Monday, October 12, 2020

Flashback 1992: Don't kill the messenger

Photo for the Sun-Times by Robert A. Davis

     My 2001 review of Travis Hugh Culley bicycle messenger meditation drew a comment  damning bicycle messengers, generally. Which made me remember this piece. I was proud of it a) for the lede and b) because we brought the messengers into the newsroom, to the 4th floor photo studio, and took studio photographs of them. I remember the shiver of pleasure I felt seeing them standing among the normals, bringing their bikes up on the elevator.  Now that I think of it, bicycle messenger services are another business decimated by the internet. No bicyclist can ride fast as an e-mail.
     This ran on the front page, in an era when the paper had a different hard news/feature balance than it does today. What's scary is to think of is that the 20-something messengers I quote are now in their 50s. 

     You see them everywhere, but never for long.
     Bicycle messengers, those chrome yellow and hot pink blurs that whistle by your nose as you wait to cross the street. The tattooed, 6-foot-6 Mad Max visions rocking on their heels in crowded elevators. The human motors brashly trying to outrun vehicles with more powerful, metal engines. They are there for a moment, then gone. They are not the easiest people to get to know.
     Which is too bad, since they certainly know you. You are pedestrians, the slow-footed beasts reading newspapers and bumbling into their paths, staring, dumbfounded, unable to make a move to save yourself as they bear down on you.
     "At 5 o'clock, it's like cattle being herded," says Rafael Muzones, 22, a messenger for Cannonball, who nevertheless strives to be courteous. "There are always a lot of close calls. I try to yell beforehand."
     The main question on the minds of pedestrians (sometimes called "civilians" by messengers) is: Do the madly pedaling couriers intend to zip so close? Could it be, possibly, a game?
    Of course it is.
     "You do get a certain thrill whizzing between pedestrians," says Brent Hannigan, 25, a messenger for four years in London and then Chicago. "Especially if they really (upset) me. I don't consider pedestrians evil. But I will whiz by and hiss something like, 'You're going to die.' I don't try to hit them, just try to scare them. Sometimes they deserve it."
Sal Massey (Photo by Robert A. Davis)

     "I really do not like pedestrians," says Sal Massey, 19, a rare female messenger. "They start going across the street, they see you, but they don't move. They're slow, and they get mad at you if you bump into them." 
     Her elbows and knees are covered with reminders of her encounters with those who travel on shoe leather.
     "That's what this is from," she says, pointing to a scar on her knee. "Some lawyer. Probably on drugs. Walked into the middle of the street. He yelled at me, and it was totally his fault."
     Another frequent civilian question is: Why are messengers so loath to come to a full stop at red lights, preferring to balance their bicycles while inching forward? Is it a point of pride never to put a foot on the pavement?
     No. The answer is simple. "Quicker of a start," says Raymond Riley III, 23. Bicycle messengers are, literally and figuratively, people in transition. Most are making their 30 or so deliveries a day, waiting for something else to come along in their lives. "It leaves a lot of time for painting, which is my hopeful career," Massey says.
     There are several benefits to the job. The first is getting to ride a bike, without a boss breathing down your neck. Then there is appreciating natural beauty.
     "Doing a physical job, you feel you're supposed to leer at women," says Hannigan.
     "That's one of the fringe benefits of the job, especially in summer," says Riley.
     It works both ways.
     "Do I check out guys?" Massey muses. "I have to admit, some of the messengers are pretty foxy. I can't say I don't."
     They may view it as a nuisance, but another advantage is food. Lots of it.
     "I eat nonstop," says Muzones.
     "You have to eat as much as possible," says Massey.
     "Oh God, yes," says Bruce Sheats, 40, a messenger for seven years. "Sugar! Chocolate and sugar and fruits."
     The downsides are many. Pay isn't great; a few dollars for each delivery and messengers have to rent their radios and pay for the upkeep of their bikes.
     Beside those sluggish pedestrians, at least 1,000 other bicycle messengers are zipping through the same limited downtown space, and accidents are routine.
     "You get bumped every day, against walls, simple knock-downs that most people would need a week to recover from," says Massey, who was hit by a car last week. Her delivery happened to be to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. She delivered the package, then had the hospital check her out.
     "I don't consider myself tough, but I guess I am," she says.
     Worse than accidents is weather. "Elements are the worst part - the wind, especially around the Sears Tower," Sheats says.
     Then there is coping with bike theft. Sheats has had five bikes stolen, two within two days. Massey cuts herself off before she can utter the entire brand name of her pricey hybrid bike, explaining that she just got it a week ago and immediately spray-painted it black to prevent potential thieves from recognizing its value.
     They are big bike fans.
     "Anywhere in the city you can drive, a bike is a lot better," Riley says. "As long as its not raining or snowing, I'm going to ride my bike."
     "I love bikes," says Muzones, who is a triathlete and rides 60 miles a day. "I ride even after work."
     While sometimes the sole focus is staying alive, at other times messengers can reflect on life and the city they are endlessly traversing.
     "I see a lot of things, I feel a lot of things," says Hannigan, who mostly thinks about his future filmmaking career. "There is the feeling of constantly observing people. I consider myself something of a philosopher who can go into places civilians can't go."
     Delivering messages "is the oldest form of communication, besides people talking," Massey says. "It goes back to ancient Rome, or before. And it's non-polluting."
                                     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 23, 1992


  1. Thanks for posting this. Sorry I missed it the first time. I remember one singular messenger crisscrossing downtown in that era, a calm, older gentleman who resembled Jeff Smith, the not-yet-infamous public television chef. I wonder if that was 40-year old Bruce Sheats? I hope his biking kept him healthy.

  2. I guess I didn't realize that bike messengers were aspiring filmmakers , artists, and philosophers. Probably a poet or two as well.

    In that light I retract my condemnation . A fine lot to be sure.

    When their not bumping into you, threatening murder, giving you the finger.

  3. My transition job was driving a cab, which I did for more than 10 years...and didn't even get a decent human interest story out of all my adventures. If there were bike messengers back in the late 60s, I probably would have gone for that, as even when I drove a cab, my normal mode of transportation was the bike, but while the messengering might have toned my body significantly more than the 5 or 10 miles a day I used to get in, no doubt the literary results would have been the same: zilch. Kudos to Culley for having squeezed out a couple books from his experiences.


  4. I think the jerk at the top of this post came screaming at me while I was trying to cross an intersection, years ago. Apparently he thought swooping down on pedestrians and screaming at them was something he was entitled to do because bicycle riding is so awesome, or something.

    With email, scanning and digital communication in general, I don't see who needs bike messengers any more. I sure don't miss them.

  5. I wouldn't think of denying anyone the right to their chosen vocation. Bicycle messengers serve a purpose, and should be respected. And pedestrians, likewise. All the other stuff is just unnecessary and speaks to the lack of empathy we seem to have for one another in general.

  6. This story originally ran wile I was in the process of getting ready to move to Cleveland, so I must have missed it. Hard to believe it's been 28 years. Do bicycle messenger services still exist in Chicago and elsewhere? Maybe they ARE another business decimated by the internet, because no bicyclist can ride fast as an e-mail...BUT...not everything can travel electronically.

    Physical delivery must still take precedence in some cases, right? Or am I just out of touch? I'm thinking about all the official documents. Legal papers. Birth and death certificates. Licenses. And then there are all those financial documents.

    I worked at a number of brokerage firms on La Salle Street in the late '70s and early '80s, and the first one was the smallest. I would be dragged away from my desk, and my clerical duties, and be ordered to deliver stock certificates and municipal bonds.

    I always felt embarrassed and foolish...what kind of messenger boy (at 32, no less) wears a three-piece suit and a tie? But it got me out of the cramped little office, and gave me physical exercise, and I could grab a snack and use an earphone to listen to Vince and Lou, as they broadcast the Cub games. Bike messengers, as such, did not yet exist.

  7. With all due respect to Travis Hugh Culley and his achievements in the time since the first article about him appeared, I'm a lot more intrigued by what may have happened to Sal Massey. She would be about 47 now. How did those experiences in 1992 guide what she's doing today?

    P.S. This article presses one of my pet-peeve buttons: it's "madly pedaling couriers," not "peddling," but if no one has noticed that in 28 years, then either it's not worth fixing or it's some way-too-tortured wordplay on selling a service.

    1. I'm one step ahead of you; I found her on Facebook and reached out, but she didn't respond. A graphic artist. If I ever hear back, I'll attempt an update, but the silence has a ringing quality I've learned to understand means a reply isn't coming. As for the misspelling, I'll fix it immediately. Two of my pet peeves, while we're on the topic, are: a) readers who seem to think I don't care if things are correct or not; and b) readers who try to justify obvious mistakes. Too right is two air—whoops, I mean, "To write is to err." That said, thanks for the heads up.

    2. No big deal, Mr. S. She's probably still a witch (excuse the typo).
      Time doesn't change basic personality traits all that much.
      At reunions, the obnoxious classmates of yesteryear are still mostly jerks.

    3. Oh I disagree completely Grizz. I thought she was fierce. I remember seeing her showing off her scabs, hearing her talk, and feeling a pang. You had to love her a little, for pushing back.

    4. Yeah, I can see where you're coming from, Mr. S. Pushing back against Chicago's crappy weather and bicycle thieves. Gotta admire her stamina. And being hit by a car and shrugging it off? That's toughness, for sure.

      But "I really do not like pedestrians" and "Some lawyer...probably on drugs" were total turn-offs. Hence the b-word. But maybe that's just me. I'm often a b-word, too...the other one.

    5. Neil, first off, I think my comment about spelling errors came off as a bit too cranky, because I know you care. I know this because almost exactly eight years ago now, I emailed you about someone's misspelled name in a column you had posted on-line just moments earlier, and you said that you had rushed downstairs at the office to get it corrected before it landed in print the same way. You then invited me to a release party at Petterino's for your new book "You Were Never in Chicago," which allowed me to hobnob for one evening with a lot of people who were way above my pay grade, and for that, I am eternally grateful.

      I don't know why I got into the mindset that typos made 28 years ago should be set in stone. I think I was just marveling that it had been there this long. I don't claim to be a perfect writer myself. My problem is not misspelling, but I type so fast that I often leave out entire.

    6. Turning the crankiness dial up a few notches too high is a common lapse on social media. I occasionally let some poor schmendrick have it both barrels on Facebook, then feel bad about it. I like the party story—the governor was there. Good of me to invite you. Remember, the story hasn't been sparkling in the limelight for 28 years. A flash of attention then into the vault. For all I know someone DID point out the error, but what would I do, then? It was already in print.


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