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The sport of bike messengering*

The season begins just before the dawn of January 2 and ends after sunset December 31 amid confetti and celebration. There are five matches each week except when major holidays occur. Each event usually lasts for about eight hours a day though some last well into the night. No match is ever called on account of rain. Or snow. Or gloom of night.

Or earthquake. On October 17, 1989 messengers in San Francisco completed their deliveries and also contributed their transportation skills to post-quake aid efforts.

Or terrorist attack. On September 11, soon after the fall of the Twin Towers, several New York messengers arrived at Ground Zero to volunteer. Later in the day, they were joined by other couriers. The next day messengers from Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. arrived to help out. By the end of the week dozens of messengers were volunteering their services. With Manhattan phone lines jammed, couriers offered their radios to the recovery effort. Messengers also helped unload relief supplies. But for the most part, messengers did what they always do: deliver items from Point A to Point B. Only this time Points A & B were not banks and law firms; they were hospitals and firehouses, volunteer centers and precinct houses.

Members of the opposing team — the Auto(mobile)cracy — are bigger, they outnumber us, and the rules are written in their favor. The refs carry guns.

The playing surface is not grass. It’s not hardwood or Astroturf. It’s pavement. With debris of amazing and sometimes dangerous forms liberally scattered across it. The spectators are allowed to run onto the field and often do so.

There are no drug tests.

The “ball” is the package assigned to be delivered. Deliveries can be anything from paychecks to pacemakers. Usually a delivery is an envelope but it may also be several boxes weighing up to 200 pounds.

The “goal” can be across the street or in a neighboring county. Here in the Bay Area bike messengers often ride across the Golden Gate Bridge on their way to make deliveries as far away as the Headlands or Mill Valley. Messengers ride south to complete deliveries in several San Mateo County towns. Using ferries, BART, and other public transit, bike couriers deliver as far away as San Jose, San Rafael, and Concord. Here in the city itself, messengers scale every hill to bring deliveries to every neighborhood.

In the Bay Area, bike messengering includes hill climbs, distance riding, and rush delivery sprints. We do these things during winter rains and we do them during heat waves when we’re “under the gun and under the sun.” Each winter, messengers in Snow Belt cities face blizzards and icy road surfaces.

In this sport there are no separate leagues for women. Female messengers ride alongside their male co-workers and face the same conditions and challenges. In fact they actually face greater obstacles than male messengers do. Making up only about 15 percent of San Francisco’s messengers, courier women endure both harassment and a reflexive underestimation of their cycling abilities. I know women couriers are more courageous because they have to be. Road raging motorists usually limit their anger against messenger men to verbal abuse. Somehow the road ragers find the “bravery” to physically attack messenger women. The contributions to our community by women couriers go far above their numbers. They participate in all events and have been steadfast in our union drive.

There are no statistics in our sport. In the battle for survival, all survivors are victors.

The similarities of messengering to bike racing are obvious. In addition, elements of other sports abound. While riding in heavy traffic, a messenger must be able to spot an opening like a running back picking his blocks. Hauling heavy packages requires weight-lifting abilities. Running a red light — perhaps the most skillful act in messengering — bears great similarity to stealing a base. Like a golfer or skier, a messenger must know the geography and climate of his situation.

But the greatest sporting aspect of messengering is the elegance of our craft. Every working day we are given the opportunity to be what the 20th-century Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis (“Zorba the Greek,” “The Fratricides”) considered the ideal human: one who is brave against the strong (in our case: the cars) while generous and merciful toward the weak (the pedestrians). Having this opportunity doesn’t mean we always fulfill it honorably. We can be what some call “noble savages” — or we can be just plain savages. Sometimes we’re too pushy against pedestrians. But in one respect we always succeed: Every day we beat the Autocracy.

Every day we beat the Devil’s Machines (as Kazantzakis called cars). We beat them from Point A to Point B… and Points C, D, E, and all the way to Z. For every car that passes me, I pass dozens. They’re bigger and faster (theoretically). All the rules are in their favor. Doesn’t matter. We kick their rear bumpers. Once in a while one of us goes down. But that’s just one messenger. The team still wins. Every day we bust the moves that humiliate the fantasies and outright lies of automobile advertising. Sometimes for good measure we slap their side view mirrors — a tribute to the Lakota and other Great Plains warriors who counted “coup” on their enemies (hitting them rather than killing them). And when we beat the Autocracy we don’t just do it for ourselves. We do it for the messengers who have passed away. We do it for all people who haven’t been suckered into the Drive a Car/Go Directly to the Suburbs volunteered slavery (thank you Rahsaan Roland Kirk). We do it for the kids who might learn that the Autocracy is a parasite eating their future. We even do it for the drivers so that they'll learn too. We do it for everyone.

And we don’t charge a dime.


* The word “messengering” isn’t in any of my dictionaries and some of us don’t like it but it is self-explanatory (you didn’t need to look in your dictionary, did you?) and until a better word comes along I’ll stick with it.

Howard A. Williams (howardx@pacbell.net) is a veteran San Francisco messenger and member of ILWU Local 6.