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.”
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.