I saw my first bike messenger up close in 1988 when I was visiting New York City with my family. We were riding an elevator in that great metropolis and he got on at the same time we did. I couldn’t take my eyes off his toned and tan skin, shiny with sweat. He may have had tattoos or crazy hair, I don’t recall the details, but something branded him as “other,” even more so than the slight odor wafting from his body. I stared at his functional, hardy clothing, and his bag which held his package and his book for customers to sign. As a jaded teenager, I did my best not to gape at everything in the city, but I’m pretty sure I stared at him the entire time we shared that elevator.
Bike messengers were everywhere on that trip. Fax machines had started to catch on, but the city still needed a ton of people to get something from here to there. I knew that people didn’t like them because they didn’t follow traffic rules and took every opportunity for a shortcut, angering pedestrians and drivers alike, but I loved them for their athleticism, the feral look they had about them, and the vague sense of anarchy that followed them around.
When I moved to Portland, I worked downtown where my path crossed with many of the bike messengers. It was the early 2000s by then, and between the dominance of the fax machine and the convenience of electronic messaging, I’m sure the population was greatly reduced, but they were still there. I took walks on my lunch breaks, descending from the twentieth floor of the Wells Fargo Tower, eager for fresh air. As I walked I took in the sights and kept track of the changes in my environment, which meant cataloging the bike messengers.
There was a woman bike messenger I was always happy to come across. She was lean and wiry, with thick pants and wool sweaters to keep the rain from her. She kept her brown hair cut short in a bob and her black-framed glasses and cap reminded me of a friend from college. She rode well, but I loved passing her while she was resting. Sometimes I would come across her chatting with other bike messengers, but one day I caught her leaning against the wall of a high-rise building, her bike next to her, her feet propped up on a planter. She had her face to the sun, eyes closed, drinking in the good weather. At that moment, she looked like a picture of freedom.
My job at the time had a bike messenger come to pick up our deposits. He had black curly hair and wore shorts in every kind of weather. All the riding had pared his frame down to a gristly muscle, the kind you see on cowboys who have spent their life on the range. He wore a typical bike messenger’s cap, not a helmet and he was all business. I was the receptionist so I saw him every day and no matter how hard I tried, I could never engage him in conversation beyond, “hello” (in response to my greeting) or “fine” (in response to how are you/the weather/the day?). Because I was bored at work, trying to get him to talk became a bit of a project. Flirting didn’t work, or general good vibes or questions aside from the standard greetings. I wondered if he had a speech impediment or a general dislike for me, or if he was just socially awkward. The plot thickened one day when my coworker said something about Audrey Hepburn to me while he was picking up his parcel. “Oh, are you talking about Roman Holiday?” he asked her. They chatted briefly about the film and he went about his business, leaving me with my mouth agape and adding “Audrey Hepburn fan?” to my mental list I was compiling about him.
I like bike messengers because they are a part of that class of hard working blue collar workers that businesses are always trying to eliminate. I also probably romanticize them. Their job is hard, and it’s dependent on them staying in good health. I know it doesn’t pay much and I have a good idea that most of them don’t have health coverage. But I love to watch them, moving through the city, getting things to where they should go, in all kinds of weather.