Sunday, November 3, 1991

Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine Article on Messengers

Pedestrians May Swear At Bicycle Messengers, But Companies Swear By Them

By William H. Duvall III

Rolling down the center of a Loop street, pumping hard on the pedals of his mud-spattered black mountain bike, riding the median with its cracks and bumps, flowing with and against mid-morning traffic, stopping at stop signs and red lights only when survival dictates, the bicycle messenger goes about his appointed rounds servicing commerce and industry and, occasionally, even senders of flowers.

Dropping off, picking up, vulnerable to all the vicissitudes of Chicago weather, even more vulnerable to injuries inflicted by cabs and car doors and road conditions, he is a hardy, hustling breed of urban cat. No matter the weather, the pollution index or their physical or mental state, the two-wheel couriers pedal for eight to ten hours a day, racking up a minimum of 60 miles in the process and invariably pushing into the city's omnipresent wind, their most dreaded adversary.

The world of the bicycle messenger is a blend of hurry-up commerce and gritty aerobics and comprises a revolving roster of characters and personalities - students, family men, multiple jobholders, free spirits and transients - nearly all of whom speak of the sense of freedom, a word not often used in job descriptions, that they experience when mounted and moving.

Of the approximately 72 messenger companies in Chicago, Cannonball Inc. and Chicago Messenger Service are the largest. Cannonball, with 75 to 100 two-wheel workers, and CMS, with 80, also have large fleets of drivers servicing the city and suburbs. The two firms deliver anywhere in the country and offer worldwide service. Cannonball is the city's oldest such business, dating to 1933, and receives between 1,600 and 2,000 phone orders a day in addition to its regularly scheduled daily routes. Chicago Messenger Service isn't far behind.

A few firms employ messengers on foot who usually work assigned routes, but these couriers are a relatively small percentage of the messenger force. "Bike messengers," says Jack Rozran, Cannonball's chairman, "are the fastest, most efficient method of carrying and delivering light packages in the downtown area." Says Milt Buzil, general manager of Chicago Messenger Service, "There is no quicker way to get around Loop traffic."

And get around it they do. Adherence to traffic laws often takes a back seat, making the maneuvers of the bike messenger - the darting between moving vehicles, the traveling the wrong way on one-way streets, the riding on sidewalks (also illegal), the scattering of pedestrians - as common a downtown sight as panhandlers and gridlock.

What is so important that it must be transported so feverishly? It isn't always a question of importance or urgency but simply a matter of being the quickest, most efficient way of conducting business. A video, of course, cannot be faxed; nor can an oversized graphic illustration; nor can a signature. And, of course, the couriers are paid by the delivery, not by the hour.

Accounting firms, law offices, banks and other financial institutions are the biggest daily users of messengers. Arthur Andersen & Co., which uses four different services, averages about 250 orders a day, according to Carlos Chavarria, the accounting firm's operations manager. "On busy days, such as April 15, we may do 300 or 400 orders," he says.

Video and film postproduction companies, publishers, newspapers, talent agencies, photographers and design studios also rely on bike messengers every day. Computer parts and just about anything under 10 pounds can be sent by bike.

The messengers, though, usually do not know what they're transporting - their job is simply to pick up and deliver. When they do find out, though, it can be a shocker. Dave Janis, a Cannonball dispatcher who worked the streets for five years, once picked up a box at the First National Bank of Chicago, put it into his bicycle basket and blithely made several other stops, not realizing that there was $30,000 in singles neatly packaged and stacked inside the carton. Someone had made a mistake, though: Messengers, as a matter of policy, do not transport cash.

They don't carry contraband either - not in Chicago. But in New York an enterprising soul used bike messengers to run a $30,000-a-day drug operation that delivered marijuana anywhere in Manhattan. Before he was busted, the entrepreneur, one Michael Cesar, the self-styled "Pope of Pot," would dispatch a biker with marijuana after a customer placed an order on his toll-free line, 1-800-WANT-POT.

The rigors and frustrations of the job, which also include waiting for slow elevators and dealing with imperious security guards, not surprisingly contribute to a high turnover rate. That fact, coupled with the reluctance of some firms to reveal employee counts, makes it difficult to accurately calculate the number of bike messengers in Chicago. Estimates, though, range from at least 400 to as many as 600 or 700. Only a comparative handful are women.

The maximum number of deliveries in a day for most hard-core messengers is generally considered to be in the 60s. But Cannonball's George Christensen, who has been riding three to four days a week for a year and a half, might hold the one-day record with 73.

"It was a complete fluke," Christensen says. "I think I worked 11 hours." He was already having "a really good day," he says, when he made one pickup that entailed having to deliver press releases to 24 different stops.

Speed, quite obviously, is key, and a number of companies claim to be the fastest. Two, Velocity and Deadline Express, guarantee 30-minute service and treat every order as such unless one-hour service, which is cheaper, is specified. Velocity's half-hour rate of six dollars is the lowest in the city. Deadline charges $6.50. These rates apply only in the downtown area.

All of this pell-mell pedaling is sure to generate an appetite, yet there's no such thing as lunch hour or break time in the messenger racket. When a delivery is a rush order, that doesn't mean after you've finished eating. Cannonball's Christensen says he usually eats on the run, between deliveries, while he's waiting for the dispatcher to call his number over the radio. He always comes to work with his bag well supplied with nuts, bite-sized candy bars, fruit and sandwiches. When his food supply is depleted, he knows he can always stop by the Wacker Drive ad agency that sets out baskets of apples for hungry passersby.

Christensen's eating habits and health consciousness may be more the exception than the rule. Most bike messengers tend to be junk-food junkies rather than health-food freaks, so most opt for the fast and cheap. "Everything downtown is expensive," says one delivery man, "so I usually just grab a dog, a burger or a beef sandwich. I can't think about what I'm going to eat for lunch at 6:30 in the morning, let alone make it."

The weather? The worse, the better, the real pros assert - it means the day will be all the more lucrative. Bad weather usually does not affect the demand (for deliveries), but invariably it will influence the supply (of messengers). "When it rains," Christensen says, "it means the dispatchers will be calling my number more often, which means I'll be making more money."

Inclement weather, seasoned riders say, separates the men from the boys. Only the hard-core courier can wake up in the morning and smile at the news of an overnight blizzard or a period of heavy rain, high humidity or subzero cold.

One messenger who not only accepts the harsh realities of the street but seems to thrive on them in some twisted way goes by the name Rock 'n' Roll (otherwise, Jonathan Elseng). The 35-year-old Rock, a man who probably is lucky be alive, is the godfather of the hard-core messengers, the rebel rider "with an attitude problem," a man well known in messenger circles. Currently with Deadline, he has been riding for 10 winters, a measure of time used by the veterans to calculate true tenure. Hardy survivor Rock has a steel plate in the back of his head, several pins in his right knee, scars all over his body, and he walks like a cowboy who has been on horseback too long. He has fractured his skull, broken his right shoulder, his tailbone, his right ankle, both knees, both wrists and many ribs. In 1981 he was sandwiched between two buses, and both his knees were crushed. In 1987 he slammed into an open car door. The edge of the door cut through several ribs, the momentum causing him to flip over the door and land under the tailpipe of a cab.

Such life-threatening experiences might cause some people to consider a career change or, at least, to exercise more caution. Not Rock. "They actually made me more aggressive," he says. "Does Richard Petty stop racing just because he crashes? I'm a concrete cowboy riding with steel cattle."

Gabriel Morales is another messenger notable, but for a different reason - he is arguably the fastest and the highest-paid messenger on wheels. And perhaps the most independent. Unlike 99 percent of his brethren, he doesn't work for a messenger company.

After a period of dues-paying - 3 1/2 years with Cannonball, a year each with Metro Express and On Time Couriers Ltd. and a short stint with Deadline Express - Morales approached the owner of a graphics firm about being its sole, private messenger. Though skeptical at first, Chuck Anzo, owner of Anzo Graphics, finally agreed, and Morales has been riding for the company exclusively for the last year and a half.

Many of Anzo's deliveries are urgent and on a deadline, requiring immediate attention and expeditious transport.

Handed one such envelope recently, one destined for a client in the Amoco Building, Morales bolted through the glass doors of Anzo's offices at LaSalle and Chicago. Mounted on one of his dozen or so bikes, he burned a zigzag trail south on LaSalle, east on Illinois, blowing through the intersection while casually sipping a can of 7-Up, steering with one hand, his head cocked toward the sky. Then it was south again, on State, where he dismounted and carried his bike down a flight of stairs to continue east on Hubbard, then south on Lower Wabash. Dismounting again, he climbed another flight of stairs to emerge from behind the Wrigley Building, then he headed south on Michigan, east on Wacker and south on Stetson Drive to 200 E. Randolph, the Amoco Building, where he hopped off his still-rolling bike, swung it against a pole, secured it with a black U-shaped lock and moved through the revolving glass doors.

Walking through a lobby filled with businessmen and women in pin-striped suits, Morales, wearing black Nike leggings, a blue Gore-tex windbreaker, lightweight mountain boots, fingerless gloves and his helmet and bag, delivered the goods.

That one delivery was worth $5 to Morales, which may not sound like a lot, but it is at least a dollar more than he'd receive working for a messenger firm. As an independent contractor, he keeps 100 percent of what he bills the graphics firm, minus taxes.

Morales' personal quota is 40 runs a day, although he has no control over how many he will get. But 40 at $5 each is $200 a day, or $1,000 a week. Some weeks, however, aren't that lucrative. In fact, during the last six months, Morales, because of the recession and other business fluctuations, has had weeks that were worth only a couple of hundred dollars.

Some of that income, of course, must be invested in his rolling stock. The day he was first hired as a messenger, Morales borrowed $13 to buy a heavy old bike from a thrift store. His most recent purchase, though, was an $800 Cannondale mountain bike that can be lifted, literally, with two fingers.

Successful or not, Morales is still vulnerable to his occupation's hazards. Last February he was hit by a car doing about 30 miles an hour. It was dark, the car had no lights, and Morales, riding south on North Wells Street, had run a red light at West Ontario. The impact lifted him and his bike onto the hood of the car and carried them almost a block away, where he was dumped back onto the street when the car abruptly stopped. Amazingly, he suffered only minor cuts and bruises. But it could have been different: A large four-inch chunk of plastic was missing from his helmet.

"These things are 90 bucks a pop," he says, incredulously, "and that was the third one in six months."

Yes, Morales concedes, the world of the bicycle messenger is "not for everybody. I've got three kids to support. If I could make the kind of money I'm earning as a messenger sitting behind a desk, I would."

But not all would agree. "It's the greatest job in the world," says a fellow man of the street. "I hope I'm doing it until I'm 50. The only other thing I'd really like to be is a stuntman."

GRAPHIC: PHOTOS (color): Bicycle messengers from a number of Chicago messenger services gather at the site of the former Erie Street Bridge, where some of them go to party after work. Opposite page: Messenger Jonathan Elsing on one of his deliveries.
PHOTOS (color): Above: Elsing poses with a graffito he painted himself of his messenger nickname. Far left and left: Gabriel Morales astride his bike and retrieving it after making a delivery at 676 St. Clair St. PHOTOS BY JAMES F. QUINN, a Tribune photographer.