Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Urban Flow, Bike Messengers and the City"

Bike messengers have been the subject of a few books and movies and dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, and now with "Urban Flow, Bicycle Messengers and the City," a PhD dissertation that has been published as a 240-page book.

Jeffrey Kidder was languishing in graduate school at the University of Georgia, not sure if he was really doing what he wanted to be doing, when he read "The Immortal Class, Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power," the highly acclaimed book by Chicago messenger Travis Culley. He was so infected by Culley's enthusiasm for the job, he quit school and went to New York to take up the profession. Before he left a professor suggested he make a master thesis of the experience. He wasn't sure if he would or not, though he plunged into the job taking "copious field notes" and regarded himself as a "researcher." This was in 2002 and he was 25 years old.

He thoroughly lived the life, spending a year on the job before returning to school to work on his thesis. Four years later he continued his research for ten months in Seattle. Then he did a final stint of messengering in San Diego while earning a doctorate at the University of California, San Diego. He is presently an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Northern Illinois University.

His research also included reading whatever he could find on the subject, even a "Chicago Tribune" Sunday magazine article "Pedestrians May Swear at Bicycle Messengers, But Companies Swear By Them" from 1991 that featured me. He limits himself to just six quotes from "The Immortal Class," though only four are listed in the index. The book also is a year off on its publication date, giving it as 2002, rather than 2001. Otherwise there was little to find fault with in this quite readable and insightful portrayal of the world of bike messengers. Kidder may not have the literary flair of Culley, but he is a genuine writer having worked as a journalist in Boston before trying graduate school.

He does lapse into high-falutin scholarly prose from time to time, almost requiring a decoder to understand, but it is largely a most entertaining account of what it is like to be a messenger. Even though only five per cent of messengers in New York, and not much more elsewhere, are women, for some reason that he does not explain he uses the slightly distracting "she" rather than "he" when he needs a pronoun to refer to the generic messenger.

He doesn't shy from profanity when quoting messengers, using the f-word 18 times, a little less than half of the 44 sprinkled throughout Culley's book, but significantly fewer than the 98 in the very gritty and authentic "Nerves of Steel," by Rebecca "Lambchop" Reilly, published in 2000, a book he also references a couple of times. He refers to Reilly as a "folk historian." Unlike "The Immortal Class," her book is not easy to find. Similar to Culley she got her start in Chicago. She went on to messenger in eight other cities. Her book includes a legendary incident involving me when the most hated bicycle cop in Chicago at the time, "Hollywood Jack," crashed into a pedestrian when he was chasing after me.

Kidder divides messengers into two categories--those who are doing it simply as a job (occupational) and those who do it because they love it and it defines them (lifestyle). The majority are in the latter category, as was I. I'm presently on sabbatical, but the book had me hungering to be back out there on the streets riding like a man possessed. I am one of the microscopic minority to have stuck with it more than ten years, truly loving it and making it my life. Few even last a year, many quitting soon after they start, not realizing how demanding a job it is. Kidder too was initially overwhelmed by how exhausted and hungry it left him, often konking out at the end of the day even before he could finish his dinner.

But he stuck with it and grew to love it and its culture and the messengers he came to know. He continually refers to the job as "fun" and "play" and not just play, but "Deep Play," the title of one of his chapters. The prime objective of his research, "the sociological puzzle" he wanted to solve, was "why messengers find meaning in a seemingly menial occupation." His conclusion was that messengers have "creative control" over their work, making it seem more like play than work.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect he discovers of the "job" is that messengers love their vocation so much they duplicate it on weekends competing in underground alleycat races that simulate their work day. It is unfathomable to think that people in other occupations would want to spend their weekend playing at their work. The phenomenon is a constant theme of his book. He alludes to how dangerous these races can be, as is the job, but he doesn't mention the fatality in a Chicago alleycat race on a Sunday morning a few years ago when a racer flew through a red light, curtailing them here for a few years.

The alleycat races support another of his theses that messengers appropriate the city for their own use. It is their space and they live by their own laws, defying traffic signals and other behavioral norms. They regard themselves as outlaws able to do whatever they want even doing graffiti or drinking on the job.

The delight messengers have for riding hell-bent in an urban environment and wanting to do it even when they're not being paid truly defines the lifestyle messenger. When I visited a messenger friend in New York, I was thrilled to go out and ride with him for a day, to experience what it was like to messenger in the Big Apple. When a messenger friend from London visited me in Chicago, the highlight of his visit was tagging along with me for a day on the job. The pay may not be the best, but that's not what attracts people to the job. It is their love of biking and the freedom from an office environment the job allows and the sense of community it gives them. It may not be the most respected of professions, but if I were ever to expand upon my Confessions and write a memoir of my own, I would call it "Proud to be a Messenger."

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