Monday, July 30, 2007
Brutus Bicycle Issue July 2007
Brutus Magazine in Japan did an entire issue on Bikes and i was lucky to be included. I wrote a story on what it was like to be a bike messenger in the Late 80's. It talks about me meeting my some of my Idols and moving into Manhattan and discovering the downtown scene.
Heres the Translation
I was 17 years old, right out of Mount St. Michael High School in the Bronx, and I wanted a career in advertising. I started at Jordan, Case and McGrath working in “The Accounting Department”. Here I was, ready to come up with genius ideas for next Gap and Pepsi campaigns, and I end up crunching numbers.
I would often see these guys come into the office to deliver packages and they looked very cool and confident with their bags slung across their chest and the colorful professional Cycling clothes. They were like commandoes in spandex, in and out fast. They were New York City bike messengers. This was 1986.
I became more and more curious about this job Bike Messengers had. How hard was it? How much did they pay? I looked up some companies in the phone book and went to apply. The first thing they did was give me a test with 5 questions and I failed. They asked things like what is the address of the Empire State Building and what separates the East side from West side in Manhattan. Very simple question but I couldn’t answer them to save my life. The advertising agency got me very frustrated with low pay, no creativity and no freedom.
One day I asked some messengers how much money they made and I was shocked to find out that some of them made as much as $1000 a week. I went on to study Manhattan streets to become a messenger. You needed three things to become a messenger in those days a bike, a bag, and a pager. I had none of these. My first bike was a Raleigh Mountain bike. It was big and heavy and chrome. I got the bag at Globe Canvas on Mott street and bought a used pager from another messenger. I was set! I went back to the messenger service and I passed the test and I was a now a bike messenger.
The first company I worked for was called “Canned Carrier”. It got the name because they used to deliver cans. Movie cans filled with film for the motion picture industry. Before video had taken over Canned Carrier would have guys on Harleys with Saddle bags deliver Motion picture film to movie sets and developing labs all over NY. They kept the film industry moving. Soon the video industry took over and the company started using bikes with lighter packages like tapes and envelopes.
Now just so you know this is all pre-fax machine days so if you had a document you needed someone to get it was done by bike messenger. This made for a lucrative messenger industry back then.
Now if you were a messenger you couldn’t just use your real name you needed a road name i.e. Chain, Speedy, Lefty, Psycho. Something that was easier to identify you when you called in for a delivery. I was given my road name by my Dispatcher Vinnie because he heard women in the office say I was so “Shadi”(a mysterious person) when I would joke around with them and ask them out on dates or tell them dirty stories. The Shadi character was born.
The cool messengers didn’t ride mountain bikes or bikes with gears they rode Fixed gear bikes. They were light and simple and fast. No gears, no brakes, no extra parts to steal or replace or fix. They were hard to find back then. Only a few stores had them and they pretty much all sold the same model, a Gold colored Matsuri worth about $400. I don’t remember the parts it came with but it had a durable steel frame and aluminum rims what more could you ask for. My first big paycheck I got one and I was so proud. I became accustomed to it after about 3 days of close run in with doors and bumpers. I studied the other messenger styles of riding and style was everything. What you wore, how you stopped, how you got off the bike. I wanted to be that guy. I started to wear the cycling clothing and it was a bit embarrassing at first to wear the shorts with all your nuts and bolts exposed to the public. But you had to look like a pro if you wanted to be part of the Elite riders crew.
I was on my way to that status.
I met a messenger named Malik Yoba one summer day, he called himself Mohammed one day in Washington Square Park in Manhattan. That was where everyone hung out after work and Drank 40 ounce bottles of Beer and Smoked Blunts of Weed (messenger food). Malik was a charismatic good looking black guy that had a preppie style and he seemed to know all the messengers. We became good friends and he introduced me to the downtown scene. I was a Bronx boy back then and I didn’t know much about the Lower east side or Soho.
I started to meet messengers that were more than just messengers they were artist in their own rights.
Most of them had the same story of why they had become messengers. The freedom. Where else could make your own hours and make good money and dress anyway you wanted. This lifestyle was good for being social and being creative. The only drawback was you were a victim of the weather. If it rained you would make more money because no one wanted to work on rain days and there was a lot of money to be made in bad weather.
I realized that every building that I went to deliver a package I saw a Zephyr Graffiti tag. I thought this was an odd coincidence. I used to see Zephyr on all the trains when I went to High School in the Bronx. I loved his Style and one day I met him and I was shocked to find out he was a messenger. Graffiti writers seemed attracted to the messenger lifestyle back then. Over the next few years I got to meet a lot of my idols thru the messenger world. Futura, Dondi, and Stash to name a few. I got to meet Olympic Cyclist Nelson Vales.
The approval by the government of the use of Fax machines in the late eighties took a toll on paycheck of messengers worldwide. Fax machines in a way marked the end of a certain innocent period in the Bike Messenger legacy in my opinion. The packages got bigger a lot of companies closed and it just started to feel like a job. I did the messenger thing for about 3 1/2 years thru some very tough winters. I feel like I was lucky to be part of the Bubble years of the NY messenger scene when I did. Im still friends with most of the people I met riding a bike and my friend Malik Yoba went on to star in many films and televisions shows.