Bike Messenger Stereotypes …They’re Not All True
There’s a certain ‘type’ associated with courier work. Some idea that we live like fighter pilots, enjoying the bright and burning existence of the heroically independent, risking death each day to get your parcels delivered on time and intact.
That we’re a collection of recklessly tattooed, semi-sociopathic violators of traffic regulation and the social contract. Whole Foods checkout clerks on bikes. The punk pony express.
The vision is wrong, of course. Not all of us have tattoos.
We would just rather be outside, because the best way to experience anything is to walk, and the next best is to bike. On a bicycle, you gain a geographic intimacy which only cab drivers, EMTs, collections agencies, and law enforcement can rival. If that city is San Francisco, you know the shortest routes by distance, and the shortest by time, and the grades of all the hills. You know in which neighborhoods the streets are named for nations, and in which they are named for states. You know that Bay Street is not the closest street to the bay, nor for that matter is First Street, nor Main. San Francisco is a labyrinth, but one that you have learned. You have sweated over her every line.
I might have done something else, but I like the solitude of courier work, the individual challenges of a day’s course, the time it gives to think, the satisfaction that comes with knowing that while others are inside staring at screens in one of the most photogenic cities in the hemisphere, I’m out exploring it. There’s nothing particularly challenging about the work. It is physically demanding, but otherwise unstressful. There are deadlines, of course, but they are immediate, and rarely ask anything greater of my competence than to deliver item A from points B to C.
And of course I do this work because it pays and because I have to do something. Most of the couriers I know have similar reasons. Plenty of people can make money off brains, beauty, talent, or luck, but we have only the labor of our bodies to sell. We have to earn our living the old fashioned way: above ground and out-of-doors, exposed, in full view. Members of the modern service peasantry: the riders of bikes, the brewers of coffee, the drivers of Uber.
Occasionally I tell people I’m a professional athlete. I don’t have corporate sponsorships, there are no spectators, and I don’t think anyone would seriously give a damn if I began a performance enhancing regimen of liquid stallion and hummingbird mousse. But I am paid to be active, and each day is a near contiguous series of stacked sprints. Besides the dancers of the ballet and the Bboys on BART I can’t think of many other professions that require the public and virtuosic use of the body. At least not in this city. There’s no reward for mere attendance. Earnings require movement. And now in my third year I finally have the quads of a thoroughbred and the body of Baryshnikov.
Recently I thought to do some short calculation on just how much I travel. Generally I work five days a week, and about forty-five weeks a calendar year. At a low ball average of thirty miles a day, that puts me at around 6,750 miles a year. And all within the same grid of 7 miles by 7 miles. Slightly more than the distance to Istanbul. Another year and a half and I’ll have laid down enough miles to circle the globe.
I’ve met couriers who have outpaced Magellan, and a few veterans who by this point in their careers might even have outdone the lunar missions. We are of that restless tribe who must feel something move beneath us – wheels, water, the spinning earth itself – but lacking means to travel, perform our journeys staying put.
I like my work. There’s a sincere honesty to it, coming as it does from a long and honorable line of two word toilers – rag pickers, hod carriers, stick porters. Bicycles and smart phones are just recent flourishes. They do not change that, at base, I am a man with a cart. I fill a sack with goods and bear it away. The same as has been done through every age and empire.