In baggy shorts, tattoos and wild hair, bicycle messengers zip like daredevils through the Loop and through the big, dense cities of the world: London, Tokyo, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C. Legal documents for signature, high couture for photo shoots, architectural renderings, food, sometimes illicit drugs – all need to be hand-delivered and the fastest way to move them through traffic is to entrust them to bicycle couriers.
Northern Illinois University sociology professor Jeff Kidder, 35, worked as a messenger in New York, Seattle and San Diego after college. Now he’s published a scholarly book, “Urban Flow: Bike Messengers in the City” published by Cornell University Press.
Kidder, who lives in Forest Park, calls messengers a type of “urban folk hero” and describes an international culture of mostly-male riders who give a low-paying and dangerous job flair and panache. Kidder says messengers self-identify with the counter-culture mystique of the messenger lifestyle: the danger of rushing through traffic, blowing past stoplights, rarely wearing helmets, urban guerilla warfare with cab drivers – who, after all, are just couriers too.
He says that the nature of the work – its spontaneity, danger and autonomy of decision-making – inspires fierce loyalty in what is basically a low-wage service occupation fraught with danger and with unsteady hours and no benefits.
“What’s the lure of delivering packages?” a businessman once asked Kidder in an elevator. He wrote the book to answer that question.
Kidder examines the culture of international messenger races, called “alleycats” that are held yearly. Hundreds of messengers gather in teams for a day-long race/scavenger hunt/party that many travel thousands of miles to attend. Messengers stay on each other’s couches and some find local work to afford to travel back home after the race. His first alleycat, according to the book, was a “The Warriors” film-inspired race through New York to Coney Island. Contestants stopped to play handball, get a tattoo and pound cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
It’s all part of the messenger lifestyle.
“You can’t imagine fry-cooks traveling around the world to compete in an international championship,” he said.
This year’s international alleycat race will be held in Chicago in August. How Mayor Rahm will view the influx of scruffy bike messengers after the anticipated Chicago G-8 protests this spring is anyone’s guess.
Kidder is quick to point out that the iconic bike messenger is only a subset of people who deliver things by bicycle. “There are many messengers who consider it a regular job,” he said. He also acknowledges that most of the flashy messengers are white males with a bohemian lifestyle who often ride very expensive bikes. Kidder rides a black 1980s model Gitane track bike with no brakes. These bikes, prestigious in the messenger world, are fixed-gear racing bicycles: riders have to keep pedaling and can’t coast. They’re brakeless because they’re meant to be ridden one-direction on a track.
“To stop you have to pump the pedals backwards,” he said. Similar bikes sell for more than $1,000 on the Internet.
Kidder said messengers experience workplace satisfaction described as a state called “flow” by University of Chicago psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1960s. This research inspired the title “Urban Flow” for the book. Making their own decisions, a sense of freedom, speed and danger allow messengers to self-identify with their jobs in the same way more high-paid professionals like doctors and pilots do, he asserts in his book.
Kidder has delivered clothing for photo shoots, blueprints, legal documents. With new technological breakthroughs such as fax machines in the 1980s, email and changes in legal signature requirements, Kidder says bike messengers are often called a “vanishing breed.” But there are many items that still require transportation quickly across congested traffic. “There are some things that will always be tangible,” he says, for example illegal drug-delivery by bicycle. “They’ll never digitize pot and cocaine.”
Kidder says bike messenger culture shows that “there is more to work than exchange of labor for a paycheck. In that moment of autonomy, moving something from point A to point B, through dangerous traffic and bad weather, there are countless decisions. It’s like solving a puzzle with your mind and body. Some messengers say it’s the best job they’ve ever had.”