Blazing Saddles

Here is another old article from 1992 about DC couriers. Yes they were already writing articles about the end of messengers in 1992. When I first read this in 1993 I didn’t know any messengers outside of my own city and I thought Scrooge and Su were awesome.  Scrooge would become one of my messenger heroes. He’s still awesome.

It’s was originally published in the New Republic and was republished in W. Hampton Sides’ book “Americana” in 2004.

Blazing Saddles

The decline and fall of bike messengers

By W. Hampton Sides (New Republic Vol. 207, New Republic,12-21-1992, pp 16.)

Tuesday through Friday nights, the bike messengers congregate at a Washington dive called Asylum for a little-known event, the “Courier Happy Hour.”At 6 p.m. they come skidding in from the streets, Lycra spider men with names like Beaver, Beetlejuice, and Bam Bam. Concrete cowboys with shaved legs and holstered Motorola radios, scabby knees and earrings, guys who look like some weird cross between Greg LeMond and Sid Vicious. Soon the place is reminiscent of the alien bar in Star Wars, all sorts of interesting-looking beasts and hard-shelled insects hobnobbing in the dim lounge, speaking a strange patois. “Made a major southwest slice, man. Cut a big hole in the traffic in front of this Murphy at Farragut and then I shredded ’em, man, had him eating my dust….”

The conversation often centers on perennial peeves — jaywalkers, elevators, security guards, cops, potholes, tourists, Capitol Hill metal detectors, suddenly opened car doors, or, most common of all, cabdrivers. “This cabbie’s cutting me off, so I kick in his fender. Then the prick flips me the bird. So at the light I take out my radio, ride up to his window, and bash him good across face, like this.”

The war stories told at Asylum are tinged with the doom of a dying profession.”Send it by courier” was the catch phrase of the Reagan-era workplace. Not only was a bike messenger fast and dependable, he was your slave for the hour. The courier epitomized the inflated urgency of the times. Sending it by regular mail wouldn’t do. You needed hot colors, physical toil, the fanfare of having some coolie handing over a document in person. As a result, courier companies became a multimillion-dollar cottage industry in the’80s. Messenger work appealed to a new class of urban malcontents who saw a way to find personal expression on a bike, while earning $800 a week or more, depending on how fast they could pedal. The mystique of the courier was romanticized in the movie Quicksilver, starring Kevin Bacon. “On the street, I feel exhilarated,” Bacon’s character rhapsodizes.”I go fast as I like, faster than anyone. If the street sign says one way East, I go one way West. They can’t touch me.”

But by the turn of the decade, telecommunications technology caught up with the bicycle, and the new watchwords of the officescape were “Faxit,” or “Send it e-mail,” or “Modem it in ASCII text.”Today the bike messenger finds himself sprinting against fiber-optic lines like John Henry racing against the steam engine drill. Anyone who works in downtown Washington has probably noticed that there aren’t as many bike messengers as there used to be. The number of courier outfits in metropolitan Washington has dwindled from approximately seventy in 1988 to around thirty today. Five years ago, more than 700 bike messengers plied Washington’s streets; today there are fewer than 300. And the few couriers who are left make half the number of runs and turn smaller profits.

Asylum is a smoky, fermented space above an Ethiopian restaurant in a derelict section of Northwest Washington that was torched during the1968 riots. The house drinks are Voodoo lager and Jagermeister shots. It’s the kind of club that attracts extremely pallid people in extremely black clothes who go for obscure local bands: Clutch, the Meat Puppets. Asylum is the only bar in town that welcomes bikes inside. The messengers like to haul their battered Bridgestones and Cannondales up the stairs and arrange them in a dense, circular formation known as a “clusterfuck.”It’s a symbol of group solidarity that dates back to the days when the couriers used to hang out at D.C. space, a now defunct downtown club where they had to park their bikes outside. The messengers would lock their rides together — as many as 100 at a time — to keep them from getting ripped off.

Once they’ve stashed their bikes, the couriers begin to peel away their elaborate exoskeletons — the knee and elbow pads, the helmets with side view mirrors, the Velcro arm pouches and slick sheathings, the bad-ass gauntlet gloves with the fingers ripped out. They sidle up to the bar for the night’s first Jagermeister shot, yelling their order over whatever skull-cruncher music happens to be emanating from the Asylum tape deck.

At Courier Happy Hour you meet people like Scrooge, a quiet, imposing figure in Olympian good shape with ocher skin, matted dreadlocks, and missing front teeth. At 41, Scrooge is the dean of the Washington bike messengers. He works with Action Couriers (Dispatcher #135) and makes about $500 a week. “We do real work,” Scrooge boasts. “And we’re good at it. We’re like the Pony Express, man — heroes, thirty times a day.”

Scrooge’s friend Suicide is a rangy, gregarious, hyperactive man with a sponge of frizzy hair and various black leather strips and thongs dangling from his appendages. A veteran messenger of nearly a decade, Suicide won his nickname years ago when he used to wear a Japanese kamikaze headband on the streets. It was Su, as he is known to friends, who first organized the Courier Happy Hour at Asylum, where he sometimes tends bar.

Suicide also aspires to be the Eugene Debs of Courierdom. He wants to organize Washington’s messengers and strike for better wages. Courier companies take advantage of them, he insists. Since messengers are considered “independent contractors,” companies refuse to pay benefits or worker’s comp. “If we could have a work stoppage,” he says in brittle tones, “you’d hear it around the world! This city would grind to a halt, man, just completely shut down! They would never fuck with us again.”

Su misses the halcyon days of the late ’80s. Then, he and Scrooge used to play in a rock band called Scooter Trash. Among their more popular songs was “Happy Trails,” a raucous sledgehammer of a tune that became something of an anthem for D.C.’s messengers. “Well, my brakes aren’t working quite like they should,” Su would sing:

So I left him lying in a pool of blood one less pedestrian but who cares? Shouldn’t have been there in the first damn place The ” Don’t Walk” sign means don’t walk, of course Laid him out, man, no remorse, I don’t care, I make my own right of way I got a rush red alert so get the Fuck out of the way!!!

The few messengers who are still around tend to be diehard romantics, a leaner and meaner breed scrapping for a dwindling number of pickups. They know that, beleaguered as it is, the courier business is not likely to vanish anytime soon. There will always be vital documents that must be notarized, blueprints to be hauled cross-town, depositions and payroll sheets in need of signatures. The laws of human procrastination being more or less constant, one can assume there will always be people with packages that absolutely, positively must get there in fifteen minutes. And there will always be a handful of American business districts — New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington — where crowds and thick traffic make bicycle travel the only practical form of express delivery.

The couriers are detached from the establishment that depends on them– and they like it that way. As much as they may hate the drudgery of their jobs, they share a kind of mordant chauvinism in working at the bottom of the city’s food chain. Once Scrooge was called upon to deliver a fish to a taxidermist; another time it was a six- pack of “sample bricks” from the National Brick Institute. Once he delivered $6.5 million to a Washington bank. Messengers sometimes get calls from government fat cats who’ve left an umbrella at a restaurant or a shirt at a hotel room tryst. They even get paid for waiting in lines. Say a lobbyist wants to be guaranteed a seat at an important committee hearing on the Hill. Instead of waiting in line himself, he’ll pay a messenger to save a place for him. “That’s our job, man,” Suicide says with a raspy laugh. “To do dumb shit for people.”

Even so, Scrooge says that many of the “squares” he passes on the street would gladly trade places with him. It’s hard for deskbound wonks not to envy the couriers. They’re in terrific shape. They get to be buccaneers every day. They don’t have to wear monkey suits, and they never get hung up in traffic. What’s more, they don’t have to answer to a real boss, only a disembodied voice crackling over a radio.

The bike messengers who don’t go to Asylum usually hang out at Dupont Circle after hours. At dusk they ride up to the white marble fountain with six-packs of Heineken in their fanny packs, unclip their Shimano shoes from the pedals, toss their “brain buckets” on the grass, and fall into the easy, familiar body language of boon companions. Scrooge coasts over on his Trek aluminum. He nods at Suicide, who is layed out in the grass sipping a bottle of Hydra Fuel. Heavy metal pours from a blaster, and a couple of West African drummers are on the far side of the Circle.”Murphy! Murphy!” someone squawks over Scrooge’s Motorola, code language for “cops ahoy!” Scrooge passes the word on to the other bike messengers — “Murphy! Murphy!” Thirty seconds later an officer from the U.S. Park Police jumps the curb at Dupont Circle and noses his patrol car beside the fountain.

Couriers love to hate the police. The antagonism animates them. They scramble to clean up the scene, stash their beer cans in the shrubs, snuff out their joints. A Murphy jumps out of his car and, inexplicably, slips on a pair of rubber gloves. He forges into the crowd with an eye toward busting somebody or impounding an unregistered bicycle. The messengers whisk their bikes off the pavement and stand defiantly in the officer’s path.

“You gotta problem, Murphy?” demands one of the messengers. Murphy sniffs the air suspiciously, and then scowls at the wall of fluorescent Spandex. “Go home, Murphy!” Murphy gives them the evil eye, but finally relents. He slips back into the patrol car.

The West Africans resume their polyrhythmic pounding. Scrooge and Su sit on the fountain wall, eating bean burritos. Scrooge says he’s thinking of trying out couriering by Rollerblade. “Why not, man?” he says.”Blading’s the way of the future.” But right now Scrooge is spending most of his free time noodling on his new laptop computer. He’s thinking of publishing a courier newsletter. And he’s got bigger plans afoot –a hacker’s dark conspiracy. “I’m going to create a virus that will ruin all the fax machines. You know, kind of like a Michelangelo for faxes,” he says. “I’m gonna send it out over the phone lines like an epidemic. Then watch out. All the bike couriers of the world will unite! And we’re going to take this country by storm! “

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