We know that many of you out there are stoked for the release of Premium Rush (it's okay, it has gotten some decent reviews). We imagine that you are just like us, waiting with baited breath, lined-up, dressed as your favorite bike messenger (or perhaps the crooked cop who chases him) for the midnight premiere. Truly, we haven’t been this excited for a movie about bike messengers since we saw Kevin Bacon in Quicksilver.
We decided to talk to some real bike messengers and read a few blogs to see what it was all about before we rushed off to join a messenger service, inspired by what we are sure will be a moving performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. We found out some hard truths about a career that you truly have to love if you want to have shot at getting through the day. For all you would-be couriers out there, here are Five Things to Consider Before Becoming a Bike Messenger.
No. 1 - You Can’t Ride Just Any Bike
I get it, you just moved to Brooklyn and bought your fixie. You even have one of those cool hats with the brim flipped up. But, not just any bike will suffice. A former messenger we spoke with told us to be prepared to drop between $500 and $1000 on your bike, and that’s if you know the right guys to get you parts on the cheap. Also, be ready to spend at least that much in a year on replacement parts. You’d better be able to fix your own bike too, because you won’t be able to afford the repairs. The general consensus is, if you can’t fix your bike, you shouldn’t be riding.
As a former messenger put it, “It takes a skilled rider with a good bike to do the job. A surgeon can’t do surgery with a f*****g butter knife.”
No. 2 - No Jobs Here
Though some estimates still count hundreds of messengers in New York City, one rider told us that when he worked in Richmond, VA, there were only seven bike messengers in the entire city including himself. Charlotte messenger Bill Fehr reports that there were five or six messengers left in Charlotte as of 2009. A former messenger told us, that even with the connections he has in Philadelphia, he couldn’t get a job there now if he wanted to. If you don’t know people in the business, it seems, you can forget it. This is probably not a surprise, as there are very few things besides legal documents that can’t just be e-mailed in this day and age.
That being said, it appears there will always be a need to courier legal documents, as Santa Cruz Clutch Couriers blog put it in their post, Who Needs Bike Messengers?:
“It’s easy to ignore a message you don’t want to get, and for that reason alone there will always be bike messengers to physically inform people that they are being sued …”
Messenger universally lament the constant decrease of jobs in the field. One messenger laid out the numbers like so,
“Back in the 90s, he said, he’d make $800 a week. Now he can only make $400, and it just isn’t worth it anymore. And he must work for a decent company. I was working 4 days a week and making $300 if I was lucky … there’s always some new kid who’ll do it cheaper.”
No. 3 - Stress City
“Every package you deliver as a messenger is something that the client needed before you were asked to deliver it” one messenger told us. Rain, snow, or intense heat, it doesn’t matter, you have to make the drop. The messengers, of course, take this as a badge of honor. One young female messenger recalled an older messenger telling her “you’re not a real courier till you’ve done your first winter …” As you probably guessed, turn over is high. The same messenger stated that she was the senior courier in her fleet after less than three years. Don’t think that all you are carrying is legal documents either. Messengers report carrying such disparate items as a bag of soccer balls, a birthday cake, bone marrow, and a Thanksgiving Turkey, as they weave through the streets. You are a very expensive delivery person, so you’d better get it right. Oh and by the way …
No. 4 - Don’t Make the Drop, Don’t Get Paid
Messengers tell us that the dispatchers you work for are generally good to deal with, and you get to be chummy with them. But, with clients, business is business. A former New York messenger told us that it was not uncommon to get a call at 5:45 PM for a delivery that had to go from Wall Street to 59th and Park by 6:00. If you don’t get there by six and the doors have closed, then you have to try again tomorrow. The problem is that some other messenger might get the job tomorrow.
No. 5 - Bye Bye Benefits
It probably stands to reason that you wouldn’t get health insurance, but that doesn’t make it an easy fact to contend with. Just google “bike messenger accidents” to find loads of lawyers ready to take on accident cases of the uninsured hoping to pay off their hospital bill. Most of the people who do this risky job ride around uninsured. So, an accident not only ruins your career, but it puts you in serious debt.
Despite all of this, the messengers we spoke to and read insisted that they loved their time riding. They said that messengers are like a band of brothers (and sisters) who ride together, hang out a bike shops together, and get drunk together. Messengers caution, however, that it isn’t something to get into unless you love it.
Blogger Emily Chappell had these words to say reflecting on her time as a messenger:
I miss the post-work beer and sweat and hyperactive camaraderie with all the gorgeous specimens of manhood and womanhood who were my colleagues. I miss burrowing around in the innards of office buildings, looking for that elusive postroom. I miss the comforting heft of my courier bag, and the way it would wrap around my body like a hug. I miss sitting in the control room before work, dunking custard creams into a mug of over-strong Nescafe and listening to Andy making sarcastic comments to other riders over the radio. I miss the simple satisfaction of food and bed after a good hard day’s work. I even miss yelling at pedestrians.