Friday, May 1, 1998

Confessions of a Bicycle Messenger

(This article, published in the May 1998 issue of "Chicago's Amateur Athlete," nearly got me fired. My dispatcher said he was only able to save my job, even though I was as good a messenger as he had, because I didn't mention the company I worked for.)

I am a bicycle messenger. Need I confess more? I ride through red lights and stop signs. I ride the wrong way down one-way streets. I ride on the sidewalk. I dart amongst cars and slash through pedestrians.

I startle people and don't slow to beg their pardon. I am so used to being called "asshole" I take it as no offense. Give me a little tailwind or downhill or extra incentive and I'll exceed the speed limit. I'm continually flouting laws written and unwritten, but not with reckless intent or ill will, only to better serve my client and my dispatcher.

Being in a rush, being under deadline all day makes me behave with a little less concern for others than when I'm a civilian. I don't step aside for those I might otherwise, though I don't try to be brusque about it.

I edge to the front of elevators so I can be the first one out. I speed up to be the first one to revolving doors. I'll pass others on escalators. I'll sprint to make an elevator and will thrust my arm into the slimmest of openings as the elevator doors close. Condemn me if you will for such behavior, but I take pride (which I know is one of the Deadlies) in being so committed.

I try to avoid security guards and their petty policies at all costs. Some have nothing better to do than to harass messengers. If a security guard isn't looking in one of those buildings that make us jump through one hoop or another before being allowed to make a delivery (signing in, presenting ID, leaving our bag, taking a freight elevator, being finger-printed), I'll go directly to the elevator and spare myself the hassle.

If I must sign in, I don't bother to write my full name or take the pains to make it all that legible. Nor do I bother to check my watch so I can provide the exact time. I'll push revolving doors clockwise, rather than counter-clockwise, in the handful of buildings that by doing so I can avoid the security guard's line of vision. And there are times when I'll use the conventional swing doors even when they say, "Please use the revolving door," to save a few steps and a second or two.

Aboard the elevator, if I'm not going to the top floor, I'll push that button anyway and then push the down button after I exit the elevator so it will be there when I complete my delivery. Or if I'm going to the top floor, I might leave my bag in the elevator door to keep the elevator there if my drop-off or pick-up is within site of the elevator.

When I am kept waiting, I do not appreciate it, especially if it is a willful act. If a receptionist chooses to ignore me when I present her with a delivery that she must sign for, I have no qualm about dripping sweat or rain or melted snow on her work station. If she prolongs my wait, I'll take a peanut from my pocket and leave her the shell. I'll help myself to two rather than one of the candies on her desk. Make it longer and I'll have another, thank you.

I don't even pause for more than a passing greeting, if even that, if I encounter a friend. It's go, go, go and I don't like to let up. I become a man obsessed, though not the monster some people perceive messengers to be.

I'm just someone who cares about doing his job too well. Of course, some incentive is provided by the fact I'm paid by the delivery. That is a motivation, but even more so is the satisfaction in reaching a certain number of deliveries each day, whether it be 40 or 50 or 60 or even the occasional "miracle 70" delivery day. It is a thrill to reach any of the upper echelons, just as it is for a basketball player to score a lot of points.

Every day is a race to see how many deliveries I can make. When I have a lot, it only inspires me to go for more, maybe a record. It is always exhilarating to ride my bike all day with one all-out burst of speed after another. My blood is raging and head spinning with all the adrenaline and endorphins the exertion has stirred up.

More often than not, I am sorry to see my days end, especially if I am closing in on a distant goal. I want the orders to keep pouring in so I can keep riding. When the work runs out, which may happen any time between 4:30 and six, my only solace is I get to do it again the next day or after the weekend.

Yes, I do love my work, maybe too much. I don't even mind bad weather. I almost welcome it. When it's snowing or raining or the temperature is in single-digits and I'm told all day, "I don't know how you guys do it," it makes me stand a little taller.

It is an addiction of a sort. I always have loved riding my bike. To be paid to do so is almost too good to be true. I should long ago have given up the messengering and moved on to something more befitting a college graduate, or so society tells me, but it's too much fun and fulfilling and more than meets my needs, financial and otherwise.

When I first began, almost ten years ago now, I only did it out of curiosity. As an ardent cyclist who had ridden across the United States and Australia and to the tip of South America and felt beckoned by any and all roads, I had long wondered what it would be like to be a messenger. When I had a spare month between a job and the departure for another tour, I at last gave it a try.

My initial reaction was to be damn glad I was only dong this for the hell of it, and not out of any need, as it was more physically demanding that I could have expected and was a minefield of aggravations. I couldn't imagine sticking to it for any length of time. I could understand why not even one in ten messengers last two months.

I thought I was in tip-top shape, but I ended my days utterly depleted with barely the energy to pedal home after work. But more disheartening and frustrating than the fatigue was learning all the intricacies of the job, wasting energy and time by not knowing the best place to lock my bike at each building and which door was the closest to the particular elevator I had to go to. And then there was continually being reprimanded by security guards for not knowing their building's policy regarding delivery personnel.

Most buildings allow messengers to go in and out as if they worked there and weren't some alien species, but about a third of them have special demands that only can be learned over time. Some don't even allow messengers to enter, making them go to their receiving docks, which might be on Lower Wacker Drive or off in an alley. I cringed upon entering each building, waiting for some security guard to pounce on me and send me off on another run-around.

Another headache in those early days was learning which firms only accept deliveries at their mailrooms. Among the most dreaded words a messenger can hear are, "Sorry, you'll have to take it to the mailroom," especially if it's on another floor. It can be positively exasperating if it's only one floor away and the receptionist won't allow the messenger to use the inner-office stairway. Before one learns the many do's and don'ts of the job and is forced to suffer all the indignities of a ball in a pinball machine, it can be very nerve-racking and reason enough to give up.

There was much to be learned, much, much more than I ever anticipated. I enjoyed being on my bike all day in a different environment, but I was looking forward to my next adventure in a distant land, not knowing if I would return to it or not.

While I was off riding in Central America, my thoughts kept returning to messengering. It was then that I realized I was hooked. I truly missed the non-stop intensity and the challenge the job offered. I craved the drug-like rush of riding hell-bent in traffic, holding three orders that all had to be delivered in the next 15 minutes. I missed the rapport I had with my dispatcher and the anticipation of the next set of orders he would give me and where they would take me. And I missed the camaraderie with my fellow biking junkies.

I was also surprised to discover I had developed an affection for the many buildings that comprise my playground in the Loop. I missed them as I would miss a friend and looked forward to getting back to them. Each has a distinctive personality and a multitude of alluring features from the art work in their lobbies to the buttons in their elevators.

I was away for two months and couldn't wait to return. That was almost ten years ago, and my fondness for the job has only grown. I still get away, but not as often or for as long as I'd like, despite earning more money than I ever have and having he freedom to come and go as I please. I just enjoy it too much. I can't make a greater confession than that. So there.

(George Christensen barely found time to write this article between his rounds in the city and his latest vacation, a bicycle adventure to Cuba. If you see a messenger with a yellow helmet and blond beard, it might be George. Say hi to him. If he's not too busy, he might say hi back.)