» Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]


 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]


 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum

March 12, 2008
Firing through the Chicago loop, he looks like a bullet on 27-inch wheels. The reason for moving through traffic at such an untouchable velocity rests snugly in his bag: a small brown box he's committed to delivering, a high-priority package headed to one of many downtown businesses. Pressed fpr time, hangs back in the draft of a taxi in front of him, waiting, looking for the right moment to slingshot around the cab and forward into traffic. The taxi pulls over. He veers hard right to slip between the car and the sidewalk. The passenger door opens. In a split second his momentum is crushed as he hits the open door at full speed, catapulted from his bike and sent soaring into the street. For a moment he is sliding on just his bare knuckles, a twisted and bloody hand ballet, until his hip slams into the pavement and the rest of his body joins the gore. But then, remarkably, just as quickly as he was felled he springs back up. Ignoring his taco'd front wheel and the hematoma forming on his hip, he's on his feet and bringing down hell on the terrified passenger stepping out of the cab, swinging bloody hands and screaming loud enough for his voice to carry over every taxi horn within a ten mile radius.

One of the most painful and most common tales, being doored by an absent-minded motorist is just one story on a long list that bike messengers like Bob Monahan recall all too clearly. In June of 2006 the crew at 4 Star Courier, the first bike messenger collective in Chicago, collectively told the Chicago Reader the same thing: bicycle messengers are working too hard and being paid too little for too many close calls. Still, there's something they get from the saddle of a battered and weather-beaten bike that they'll never find behind the eyes or between the legs of any significant other. For some, riding a bike is the ultimate booty call. For messengers, it's their first kiss, drunken hookup, and baby's momma all rolled into one.

As sexy as it sounds, being a bike messenger isn't on the top of the job que for career-seekers on a thrill binge. There are enemies car owners take for granted.

"The worst days were in all day rain," Monahan says. "At some point everything, no matter how fancy the fabric, will saturate and leave you miserable. Your pens don't work for signatures, your package manifest is unreadable, smeared and shredded, and people drive even worse. The skin on your feet and hands prunes then later cracks, and everything smells bad. And, at the end of an exhausting day, you still need to clean the bike and everything you own."

The combination of poor weather and inattentive drivers can lead to horrific accidents that cause messengers to decide to retire from the industry, or retire from life, in a matter of seconds. But sometimes the wrecks aren't accidents. In Peter Sutherland's film Pedal, a documentary about New York City's bike messengers, a cab driver divulges his modus operandi for handling bikers. "I'm riding and this guy just zooms right in front. I don't have a chance to stop evenů So then I get mad and I go up to the next light and he's going straight and I'm turning, I'll wait till he comes close and then I'll turn to sort of show him that he better learn a lesson," he says.

Now, if our cab driver buddy decided to rear end a UPS van and screw up the guy's neck, the cab company would be lawyering up and ducking for cover like they were players in Erin Brockovich. Unfortunately, courier services aren't the UPS, and the difference in job benefits, not to mention respect, is like night and day.

Donny Quixote, a bike messenger at four courier services in Chicago from 1998 to 2002, says the companies he worked for were shaky in the coverage department. "No company at the time managed taxes or health insurance. All messengers were hired as independent contractors," he says. "This freed the company from any financial burden if the messenger were to be injured on the job." If the injury kept a rider off the bike, they didn't work, and because of that they didn't eat.

Unfortunately, many messengers are in perfect health but still scrape to get food on the table. "There were weeks [when] 'rice and beans' were the only two words that mattered," says Jen Greenburg, who in 2004 started working as a bike messenger in Chicago but who had hung up her messenger bag by 2007. Though Greenburg had experienced a brief stint in her two-wheel servitude when she was making $700 a week, she also experienced stretches on unlivable wages of $300-400 a week. "We made 35- to 42-percent of each package, below the industry norm of 50-percent," she says, referring to the bike messengers' pay scale. This meant that for every package Greenburg delivered, she was paid less than half of the cost of delivery.

Bob Monahan, though having set the record for highest earnings at the company he worked for, was only averaging $300 to $500 for a full week. "I did it just for fun. It was a super-fun job for a student, and I didn't really have much responsibility at the time," he explains. Other couriers, like Donny Quixote, say they made the most money when they were being paid a flat salary which, depending on the company and the messenger's level of experience, could sometimes be as much as $150 per day. "With commission-based companies, I may have had a few weeks with greater pay, but most would be around $500 per week," Donny says.

While some riders are able to sustain themselves for years, unless you're a street beast like Donny Quixote the chances of making a comfortable living as a bike messenger are slim. And when you factor in the consistent risk of becoming a vegetable, the job just doesn't pay out as well as it should. "I quit being a messenger because I got sick of spending every day with my bike. That and motorists, irate drivers, crabby secretaries, drunk dispatchers, high co-workers, foul weather, and the ruining of every article of clothing I owned were turning me into a grumpy old man at 24," Donny says of his reasons for leaving the messenger community. And for as notoriously bike-obsessed as messengers are, his sentiment isn't uncommon. "I'm an accident magnet," says Greenburg. "I got hit pretty bad twice in two months, and I was in pain and grumpy all the time. To me, it started to feel like I really didn't belong and I was holding the flow of the collective back. But it was still hard for me to leave."

Dodging bitter cab drivers and burning through thousands of calories just to earn grocery money aren't the first things most people look for in a job. A bike messenger has to be quick, tough, and love what he does. "There were always the days that you had to pick up some huge box and take it somewhere," says Monahan. "It felt totally macho to be cruising the city with a box balanced on the handlebars between my elbows. Whenever that happened, other messengers would nod and laugh. There was a day that I had to pick up some guy's dry cleaning, too. It was pretty tough to negotiate. I loved that job."

Recounting his days on the bike, Monahan's tone starts showing tints of whimsy. "But the messenger hey-day has passed I think," he laments. "Small companies are not going to make it, and they're not as romantic as people make them out to be. Checks were volatile and the lack of benefits and representation made it an inherently exploitive industry. Messengering works well for people who have insurance from another source and have someone to bail them out if work dries up, or they get sick."

The risk is high, the pay is low, but the hearts are huge. While the trademarks of the lifestyle have become a potent flavor permeating the hipster/yuppie lifestyle - trendy San Francisco bagmaker Timbuk2 was purchased by a private equity firm in late 2005 after multiple years of up to 158-percent revenue growth - the actual use of bike messengers has steadily declined in recent years. Even so, more than 20 bike courier companies still exist in Chicago alone, leaving what is now a surplus of messengers fighting for the pay, the respect, and the survival of their culture. The number of calls may have dropped off, but most riders aren't dropping out. They've gone from flirting with the messenger life to kneeling down and giving it a ring. For them, it's for better or for worse.

SEE ALSO: www.bicyclemessenger.org
SEE ALSO: www.messengers.org

Max Plenke
No biographical information is currently available.

See other articles by Max Plenke.



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