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Monday, March 22, 2002

Bike Messengers at the WTC

"Total chaos – a condition we're used to" (1)

By Rebecca Lambchop Reilly

On September 12, 2001 Washington, DC was odd. In the autumn, the city is usually at full swing. There are mobs of tourists on the Mall. Lobbyists walk in packs around town parrying and gesticulating about strategy. Cabs are rabid, pouncing on the migrating herds, sweeping in for the kill. September 12th was different this time.

Government workers were staying home, afraid of their own buildings, their own cubes. Lobbyists had no government workers to work on, so they too stayed in their comfortable suburban enclaves in Virginia and Maryland. Those remaining, eyeballed each other. Already the cabbies had haunted looks on their faces. Like couriers, they seemed to know that the ensuing weeks would be lean. Like couriers, cabbies feed off the push and shove of busy cities. Couriers waited in the park for jobs they knew wouldn’t come over the air. There wasn’t much to say. I rode down L St. and it was so quiet I could hear the blowers on buildings. Usually they are inaudible at rush hour. I stopped at an intersection, not sure if the National Guard, equipped with Hum Vees and automatic weapons, would shoot me for blowing the light. They were on every corner, watching and waiting.

It had been a hard day, the day before.

I went to work. Not like it mattered, there wasn’t anything to do. We all know, in the DC courier community, when government workers stay home, like when they stay home during a snow, the rest of the city may as well shut down. The difference was that there was no snow and no knowing when things would get back to normal. So having nothing to do, I read my emails. A messenger from Bonn, Germany informed the messenger list that Germans were laying wreaths and candles at the American Embassy there. A Japanese courier who’d come to NYC for a race told of how anguished he was and that he hoped all of the NY and DC couriers were accounted for. Canadians wrote from every courier city north of the border offering love and help. A courier in Florida offered to start a fund for fallen couriers and couriers who would surely be hurt by the economic fallout. Couriers were demanding to know, from Tokyo to Toronto, how we all were. Someone from DC wrote that none of ours had been caught in the Pentagon. We rarely went there. Then there was the email from NY.

They told us that they had accounted for everyone they could think of. In a place like NY though, there are thousands of couriers and it would be impossible to know about everyone. In later days we would learn that a courier was in fact killed by falling debris when the towers went down.

They sounded shell-shocked. I could imagine them, probably more than 40 couriers hanging out in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village in the middle of the day. Couriers in NY don’t generally hang out in the middle of the day. The days of couriers hanging out as a group went out with the Washington Square Park crackdowns in the early 1990s. More couriers hang out in DC on any given day than in NY on a Friday night. On the 12th though, they had nothing else to do. They came to Tompkins Square Park from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens. Bridges had been closed down to them, but they found ways to get back to Manhattan, that’s what couriers do. They get into places they are told to stay out of. When one person figured out how to get in, he told the rest.

They were there on that perfect fall day, September 11th, and they were in Manhattan again the day after. The day before, Mike had watched a piece of the WTC fall that was the size of a football field. He told me he stood there in shock, on Broadway, just watching it come down, people stampeding all around him. Someone finally ran up to him and yelled, “You fucking idiot! Run or you’re gonna get killed!” Mike laughed when he told me, but his eyes weren’t laughing, “If that guy hadn’t done that I’d probably be dead, I was just paralyzed watching that shit come down.”

I sat in my chair, face burning. I could see my buddies in Tompkins talking about the realities of the situation. They didn’t come to Manhattan because they thought they were actually going to get some work. The alternative was staying home in Bed-Stuys, Flatbush, or Williamsburg and watching the tube. They opted to burrow into NY because they wanted to do something that was meaningful. Some had tried to give blood and the lines were two hours long. Some had gone to the Javits Center to volunteer and had been turned away. Some had donated things, but being poor, their contributions seemed meager. In the end, at that moment, they were all agreed that the one thing they could offer was themselves.

Nate suggested they go to St. Vincent’s hospital en masse. They wouldn’t be stopped. They were determined to help. They were banking on confusion and hospital workers being too overwhelmed to say no.

Tons of rubble had slammed into one of the two major telephone switching centers for downtown Manhattan. It was out and existing phones were overloaded. Cellphone air was also jammed because of the volume of calls and the fact that a major antenna that once stood at the top of the WTC was now gone. As the couriers saw it, the situation as it stood was near total chaos. This is a condition we’re accustomed to. Instead of running and hiding, they felt that they were uniquely equipped to cope with the situation. They decided they were able to help, and that made them obligated to help.

Around forty messengers rode together down to St. Vincent’s Hospital. At first nurses and orderlies didn’t know what to do with them. The couriers would not be thwarted at the door. They stood their ground with their bags on their stomachs to demonstrate their point, “We’re couriers, we can do what no one else can do right now, you got something that needs to be delivered, we’re here for you.” Finally nurses and orderlies loaded them up. Bags full, the couriers demanded more. One nurse asked Hodari if he could handle what she gave him. He replied, “I have a cargo bike, I’m gonna empty this bag into it and come back for more so go ahead, load me up.”

On the way down West Side Highway, the Hudson River and New Jersey to their right, they were stopped at the perimeter. At Canal St. Nate explained to the police officers that they were carrying medical supplies to ground zero. The police took one look at the motley crew, with their bags bursting open, and waved them through the barricades.

When the couriers came out with empty bags, on their way back to St. Vincent’s to reload, the crowds that cheered for fire guys, paramedics, and police, cheered for rough-looking posse of messengers too.

That story was enough for me.

The last time I’d been in NYC was the summer of 2000. There was a big pre-Cycle Messenger World Championships race. It was a new tradition started in Freiburg, Germany in 1999 before the CMWC in Zurich, Switzerland. When Philadelphia hosted the Worlds in 2000, NY city’s messenger community invited the world’s couriers to their stoop for a whole week of activities. They provided free housing parties and a group ride to Philadelphia.

On the 11th, I had tried to volunteer at the Pentagon but the hotline referred me to a NY number and then that number told me they had all the volunteers they needed. It counseled me and I’m sure millions of others, to do my part by giving blood. Unfortunately, every time I’ve tried to give blood, I’ve been turned away because of low blood pressure.

I’m a New Yorker, upstate, but a New Yorker all the same. Just like all the times I’d taken the side of a courier in a street confrontation with a motorist, these were my people and it was killing me to sit idly by. I wrote to Nate in NY and asked if him if they needed any help. He responded that I should bring as many couriers as I could.

At the heart of the reasons I wanted to go to NY was the familiarity of the place. Many North American cities look so much the same. They are so similar looking that cities like Pittsburgh and Toronto are substituted regularly for scenes in movies that are supposed to be NY. There are things that stand out about NY though. The sun doesn’t shine there, it elbows its way into the caverns of the city. The sun doesn’t sear like the glare of LA, or waft over the city like the rosy haze of SF. The sun in NY has to wait in line just like everyone else. The wind doesn’t slap you in the face like Minneapolis or Calgary in the winter. The wind backhands you and takes you by surprise, forcing the air out of your lungs. It jerks garbage around on the street like a billion little marionettes. But in NY it isn’t so strong that it pushes down big midwestern men, like Chicago’s thuggish wind. In the summer, NY’s grass strains on its elbows to push up through the hard packed dirt. It’s a dirt that shines like Italian marble in late summer. From the Central Park Traverses on hot humid days, the air goes from ethereal subtropics to ripening glistening garbage that bakes like Thanksgiving turkeys in the alleys behind the million-dollar coops on the Upper East Side.

In the people, there is the ever-present thousand-yard stare. It is on the face of a million New Yorkers at rush hour, on the sidewalk, in the subway, hailing cabs, writing tickets, pushing garment racks down Fashion Avenue. Everyone has it: the Bangladeshi fruit vendor, the Senegalese who sold you a donut across from Madison Square Garden, the cabbie from Pakistan who just cut you off, the white Long Island cop walking the beat at Times Square, the socialite from the Upper West strutting down Madison and leering at her own starved frame in the plate glass window. Every once in awhile, the gaze breaks and a smile erupts and a mouth calls a stranger affectionately, “Poppy!” Or a predator howls at a girl. All day NY screams, sings, honks, whistles, hollers, and cries.

At the same time that NY is a platform where millions try to be seen, it is also a roof under which to hide. One woman smiles down at millions. She’s Cindy Crawford, she’s Claudia Schiffer, she’s Christy Turlington, the flavor of the fiscal year. She’s looking down from the most photographed square in the world. Below her is a criminal, hiding, in plain sight. Then there are the mundanities of urban planning, or lack thereof. There’s a fireplug that has almost been jerked out of its hole by a long ago towed car that ran into it. There is gum every color of the rainbow on the inside of a phone booth that houses a phone missing the plastic cover and spouting a rainbow of electrical wires. There are potholes that cause the cabs to bounce and scrape when they roll by, and ripples in the pavement that capture the metal detritus that falls from the undercarriage of unlucky motor vehicles that bottom out nearby. There is sludge, a mysterious blackish-gray ooze that collects on the corners in sunken patches of pavement, a primordial ooze that never goes away, is never cleaned up.

NY has the same style of stoplights and streetlights as my hometown. The signs are about the same amount of worn. The weak winter sun shines the same way, the trees are the same species. Even the dirt seems the same. In the winter, NY uses salt for the snow, just like Buffalo. That makes the consistency of the dirt different from places that use sand. It puts its signature on a city, its curbs, the paint on the sign poles, the undercarriages of the cars and trucks.

It was all this, that always made me feel like NYC was a part of me. My home state, those people there were my people and now they needed me.

[To be continued]

In 1996 Rebecca Lambchop Reilly came to San Francisco to help organize the Cycle Messenger World's Championships in that city — the first CMWC in the USA.