality control research because of his disagreement with the “proper” corporate attitude. Both maintain they are unable to deal with situations that require submission to authority:

HANK: I never got along with bosses. Even when I get along with them, I never really get along with them. I always think of myself as an amiable, compliant, even somewhat passive person. But conflicts inevitably arise.

ANDY: By the way, forget it.

HANK: I’m not amiable? I’m not compliant? I’m not passive?

ANDY: No, you’re amiable. But you’re neither compliant nor passive by any means, and you know it.

Hank began working as a messenger at age forty-two. Today, eight years later, he is the owner of a rapidly growing messenger company. It is one of the few companies that are highly regarded by messengers. Hank treats his riders well, and although he frequently complains, he tolerates their eccentric or even erratic behavior, largely because he identifies with it. Andy is less tolerant of the nonconformism. His frustration results from his attempt, while working at another messenger company several years ago, to organize a union. He concluded that messengers have an almost religious devotion to their independence:

I became convinced that if you told four bicycle messengers that they would each get a thousand dollars if all four of them showed up at a particular street corner at a particular hour, thereby producing a community experience, you could be damn sure that they wouldn’t be able to do it. That they would not do it.

Sometimes messengers have left former careers for reasons other than personality conflict. Donald, a 41-year-old messenger, is able to support his wife and 15-year-old son on his earnings. Donald was a film processor, but abandoned his profession because, as a

A bicycle messenger delivers reels of film for processing. Indispensable to such time-conscious industries as film, advertising, and publishing, messengers must learn to cope with clients’ anger over late delivery.

Jehovah’s Witness, he could not condone the role he played in producing pornographic material. As a messenger, not only does he feel his conscience is clear but he can also leave work at his own discretion to devote more time to proselytizing for his creed.

Messengers relish their independence: “You basically don’t have to answer to anyone.” One former messenger, who now works as a graphic artist for a small publishing company, misses her previous life style: “When I go down the street, I’m jealous of the messengers. It’s really a lot of freedom.”

Although taxi driving is a common occupation of many New Yorkers who are unable to find work in their fields, bicycle messengers find the idea repugnant. They dread the loss of freedom and maneuverability. They take special delight in their ability to weave in and out of traffic, ride the wrong way down one-way streets, and cut through the bottlenecks that regularly stall midtown traffic. Bill, a former doctoral student in experimental psychology, compares the skills for messengering to those needed for slalom skiing:

There are a lot of things involved in moving quickly and watching the road surface and watching cars and avoiding cars. Of course, you have to react to all these things as soon as they happen, as quickly as possible. And that involves timing and slowing down and braking and so forth. And cadence, of course, that’s very important. And you’re reacting to the traffic—you have to look ahead and kind of predict where openings are going to be and where are the best places to go.

Traffic is not the only challenge messengers must face. Bicycle messengers are usually given several runs at a time. Although the dispatcher tries to assign runs that are relatively close to one another, the messenger must decide the best pickup-and-delivery sequence, calculating the seemingly illogical system of avenue addresses. Messengers have to think ahead and plan the fastest possible route through the maze of one-way streets. If a package is delivered late, it is the messenger who receives the brunt of the client’s and the dispatcher’s wrath.

There is also skill involved in maintaining the bicycle. Messengers consider their bicycles to be tools, and many devote time and effort to drying them after a rainstorm, cleaning off excess grease, and overhauling moving parts. Some have an almost spiritual relationship with their bicycles.

In the course of my work I saw dozens of messengers on track bikes: extremely lightweight racing bicycles that have been stripped of all excess parts, including brakes, gears, and derailleurs. Because the rear wheel of a track bike is “fixed”—so that the wheel and the pedals always turn together—these bicycles are commonly known as “fixes.”

Messengers are proud of their role in the city bustling economy. An increasing number ride stripped-down track bikes for an added sense of accomplishment.

They require a good deal of muscle power to ride and even more to stop because braking is done by checking the forward thrust of the pedals. Track bikes seemed ill-suited for frequent stops and starts, so I was curious why messengers would ride them. To find out, I often had to weave in and out of traffic at breakneck speed. trying desperately to keep pace with speedier riders while screaming at the top of my lungs to catch their attention. I caught up with Zowie, a 23-year-old former recording technician, during a winter rainstorm. Like many others I spoke to, he favors he track bike because he feels more in harmony with it, more a part of the bicycle. Ahdullah, a young black Muslim, uses Zen concepts to underline the value of riding a “fix”:

It’s hard. It makes your life harrowing every day. It’s part of’ Zen. You push. You flex and you push. And you tense. You realize that you’re keener after you’ve been through it. You’re a bit keener and a bit swifter and a bit more relaxed about what just might come at you in life.

One of the most difficult tasks of messengering is to maintain an element of self-control. Bicycle riders are extremely vulnerable and cannot withstand even the slightest contact with a car, let alone a serious collision. Given the difference in weight between cars and bicycles, there is no point in forcing a confrontation, no matter how provocative a taxi- or truck-driver might he. Like Ahdullah, Joe believes that the control that messengers exercise has its wider applications:

It carries over into your regular life with people. You’re able to watch people. You know what’s developing as they’re speaking to you. And you see the reasons behind it. And you don’t just react to it. You digest it and get to the reasons behind it, and talk rational.

Messengering is mentally as well as physically demanding. Messengers learn to keep an inner core of themselves alert and aware regardless of what they’re doing. They develop a sixth sense for when to focus all of their attention on the road.

Despite the apparent risk, the use of drugs, especially marijuana, is a common feature of the messenger industry. Overhearing a conversation between two riders about obtaining some hallucinogenic mushrooms, I asked them whether getting stoned on the job created any problems. Both felt that the most serious problem was the tendency to gel confused and either mix up addresses or forget a destination altogether. Another messenger joined the conversation, stating that although when he first started riding, he would not use drugs, he now believed they have beneficial effects. He described how his attitude changed:

So here it is, Friday morning, everyone’s getting paid, and whatever their bag is, they’re getting stoned. That was the first time I got stoned, you know, on the job...I remember getting on the bike, riding on the sidewalk. There’s a canopy at the end of the block, and I rode between the poles of the canopy into the street, and I felt like I was entering an arena. And all of a sudden, everything that I learned in the past month—I wasn’t even thinking along these lines—all of a sudden, everything I learned came together for me, all the traffic patterns and everything else. I had no objection to getting stoned on the job after that.

Even without the stimulation of drugs, messengering is seldom boring. The city is constantly changing, and the people who live within it are always on the move. There is also an element of chance that determines the number of runs, the location of the pickups, and the routes to the deliveries. Riding itself provides a constant thrill. Greg, a thirty-year-old actor trained at the Juilliard School, loves the speed:

I can get up to forty-live miles per hour down Second Avenue. It’s a very pure feeling, getting into the groove of riding, where you know that you’re on the road keeping pace with all these big machines that can kill you. All you have on your side are your ears—it’s a very aural job, because you hear what’s happening behind you. And you just know because of your speed and your skill, you can keep up with the cars and cabs and buses and get there faster than anybody. That’s great. That’s satisfying.

Messengers who live outside Manhattan often cycle to and from work each day. Most of them enjoy riding. As one puts it, “It sure beats working for a living.” Another, David, is nearly effusive:

On a good day, you know, there are actually times when I almost whistle while I’m working. I’m so pleased with it, I’ll say to myself, “You know, I’m riding around town. I can’t believe they’re actually paying me to do this. I’m getting exercise, the sun’s out, and there are people sitting inside offices wishing they were outside.”

The experience of joy from work contrasts sharply with the deadening quality of most work in our society. Perhaps it comes from experiencing the world directly, rather than through an office window or a car windshield, As Joe explains:

You get to greet the morning. There are all these different angles of life. I mean, the city’s beautiful. You watch it change. It’s a question of stone canyons. The light plays on them, and it’s different light all day. You know there’s a real connection with being alive, especially when you’re coming out of the offices.

Messengers have a sense of superiority over most people they come in contact with, particularly office personnel:

David writes up delivery tickets before setting out on his bicycle. With a Ph.D. in political science, he is one of many people with academic backgrounds who take delight in the Simple tasks of “messengering.”
You get a lot of secret envy, you know. They think you’re a little crazy in bad weather, but you’re free at the same time because you can stop and get off any time you want. A lot of times you’re getting treated very poorly by someone, but in the back of your mind, you know you’re making more money than they are. And you’re probably happier in what you’re doing than they are.

Long-term messengers are seldom lacking in other skills. They tend to be opt-outs rather than dropouts. Among them are Ph.D.’s and professionals, such as social workers, writers, and musicians. They are often people who are seeking other than nine-to-five jobs or are unable to fit the regimen of professions for which they trained. They have in common an uncertain future and often a past in which failure figured more prominently than success. For the latter group in particular, riding has become an important source of pride. Initially bitter and angry at not having achieved success in their careers, they find relief in the physical aspects of messengering. Cycling whips bodies into shape. “It has a sort of narcotic effect too,” Hank explained. “It drains away inner anger and frustration. It’s very hard to be angry when you’re physically exhausted.”

Messengering also offers an opportunity to complete a job: “One thing about physical work—it’s real.” Those who turned to messengering from academic work experience particular delight in doing a simple task—a delivery—and never feeling that it somehow could be done better. David was a student of political science when he turned to messengering to support himself. Today he has a Ph.D. from Columbia University, and he publishes academic articles on psychohistory and totalitarianism. But he disdains university work:

I did this one library job at Columbia where I was correcting conference papers. And I always had guilt feelings about the job because I never felt that I was doing it right. There was always more I could do. Whereas messengering, you pick it up and you deliver it. That’s it. It’s over.

Nonacademic types, such as Joe, also appreciate the detachment from responsibility:

I feel in sync with it, if you can call that satisfaction. I don’t feel anything emotional at all. It’s simple, it’s like a very simple process: bing, bing, bing, that sort of thing-like a pinball machine, bouncing off the thing. Bing the right thing, racking up the numbers; that’s exactly how I feel.

Remaining calm despite aggravation can be difficult for those who consider the job a step down from a previous position. My own sense of resentment at being treated as a messenger by clients made me all too ready to use my title, Dr., as a weapon, to shock the people I was serving. When I asked David how he dealt with the problem, he agreed that his own career expectations had, at first, made him sensitive to possible slights:

The thing I found about messengering is, if you let things like that get to you, you screw up. It’s dangerous. It’s literally dangerous. You start thinking about it. You start talking to yourself, and that’s when you lose concentration riding and you have accidents. So I found that I really have to “swallow bitterness,” as the Chinese say. And I do it pretty well. I’ll talk to myself, you know, for the length of time it takes to get down the elevator, and then I wipe it out. I go on to what I was doing before. I find that if at the end of the day I made a decent amount of money, it’s all forgotten.

The possibility of death is never far from the minds of bicycle messengers. Most long-term riders have seen other cyclists seriously injured on the road. Although he dismisses the gravity of most injuries, Bob, the manager of Hank’s messenger company, says there are two kinds of cyclists—“those who have gone down and those who are going to go down.” The danger might be lessened if cyclists wore helmets, but few messengers will do so. “I have to admit,” one messenger responded, “I see people wearing helmets on bicycles, and I feel sort of contempt for them. A snickering contempt.” For some, the refusal to wear helmets is like wearing an elite uniform. It adds drama and excitement to life, and it does so by emphasizing the nearness of death.

Every once in a while a truck comes out of the shadow. I don’t know where from, but it almost takes my life. And you know, it’s interesting—it’s nice to feel alive again. You get that rush. You look at the sky, and you realize you could have cashed in your chips right then and there. It’s a nice feeling. It’s like being on the edge.

The sense bicycle messengers have of being an elite probably has a lot to do with the danger they face. They are like the pony express riders of yesteryear. For some, jumping a light is like a daring dash across the plain to the mountain pass. Even the weather plays a role in shaping their image. Long-term riders see themselves more in harmony with the weather than battling against it.

Bad weather sets the stage for the heroic aspects of messengering. “The worse the weather, the better,” says one messenger. “Snow is better than rain.” In bad weather, the hero-messenger is in great demand. “Somebody’s got to do this stuff,” says David, “and if I wasn’t doing it, there wouldn’t be anybody to take my place.” David’s most heroic moment occurred several years ago when the city’s surface transportation system was virtually paralyzed by snow:

There was one other bike along the road. I had to take three or four runs down to the Battery [Manhattan’s southern tip]. I got down to the Battery, and it was like Antarctica. Nothing was visible, and the snow was drifting four to five feet. Finally, I began to try to come back uptown, up Third Avenue—it’s called the Bowery down there. And I just said, “Screw it!” and collapsed into a snow drift. I was just going to go to sleep and die. Fortunately, a man in a snowplow came along, and he saw me waiting there and he motioned to me. And I just followed behind him back to midtown. It was really lucky.

Able to weave through traffic at high speed, bicycle messengers derive satisfaction from competing with heavy vehicles. The dangers of street traffic and poor road conditions add tension and excitement.

On Friday evenings I would sit in the basement of Nathan’s Delicatessen on 43rd Street and Broadway and trade stories with other messengers. One Friday I sat drinking beer and massaging the toes that I had twisted in a fall from my bicycle several hours earlier. I was worried about my tape recorder, uncertain how well it had survived the fall, and I was worried about myself, uncertain how much longer I could face the hazards of riding. Cochise, a longhaired hippie type, sat at the opposite end of the table eating a bizarre combination of packaged health food and garishly colored pink cotton candy. His jaw still bore the scar from a fracture he received in a collision with a taxi. I had heard about Cochise from the other messengers. I introduced myself, and he responded by pointing to his sockless feet—his trademark. “Why don’t you wear socks?” I asked, horrified by the thought of riding in winter without them.

I don’t like socks. I don’t like putting them on. I don’t like taking them off. I don’t like going through them in the morning. I don’t like buying them. They rip. They shrink. They pull. You sleep overnight somewhere, you got to put the same pair on the next morning—ugh. You wear them overnight—ugh. And another thing: No matter how damn cold it gets, no matter how high the snow is, it’s a little bit of summer. I’m not wearing socks, man. You understand? It’s a little bit of inner strength too.

Perhaps a need to show inner strength has its roots within a deeper sense of defeat. Messengers are generally acquainted with defeat before they become messengers, and their vulnerability to cars, mechanical breakdowns, bad weather, and company mistreatment makes them continually familiar with it. But messengers also have a sense of victory, a sense fierce enough that once it is achieved, they will not part with it. “Do we all like going to work every day?” Cochise asked, determined to put an end, once and for all, to my questions.

We don’t all like going to work every day. It’s something you gotta do. I just look around this restaurant. There’s not another job anyone has in this restaurant that I would want. You take me outside. Look up and down the street. All these people got occupations that they’re doing, right? All right, some of them are just walking by, we don’t know what they’re doing. But you show me just about anyone who’s working out there. I don’t want any of their jobs. If I gotta work, I’d rather keep this.