Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Allure of Bike Messengers

Today the New York Times has an interactive feature on bike messengers. Six were chosen, photographed in full messenger glory, and presented as a specimen to be considered and studied. The feature is part of a larger series describing New York "tribes," subcultures that make the city as vibrant and unpredictable as it is -- missionaries, sandhogs, and 50 year-old women that wear red hats and purple clothes.

Bike messengers really are an interesting subculture. Maybe less so in D.C., a city smaller in population and geographic reach and less dependent on the immediacy of a messenger's speed and knowledge of the city's streets, but interesting no less. I have yet to meet a cyclist who hasn't expressed a desire to be a messenger for a day, just to see what it's like, similarly, I have yet to meet a non-cyclist that isn't fascinated by those who do chose to make messenging their primary form of employment. Hell, there have been times I have been mistaken for a bike messenger, only to be greeted with a certain inspired awe and appreciation. "You're a messenger? No way!" they would often say.

But why the allure? What is it that makes bike messengers so mysterious, so intriguing in an underground, insurgent sort of way? After all, there work must be similarly tedious and time-consuming, and if anything, significantly more dangerous and victim to the whims of Mother Nature. And delivering packages by bike and other means isn't so much special in other countries as it is simply necessary or common.

I think we ascribe special status to bike messengers because like most subcultures out there, they seem to live by an unwritten set of rules and regulations -- they tend to dress a certain way, ride a specific type of bike, and hang out with certain people, most often each other. They've established strict parameters that seem to limit access and acceptance to the general public -- hence our curiousity. But there is something more than that. They are the ultimate urban warriors, the last brave souls willing to strap boxes to their backs and wisk them to and from important offices and people through dense layers of traffic and obstacles so that the "real" work can get done. The may the lowliest cog in the working world's machine, but they are also the one whose failure would most likely doom all those cogs above. And they have battle scars to prove it -- this car did this, this curb did that.

Would I ever be a messenger? Well, I feel accomplished enough riding to and from work on a daily basis, so probably not. This isn't to say I don't think it wouldn't be a cool experience, but then again, I tend to idealize that which I have never directly experienced.


At 1:13 PM, Blogger Capt. Jack Sparrow said...

You probably have read this already, but just in case: Check out the novel "Godspeed," by Lynn Breedlove. It's about a bike messenger in San Francisco. I believe the author used to own/manage a messenger company called Lickety Split. The book seems to capture the rebel spirit of bike messengers.


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