I LIKE THE STREET is a song about "my mind on bike."
Sweat points to a rhythm under your skin and makes it glisten in the light. Sweat does not discriminate between burlap or satin, barkeep or ballerina. Lying makes people sweat. So does love. Jesus sweated drops of blood. Sweat carries the dust of disappointment and the heat of anticipation. Sweat is veracity and a means for sizing things up. I can even smell music. This is Sweat Logic, a way of coping and seeing behind the masks that people wear in life.
When I had my “day job” of bike messenger, I had many opportunities to study sweat, strangers, and speed. A bike messenger is a courier who uses a bicycle to make deliveries, mostly in urban areas where vehicle traffic is thick. Bike messengers have been the subject of books, films, and documentaries. “I Like the Street” is my autobiographical recall of that time and that experience.
The famously hilly streets of San Francisco (my work base then and now), are actually very navigable on a bike, and I messengered, off and on, from winter 1978 into the late 80s. Monday through Friday, a force of at least two hundred messengers cycled the streets. Ages ranged from thirteen to sixties: all shapes, sizes, sexes and sexualities—including corporate dropouts, punk rockers, Deadheads, fringe artists, under-aged runaways with fake IDs, semi-pro racers, religious cultists, Marxists, and academic outcasts. One female biker was a Rhodes scholar. She had a foul mouth but looked like Doris Day.
Bike messengering was the perfect fall-back job for the flamboyant, the obsessive, the chronically restless, and the star-struck rookie. It was a world I called The Asphalt Ballet. Less-enchanted viewers referred to the bikers as A Cabal of Nihilism. Kamikazes. Anarchists. In context, they were just another part of what makes San Francisco a butterfly collection of subcultures.
Most messengers came from America’s flyover zone, but a good percentage were globetrotters from overseas (back when employers didn’t have to be fussy about visas and green cards). A number of them had ridden in Dublin, London, New York City, Paris, Seattle, and Tokyo.
Companies gave their employees a number or a nickname for identification: Captain America, Kirk the Slave Dog, Rabbit, and Crud are just some examples. Crud become world-famous, a subject in several print articles and television news shows.
A bike messenger racked up twenty to forty miles a day. The legacy started in 19th century Europe. The American imitation became Western Union. In 1945 (in San Francisco), Sparkie’s, the first independent-contractor bike messenger company, was birthed by Carl Sparks. By the 1970s, messengers were fortified with pagers and walkie-talkies, with hyperactive dispatchers spitting out orders. The 80s would become known as the Golden Age of Bike Messengers, before fax machines and the Internet reduced their ranks. At that time, laws were looser and you could earn about $400 a week on piece rate.
Like field mice scurrying through tall grass, bike messengers wove through knots of downtown traffic, a continuous shape-shift of bodies and motor vehicles. Even the most careful messengers had regular accidents and were threatened by people, even when it wasn’t the bikers’ faults. Surprisingly few messengers got killed. The story I always heard about happened in 1976: a heedless chap named Tennessee hand-hitched to a truck going up the perilous Broadway hill. The truck turned right. Tennessee didn’t.
The number one scourge was “getting doored.” Drivers would hurl their doors open into the path of an oncoming biker, tearing up hands, knuckles, arms, and faces. Sometimes drivers refused to take blame and got into fights with innocent bikers; by law, “dooring” was the driver’s fault (cops rarely took the biker’s side). In my first year, I was “doored” five times before I developed an instinct of noticing parked cars that quivered and mirrors with no eyes in them.
Denizens of the Financial District had a love-hate relationship with the messengers. Pedestrians were startled by bikers zipping through crosswalks. Truth told, some bikers thought it was their duty to roust the cross-walkers from their stupor.
Weather affected public opinion. During a cold rain, messengers were heroes, able to make a deadline court filing in four minutes, frantically pedaling through dense Market Street traffic, ruining wheels, and jumping curbs and deadly-slick train tracks. Then, on clear days, when stuffy offices felt like jail, workers envied the messengers who roamed the streets like a horde of grungy pranksters, on vessels adorned with flowers and pirate flags, blowing kisses upwards, past carbon towers’ majesty to the big sky.
Messengering is, simply, the pick-up and delivery of (mostly) legal documents, blueprints, artwork, and media items. It wasn’t unusual to carry chairs, contact lenses, dentures, dirty laundry (literally and metaphorically), flowers, food, frozen blood, inflatable dolls, mink coats, rubber chickens, telephones, tuxedos, umbrellas, urine samples... Deliveries, or “tags,” took bikers in and out of architectural marvels (like the Trans America pyramid), luxury hotels, shipyard docks, tourist traps, grimy warehouses, and sagging flophouses.
A typical messenger base consisted of a repair shop with tools and dismembered bikes, a grimy storage area, offices that looked like the day after a parade, dispatch areas with screaming phones, and a lounge with cast-off furniture and graffiti-spattered walls—“Charles Manson once held your job;” “Eat jellyfish sandwiches.” At one of my workplaces, a turned-over wooden cable spool acted as a table. A Lifesaver had been stuck on it and no one could ever get it off. It’s probably still there.
Occasionally, a tag connected messengers to celebrities and some of the richest people on the Pacific seaboard. The street-beat also put us in proximity with grifters and the shadow-dwellers of society—“all the beautiful people.” In my experience, a peer of the realm only had to cross a line to be a lowlife. The messenger uniform gave me passage as a pseudo-ambassador, allowing entry to places only cops, journalists, and libertines dared to tread. I felt privileged by that. It put Sweat Logic into action.
“The richness of the world, all artificial pleasures, have the taste of sickness and give off a smell of death in the face of certain spiritual possessions.” [Georges Rouault]
released February 23, 2017
Produced by Johnny J Blair & Mark Doyon.
all rights reserved