Bike Messengers Love to Hate Their Low-Paying Jobs

Associated Press

"Two-two Tim" coolly coaxes his modified mountain bike across two lanes of moving traffic, cranking up speed as he bumps over cable car tracks and turns into oncoming traffic on a one-way street.

Narrowly missing a jaywalker, Tim yanks his bicycle over a curb and dismounts at the rear of a shiny skyscraper.

"This is one of those buildings that they don't let you go in because they have really nice elevators," he grumbles, hustling for the security station where bicycle messengers like Tim (The Tipster) Carroll drop their parcels.

Endangered Species

So it goes for the hardy bicycle messenger, an endangered species whose last known habitats are New York, Boston, London, Vancouver and this hilly business district by the bay.

Why bike messengers still exist in the age of computer mail is almost as good a question as why sane people would risk their lives at low-paying jobs to deliver messages to business people who tend to look down on them.

The recent movie "Quicksilver" portrayed the average messenger as an unskilled worker forced to accept the only job available. But riders at the real-life Quicksilver Delivery Service don't fit the fiction. Most are college-educated refugees from the middle class who might be Yuppies now had they not abandoned the mainstream. Some have adopted new names along with their new life styles.

"When I heard you could ride your bike and make money, I wanted to do it," said Maryellen Burdwood, a 26-year-old visual arts major taking a year off from Antioch College in Ohio. The New Hampshire native, who has toured the White Mountains on bicycle, has been a professional for nine months and plans to work for Quicksilver after completing her degree.

Tau Berger, 24, has a degree in biology from the University of California, Berkeley, and "had a lot of contacts in school that could have placed me in research positions, but I knew I didn't want lab work."

Pedaling Messages

Matt Dillon is a strapping 26-year-old ex-Marine with $6,300 set aside for college. He has been pedaling messages for a year and has no plans to leave.

At 32, Lowell George is among the oldest of Quicksilver's riders. He has been at the job on and off since dropping out of college in 1975 and travels when he isn't delivering messages.

"During the course of my tenure here, I've done three Mardi Gras, Canada, Asia, Baja--all over," boasts George, who wears a crystal earring and has a troll doll dangling from his belt. Sipping a beer after a day in the saddle, George says he has collected his share of traffic tickets.

"Right now I have six warrants for red lights," he says. "If they want me, they can come get me. I've fought a couple in the past. I've paid some. But I'm not going to pay six."

Tim Carroll is an aspiring rock musician who is called "Two-two Tim" over the dispatcher's radio. He's among Quicksilver's fastest riders and has collected a goodly number of war stories during his eight-month career.

Never Hit a Pedestrian

"I kind of get reckless," he admits, counting up his receipts. "Today I got two tickets. That's never happened (before). But I tend to get a little excited and take more chances than I should, I guess. I end up hitting things.

"I've never hit a pedestrian. I've hit inanimate objects--the backs of cars and the sides of them and things like that. Sometimes I fall down. One time I hit another messenger head-on. We bashed heads like rams."

His worst accident came last year when a motorist hit him from behind.

"I felt fine. I jumped up and felt terrific, but my shoulder hurt a couple of weeks later and I went to the hospital and filed a lawsuit against the guy and I got a bunch of money, so I'm taking some time off. I really want to play some guitar."

Tim also has had his trouble with the legal system.

"I got a ticket this morning for a red light and ran another red light right in front of the guy. I got one on the way in here. . . . I suppose I'll pay it. It's like $30 or something."

That may not sound like much to businesses that hire Tim, but it's a lot to a bike messenger.

$60 Per Day

Tim, a fast rider on a fast bike, grosses about $60 on an average day. A mediocre rider on a one-speed might make $40. After taxes, there isn't much left to pay the rent when the median in San Francisco was $900 a month in a landlord group's survey released in mid-May. On the other hand, Quicksilver doesn't deduct payroll taxes from its "independent contractors." They must do that themselves.

Tim and many other riders prefer to ride their own multigeared bicycles instead of the one-speed "trucks" provided by the company. That can be expensive--Tim has lost three bikes--but climbing steep Nob Hill on a company bike borders on masochism.

The low pay and high overhead may be two good reasons to go into another line, but the best might be the attitude of the customers.

The attire of many bike messengers is outlandish. One messenger who goes by the name Crud Savage is easily spotted by his propeller beanie. The average Quicksilver rider invades offices wearing sneakers, shorts and a T-shirt.

Although it's hard to say if the gulf between riders and customers stems from appearances, it's clear messengers sometimes rip across cultural values as they zig-zag along the crowded city streets.

But computer mail isn't installed in enough offices to replace the riders, and you can't send a small package through a computer. So when one business wants to send something quickly, someone usually calls a bike messenger.

Bike Messenger Burnout

The tension leads to what some riders call "bike messenger burnout syndrome," and Tim admits he's a victim.

"I was a really nice guy until I started this job. But in the last month or so I've become a real surly guy. I will wait now for someone to make the first gesture of friendliness to me. Otherwise, they're just a piece of meat on the wall that I'm throwing a package at. And they better sign my tag or they're not going to get it.

"I don't understand the hostility people have toward bicycle messengers. . . . I see the same reception types every day. And here I've gone and really risked life and limb, gone really far to give them really good service, and nobody seems to care. All I hear are complaints. It's really burned me out quite a bit."

So what makes "Two-two Tim," or any other messenger, ride? That's the hardest question.

"I think if you really want to get a good idea of what this is about, you should quit your job--or get fired from it, do something to get fired--and then do this for a while. . . . Survive from paycheck to paycheck and week to week, with one jerk after another along the way. . . .

"Today I got the tickets. . . . Tomorrow, I'm going to smash into something and lose control of the bike and hit a window or a door, and there it goes. It's more than the police and the accidents and dealing with receptionists. It's the whole thing. . . .

"And really it is only a job, and a pretty temporary, oppressive one at that."

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