Confessions of a New York City Bike Messenger

I am standing on the pedals of my 18-speed, riding towards Rockafella’ Centah, to go somewhere, to see someone, to pick something up. I pop a curb. Something caught. I catch. And I tumble forward and my bike stumbles with me. And I go from upright to the ground with no memory of the travel. I am lying on the sidewalk, dazed. For five seconds or five minutes and a guy passes me and looks.

Hey buddy, you need a hand, he asks, hardly stopping, because it is New York. But he talks to me and I think he is perhaps from out of town. Or maybe I can’t think straight, ‘cuz New Yorkers wear their heart on their sleeve. Underneath that watcha-want usually is a lemme-help.

No, I am fine. And he passes by without another word. Just fine, I say to his back, to no one.

I pull myself up and limp over to my bike. I fish for a quarter, because this is the 90s. I call dispatch from a payphone within mute earshot of my biff. I got dinged up. I wiped, I say to her, the hoarse girl I speak to all day long. Not too bad.  

Go home, my dispatcher says. She’s a former bike messenger. Rest. She knows the job. Fun and fast. Sweaty, windy. You had a good day. 18 packages.

I leave her and the phone and stand back up on my pedals. Not as tough as the last time I rode tall. But still I’m moving. And I pedal uptown. Slowly.

Because to get home, I gotta ride there. I can’t hop a cab. I gotta get get over the 59th Bridge through Long Island City to Astoria, Queens. But I don’t ride home. Not today all banged up. I roll my bike to the 7th Ave subway station. The one near Carnegie Hall.

Down the stairs and to the Queens N track: I don’t even wait. A subway screeches toward me, the air running before it anxiously clearing the way. The doors open, I let people in. And then I swing my bike inside. People give me space. Maybe because I am sweaty. Or that I got my right pants leg all hiked up. Not ‘cuz I’m a homeboy, but to keep the lube off my Adidas sweats. Black grease streaks my right calf. I look like a b-boy, whatever they are.

And the subway doors close and we enter a tunnel and I feel a stream of air whistling through the crack in the door. I’m tired and I can’t tell whether it’s hot or cold air, only that it’s different. The car shrieks and metal scrapes. And we clatta clatta clatta as we wind down along a long straightway before turning left and coming up into the dying light of a New York December.

I am tired and I don’t think about college six months behind me. Or the Navy, still in my future. Or 9/11, which has not painted my city, my adopted city. Yet.

I stand up. Out into the real air, I bump my bike down the stairs and ride it slowly towards my house. I rent in the Greek part of town, mostly because my brain lives in my stomach and gyros and souvlaki are my oxygen and water. And because I want the rest of my body to stick close to my brain and gut, those ruffians.

My bike lock falls off my handlebars (dammit) and I have to circle around to pick it up. If you need a good chain, get you the Kryptonite New York Fahgettaboudit Bike Chain Lock. Yeah, Fahgettaboudit is right. That lock is one tough motha.

Some of the other messengers ride around with the Fahgettaboudit draped ’round their necks, like they was LL Cool J. I tried it once and I discovered I was not LL. It felt ridiculous, I felt ridiculous. Like an oxen or how an oxen should feel if he hadda larger brain.

I pick up the lock and wrap it across my handlebars. I pass Uncle George’s on the corner and even though I am trying to save money, I sloop up the sidewalk and lock my bike down with my Fahgettaboudit. Souvlaki, time to get some.

Part II here.

13 thoughts on “Confessions of a New York City Bike Messenger”

    1. Ol’Fo, it was not the only job I had at the time. So when I was enlisted at A School, I always felt like I had more free time than usual. . .

    2. Well, hit the curb too three weeks ago. wasn’t fast… must have found some bigger sharp part in the woods behind the curb.. So instead of getting back on the bike and riding on, I shouted for help and ordered an ambulance. Will see how long it still takes till I can cycle again, can push my fixed knee almost up again.

  1. When I was still working as a lawyer in San Francisco, I viewed the bike messengers as my saviors. Not one of them ever missed a filing for me, and that was true no matter how last minute the document handover was. If I said it needed to be in court, they got it to court.

    Of course, when I was driving the streets of downtown San Francisco, they scared the living daylights out of me. Little things like red lights, cross traffic and cars were as nothing to them.

    I’m still leery of bicyclists. The other day, one tried to commit suicide on my car. Honest. I was driving peaceably in my own lane, going the speed limit (I love cruise control), when a crazy bicyclist tried swerving in front of my car. I hit the brakes, but I swear I aged a year in those few seconds. Marin bicycle riders tend to have a holier than thou attitude that leads them to forget that, while bikes may have some moral weight (no pollution plus exercise), when the rubber hits the road, cars win, every time.

    Give me bike messengers every time. They serve a useful purpose and their insanity is tempered with actual road savvy.

    1. Book, I always tried to ride as safely as possible. The above wipeout was probably my worst, although I had a couple of other incidents.

      “They serve a useful purpose and their insanity is tempered with actual road savvy.”

      That sounds to be about right. . .

  2. Great to see! Love the place markers like the quarter for the payphone, etc.

    Just got off the phone with a friend, got her a job as a courier that starts friday, the gig lives on, even in these strange times!

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