no luck, I headed to the Western Wall. I found a messenger there. He was a Latino, thrasher dude. I asked him if anyone was hiring. He told me to hook up with one of the big outfits, like Western Messenger.
Western Messenger is housed in an old warehouse located on Columbia Street, between Harrison and Folsom, near ground zero of SoMa’s dot-gone revolution. The entrance is vandalized by visitor pass stickers from security desks of buildings around the city. There’s a bike rack, and four junk chairs in front. The building is not just nondescript, it’s plain ugly.
I entered and spoke with Pattie, a severe woman standing behind security glass. She gave me an application and asked me some questions. “There’s nothing right now,” she told me. “When the weather’s nice, people deliver their own packages. If something comes up, I’ll let you know.” That was the end of my bicycle messenger ambition.
Ten days into my self-unemployment, the phone rings. It’s Pattie from Western Messenger. She tells me that there’s an opening. I abruptly take the offer over the phone.
A Day In The Life
How hard could it be to pick up and deliver packages? It ain’t easy. First things first. Once you become a messenger, you stop being a person. You are not Manuel, John, or whatever. You are assigned a number (mine having been 922) and are identified as such.
The process goes something like this. You sit around downtown at one of three spots intersecting Market where messengers from the various outfits congregate (The Western Wall; Battery and Bush; Montgomery and Post). You watch the people drift to work. As you sit talking with the characters of the messenger tribe, it comes; the first tag. The dispatcher tells you the name of the pickup client, the client’s address, and the delivery company. You transfer the information into the manifest, and you’re off. As you head off to the first pickup, you start receiving additional tags. Two, three or even four other destinations are coming in. You can’t review the information because you’re in flight. As you move through the city, you pass other messengers who surf the asphalt waves. Messengers acknowledge each other with a subdued nod, and move on—no pretense.
When you have collected your parcels, and have no additional instructions, you call in. You are told to either clean up or retrieve additional pickups. This process continues almost non-stop for the rest of the day. If you, reading this, work at a desk job or otherwise take for granted being able to use the restroom or take a break when the need arises, imagine being so pressed for time that it makes such niceties difficult. Granted, at some point, you’ll get a lunch break. But the timing and duration are uncertain, and if you need to piss at eleven in the morning, lunch at 1:17pm is a long time away.
Get Off My Freeway
When I say messengers are in flight, I’m being facetious, but just. There are rules of the road. Cars stop at red lights. People cross the street with the light. Traffic moves according to the direction required. These rules don’t apply to messengers. Messengers run red lights, go diagonally through intersections, cut off cars, ride fast on the sidewalk, and ride the wrong way down one-way streets with oncoming traffic. Messengers move with a liquid fluidity that transgresses the dangerous place in which they work and scares the drivers and pedestrians with whom they travel. Why do they do this? The job demands it and the infrastructure encourages it.
When you start at Western Messenger, you’re handed a couple of pages from the Caltrans web page describing bicycle safety practices. The information tells you things like, “Stop at stop signs and red lights” and “Ride in the same direction as the flow of traffic.” But, there is no way to keep pace and follow the traffic laws. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that San Francisco’s streets in and around the financial district are laid out to facilitate commuters, driving their fat ass SUV’s from faraway suburbs, to aggressively travel at dangerous speeds in and out of the city. This means a lot of one-way streets that act as dangerous inner-city freeways. The liberal use of one-way streets means that cyclists have to travel twice the distance to get to a road going the right direction. This may not mean much for a car, but if you spend your day cycling those streets under time constraints, it means a hell of a lot.
Because the roads are set up to facilitate automobile traffic to move fast on surface streets, drivers resent bicyclists as slow moving obstacles. I can’t count the number of times some indignant, self-righteous, irrationally frustrated driver has tried to force me out of the way by positioning his urban tank dangerously close. Even the most diminutive women in a SUV becomes an aggressive and dangerous driver on the city