The Menopausal Messenger

©By Pamela Rice, 2005

It wasn’t until I became a bike messenger myself that I really noticed them: my disparate colleagues—mostly young black men in baggy tops and mid-calf slacks—are seen all over town these days sporting boutique goodie bags with colorful strings. It’s not that they’ve taken out from their day to do a little shopping in the SoHo district or the Upper East Side. It’s work-related toting. The glam-job ilk of our town is buttering up its clients with pretty bag-encased gifts, and New York’s messengers are employed to cart them to their destinations. They coyly bedazzle you, dangling from spray painted handlebars, stimulating the senses. Beyond that, the bags are really quite cumbersome and even hazardous to the person on the bike.

Ultimately, the goodie bags may hold accessories, cosmetics, shower gels. Who knows? In the custody of the messengers, they’re emblematic of a sharply dichotomous world into which I placed myself for a four-week stint this past summer. Though my own background could more closely put me in league with the goodie-bag people, I found myself at once part of the vast network of lumpenproletariat where, from the bottom rungs, everything looks a lot different. If I didn’t keep my nails clipped, they would tear off of my fingers anyway. A path of leisure, this is not. This is hard manual labor; make no mistake about it.

For me, being a bike messenger was the equivalent of throwing up my hands in total frustration, the culmination of an eight-month quest to find a real job. Curiously, no sooner was I making bike deliveries that I got hired in a more appropriate field, promptly ending my brilliant career as a courier and landing me behind a computer. And wouldn’t you know it, it was just about that time that I was getting to love the physicalness of the job. Of course, no way could I have turned down the new offer. It paid about four times as much, and even it represents no great pay in New York City.

As I’ve already hinted, I was not your typical messenger. There may be more than a few sideline writers working for the city’s courier firms. But, I imagine, there are far fewer 50-year-old, white, college-educated, female, raised-in-the-lily-white-suburbs-of-Chicago writers, who are delivering packages on bikes around this town these days, or perhaps ever. Naturally, I’m tomboyish and fiercely athletic and have never been typical when it came to anything. Still, this life’s detour was a bit beyond the pale even for me.

Then again, the chronicler ever-calls to me from my very bones, so it wasn’t long before I began to fashion myself carrying on in the tradition of John Howard Griffin (Black Like Me) and Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed). As I peddled around the city streets and avenues, I knew I had to bring the bike messenger’s story to light. But not just the utter exploitation and danger of it all. I wanted to tell about the good parts, too. So, along with all my other bike-bag gear, I carried with me a camera and a mini-cassette tape recorder.

Today, as I sit cooped up in an office, it is not difficult at all to direct my mind back to those good-old messenger days. One in particular seems to repeat in my mind: I’m coasting westwardly down the incline of the Transverse Road that connects East 78th and West 81st Streets; I ponder the moment: Could I really be getting paid to do this? Here I was in Central Park—albeit in one of those dug-out roads that keeps cars invisible to the park’s revelers above—and I’m taking it all in: the summer bouquet of scents, the breeze filling in around my neck, and the chirps and chatters of birds and squirrels.

I’ve been assigned to fulfill an order for delivery. An otherwise mundane thing, yet I’m experiencing, excuse me, unmitigated glee. This stretch of road, long ago dug out of mud and Manhattan schist, has become my momentary easy street, one I never could have anticipated traveling when I sent that E-mail of inquiry to Breakaway Couriers about job opportunities. On such days, I could never imagine working indoors again. Yet here I sit.

Most would recoil at the choice of work, but messengering has always held a fascination for me. So much about the job holds appeal. Albeit, it is tiring to boot, but that’s just the physical challenge. There’s something inside of me that welcomes making it all come together. The best messengers are those who not only possess strength, physical coordination, and brawn, but uncommon brain power, mental balance, and wit.

The mind of a messenger has to be geared up to a place of hyper-cognizance without the slightest intermission throughout the day. No flaking out, even for an instant or the result will surely be hitting someone or something or being hit. Zone out for a second and you may forget to lock your bike or to get a signature. Drift into a daydream and you could end up going out of your way to pick up or deliver a package. Once, I went to the drop-off address before making the pick-up; that hurt. Essentially, you have to be very smart and on alert all day—a day that must be particularly long in order to bring in anything resembling payback.

Beyond this, I admit, I loved being the oddity—the menopausal messenger, as I called myself. And besides, I felt so rip-roaring cool with my helmet, bike bag slung across my chest, my two-way radio hooked on the strap, and the dispatcher beeping me for my position. “Second Avenue and 49th Street,” I’d say, perhaps. “Coooopy that,” he’d reply in a seasoned drawl that amused me every time.

Indeed, in my two-score and 10 years on this earth I’ve found I tend to relish standing out from the crowd, breaking the mold, shocking people a little. I’m a bit of an exhibitionist, I guess. When someone said, “Ah, a lady messenger!”—or something to that effect—a flash of pride swept over me. Or was that a hot flash?

Actually, I soon found that repeatedly getting the heart rate up, pressing one’s quadriceps to a low-level burn on the city’s inclines all day, goes a long way to quell change-of-life symptoms. In fact, I would heartily recommend the job to anyone who suffers from hot flashes and/or, for that matter, anyone who can’t stick to a diet. When you’re either on your feet or peddling for eight to nine hours at a stretch, several days a week, figure you can eat just about anything and as much of it as you want and not gain a pound. Messengering has to be the ultimate diet strategy. Take on this job and you can definitely shuck that $2000-a-year health-club membership, pronto, and yet look as though you didn’t.

Oh, and when this messenger eventually got home after her “workout,” food and drink was noticeably more delectable than on any day spent behind a computer. And sloughing the grime with a shower became the equivalent of a trip to the spa.

Now that I’ve seen a healthy—no pun intended—dose of this kind of work, I’m also prepared to say that it offers one of the best views of the city anyone can ask for. It’s amazing the access a messenger gets—if only for moments at a time—into many of the city’s coveted inner sanctums. Unlike the UPS man, the messenger’s route is not fixed. My day was always new and different every time I went out. On occasion, I used the access to my advantage, dropping off résumés if I thought a place looked interesting—though this practice was not the way I hooked into my present situation.

In the end, do you want to see this town in all of its richness and rawness? Be a messenger. Did you hear that, tourists? Down in the bowels of the giant office buildings, in the messenger centers where I went to pick up and drop off packages, one doesn’t have to put up with phonies and sycophants, the bane of every tourist, no? It’s for real here, very earthy—reality TV, without the TV.

So, skip that Broadway show, blow off the Statue of Liberty this time. Courier away your stay and you may even get a tan. For sure, you’ll witness the rich underbelly of this great city like no tour could ever show, and you’ll even be paid to see it. Meanwhile, you’re able to take in that New York City ethos in a way you might never imagine. Local color? This place is emblazoned with it, particularly in the back corridors of the sewing trades, in the lobbies of Times Square theaters, in that West side museum you never heard of, in the graphic studios of the 20s, the galleries in Soho, and in the high-rent Fifth Avenue residences along Central Park.

One day had me taking a car elevator up to my drop-off point, a loft in the Meat District. As I ascended, large gaps in the wall allowed me to see breathtaking vistas of New York’s expansive harbor.

Another day had me in the same elevator with the transit-beat reporter for New York 1, Bobby Cuza. I was picking up a package from the station’s Ninth Avenue studio, and of course I had to put in my two cents about how I hate SUVs that park in the bike lane. He told me he’d keep my concerns in mind for his next show.

All in all, I spent a lot of time in Times Square and Midtown in the 50s. I once even delivered an envelope to “The Honorable Henry Kissinger.”

Honorable. It looked odd to these eyes, I recall. I took a moment to relay to my dispatcher the name on the label. “Murderer is more like it,” I said, recalling Operation Linebacker II, the no-holds-barred bombing campaign in the last throws of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which provided the backdrop for Kissinger’s Paris negotiations with the North. But I digress.

Seriously, it crossed my mind: If only there were some program for tourists to be messengers once they blew into town. Now there’s an idea for some enterprising business person!

Or am I projecting? Do I love New York City that much? Probably. I tend to be a person who relishes in all those New York moments—the human condition on steroids, you might say: the hype, the pathos, the absurdity, the despicable, the poignant, and the sublime. There it was on display constantly, live and in color, as I biked around the city. It was all so rich that even if my paycheck could have supported it, I’d have little need for the theater, or, for that matter, anything stimulating at all.

Day in and day out, there I was negotiating rivers of densely packed crowds at intersections, coasting along the magnificent expanse of Park Avenue in the 70s, taking freight elevators 30 stories in solitude to get my signature. What need could I have for canned entertainment? None whatsoever.

And there in the midst of all the intensity, as the rapid-fire dramas played out, and they did without pause, I found that New Yorkers never lost their signature blasé attitude. I once saw about 20 police cars all at once career down Fifth Avenue in the Flatiron District, sirens blaring every one of them, and the pedestrians along the sidewalks, I watched, barely looked up. It’s got to be a game of hold-out. How seemingly unaffected can you remain while everything around you is vying to raise your blood pressure to new heights. Don’t crack. As for me, I tend to smile a lot, just to show ’em. But that’s me and another story.

Whenever I could, I got into conversations with others in the trade. One wizened geezer told me as he and I rode alongside one another on Sixth Avenue that he’d been messengering the New York City streets for nine years. His secret?—taking it slow but sure. He wasn’t like the young ones, he emphasized, but he was alive to tell his tale. Had he known colleagues who’d been hurt or even killed on the job? Had he known messengers who are currently standing trial, liable for hitting a pedestrian? “Sure,” he told me without hesitation.

Which leads me to traffic. Or should I say, “Don’t get me started”? Two things work together in New York to ensure that cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians will collide: underpaid messengers, paid by the job, not the hour, and vehicles hogging the road. I once yelled at a guy in an SUV parked in the bike lane, “You can’t park here; you’re blocking two lanes and causing a hazard.” “Eat shit,” was his immediate response.

So there you have it. Damn, if only being a messenger wasn’t so annoying or, for that matter, frighteningly dangerous and infused with potentially life-altering pitfalls! Alas, the danger factor surely puts the courier profession in New York City on par with Hollywood stunt work. No doubt a few daredevils choose messengering because of the risk. However, most do it because no other viable career choices present themselves. Some will even tell you that it’s tough to get into the business unless you “know someone.” Imagine that.

Indeed, the city’s courier firms—Breakaway, Urban Express, and Flash, just to name a few—are paying what the market requires of them. Messengers are not exactly a dime a dozen these days, but close. The firms are regularly inundated with applicants. At one time, the 1980s in particular, messengers were in demand. The ad agencies were flourishing and computers had yet to make significant inroads. These days, instead of physical proofs—bluelines, Chromalins, or stats—the entire printing/publishing/advertising world is transmitting PDF files in an instant via E-mail attachments. The practice has dealt a blow to the courier business. And now, messengering is simply not a viable job for anyone who actually needs to rely on the pay to live.

When I interviewed, my orientation officer told me that some messengers make as much as $700 per week. But even he admitted that those in this bracket represent a rare elite. And during the slow summer months, pay like this is essentially impossible to earn. And then, if a messenger wants to keep much of this for himself, he is going to have to keep expenses down somehow. This, despite the fact that he’s responsible for just about all of them: bicycle purchases and maintenance, two-way-radio purchase and minutes, and even the bike bag (often advertising the company name) and flat tires on the job. (For the record, a cab driver not in business for himself does not pay out of his own pocket when he gets a flat tire.) Furthermore, for the bike messenger, the cost for worn-out break pads and cables must be borne by him. Incidentally, numerous items can be purchased at cost from the company the messenger works for. Is this the return of the detestable “company store”? I think so. And when a messenger is victimized by theft—a virtual inevitability—he can end up forfeiting pay representing a week and a half or more just to buy another bike to get back on the job. In the end, nearly all liability falls on the messenger, a person who can’t even begin to pay for his own life or health insurance. Finally, on his meager salary, which probably hovers more in the neighborhood of $400 per week or less, he also, of course, has to pay tax.

And what about fuel costs. Naturally, bike messengers burn more calories than the average person. They must eat considerably more food, which in New York City can, again, put anyone back substantially. An estimate on that score, which was done by Ames, Iowa-based Bikes At Work, shows that a messenger requires roughly 3,000 more calories a day than the typical sedentary worker. I found that much of my income was literally eaten up: fruit venders around town tended to be the beneficiaries of my increased food needs.

In 1998, a self-employed Toronto foot courier named Alan Wayne Scott won a 16-year battle with the Canadian government to give him a tax deduction for the additional calories he needed to perform in his job. As yet, the U.S. tax code does not allow for this kind of break, even though counting fuel costs as a tax deduction for car use to run a business might as well be considered a God-given right.

Besides getting enough to eat, a messenger must strategize in order to pay the rent. He must ask himself how far away in bike miles from high-rent Manhattan—where all the work is—can he physically afford to live. He has to ration his energy carefully or suffer from exhaustion getting to and from his place of employment. With any luck, our messenger actually lives in Manhattan, necessarily in a rent-stabilized apartment and not far from his first pick up. But that’s probably too much luck to ask for.

Which leads me to how the terrorists won in post-9/11 America. Or rather, how the messengers, particularly in New York City, lost. Layers of increased security in the city’s office buildings only delay a messenger’s ability to get his packages to their destinations. Again, where seconds are counting for a person paid by the job, those layers only work to hurt him. From a civil liberties point of view, the messenger just better assume the security cameras are on him almost incessantly. To get into buildings these days doesn’t exactly necessitate a cavity search. Yet a messenger usually has to sign in with the lobby guard. He may be subjected to interrogation if he lacks proper identification. And his packages may have to be electronically scanned. It all adds up to costly delays for the messenger. One time I was asked to talk into a little ball of a video camera to state my name, messenger number, and firm. No doubt in a computer somewhere that file still takes up disk space for all of posterity. How long will it be before messengers are implanted with homing devises to track their every move via global positioning systems?

Besides security, another time eater is actually finding addresses. Experience counts here, although no messenger is going to know every building in the city. With each pick up or delivery, I hoped that I was going to be lucky and the address would match the one in the E-mail from my dispatcher. Half the time it didn’t. The real address was more likely than not a “messenger center,” which was perhaps 10 to 50 yards away from the address of the building. Usually, I had already parked my bike, so all the more would I be losing valuable seconds and even minutes getting to the real address.

Who’s benefitting?

So what is so important that it has to be messengered same-day across town? I almost never knew for sure what I had in my bag, but usually I had a hunch. I feel pretty certain none of it was contraband, although, again, I never really knew. From the sizes, shapes, origins, and destinations of the packages, I figured that often it’s check that are being transferred. Blueprints are another thing hitching a ride. A model’s portfolio may need careful handling, the kind that cannot be trusted even to an overnight firm. A stack of one-of-a-kind magazines: these need special services as well. In the garment trade, I’ve found, wholesale items are reviewed by buyers on the spot. They need 90-minute turn-arounds, too. In the end these are just a few of the kinds of items that legitimately need quick transport, that which can only be provided via bicycle.

Goodie bags? These could go overnight, but would lack a bit of panache going that route. Then again, there is that ready work force waiting, willing, and eager. And so it happens that messenger companies have strangely come to see the overnighters—FedEx, DHL, and the like—as their competition, matching prices with them. Who wouldn’t go for the faster method if it didn’t mean paying more.

So without a union and without adequate labor laws to protect him, a messenger delivers packages for roughly $15 a piece, out of which he makes a small cut. The service ought go for $25, and the messenger provided a living wage. But first, the words “ought” and “should” don’t have a place in market economies. And second, the word “wage” is a misnomer. Again, messengers are normally paid by the job. So, ultimately low-ball prices translate into low-ball pay for messengers.

A company like Breakaway—and I don’t mean to pick on them—keeps competitive by offering same-day turn-arounds for the price of overnighting. People who could afford to pay more for the luxury of a ninety-minute turnaround are, without knowing it, placing the burden of such a bargain on the shoulders of the lowly messenger. In turn, the people who regularly send those gift bags, or whatever else, soon grow to expect the insanely low prices.

Out and around

An E-mail comes in on my two-way. I dismount to write down seven pieces of information on my manifest for each job. Unlike FedEx or DHL, the information is never available to me in an electronic format. I must make a detailed entry for each package I pick up and deliver. If any bit of the information is missing I can be docked for the job. If I don’t get a signature upon drop off, similarly, I will not be paid. And ultimately, if I lose a package, I’m fired on the spot.

If I screw up anywhere along the way—a real possibility under the pressure to get as many packages as I can delivered within the course of a day—I can pay for it dearly. And even if I don’t screw up, people at a pick-up location may not be ready for me. So I wait. In my case, I couldn’t receive compensation for a customer’s delay until “wait time” amounted to ten minutes. Nine minutes would not cut it.

Messengering can be full of frustration, yet people I ran into at times could be terribly nice, too. In one instance, for which the word nice is scarcely adequate, happened when I inadvertantly forgot to properly fasten my secondary lock back on to my bike at a stopping point. It inevitably fell off onto the street as I rode away. I would’ve had to fork over a day-and-a-half’s take-home pay for a new lock if it weren’t for a little old lady in tennis shoes, literally, who raced frantically after me on what appeared to be a BMX stunt bike for four blocks. Acutely embarrassed by the situation, I thanked the woman profusely—something she simply shrugged off.

I’ve seen acts of kindness in this town, but rarely to this extreme. Afterward, I knew I could never make generalizations about New York City again. I couldn’t have bought this one with a credit card, as they say. No. This was something that was truly priceless.