For many years, I made a living as a bicycle messenger.
It was a tough job, but in those days, the days before email became ubiquitous, it was one of the few jobs which afforded young proletariat adults a quasi-legal way to make a better-than-minimum wage.
Winter was especially harsh, but due to a reduced number of messengers on the streets that time of year, it was also the most lucrative. Personally, I never missed a day of riding due to weather. Not one, single, solitary day.
I rode in rain, snow, wind, I rode in blizzards, thunderstorms, and on one occasion, I even rode in a hurricane.
While the intelligence of this ethic can be debated, I always tried my best to adapt to the conditions. On the days when the temperature dipped below 25 or so, I would get up, slather a thick layer of vaseline on my face, put a set of mirrored ski goggles over my eyes, pull eskimo gloves over my hands, and head out. I had to. If you didn’t work, you didn’t get paid.
Fortunately, for 9 months out of the year, work was fairly plentiful, and thus, the money was okay … good even. In those days, it was also somewhat respected work. One of the few working-class jobs that was actually admired on some level by those higher up on the socioeconomic ladder. It was certainly better than being a janitor.
On any given day, having one or two receptionists slip you their phone number was about par for the course, and suburban college girls, having endured years of backwards-hat-wearing “yo yo yo” dudes back home, were absolutely fascinated by bicycle couriers, who they perceived to be “real” city people.
Of course, anytime the working class carves out a little something for themselves, that thing is quickly coveted, and then emulated by the bourgeoisie. Upper-class America’s fascination with lower-class culture is legendary, and the primary attraction appears to be its greater perceived “authenticity” than that which is created from their own social stratum.
Witness the waves of middle-class black kids who crave to be associated with lower-class black “Gangsta” culture. Ice Cube grew up solidly middle-class, and attended high school in Tarzana. Why’s a nigga look so mad all the time? Look at the white kids in Seattle, riding fixies, drinking PBR, wearing trucker hats and kefayas.
The upper-class has always fetishized the authentic, and authenticity is, was, and always will be associated with the working-class.
Just as they’ve ripped off these cultures for centuries … stealing everything from rock and roll to breakdancing … so too has the bourgeois tried to rip off, repeatedly, the bike messenger culture.
Summer months in the bike courier profession were always contentious, as in June, on queue, kids from nearby colleges and universities grabbed their $3,000 bicycles, donned their best poor-people’s costumes and filled courier company offices … eager for summer employment on the streets of the big city.
Most of them didn’t need the money, and those who did were far better suited for retail jobs at Urban Outfitters, but despite its name and clever advertising campaigns, Urban Outfitters just couldn’t deliver on its promise of true urban street creed. At least none that would stand up to any real scrutiny.
Most of the summer tourists came prepared for the job by using outdated lingo derived from watching the movie “Quicksilver” 20 times, and during the first couple of weeks, the number of female messengers swelled as ex-suburban Jamie Gertz-wannabes flooded the streets.
A select few students made it to the end of their first week, and even fewer lasted the entire summer. Some of them went down, some were too slow to make any money, all of them underestimated the physical demands that the job made. Riding 70 miles per day is easy. Any fit person can do it. Riding 70 miles with 40 lbs of legal documents on your back, while dodging obstacles, barriers, cops, and 4,000 lb bullets, all while maintaining a cranio-spacial map of every street, alley, crevice, and pothole in the city, while retaining a mental rolodex of every business and residential address in the city, all while operating a two way radio with your “free” hand … is another thing altogether.
Add to this the fact that newcomers were generally only given leftover jobs that seasoned messengers didn’t want, and the fact that the job was not nearly as socially rewarding as many had anticipated.
You see, students romanticized the job. Most of the Biffs and Buffys had fantasies of returning to school in September, fresh off a summer of collecting mad messenger loot. They pictured themselves walking through Dupont Circle with their study group, and enjoying the envious stares of their classmates as they fist-bumped a messenger, or if they were really lucky … a black messenger, and saying “see you next summer, yo.”
As does every other brand of human, bike messengers formed cliques, and if you weren’t around the previous winter, sliding around and bouncing off of cabs like everyone else, you weren’t in it. If you were a Biff, you were lucky if your fellow messengers didn’t punch you in the face, much less speak to you. And the fist bump thing? Well, that never happened. Unless you were the campus weed dealer heading south for the winter to re-supply.
It’s funny how some things never change.
We all grow older, wiser, more mature … but our core selves … our personalities, our identities, and especially our ethics … they never really change. We are at 40, that who we were at 20 … just with a few more wrinkles, a few more grey hairs, a bit more self-control, and a broader perspective … but deep down, underneath it all … we’re the same people.
It seems like a million years ago that I was carving the asphalt, trying to make the rent, but so much is still the same. I still like the same things, still hate the same things, I’ve never been able to leave the inner-city for very long, I still relate to the street kids in Westlake far more than I do the lawyers from the Eastside, and I still loathe the “drive park drive park” lifestyle that still, to this day, dominates U.S. culture. The closest I’ve been able to come to that culture, for any length of time, is a small motor scooter, a Yamaha Vino, that allows my worn-out body to retain a two-wheeled lifestyle, even when commuting longer distances.
Every morning, I commute on my scooter, via the ferry, to Kitsap County, and in the evening, I reverse course and come home. Sometimes I walk, occasionally I’ll still ride a bicycle, but through my scooter, I have found a middle-ground which satisfies both the inner-bike messenger which will lurk beneath my exterior until the day I die, and the outer 40 hour/week IT worker who has greater responsibilities, and who cannot arrive at work each day drenched in sweat.
At $7/day vs. $25/day for a car, it’s an affordable means of commuting. Unfortunately, exposure to the elements keeps the number of daily motorcycle/scooter commuters relatively low, as does the much lower safety profile. It’s almost certainly the most dangerous commuting method that there is. I admire the tenacity of my bicycling brothers, but until you’ve hit black ice at 50 Mph, or until you’ve gone from Pioneer Square to Fremont in 10 minutes, in rush hour, without using the sidewalk, without having your own lane, your two-wheeled skill remains untested at the extreme end.
I’ve been commuting via scooter for about the last year, and in that time, I’ve developed a friendship, a camaraderie … and yes, perhaps even a clique’ with like-minded commuters from the Puget Sound region.
It started with one or two business-card exchanges, and by the end of August, we had a veritable gang assembled each morning on the ferry platform.
Among our group was a garage mechanic, a preschool teacher, and a teller at a local bank. Most of us, however, about 10 of the 15 “members”, were IT workers. Programmers, Systems Administrators … your average computer folks. Some of our group rode motorcycles, most of us rode scooters, but the type of vehicle didn’t matter. If you were on two wheels, and those two wheels were powered by a motor, you had friends at the dock. Friends that would loan you a couple of bucks for an apple fritter if you were short, friends who would tighten a bolt if they heard your muffler rattling, friends who would hold up the ferry if they saw you coming at the last minute.
As cliques tend to do, you also had friends who often laughed at, and declared lame everyone who was not like them … who was not like you.
Toward the end of the summer dry spell, I remember saying “Man, I can’t wait until it cools off and starts raining so these fucking tourists go back to wherever they came from.”
This statement was met with glee from other members, as asserting your cliques’ superiority over that of other groups is the easiest way to get elected de-facto leader … and I was making a play for the role.
“No kidding!”, said a fellow member.
“Oh yeah, me too!”, said another.
When all was said and done, It was unanimous. The motion passed. The proclamation made.
Tourists were lame. As were car drivers, a conclusion we had reached months prior.
They would have the last laugh, though. The drivers … the tourists. They would get their comeuppance, for I would soon find out, that it … everything … the laughter, the camaraderie, the superiority … I would soon learn that it was all a lie.
Sometime around mid-October, our group dwindled from about 12, to around 7 or 8. By late October, there were 5 of us remaining. In early November we were down to about 3. And then, there was one.
As I rode home one night in mid-December, in the rain, a fare collector scanned my pass, looked at me with awe, and said “Do you realize that you’re the first motorcyclist I’ve seen all day? I can’t believe you’re riding in this stuff”.
“This stuff?”, I wanted to say, “35 degrees and a little rain? Are you kidding me??!!!”
I didn’t, though. I just tucked my pass back inside my jacket, slowly turned the throttle, and took the dark, solitary journey to the end of the dock. A place where I would remain, alone, until the ferry arrived to take me away.
For the next twelve weeks, this would be my daily, lonely existence.
I work with a women whose husband rides a motorcycle to the ferry up in Edmonds. Sometime around Christmas, she told me how he had formed his own clique’ of motorcyclists, and she regaled me with stories of how they, as a group, ridiculed and rejected the people who only showed up to ride when it was warm.
As I listened to her, I was taken back to summers in the 90′s, when my group and I, my group of fellow bicycle messengers, did exactly the same.
I had to fight back a tear when she finished her story, then looked at me and asked “So, do the guys on your ferry do that too?”
“Uh … yeah”, I lied, before excusing myself.
I didn’t want to admit the truth. The truth that I was once again, a loner. An outcast. An outcast from the supposed outcasts. The only person in my entire group that didn’t jump in a heated car once the first raindrop fell. It was just too painful.
November came and went, as did December, as did January after that. Every day I commuted, dark, wet, cold, alone, with little more than my thoughts and the odd SUV attempting to run me over.
Yesterday after work, I hopped on my scooter, rode down to the dock, and when I arrived … there they were. Two members from the summer gang. Two posers. Fakers. Frauds.
What could I say? What should I say?
“Hey, man!”, said the first guy as soon as he saw me, “Long time no see!”
“Uh, hey”, I sheepishly responded.
He must have sensed something, or perhaps he felt guilty, because he immediately began rationalizing his absence, “Oh yeah, man, I live up in Northgate and that bridge is icy, man, so I had to drive this beat-up car instead …”
“Beat-up car”, I thought, “as if that’s somehow supposed to make him less of a sell-out. I guess he thinks he and I are the same, so long as he wasn’t driving a Porsche.”
The other guy at the dock, well, he wouldn’t even look at me.
Deep-down, we all knew.
They were Biffs. Always had been, really. Urban outcasts when it was convenient; when it was comfortable … strip mall Stans in minivans as soon as things started getting real.
I tried to talk a little, to be polite, but it just wasn’t the same. These were not my people. I thought they were my people, but I was wrong. My people would never jump in a car at the first sight of rain.
Where before, I had felt a little bit of camaraderie, now, there was only small talk. The commuting equivalent of three people stuck in an elevator.
No longer will there be “lame car driver” jokes between us. Not knowing what I know now. I’m far too sincere. You know how often I use the word “amazing?” Once, twice a week … tops. Anything more would be phony, and that’s what our group was now.
Now, the relationship was weird. Awkward.
Imagine if you will … that you’re at your friend’s house, when you suddenly have to use the bathroom.
“Go ahead and use mine”, he says, so in you go to do your business.
When you finish up, you realize there’s no toilet paper. “Oh no”, you think, before opening the cabinet under the sink to look for some. Unfortunately, there’s no toilet paper under there either … but there is a stack of some kind of paper. You look closer, realize they’re magazines, then close the door.
“Wait a minute”, you think, “my friend isn’t a big reader … why does he have so many magazines?”
With a nagging curiosity, you re-open the cabinet, reach in, grab a magazine from the top and … “Oh my God!”
You sit there, speechless, unsure of what to do.
What did you expect? Surely not the copy of “Chicks with Dicks #24″ you currently hold in your hand.
The human psyche being the fragile entity that it is, you begin to rationalize.
“Oh, that friend of mine”, you think, “he’s such a kidder … this was a gag gift … yeah, that’s it … a gag gift … I can’t wait to find out who gave him this …”
You put the magazine back, and as you’re deciding which of your friend’s face towels to wipe your ass with (it serves him right for not having toilet paper), you hear a little voice in the back of your head.
At first, it’s just a whisper, but the longer you fight it, the louder it becomes.
“Look at another one”, says the voice, “just one more … just look at one more … look at one more magazine …”
You feel bad for doubting your friend, and even worse for invading his privacy, but eventually you give in … “okay”, you say to yourself, “just one more … just one, I promise … and if it’s Men’s Fitness, which I’m sure it will be, that’s it.”
You reach in, pull out a second magazine, and this time, you find yourself staring at a copy of “Jamaican Chicks with Dicks, Volume 97″.
“It sure is odd that someone pulled the same joke twice”, you think, although you could totally see both Charles and Dave giving him a magazine like this for a gag.
You pull out another one … “Chinese Chicks with Dicks”.
“Okay, this is getting a little weird”, you say to yourself, “why is everyone pulling the same joke on my friend?”
Then another one … “Handicapped Chicks with Dicks”.
Another one … “Pygmy Chicks with Dicks”
Finally, it hits you. As you sit there, on the toilet, pants around your ankles, holding a copy of “Yodeling Bavarian Chicks with Dicks Volume 4,985″, the epiphany is had.
“Noooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”, you think before covering your hand with your mouth to prevent a blood-curdling scream from escaping.
You stand up, look in the mirror, and realize that you’re blue from hyperventilating.
You sit back down and try to compose yourself … you try to calm down but you can’t … you just can’t …
Eventually, you can’t take it. You just can’t take it anymore. The person you thought you knew does not exist. He is alive no more. Perhaps he never was.
You kick open the bathroom door, run into the living room where the friend-turned-stranger is standing, stick your extended finger millimeters from his face, and you scream … oh boy do you scream … you scream louder than you’ve ever screamed in your life …
“Liar!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Imposter!!!!!!!!!!!! Phony!!!!!!!!!!! Fraud!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I thought we were friends, but I don’t even know who you are!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Then, you storm out of his house, vowing to never, ever, EVER speak to him again!
After all, what kind of friend doesn’t share his Chicks with Dicks mags?
And what kind of friend jumps in a car the first time the temperature falls below 60 degrees?
Certainly, no friend of mine.