BOMBING STEEPLY DOWNHILL ON SAN Francisco’s pedestrian-thick California Street while screaming “No brakes!” was just another day in my brief life as a late-1980s bike messenger.
I had gotten into “the life” by happy accident. Having been fired from a Berkeley print shop whose required competencies were far over my head, I was at a loss as to what to do next. But not for long — thanks to my erstwhile roommate and pagan-brother, John “Wheels” Wheeler.
“You might consider becoming a bike messenger,” he told me. “You could even use my spare bike.”
Who could refuse an offer like that? And so I found myself ferrying envelopes and packages all over The City on a yellow, one-speed girl’s bicycle with a woven plastic handlebar-basket sporting on the front a dirty rag-doll named “Susy.”
John’s and my day began with loading our bikes onto a shuttle-van’s bike rack at the Macarthur BART station, a literal stone’s throw from our rented Oakland flat. A short hop over the Bay Bridge found us in San Francisco and ready for business.
My first day was highly instructive, not the least of which for having my hands wrapped around the handlebars for almost all of an eight-hour shift. When I got home that night, I could barely unclench them. My ears were filled with the after-echoes of vehicular and walkie-talkie traffic, and my legs felt strong from continuous pedaling (and pedal-braking).
Slowly, I began to understand messenger culture. For instance, there were the “calls” — wordless vocalizations unique to each messenger, and shouted as one passed another in the streets. (Mine was “Oyo!” with an accent on the first syllable.) There was a convenience store south of Market Street where the messengers would gather after work on Friday and, their checks having just been cashed by the store-owner (he was beloved by the messengers for his financial and other generally paternal help), relax with 40-ouncers and/or other inebriants as they caught up with each other: “Where’s ‘Handbrake?'” “He got doored Tuesday. He’ll be down for a week.” “Bummer, man.” (As you may know, “doored” means that a driver opened their car door without first checking to see if anyone was approaching from that side. It was always a bad encounter, and occasionally lethal.)
Every now and then, a complication would arise. I arrived one day at a well-appointed home in the Marina District to be greeted by an elderly man who wanted to send a document to his lawyer’s office. “Wait right here,” he said, “I have to get my sister’s signature.” He disappeared up a steep flight of stairs as I took in the art-rich foyer. Suddenly, I heard shouting from upstairs — a man’s voice crying, “Sign it! Sign it goddamn you!” “No! No!” came a woman’s angry reply. They went on like this for some minutes before the man descended the staircase. “Here you are, young man,” he said with a polite smile. “Thank you,” I said.
My messenger days ended three months later when I found another print-shop berth (the now-defunct Action Printing on Howard Street) more suited to my talents. I made a delivery there, asked if they were hiring, told them my skills and was off my bike and into an apron before the end of the week. Not as exciting as biking all over San Francisco, but with better pay and benefits. I couldn’t complain.
I imagine those days are gone (or drastically changed) now, what with portable scanners and email attachments and Google Docs and whatnot. But I was privileged to share that historical moment — and one which makes a great addition to my resume. Oyo!