Bike, Bag and Lock – An Essay on ’80s NYC Courier Work
The 1980s is widely regarded as the golden age of bicycle courier work, a time where the earnings were in line with the risk and many parts of the urban bicycle culture we are a part of today were being formed. What follows is a long form essay from Jim Dunne on his time spent working the streets and of NYC, and the life lessons learned in the process.
The ad was simple and straightforward. Bike, bag and lock. I owned a gym bag with a strap and I had just enough money to buy a department store 10-speed and u-lock of dubious quality. I went to a pay phone and called the number in the ad, a brusque and guttural voice barked, “Hello, Sameday Courier.” I quickly asked about the ad, the person on the other end of the phone only replied, “Yeah, come at 8.” Thus began my decade long dysfunctional love affair with messengering.
I grew up in the Bronx and NJ and the Bronx again, my family moving at least once a year from the time I was a toddler. We were always short on money and I began working at anything that would put some money in the coffers. At 16 I had made the decision that all too many teens make, I would drop out of high school and find full time employment. Over the next year I worked a variety of dead end minimum wage gigs, I started at a five and dime and ended up telemarketing in midtown. Very quickly I realized with my lack of skill sets and limited education that this was my future. By this time I had moved out of my mother’s apartment. I had two roommates and low overhead but I wanted more than that. One roommate had recently taken a job as a foot messenger and he was making about $100 more weekly than I was in any of my recent career choices. I followed suit and my income did go up, not dramatically, but enough to see that this could be a turning point.
During the ’80s heyday of messenger work we all worked on commission, depending on the company you worked for and your attendance and effort you could earn 45 to 60% of the retail price of a delivery. The messenger company got the rest, which was quickly eaten up by overhead of running and staffing a business. Many companies came and went, a few survived and their proprietors became wealthy or at least comfortably middle class. A good foot messenger putting in a 10 hour day 5 days a week could take home $250-300 a week — minimum wage was $3.35 an hour at the time. My last paycheck telemarketing (with any sales bonuses included) was $129.60, my first messenger check was $189 and that was before I knew what I was doing.
The one thing I noticed right away was the bike messengers at the company, they were different. Some were flashy lycra demigods of the streets, others were more blue collar and some were artsy and intellectual. Most were standoffish with the foot messengers, it seemed we traveled in different circles, but a few would chat with me. I learned quickly that the bike messenger had the ability to earn, some bragging they would not get out of bed for less than $100 on the day. More than anything I wanted to make money and have a certain autonomy while making said money. After a month of foot messenger work I felt I needed to move into that world and join the ranks of bike messenger. Never mind the fact that I had not ridden a bike in at least three years (nor did I own a bike at the moment), desire and luck would guide me to success or at least keep me out of the back of an ambulance.
The company I was working for was in the summer slump that occurs in courier services, they over hire because they can. A lot of college and high school kids come in looking for work and some last the summer, but all depress the availability of work. This is what led me to respond to the “bike, bag and lock” ad in the Daily News that fateful day. I dutifully went to the local department store on Webster Avenue in the Bronx and bought a 30 lb beast of a road bike for $79, along with the required u-lock for another $15. It was the beginning of July 1984 and I had just paid my share of the rent and this purchase represented my life savings. In my mind there was no turning back.
I showed up at the given address of the messenger service, as with most messenger services of this time it was a hole in the wall in a brownstone basement in midtown. There were several people behind the counter in various stages of busy work. Some shouting into phones, others typing into a early computer terminal that probably cost the more than the net worth of the business. I was given a long shot downtown to the financial district. Just one job and it would take about 90 minutes to complete, mostly because I was terrified of riding the bike through traffic. This was the ’80s there were no bike lanes, just angry drivers and oblivious pedestrians. Upon completion of the run I called my dispatcher and caught hell for taking so long. In spite of how long it took me to complete the work he gave me another job, picking up in midtown and going back downtown. I am sure he had other messengers in midtown but this was paying my dues and a bit of punishment for taking so long with the previous job. The rest of my day went like this. I ended up pulling five runs, my total for the day was $28. I was extremely depressed and felt like a total failure, yet I was determined to make a go of this, what choice does a teenage dropout have? I returned at 7 am the following day, it was more of the same but I managed eight runs and netted about $45. This encouraged me. Again I returned the next day at 7 am and began my day uptown going downtown, then the thing I feared the most happened — I got doored at Broadway and 19th street. I did not experience that slow motion I-can-see-everything-clearly-now movie type accident, just a fast and bruising crash. I was on the ground and from what I could gather I was a little scraped up, but nothing major. The bike being a tank on wheels was fine. The driver cursed me, I cursed him and that was it, a simple ritual of the street and I was up and on my way to the delivery with a little story to tell my compatriots at the end of the day.
When the summer ended I went back to the messenger service where I had worked as a foot messenger. The messenger service that gave me a shot on the bike had not panned out, I could never crack more than $60 a day. Though $60 a day was a big jump in my income I wanted more. I had learned how to navigate the streets and how to get in and out of office buildings quickly. My legs had gotten strong and my mind was clear and focused. I learned the hard lesson that hesitation kills and that your first instincts on the street are almost always correct. I started to believe I could do better. Going back to the first messenger service proved to be a mixed bag.
Autumn in NYC is incredible riding weather and in general it has always been my favorite season. It is also the time when all the come and goes of summer return to school and the dispatchers can’t throw enough work your way. By December I was averaging $70-80 daily. This was a pretty big leap for me financially and it afforded me three things I needed to progress in my chosen profession —a decent bike, lock and some good riding gear. I bought a nice Lotus Espirit road bike, a good Kryptonite lock and a real messenger bag from DeMartini/Globe Canvas down on Mott Street in Chinatown.
Over the next year I was pretty consistent in my earnings, I had a nice income for a teenager, hell I was making more money than a lot of my relatives who had been in the workforce for decades. The money was important to me, I had nothing to fall back on. Something else happened, a lot of the messengers were artsy types, or well read and cerebral. I was at best a clever blue collar kid trying to eke out an existence. I was attracted to these people and I was learning about things I had never considered. At that time in my life I was extremely typical of my generation, listening to Motley Crue, drinking copious amounts of malt liquor and ingesting a number of street level pharmaceuticals. Basically making a dollar, and spending it in a weekend long stupor. The folks I worked with now talked about music I had never heard of, books I never considered, art that was absolutely foreign to me. One of the messengers I worked with was a very well known graffiti artist who had gallery shows in Soho. Another had played gigs with some pretty well known downtown musicians. One guys claim to fame was he had a small part in the movie “The Warriors.” All of this impressed me greatly. I had over the years sang in a number really bad metal bands, though what these guys did was real and honest. My career in the arts was a few basement shows and 3rd on a bill at CBGB’s on Monday night. Working with people like this changed my perspective and really opened me up to a lot of art and political ideology that were not on the menu for a kid from the South Bronx. The work itself exposed me to a number of things I would not have experienced otherwise. Every day I would enter galleries, showrooms, studios and at times museums (where I would often get lost for a couple of hours of wonderment).
Being a bike messenger opened up a new world, one I would not have experienced otherwise. One of the great mixed blessing of being a bike messenger is the way you work — you choose how you do every job that comes your way. You do not have a supervisor standing over you. The only direction you ever receive is a series of addresses and contacts for pick ups and deliveries. You choose your own path to completion. That level of autonomy is great on a number of levels. Unfortunately the downside is that it becomes extremely addictive, and makes moving on to a more stable form of employment a real challenge. I spent a decade off and on rocking the streets, I was a sometimes dispatcher and a fulltime bike messenger. I loved the adrenaline and the freedom, but like all good things I had to move on. For me being a bike messenger was an incredible learning experience. The downside never seemed so great as the upside. I had become a lycra glad demigod making a $100 a day, I had mastered the means streets and won.Submitted by Jim Dunne.
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