Walking past 1 Post in the morning, I always notice the same guys lounging against the steps. And if you work downtown, you’ve most likely seen them too, as they lean effortlessly, chain smoke, and shout at passersby. But this crew does more than just hang out. They’re bike messengers, and as I pass them on my way to work, I envy the way they spend so much time outside, seeing the city and hanging out with friends. I’ve always wanted to join them.
After months of going by 1 Post, I finally approached the group. I asked the messengers why they were in the same spot every day and was given a vague explanation: “We ride to the court house and back, drink beer, and hassle women.” Three months later, I decided to further investigate this very San Franciscan subculture. I bought a bike and gave a go to being a messenger.
From my observations, it seems there are three main messenger hangouts
downtown. There’s the Wall (at Sansome and Market), which used to be
the epicenter for this crowd, but now remains a more desolate location.
The Statue (First and Market) and 1 Post are more social areas. You’ll
find the rebellious characters who don’t wear helmets (“How can I wear
my helmet if I’m wearing my fedora?” one of them says to me) at Post,
while the Statue seems to attract serious athletes in spandex who
attend Bike Messenger Association meetings.
I realize that being a messenger is like going back to high school. It could be challenging, deciding which downtown location or, if you will, cafeteria table would accept me. The pros will tell you they’re all friendly with one another, but there’s no mistaking the obvious cliques.
I get some help on this front from a cheerful 24-year-old named Katie Styler. Katie has been a messenger for 10 months, a relatively short stint compared to the guys who’ve been in the business since the early ’80s. She’s allowed me to ride along with her for the day.
Katie is of the Statue clique and secretary of the BMA. She occasionally visits the Wall on days she wants to be alone. Out of the roughly 65 bike messengers in the city, she estimates that only 10 are female.
Katie and I start our day by meeting at the Wall. As a novice to city biking, and a physically wimpy individual in general, I’m already nervous. In my anxious state, Katie reassures me that I will make it through the day alive.
I grow antsy waiting for Paul, Katie’s dispatcher at Speedway Delivery and Messenger Service, to tell us where our first tag – messenger speak for pick up and delivery – will be. In our downtime, Katie gives me tips on how to be a successful biker. She warns me to stay to the left of buses, be aware of people opening car doors, and to avoid getting stuck in the “cheese grater vents” above BART. I have a terrible vision that my day will end with being sideswiped by a car door and pushed onto a cheese grater, only to be run over by Muni. Thankfully, this scenario does not materialize.
Paul gives us our first call of order on Katie’s pager at around 9 a.m. We’re assigned to pick up documents at 1145 Bush and deliver them to 1717 Powell. I follow Katie on a flat path (thank God!), but in San Francisco hills are inevitable. We book it up a series of steep blocks with no time to breathe.
Katie gets paid by the delivery, and we don’t want the day’s orders to get backed up. Biking as fast as you can is key. Once we make it to our goal destination at the top of the hill, I feel a sense of accomplishment. We lock up our bikes (a skill I still have not mastered, which ends up slowing us down all day) and walk into the building to pick up the mystery parcel.
The woman at the front desk hands us the package and signs Katie's tally log. I take a butterscotch candy from the glass jar on the receptionist’s desk. Katie notices and snags one as well, saying, “Best part of the job!”
Paul suggests we stay on standby in the area, so we decide to go to the top of Nob Hill. Katie says it's a good way station because it’s located close to downtown. We take a short nap on the grass outside Grace Cathedral before Paul directs us to North Beach.
I soon realize that not working in an office can be inconvenient when my bladder becomes increasingly full. “Where do you guys go to use the bathroom?” I ask Katie. She says I can probably use the restroom when we make our next delivery. “Some buildings won’t let you use their bathrooms, but it’s easier being a girl,” she adds. “When receptionists see me, they’re often surprised and say, ‘Oh! You’re a girl!’” Apparently the novelty factor can be helpful for female messengers.
I arrive at the North Beach office sweaty, with a bladder that’s ready to burst, and the receptionist kindly directs me to the toilets.
After leaving the building, Paul tells us to remain on standby again. It’s a slow day, so we find time to rest in the grass at Washington Square. It’s the perfect afternoon to bask in the sunshine, check out the menus of nearby cafés, and eat apples. But before we get too comfortable, we receive another tag from Paul and head downtown.
By now I’m thankful for a smooth downhill ride. After trekking uphill for the last few deliveries, my thighs are crying. I realize that I lack the physical strength of a great messenger. Hard labor isn’t my strong suit, although Katie says it takes about three months of city riding for your legs to get used to the hills. The socializing aspect of the job is far easier.
With spare time on our hands, Katie asks if I want to meet the other messengers at the Statue. It sounds like the best plan ever. We sit with the bikers who comment on the bizarre fashions of the people walking by, make fun of a particularly ugly bike, and discuss the best breads to use for making French toast (my vote is challah, but someone else recommends Semifreddi’s cinnamon twist. The consensus is always use egg-washed bread.) The discussion ends when Paul pages Katie.
We arrive for the next pickup at an office near Jackson Square, where they give us two flattened boxes. Katie finds a way to strap the awkwardly large packages under her messenger bag. “I’ve picked up weirder things,” she tells me. “I once picked up cremated humans.” Sadly, today doesn’t involve picking up dead people – the empty boxes are the most exciting delivery of the day.
Next, Katie and I ride down Market Street near the Embarcadero. I follow her every move as she nestles her bike through the narrowest sections between buses and cars. These tight spaces seem impossible to pedal through, but with balance I somehow manage. Then my worst nightmare happens. My front wheel gets stuck inside a Muni track. Thankfully, I leap off my bike before it crashes to the street. Pedestrians on the sidewalk stare and I’m more embarrassed than frightened by my near accident. Katie turns to me and says, “Welcome to the club, you’re one of us now!”
By 4 p.m. I do feel like I belong in the messenger world. As I walk into a building wearing my helmet and wiping the sweat off of my armpits, a receptionist hands Katie some packages before asking me, “You’re the messenger going to the courthouse, right? I’ll get you your documents.”
"Oh no, she's with me," Katie explains.
Once we leave the building, I tell Katie how exciting it was to be mistaken for one of her crew.
“You walk with the conviction of a messenger,” Katie says. “Plus the helmet helps add to the look.”
All I’m missing is a snazzy messenger bag. I’m stuck with my lame canvas shoulder tote all day. I also need a nickname. I learn the pros are obsessed with nicknames. There’s Magic Mike, Shark, Biker Man, Battleaxe, and Sardine, to name a few, and more being hashed out daily.
“Oh, by the way, we’re calling Fergus ‘Mr. T’,” I overhear one messenger call out. Another guy decides to call me April O’Neil, after the journalist who hangs out with the turtles in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I don’t see this one sticking, but it’s a cute comparison.
At 5 p.m., Paul tells us we’re done for the day. We go to the Statue to decompress and eat white chocolate macadamia nut cookies.
After a long day of biking, I go home with minimal bruises and a sunburn, thankful that these are my worst injuries. With time I could possess the necessary strength for this career, but do I really want to exert this much energy daily? Not really. Plus, I need to maintain my pale complexion. For now I’m content with sitting on the sidelines where all I have to do to belong is sip beer and hassle women.
If you’re a biker with no previous messenger experience, Katie recommends applying to Speedway Delivery, a service willing to take on novices. Not into long days of sweating and carrying heavy parcels? Simply hang out with the messengers at the Wall, 1 Post, or the Statue.