Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Le Mans, France

Friends: Its eight years now since Florence 115 ended her seven-year career as a Chicago bicycle messenger when she returned to France with her husband Rachid, but her memories of those years on the streets of Chicago are as vivid and fond as if she were still on the job. She echoes the sentiments of many a messenger, including me, saying "It was the best job I ever had," a job she would gladly resume to if she ever returns to Chicago.

On the third evening of my visit with her in Tours, she suggested we pull up the messenger instructional video on youtube we were both featured in from 2001 (enter "Chicago bike messenger video"). Neither of us had watched it in years. She admitted she was initially reluctant to participate in the project, as she feared if she gave away her secret short cuts and resting places and favorite toilets they would become well known and no longer of use to her. It was a false concern, as the video dealt more in the generalities of the profession than in specifics.

It opens with a commentary from one of the owners of a messenger company saying that it is a very exciting occupation, but also dangerous, but if one pays attention to the advice of the messengers in this video, one can learn to ride safely . Then one sees a messenger speeding through the city and a voice-over from me saying how it almost seems like a miracle than one can pick up a package on the 38th floor of the Board of Trade and then five minutes later be delivering it on the 32nd floor of the IBM building a mile away.

I am also given the final words of the documentary, saying I was glad that I only undertook the job as a lark. But it cuts me off before I was able to explain that the job was initially much, much more taxing than I anticipated, both physically and mentally, learning the many intricacies of the job. It is initially quite frustrating wasting time and energy before one learns the closest place to lock one's bike to each building and the elevator bank that one is going to and each building's policy regarding messengers, as some require messengers to enter via its dock or to sign in with a security guard or to leave one's bag with the guard or use a freight elevator or go to a messenger center or jump through some other unknown hoop. One cringes before entering each building fearful that a security guard will pounce upon him as if he is on a most-wanted list for violating the building's messenger policy.

Both Florence and I agreed that the first couple of weeks of the job are quite overwhelming, as there is so much to learn. The documentary ignored this. The job is so trying those first few weeks that most messengers quit. It is not the glorious, romantic calling they envisioned, nor necessarily as lucrative as they had hoped. The company I worked for my entire 18 year career paid a bonus of 50 dollars to anyone who recruited someone who lasted two months.

My two key pieces of advice to any recruit was to be patient with conditioning your body to the job and learning its ins and outs and also not to antagonize your dispatcher. The documentary could have been more useful if it had included a dispatcher giving advice, as no one could better offer advice on what is expected of a messenger. The only mention of a dispatcher was one messenger saying one ought to give his dispatcher gifts, implying that it is necessary to bribe him if one wants good work. That's a myth clung to by lesser messengers, not wishing to acknowledge that the reason they don't do as many deliveries as other messengers is that others are better, preferring to think that the dispatcher is simply showing favoritism and that he needs to be bought off. If one simply works hard and serves his dispatcher well, the dispatcher will want to keep such a messenger happy and will do good by him as well.

A dispatcher immediately recognizes a good messenger and will want to keep him working. Florence said that within a week her dispatcher asked her if she intended on working through the winter. He was hoping so, and if she was, he wanted to keep her happy. After my first day on the job, my dispatcher was impressed enough by my performance to ask me if I had ever messengered before. This was after asking me at the start of the day if I could remember how to ride a bike, as I started when I was 38, older than just about anyone else working. I didn't tell him that I'd just returned from a six-month, 10,000 mile ride to the tip of South America. I knew my performance would speak for itself. So my key piece of advice for any aspiring messenger is go hard and keep your mouth shut. Don't complain. Impress your dispatcher and he will want to keep you on the job. They don't like training new hires, as it takes a couple months for one to thoroughly learn the job.

Florence and I were jabbering away non-stop sharing memories of dispatchers and fellow messengers and incidents on the job and the exhilaration of being on our bikes all day flying all over the city, ending each day with great satisfaction. When the 20 minute video ended, we couldn't stop with youtube. There were quite a few more videos on Chicago messengers we knew well and our much revered romping grounds. All of a sudden it was three a.m.

Like being on the job, as exhausting as it can be, it is quite infectious and revitalizing. The day just flies by. We're battling deadlines all day, trying to slow down the clock rather than speeding it up as on most jobs.I never wanted my days to end. I always wanted one more delivery to keep it going.It didn't matter that it was so late, as Florence didn't have to go to work the next day. It was a holiday, though a holiday she wasn't paid for as to meet France's budgetary deficit everyone on this day donated their day's pay to the government pension fund for retirees.

Even before watching all the messenger videos, we had had the usual fine time reliving our shared messenger past as we bicycled around Tours. Florence still rides with a poetic grace and smoothness that is a pleasure to trail behind. She is one who loves to ride her bike and admits she needs to. If she doesn't, she feels bad. We have wanted to go off on a mini-tour together, something she has never done, but once again it didn't work out. Next time we both hope it will.

Still it was a pleasure to just meander around Tours together. We had the project of looking for abandoned bikes, as Florence needed some shifters for her bike. At the university we found three of them, one with just what we were looking for. In our rounds around the city, we also found another abandoned bike with a similar shifter and also with a traditional set of handlebars such as she would like.

In our meanderings we also came across an organization that was giving away fruit and vegetables to encourage people to eat more of them to combat cancer. It was the end f h day, so they were no longer giving away samples, but rather handfuls of grapefruits and apples and carrots and cherries and cucumbers and more. None of it was organic, which Florence tries to be faithful to, but I happily filled my backpack. It wasn't the only free food we came upon. Back at her apartment complex someone had left a dozen 200 gram containers of brie cheese out. Florence can't stand the smell, though Rachid occasionally brings some home. She allowed me to bring in several of them triple wrapped in plastic.

The city hall of Tours, one of the more impressive in France fittingly in chateau country, had a gathering of some thirty woman authors, each sitting at her own table with a stack of her books. Just down the street was a market of people selling odds and ends, each paying four euros for a table. We had gone in search of the local Emmaus, a chain of resale stores similar to the Salvation Army, but when we found it learned that it had moved. It was too late to go to the new location, so this market sufficed. I was in search of reading material. There was none in English here, but Florence still was happy to peruse all the clothe. Making the rounds of the many resale shops of Chicago was one of her passions.

The Tour de France will be passing within 25 miles of Tours on the seventh stage from Le Mans to Chateauroux. I will be too pressed for time to swing over for another quick visit with Florence and Rachid, but its possible that they might join me on the route when I pass.

The Tour stage will begin at the same stadium in Le Mans where its world famous 24-Hour car race is staged. It was this very weekend. All the television coverage overlapped the week-long Criterium de Dauphine bicycle race I had been hoping to watch. It is the final tune-up for The Tour for many riders. The car race has become such an accepted part of Le Mans, as I bicycled into the city there were no signs or banners or any indication that this huge event had just taken place.

From Le Mans I head north one hundred miles to the English Channel and then west to Brittany, previewing the first six stages of The Tour, now 18 days away.

Later, George

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