New York

Millimeters & Mind Over Matter

Today, the bike messenger industry in New York City is more than 40 years old. Several-hundred-thousand people—mostly young men, many black or Hispanic—have found employment as cycle couriers in that time. Once, the calling had cachet and glamor; now, it’s a marginal means of subsistence for city living.

Messengers come and go. They are the ultimate casual worker, urban hobos, often seasonal, dropping into work and falling out of it by the week, if not the day. Collectively, they are a tribe of metropolitan nomads, leaving little trace.

In this world, however, Alfred Bobe (pronounced Bo-Bay) is king. Amid all this transience, he has fashioned a career and made his mark.

He’s not a big man: in bikie terms, built more like a climber than a sprinter, you would think. You’d be wrong: he’s really fast, national-qualifying fast in the flying 200m dash. Off the bike, he walks with the slightly bow-legged, rolling gait of a cowboy. But he’s more like a rodeo star. He speaks with a laconic lilt, maybe a hint of a childhood part-spent in Puerto Rico. But maybe it’s just South Bronx homie, which is where he’s really from.

Bobe has come a long way to be where is today. His journey has taken him through his parents’ divorce, a childhood split between New York and Puerto Rico, adolescent brushes with criminality, teenage parenthood, his father’s drug addiction and simply the precarious existence of being a messenger on some of the craziest, most anarchic streets on earth. They call Bobe “the Eddy Merckx of the underground world” because, thanks to a decade’s success in alleycat racing, he wears the crown of being the fastest courier in New York City.

He’d be the first to say it: messengering made him; bikes saved him.

“I was so angry at the world that I thought being crazy and throwing myself in these gaps was what to do and how to do it,” he says. “That catapulted me into a space where very few men exist. Eventually, I just became so good at just being that, that it was just the norm.”

Messengering is a profession that pays no danger money. Health insurance? Yeah, right. Of the 15-20 cyclist fatalities in New York City every year, it’s estimated that one or two are couriers. Given how small the community is, let alone their riding skills, that’s a frightening rate of attrition. Alfred has never even had a bad crash.

“It was all just millimeters and mind over matter. I got really close many times, but it was just because I thought too much. I was able to teach myself just to react and not think, to go with the moment.”

He says he’s been lucky, but Bobe is one of those guys who makes his own luck. In his trade, that’s a lifesaver.

300 Block West 39th, Garment District (photo by Cooper Ray)

Over the four decades of its existence, bike-messengering has become almost the defining entry-level, casualized, working-class job in New York. It’s rivaled only by restaurant dishwashing as a first, shaky rung on the city’s economic ladder. Messengers have always worked on a piece-rate basis. The fiction of the “independent contractor” —a status ostensibly outlawed by state court rulings, which go entirely unenforced—means that courier firms get away with paying no benefits, no pension, no sick leave, no vacation, not even a guaranteed basic wage.

The industry’s demise has been predicted many times, and usually the story has been how new technology is killing it. In a 1993 New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece, then-veteran messenger and activist Bob McGlynn told Hal Espen, “No, we ain’t extinct. There’s just too much we carry that you can’t fax.” The irony is that there’s now a generation of working bike messengers who’d need to Google what a fax even was.

The bigger factor in the courier trade’s periodic slumps has simply been its vulnerability to economic downturns. But the business always bounces back. The US Department of Labor reported a national total of 138,000 couriers and messengers (which may include pedestrians, motorcyclists and motorists, as well as cyclists, but not truck- or van-drivers) in 1996. That fell to 120,000 in 1998, when the dotcom bubble burst. But by 2000, it was back up to 141,000. The latest number available, for 2010, is down to 116,000, yet the Labor Department predicts 13% growth by 2020.

How many of those messengers work on bikes in New York is always a guess. A 1998 study by Transportation Alternatives put the figure at 5,000 “at most”—a figure that sounds high, even for then. The New York Times, in 2003, reported that the city had 2,000 bike messengers, which is, coincidentally, where McGlynn had the number pegged in 1985. Wired reported in 2008 that the internet had reduced demand for messengers and cut New York’s courier population by 1,000 from the previous decade.

East Broadway, Chinatown (photo by Cooper Ray)

There’s no doubt digital has hurt the courier business, but forecasts of imminent demise have always proved premature. The bottom line: people in New York always need stuff in a goddamn hurry, and not everything they want has yet been turned into 1s and 0s. Some of it never will be.

What has also remained constant down the years is the lousy pay. Cooper Ray, native New Yorker and, in his own words, a “rookie” messenger, says: “For the level of risk involved and how difficult the job is, messengers make dirt.” According to “Buffalo” Bill Chidley, editor of long-running UK courier fanzine Moving Target and an organizer of the first Cycle Messenger World Championship in London in 1994: “Unfortunately for the riders, the lack of work hasn't changed the business model.”

The US Labor Department cites an average hourly wage of $11.58 for couriers. That probably over-estimates what a New York bike messenger makes. Back in 1985, McGlynn reported the rate for the job in NYC as $9 an hour, and then only “if we kill ourselves and ride hard and fast and without breaks … I’ve never met anyone that’s clearing $18,000 a year.”

It’s a classic “revolving door” industry. Little has come from the spasmodic efforts of messengers to organize themselves or form rare meetings with established labor unions like the SEIU and the Teamsters.

“The only two completely non-union industries in this fucking city are us and the dishwashers,” says Bobe.

The US Labor Department cites an average hourly wage of $11.58 for couriers. That probably over-estimates what a New York bike messenger makes. Back in 1985, McGlynn reported the rate for the job in NYC as $9 an hour, and then only “if we kill ourselves and ride hard and fast and without breaks … I’ve never met anyone that’s clearing $18,000 a year.”

If the pay sucks, there are compensations.

“Riding a bike around Manhattan is one of my favorite things to do in life. It's exhilarating,” says Ray. “Being a messenger is freedom.”

But the pioneer spirit only takes you so far. This is a job that chews people up and spits them out. “New York Winters are brutal,” says Ray. “It really beats up your body. It's unsustainable.”

Economically as well as physically unsustainable, Messengers’ wages have been squeezed down over the years, not so much by industrial decline but by the cartel-like practices of courier firm bosses, who fix a rate for the job.

“Nowadays, a messenger makes $300 a week, with these motherfuckers,” says Bobe.

Rather than find himself a resentful slave of what he calls “the alliance,” Bobe had the moxie and talent to diversify. He knew he was fast; he thought he was the fastest. His Spanish wife, Laura, who works as a school teacher, called him out on his bragging: “If you think you’re the shit, prove it to me.”

That taunt propelled Bobe into his first alleycat race. “I went to the bathroom, out of nerves, and when I came out, everybody’s gone. The race had started.”

Starting last, he fought his way back to third place. In those days, he was still riding a mountain-bike, a full-suspension titanium Dean, which he picked up for $35 off a crack addict. He cut down the bars and fitted slick tires. To be an alleycat king, you had to know your routes to make all the checkpoints in the most efficient way possible. But you also had to be, in Bobe’s words, “the baddest motherfucker” on a bike.

In 2003, he started racing at Kissena velodrome in a series run by Puma. He was soon winning and kept winning. Within a few months, Bobe turned semi-pro with a team of fixed-gear street-racers sponsored by Puma, traveling all over the US to compete. That was how he learned how to ride fixed and turn it into a street-racing tool.

It wasn’t that no messenger had ever ridden a fixie before, but Bobe was a pioneer and an innovator of the new wave. By 2004, when alleycat racing became exclusively a fixed-gear scene, Bobe had developed a track sprinter’s speed.

“My first fixed-gear bike was an Iro, a steel frame from a nice gentleman in Staten

Island. Cinelli bars, Cinelli stem. No brakes, no brakes at all,” Bobe recalls. “I embraced the whole feeling. I’d still be holding onto cars, but I learned a few more techniques. I would pop my legs off the cranks and pin them onto the frame and hold on freewheeling. Otherwise, it was impossible. You’d spin out.”

The technique helped him win a MonsterTrack title. Holding onto a car, he was catapulted over the Williamsburg Bridge at 55mph. The rest of the field were minutes behind.

When I met Alfred at Affinity Bikes in Williamsburg, we rode to a quiet bar a few blocks away. He was on a carbon Cinelli, a velodrome racing frame beefed up to cope with street abuse. Cinelli sponsors Bobe, and he’d been testing this bike at the Red Hook Crit before we met. He flatted after four laps, but he liked the way the frame handled the cobbles.

He rode down the center of the road between the lanes to get past slow-moving traffic. I followed behind. At one point, a car veered left to get around another. Alfred just flicked his bike a couple of feet to the left and with an admonishing finger, he traced an imaginary line along the wing of the car.

Later, after watching Lucas Brunelle’s documentary about the alleycat racing scene, "Line of Sight", in which Bobe plays a leading role, I realized that this is something of a signature move. Once, as Brunelle is following Bobe, you see Alfred trail a hand down the side of a bus as he cruises past, almost caressing it.

In the film Brunelle talks about the joy of watching the messengers “surfing” down an avenue. If they are fast enough, they can stay ahead of the stoplight sequence, riding a crest of greens all the way downtown.

All of sudden, I realized where I’ve seen that gesture of Bobe’s before. It’s a surfer thing, reaching out the fingertips to feel the cool, curving water inside the pipe of a perfect wave.

Brunelle’s film captures another important aspect of the courier scene. Messengers may be impossible to organize, but there’s a powerful sense of solidarity.

Michael Boardman worked as a bike courier in the late 1990s before going to grad school. He was track-standing at Park and 34th street one day when a random thug knocked him to the pavement. He was on the ground when a fellow messenger got between him and yelled at the attacker, “Back off, yo, I got a fuckin’ dagger … run, man.”

The thug took off.

“Do you really have a dagger, dude?” Boardman asked his savior.

“A dagger? Who has a dagger? No, man, I don’t have shit.”

“That was my favorite day as a bike messenger,” Boardman recalls.

Financial District (Photo by Cooper Ray)

Bobe’s first love as a kid was BMX. His second love was surfing. He was good at it, too. He competed at the junior national level in Puerto Rico. By his late teens, he was a card-carrying beach bum. One day, he and his friends found a ton of marijuana floating in the ocean. Bobe’s best friend had the connections to convert it into cash.

The fast life caught up with him. His mom still had enough control over the 18-year-old Alfredo to send him to stay with his father in New York. Bobe got work as a lifeguard at Orchard Beach, the Bronx Riviera, also known on the Puerto Rican scene as chocha, “pussy” beach. And Bobe wasn’t done with being a beach bum.

“I’m sitting in my lifeguard chair at Orchard Beach. My chair partner says to me, ‘Look at those tits.’ I look at the tits.”

He got the girl pregnant. The relationship with the girl’s mother did not last, but Bobe stayed in his daughter’s life and is still close. She’s 18 now.

Here’s the thing about Bobe: this was a young man with plenty of bad choices waiting to be made right in front of him. His best friend back in Puerto Rico ended up in jail on a murder rap. Still in his teens, Bobe was sucked in to helping his father battle a cocaine addiction.

120 Broadway, Financial district (photo by Cooper Ray)

But if Bobe took a wrong turn, he learned. He found the right route next time. As quick as he is on a bike, his intelligence is quicker.

Bobe met Laura not long after his daughter was born. She worked as a lifeguard at a private swimming pool. They’ve been together for 16 years and have three sons, the eldest of whom is 11 and shows promise at the velodrome. “His cycling IQ is really big,” says the proud dad.

Bobe’s last MonsterTrack title was in 2010; he didn’t compete in 2011, but raced in 2012 and 2013, each time finishing second because of “a couple of errors.” He talks casually about those results, but you can tell it rankles, not winning. The fierce street warrior is still in there, even as he nears his 40th birthday.

In 2014, Alfred accompanied his eldest son in his first Monster Track experience.

“I think I’m going to close that chapter of my life, the alleycat racing,” he says.

The scene is evolving. Bobe thinks races like the Red Hook Crit – adapting the format of traditional road bike circuit-racing but welded to fixie chic and alleycat subculture – are the future. They create fun, spectator-friendly events in inner-city settings in cool neighborhoods with cafés and bars. They integrate the different communities of alleycat veterans, conventional club racers and everyday commuters—erasing the old tribal identities and mutual suspicion.

“We’re transitioning to a new breed of cyclist and cycling,” says Bobe, messenger, professional, cyclist. “I’m very proud to be a part of that movement.”