About 7 years ago, I was a bike courier for a while. It helped me realize a few things. First, riding a bike in New York is like being on Death Row; you’re going to die, you’re just not sure when.
Second, contrary to what numerous art exhibitions, newspaper articles, and books might have led you to believe, most of the other messengers weren’t tatted up white kids on fixed gear bikes. Some days went by when I didn’t see any at all! There was one kid I worked with who was grimey and had tattoos and went out to parties at the Black Label bike club (bike jousting, beer drinking), but that was more the exception than the rule. Most of the other couriers were black dudes in their 30’s, riding everything from high-end racing bikes to second-hand Huffy mountain bikes. This was not a “cool job.” A lot of the people who did it were ex-cons, as this was a job without background checks. Most of the white messengers I saw appeared to be “serious bike dudes” dressed up like Lance Armstrong rather than kids with dyed hair, funny mustaches, and plugs in their lobes.
The fact that the job involves working long hours, riding around in every type of fucked up New York weather (too fucking hot, too fucking cold, too fucking wet, too fucking windy, too fucking humid), dodging taxi cabs, lunatic delivery vans (oh, the delicious irony), 20 ton buses, and space cadets on their cell phones definitely screens out a lot of weak links. Those weak links are then known as “foot messengers”, who can usually be spotted by one of the following traits: talking to themselves, wearing obviously second-hand clothes (ie 50-year-old Woody Allen lookalike in G-Unit sweatshirt), glasses/clothes repaired with duct tape, still listening to a transistor radio in the 21st Century, etc. Essentially every time you have seen a down on his luck “typical New York character” that WASN’T a homeless person, that person probably worked as a foot messenger.
A lot of bike couriers, myself included, did dress like you would think; one leg rolled up on one’s pants, or long shorts in cold weather, lots of layers, with long shirts/pants underneath short shirts/pants. That way, if one gets hot, one can roll up the longer layer. Here is a picture of me DJing when I had come straight from work.
So, yeah, DJing dressed like a roadie for Soundgarden was about the extent of the hipness quotient I derived from riding around the city like maniac getting in shouting matches with cab drivers and being threatened by police for working the same night as a Critical Mass ride (Cop: “We’re arresting everyone on bikes tonight” Me: “That seems like a perfectly valid and just response”).
I also remember one time stopping by a club where friends were DJing wearing a full on Gorton’s Fisherman yellow rainsuit. Nothing like rocking the radioactive rave look ten years too late.
I would like to clarify that I was not a messenger, I was a courier. I worked for a movie rental company, similar to Kozmo.com or Urbanfetch. We delivered DVD’s and snacks. Anyone who lived in NYC during 1999 remembers the great explosion of Kozmo.com. Anytime you went to a party you were guaranteed to meet at least one person who worked there. You were usually intensely jealous of them, as they would no doubt be holding millions in stock options as soon as Kozmo went public. Imagine talking to a future millionaire every night! Yet somehow the business model of delivering Ben and Jerry’s to stoners too lazy to walk downstairs to the closest deli did not pay off.
And sure enough, in the beginning of December, right when the weather was getting cold anyway, my boss called me in to tell me the company was folding. Even our stripped down miniature version of Kozmo (entire stock held in small office the size of a studio apartment) could not turn a profit, and this was before Netflix got popular or when people really started downloading movies on the Internet. It was not a huge surprise, as some nights we’d barely do anything and rather than be allowed to fuck around on the internet like a normal person, I had to listen to the dispatcher’s incredibly intense anti-Bush harangues and give him high fives because a lot of people on Daily Kos really liked his latest screed. But, that’s a story for another time…