Sunday, October 11, 2020

Flashback 2001: A bike messenger as thinker

     I'm glad that EGD readers were as intrigued with Travis Hugh Culley as I was 20 years ago.  Thursday's introduction led several to say they were eagerly anticipating my review of his book. Here it is. Afterward, we'll catch up with Culley today.

     The modern city has few romantic figures. No cowboys, no knights, no pirates. And darn few fighter aces, Foreign Legionnaires or rock stars.
     The air of excitement that TV bestows on certain professions—cops, ER doctors, lawyers—quickly fades by even the most passing acquaintance with their real-life counterparts, who tend to be older, heavier, and far more sedate than their dramatic Thursday night shadows.
     Every city, however, has bicycle messengers, that colorful clan of oddballs and iconoclasts, dressed in caged helmets and Mad Max body armor, tattooed and pierced, muscled, menacing, blowing whistles as their bikes blast by.
     They are the Flying Dutchmen of the city, solitary, fleeting. As with all romantic figures, the mystery is part of the allure. Who are these people, surging out of the elevators ahead of us, radios squawking on their hips? It's surprising that they haven't already been set upon by anthropologists, now that academics are done picking over the Yanomami in the Brazilian rain forest.
     Maybe that's next. But for now, Travis Hugh Culley's The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power can be seen as an important primary text: a first-person account of a profession which might very well offer the next hot literary genre, replacing mountaineering memoirs.
     Indeed, Culley's account of his adventures as messenger No. 39 for Service First Courier in Chicago bears many similarities to Everest epics: the same tributes to the joy of physical overexertion; the same careful attention to equipment; the same frequent mettle-testing injuries, even the same stiff-upper-lip loss of extremities de rigueur in every assault on the peak.
     "Little pieces of skin hung off the edges of my hands, making them feel like the coarse end of a steel brush . . . ," Culley writes of winter biking. "Occasionally a piece of an earlobe would sting for two weeks or so; then the piece would come off in my hand like the edge of a potato chip."
     Culley's book can't be said to have a plot, other than a series of deliveries (many, many deliveries) and races, tumbles and recuperations. He isn't on a quest, he isn't trying to answer life's big questions, he isn't even really interested in capturing the world of messengers. He's working, trying to get by, and in doing so develops a philosophy of the city and transportation.
     That's the real point of the book. It's a political tract. Which is just as well, because his over-the-handlebars view of Chicago offers no surprises for locals (Lower Wacker is eerie and cool, or was; there are many gritty loading docks and dim alleys). And his Robin Hood band of merry fellow cyclists blur into a hodgepodge of nicknames: Pork Chop and Jimbo and Skull and Bobbo and Crazy Todd. Nobody stands out. There isn't a Friar Tuck in the bunch.
     One problem is that Culley is himself a pure spirit and a pleasant soul, apparently. He happily discovers the courier world to be a near-Utopia.
     "Messengers were highly cooperative, and yet competing against one another," he writes. "They were fighters to the bone. It was a tight society where one could be promised lasting respect and recognition for what one could offer the community."
     Oh, that we were all bicycle messengers. But we're not, and the fact practically damns us. The villain of Culley's book is the automobile, and all the frustrated, angry, joyless grinds who drive them into the city every day from their vast suburban netherworlds, inconveniencing bicyclists.
     In the last half of the book, as Culley takes part in Critical Mass rides—hundreds of cyclists swarmings downtown streets to assert their right to tie up traffic—he develops a vision for the urban future, a twist on the old General Motors motto: What's good for bicycles is good for the country.
     Culley is passionate, though his argument never approaches anything resembling depth. It doesn't occur to him, for instance, to consider that cities were not lovely, easy-to-live-in places for most people before the advent of the auto. He has forgotten his Dickens. Nor does he take into account that a city can have a bicycling culture and yet somehow not be Paradise (I've never thought as much about those masses of bicycles on Beijing streets as while reading this book, not that Culley mentions them).
     But every time I started to fault Culley for not thinking about Communist China, for not honing his arguments, I was reminded of this: he's a bicycle messenger, and deserves credit for looking beyond himself for meaning.
     In fact, I grew to enjoy the book's activism, not as a blueprint for the future, but as a portrait of the strong political passions of an intense young man. In sense, it is the book's greatest accomplishment, the way it captures that passing blend of ego and energy, intellectual curiosity and wet-from-the-womb naivete typically shed by age 30. How can we lose when we're so sincere?
     Culley lives on energy and air. He flashes around on his bicycle, handing handbills to strangers, trying to change the world.
     While Immortal Class is neither beautifully written nor the richest social philosophy, it marks Culley as a talent to watch, if only to see how this sensitive and thoughtful man adjusts to the decades ahead. Could he possibly become one of those bitter commuters he thumbs his nose at now? It isn't the sort of question Culley would ever pause to ask—what young man does?—but it happens to many, to most, even to those who are young and pure of spirit, who think seriously about the problems facing society and offer the world the gift of their freshly-minted wisdom, never suspecting that the world will reward their generosity by shrugging and dragging them down, too.
           —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 1, 2001

     Update: Culley lives in Boulder, Colorado, where he is working on a third book—his second book, "A Comedy & A Tragedy: A Memoir of Learning How to Read and Write" was published by Ballantine in 2015. He describes himself as "an environmental activist, a literacy advocate, and a survivor of clergy abuse." He says he'd like to return to Chicago someday, maybe work for the city. When I asked him if he had any thoughts he'd like to share, he replied, "The alphabet starts with the letter a. Many words do too. All words begin with some letter. They have to. But why do so many people begin so many sentences with No, and so many ideas with N'pas? And yet they hope something productive will come from so many singular decisions to leave one thing out." I think that about sums it up.


  1. I have always felt bike messengers were a particular type of hipocritical jerk. Rushing around with reckless disregard for others while complaining loudly about any perceived disregard they encounter no matter how slight. Get out of my way asshole must be their motto.

    Their rugged iconoclast persona wrapped in disdain for straight society while all the while their chosen vocation primarily in service to the financial industry and other corporate entities that can't wait longer than a few minutes for documents no doubt intended to gain some advantage in the market place.

    Surprised that the offer of free advice would entice anyone to engage a stranger.maybe it's those calf muscles.

    1. Not surprisingly, I always felt exactly the opposite. In fact, I wrote a front page feature about bicycles messengers far earlier than these stories; I think I'll dig it out for tomorrow, since my column got held, for space.

  2. Great column(s). I think Boulder Colorado sounds like a natural landing place for him. Very interesting. Thanks for the update.

  3. Remarkable that of all the places he might be living, it's Boulder, which I believe our EGD host is very familiar with. Not surprising, as he probably fits in there very well, but an interesting coincidence. I'm mostly curious as to why he just friended you on Facebook at this late date, given your past association.

    As for the bicycle culture, my new pet peeve is the "shared streets" popping up in various spots throughout the city. I'm primarily a pedestrian, though we own a car which we drive fairly often, though not to commute, and I enjoy cycling during nice weather. (Like now!) So, I've experienced shared streets via each of those modes. To put it simply, they suck. I understand that the utopian vision referred to by Neil above would involve no automobiles and we'd all be skipping down the middle of a broad avenue arm-in-arm, pretending that Chicago is a 17th-century village. Unfortunately, we're not very close to that ideal, nor are shared streets going to get us closer, IMHO.

    We're not all 24-year-old bicycle messengers and some people use cars to, you know, do stuff, often with a family. The ever-increasing number of delivery vehicles need streets via which to access their customers. Closing off half a street with an orange barrel or wooden gate and then haphazardly strewing barrels down the length of the street, in my estimation, makes it more dangerous for everyone. As a pedestrian, there's a thing called a "sidewalk" that seems to work well for its purpose. Though I've spent more time walking in streets since March than I'd ever have imagined, getting closer to cars driving by has not been my goal. Turning a side street into a slalom course doesn't make people better drivers, and cuts down on logical places for the ubiquitous delivery vehicles to double-park. Squeezing the street makes bicycling worse, actually, which I experienced last night, approaching a barrel and having to wait for a car to go by, when the street itself is plenty wide enough for a car to pass a cyclist safely in normal use. The traffic in this city is bad enough without purposely handicapping the infrastructure that's already in place. Again, IMHO.

    This comment is already too long, so I'll stop at that random point. I'm sure one gets the idea. ; )

  4. Not all that surprised that Culley lives in Boulder. So what does he do for money while he is working on a third book? He describes himself as "an environmental activist, a literacy advocate, and a survivor of clergy abuse." How does all that translate into a decent-paying job? Boulder is a very affluent and upscale place, and it has been for a long time. It's no longer the hippie mecca I knew in '71.

    Clergy abuse? At first that made me think that his father was a clergyman...some kind of minister...who abused him. Reviews of Culley's books mentioned a history of parental mistreatment. Then I woke up, and realized what the term meant. He has my deepest sympathies, but I'm not sure I'd care to read about all that right now. There's already more than enough misery in the world, just a mouse click or a remote button away.

    Culley says he'd like to return to Chicago someday, and maybe work for the city. Having "environmental activist and literacy advocate" on his resume might get him a job interview with Streets and Sanitation, or the Chicago Public Schools. But he doesn't sound like he'd be very happy on a garbage truck, or as a tutor in a grammar school.

    Then there's the age discrimination card. He's no starry-eyed kid anymore--he's pushing fifty. And the job market is pretty terrible right now. Chicago ain't all that inexpensive, either. He might be a lot better off in Boulder. Especially in these uncertain times.


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