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A Day in the Life of a Bike Messenger

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Don't Kill The Messenger | Bryan Derballa

Don’t Kill The Messenger | Bryan Derballa

Courier: Notes from a Modern Day Bike Messenger

Usually, when I tell people I’m a courier, they are too polite to correct me.

‘A career what?’ they ask.

I restate that I am a cuhr-EE-yuhr, and they nod, then ask after my weekend plans. To the average San Franciscan, ‘courier’ is a font selection in the drop-down menu.

‘A bike messenger’ I explain, at which point while they at last understand what my job may be, they are bewildered that I still have it. Like milkmen, and bellhops, bike messengers are identified with a very specific and very long-gone era. That any of us are still around is both remarkable and baffling. I’m a professional anachronism, in their opinion. An evolutionary vestige. A coelocanth. How did any of us survive fax machines, let alone the internet?

But during the past few years there’s actually been a resurgence in courier demand, largely thanks to the rise and relocation of the tech industry. I would even bet there are more cyclists working now in San Francisco than in the messenger hey day of the Reagan adminstration. The sense of immediacy might even be far higher now since there’s just no way to convince a financial district office worker that his smoothie order from Plant Cafe is any less urgent than papal edict.

I can understand where their thinking comes from, since I used to believe the same thing: that we primarily transport legal documents, notarized items, deeds, divorces, overdue library books. Items which may be time sensitive, but immune to damage from potholes, spills, or collision, and which can largely be dealt with online. But times have changed since fax machines, and in the fast paced life of competetive sandwich delivery I can think of only one time I actually had to ship a document and it was a birthday card. Nearly everything has been caffeine or carbohydrate.


This is not really what it looks like but the picture is perfect. image from State Bicycle

The process goes like this: someone downloads the app, presses a button, punches in some desirable item to be found extra-muros, and one of us out there on the street gets pinged for the privilege of fighting traffic to stand in line to buy cough drops, lightbulbs, toilet paper, pomegranates, vodka, marlboros, birth control, and then dash back around cars, construction, pedestrians, fellow cyclists, along streets more congested than Manhattan’s, up hills more than twice the gradient of the steepest pitch in the Tour de France. People want things, and we bring them to them. It’s just not messages any more. We’ve moved beyond the old days. I’m no Paul Revere.

Mostly as couriers we’re professional gofers, bade to fetch whatever the customer’s fancy may be, and the on-demand economy means there’s an app for every service.

The primary one I work for is a catch-all, so I deliver anything anyone wants that will fit in my bike crate, which mostly means burritos, or if it’s the weekend, eggs benedict. There are other far more specific courier services out there that approach the point of over-specialization. Courier apps solely for dry cleaning, or for pharmaceuticals, or for alcohol. Every month seems to see the release of another on-demand delivery app with another treacly name. In my spare time I come up with potential new ones and pitch them to friends. Twinsy: find your doppelganger. Krastos: the on-demand glue company for all your adhesive needs. I pitched Weedr to my roommate’s stoner boyfriend only to find out that so far as bicycle-based delivery services for cannabis go, San Francisco already has three.

None of these have really changed the fundamentals of the job. The basics are still ‘start here, end there, fast as you can, don’t die’, and the materials remain highly sensitive to the passage of time. (Eggs benedict has an absurdly short shelf life. A mayfly enjoys a longer adolescence.)

But it kind of makes me nostalgic for the old days, even if I wasn’t around for them. Delivering a sealed envelope any distance is a hell of a lot easier than transporting coffee, no matter where you’re going. I would rather ship amplifiers, five gallon water jugs, twenty pounds of paper, or twelve bottles of pinot grigio than a single nonfat decaf latte. And I have.

Certain things I won’t deliver, and coffee is one of them. It’s beyond my comprehension why in a city like San Francisco, where there are cafes on nearly every corner, it’s so important to hire a cyclist to get that cup from half the city away. Customers like that must either have a profound ignorance of the nature of the delivery service they’ve hired, or else enjoy knowing that after the long line of production – the growers, the pickers, the cleaners, the packers, the shippers, the roasters, the baristas – they could add one more person’s sweat to their coffee. I don’t get it. Most people limit their additives to cream or sugar.

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  1. Andrew Cohen
    January 25, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    has this guy had any other job than postmates? i mean thats cool and all as an intro to messlife and a quote or two from this dude would be appropriate but having an article about a 40 year old plus industry be narrated entirely by a worker (not employee 😉 for the bottom of the barrel app (nothing against Postmates, i worked there for a bit, but requirements for hiring are having a heartbeat), is really bad journalism. There is so much nuance, history and meaning wrapped up in being a messenger that this article skips over entirely. Its like writing an article about ‘life as a doctor’ and having the whole thing be an interview with a first year resident.

    • Bay City News
      Broke-Ass Stuart
      January 25, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      There will be much more. This is just the first in a series.

      • Andrew Cohen
        January 25, 2016 at 4:15 pm

        That’s fine, but then it ought to have a different headline because it is insulting to those who have spent decades working on their bikes for a living to have themselves portrayed to the public through the eyes of a rookie at Postmates. This is not simply grumpy traditionalism, just frustration at misleading and under researched journalism. I am only on my third year in the biz, but am friendly with many of the old timers and have made a concerted effort to learn the context of my position as a rider for apps and non apps alike.

        The ‘day in the life’ of a courier varies wildly, with the most ‘hardcore’ company generally thought to be godspeed where a rider must manage the logistics of hundreds of orders without a central dispatcher, riding 60+ miles a day while figuring out the most efficient way to have a half dozen people pick up, trade, and drop off these items throughout the whole city. (those fools have clients near the zoo!)

        A “day in the life” of many legal couriers involves sitting around at the Montgomery Bart doing the crossword a good portion of the day while dealing with returns from yesterday’s court proceedings as well as navigating the various byzantine nuances of the american legal system.

        Riders for the general delivery companies who often hire rookies simply bust their ass all day wherever they are told and there is no opportunity to ‘turn down jobs’ for any reason. The ‘accept/decline’ feature that is prominently mentioned in the article is not and has not been a reality for most couriers throughout the cities’ history.

        There is also the social aspects, music, camaraderie, the SFBMA, alley cat races, the history of unionization, inevitable legal issues for traffic violations, the immense physical dangers, and the exploitation through illegal classification as 1099 independent contractors for people very employees. Then there is the way the apps and phones have splintered the industry and how that has affected overall solidarity. If all of this is covered adequately in the supposed series, I will give you my info and pick up and drop off your dinner or lunch every day for a week for no charge. (assuming you don’t live in Daly City or something haha)