I’d Rather Be a Messenger

I began collecting and researching articles about bike messengers in 1993. One of the first articles I found on microfiche at the Toronto reference library was by Jack Kuglemass from 1981 in Natural History Magazine. 

The copy I was able to print out was of very poor quality so I was never able to transcribe it and put it up. I have been searching for it to be available publicly online for the last 20 years. It’s finally up.

I still think this is probably the best article ever written about bike messengers.

Kuglemass also appears in the National Geographic Explorer documentary on bike messengers entitled “Big City Bike Messengers”

I’d Rather Be a Messenger

New York City’s bicycle messengers prefer the independence
and excitement of dodging traffic to the routine of a nine-to-five job.

By Jack M. Kugelmass

Natural History, August 1981

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I’m speeding across town, weaving in and out of traffic. I’ve already done sixteen runs. Good messengers do twenty-five, but I’ll settle for twenty. I’m tired, and it’s late. But I’m trying for that magic number. So I pedal harder. I’m pushing, trying to reach the front of the line of traffic. As I move up to take the lead, I no longer feel tired. My mind is working fast, checking out openings. I hug the curb, keeping clear of the traffic. But I’m riding too close to construction debris: there are mounds of dry cement powder on the road. Before I realize what’s happening, the hike skids out of control. I pump the brakes but still can’t keep my balance. I can feel myself going down. The impact on the cold pavement overwhelms me. I remember there is a truck behind me, but my body won’t move. My head can turn, so I twist it backward and stare helplessly at the driver seated high above me. I feel like a conquered gladiator. The driver motions to me to lie still, not to move until I’m ready. The shock passes. I pick myself up unsteadily and walk my bicycle over to the curb. Still shaken, I get back on and begin to ride, a little slower, a little less arrogant, no longer trying for that magic number.”

So ended my first week as a bicycle messenger. I took the job in order to study bicycle messengers, but after a day or two I had become more concerned with magic numbers than with researching the story. Although it made me hesitant to continue riding, the accident on the cement powder put me back on the right path: I began to concentrate on meeting and arranging interviews with other messengers. I also began to understand the attractions of “messengering” as a way of life, particularly the romance of danger.

The 600 bicycle messengers who ply New York City’s Borough of Manhattan are a diverse group of people. They cross over class, ethnic, and racial lines, and although a small minority, there are women riders too. But all share a kinship with the heroes of the Wild West. They are romantic adventurers who prefer the exhilaration of danger to civilization’s deadening routine.

The streets of Manhattan are a frontier, a no man’s land. In the main business districts, they interrupt the flow of civilized behavior, contrasting with the sterile, almost hermetically sealed world of high-rise offices. If there are laws regulating New York City traffic, they are barely enforced. Bicycle messengers are fast and contemptuous of the rules. They intimidate pedestrians and alarm the drivers of other vehicles competing with them for space on the road. Messengers sometimes wear outlandish clothes that go well beyond what is functional attire for riding in town. Some wear gas masks to filter out particles of dirt from automobile exhaust fumes. Others wear special racing gloves from which their knuckles protrude in a vaguely menacing way. And they all have one identifying mark—an oversized bag slung behind their backs.

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