Archive for March, 2011

Disappearances

March 23, 2011

People come and go so easily.

When I lived in Stoke Newington I used to ride down through Angel in the morning, and start the day with a latte at Carluccio’s on Bernard Street, WC1. After a few weeks the staff got used to me, and would remember my order, sometimes refuse my money, and give me the odd smile and nod as I sat by the window reading the paper, and they pottered around getting ready for the morning rush.

But when I moved back to south London my commute deposited me in a different part of the city, and overnight I stopped going to Carluccio’s. I wonder if the staff noticed, or asked themselves what might have become of me. We weren’t even on first-name terms, mind you, and there was no reason to say a formal goodbye. I just disappeared.

For the first few months of living in East Dulwich I’d come in through Blackfriars, and start the morning sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, WC2, watching the dog walkers flirt with each other and wondering whether the personal trainers were having competitions to see who could get their client to do the most hilarious exercises. There was an elderly Indian lady who used to walk slow laps of the park in an old salwar kameez with a cardigan over it, trainers and earmuffs, just like the ones I used to see in the Lodhi Gardens in Delhi when I lived there. I used to wonder whether she lived locally, or worked locally, or was on holiday in the area, perhaps staying with her barrister daughter, or her son at LSE. It took me a while to notice when she disappeared, and I never saw her again after that.

And has anyone else seen the man with the shopping trolleys? He’s tall and well dressed, and the first time I saw him manoeuvring four trolleys full of bags along Mortimer Street (laboriously parking two a few yards up the road while he went back for the other two), I assumed he must work for one of the fashion companies in that area, and be moving garments over to their studio for a sample sale or something. But I saw him again and again, and eventually realized that he just spends his days endlessly moving his worldly goods around Soho and Fitzrovia.

One day last year I realized I hadn’t seen him for months, and wondered what had happened to him, aware that I’d probably never know. Maybe he’d died or gone to prison. Maybe he somehow managed to get himself off the streets and into a hostel or a job.

Then, a few weeks ago, he was back. I’ll never know where he went. But it was nice to see him again.

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about cycle couriers, but were afraid to ask

March 17, 2011

I’m endlessly intrigued by who reads this blog. In the beginning it was just my dad. Then Messenger of Doom found it whilst searching for ‘coffee and bikes’ or some such, and pretty soon it was being linked to on Moving Target, and House of Pistard, and real live couriers started reading, and I got all worried that I’d be flamed for misrepresenting the industry. And somehow, along the way, various friends and strangers have also stumbled across it. How did you end up here?

I like the variety of my readership. I like that there are couriers and ex-couriers reading this who will recognize my descriptions of the job – or pile in indignantly and say it’s nothing like that really, and you should see how it was back in 1986. And I like equally that there are people reading this who know nothing about cycle couriers, or any of the little trials and tribulations we face, and for whom this is an entirely new world. Which are you?

And one of the best things about writing this blog is hearing people’s reactions and responses to what I say. And they often have questions about couriering, and cycling, and London, that had never occurred to me before. And the discussions that evolve as I try to answer them are nothing short of inspiring. Last night, a friend (who will be reading this), requested:

more words!

any interesting observations on other rare species of the urban ecosystem

a little unsheathed vitriol

I have made a note, good sir, and all are forthcoming.

And what about you? What would you like to ask? Is there any particular aspect of courier life you want to know about? If you have a question, no matter how peculiar, leave me a comment, and I’ll do my best to answer it in future posts, either with my usual waffle, or by picking the brains of fellow couriers.

Hmmm, this could be fun…

Has anyone seen my self-respect?

March 16, 2011

This must be the only job that gets more stressful the less work there is.

If you’re a courier you’ll know what I mean. Sitting on the same park bench for 90 minutes.

You start off slightly edgy, not sure whether to start on a sandwich or get your book out, in case you’re called away for another job.

Some minutes pass. Definitely time for a sandwich.

A while later you’ve eaten your sandwich, and your other sandwich, and the flapjack you had in your bag for emergencies, and cooled down enough to put your jacket back on.

Boredom sets in.

The suits on the next bench, who arrived after you, finish their Pret sandwiches and go back to their office (and are replaced by identical suits, with identical Pret sandwiches).

You finish your book, and catch up on all those texts you’ve been meaning to reply to.

You resist texting all the other couriers whose numbers you have, to complain about the lack of work, because that would just be stupid.

Boredom turns to paranoia.

It’s awfully quiet – is my radio still on? It is. Oh.
Am I definitely on the plot, or have they forgotten about me?
I bet everyone else is being given work.
I know for a fact ___’s being fed.
And ___’s always been the controller’s favourite.
Is it something I’ve done wrong?
Maybe they’re punishing me for that job I ran late on last Tuesday.
Maybe it’s because I’m no good.
Maybe it’s because I’m too slow.
Maybe it’s because I’m a girl.
Maybe it’s a conspiracy…

Of course, there is no conspiracy, and it’s not anything you’ve done wrong. As my controller regularly reiterates, he can only give out work if the clients are booking it.

You wonder briefly about all the random and miscellaneous factors (a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the world, a volcano erupting in Iceland, half-term, the global recession, the internet, the weather, the football, the Royal wedding, the beginning of a new tax year, a malicious god) that might be causing clients not to book work.

And then comes the anger.

Last Thursday was my first really bad day for a while (and I suppose I should at least be grateful for that). Between 8am and 5pm I did 10 jobs. We make £2.75 per job, so that’s – well, you work it out. I think a couple of them were specials, which pay slightly more, so if I’m lucky I might have hit £30. I hope you realize how embarrassed I am to admit this.

Wouldn’t that make you angry? It makes me fucking furious. Here I am, young, fit, strong, energetic, ambitious, resourceful, creative, reasonably intelligent, full of potential, and I’m wasting my life sitting around in parks, not even making any money. Think of all the things I could be doing with this time! When I was a receptionist I made £18k sitting on my arse doing nothing – as, no doubt, thousands of people all around me are doing, every day, while I sit in the park outside their office, not making any money, and panicking about how I’m going to pay the rent and afford new tyres.

What made last Thursday even worse was that I had turned down around £100 of editing work, out of some sort of misplaced loyalty to… to what exactly? To the people I work with? To my company? To my own work ethic? But £30 a day isn’t enough to buy anyone’s loyalty. Or it shouldn’t be. The trouble is, if I did decide to call in sick a few days a fortnight (to do other work), or tell my controllers where to stick it when they keep me out till 6.30 when I’m meant to finish at 5, I’ll be labelled ‘unreliable’, and given even less work than I already am.

So I come in, dutifully, every day, rain or shine, and do the work they give me without complaining about how little of it there is, and stay out late if they decide to give me a last-minute job that takes me up into Camden, even though I live in south London, and try to forget, when I’ve only done two jobs by 11am, that I’ve barely paid for my morning coffee.

Whatever happened to my self-respect?

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking – why don’t the couriers make a stand? Go on strike, or form a union, or hassle our companies for a regular wage, or anything that might make people sit up and pay attention to how precarious our situation is? It’s been tried in the past, and it’s constantly being discussed, and debated, and turned over obsessively in the minds of couriers who’ve been sitting on the same bench for 90 minutes. It won’t work. We’re too replaceable. If I start biting the hand that feeds me (however infrequently), I’ll eventually be sacked, or given so little work that I leave of my own accord. If I go so far as to rally the troops and start a revolution, I might gain so much notoriety that no courier company in London would employ me.

(For a detailed account of an actual uprising – and a fascinating piece of courier history – I refer you to 24Tee’s blog.)

And now comes the sticking point.

Why don’t I just find another job?

It always comes down to this. And it’s a question I really can’t answer. Why do I stick around when I’m paid a pittance, and given no benefits, perks, pensions, expenses, annual leave, sick pay, guaranteed minimum wage, or even recognition? Could it be because I genuinely love the job? That doesn’t sound like a good enough reason.

But I do. I’ve never loved a job so much. I look forward to Monday mornings. Today was my birthday, and also my day off, but I went into work anyway, because I’d rather be riding my bike around town than sitting at home on my own. Surely that should count for something?

Yesterday was another bad day, and I had this same conversation with three different colleagues – in Fitzroy Square, at Creative Corner, on Lower Thames Street. We didn’t reach any real conclusions, beyond that, as we all know, things as they stand are intolerable, and something has to change. No one really knows what.

And I can’t quite understand this. All three of the men I talked to are friendly, presentable, articulate, conscientious, intelligent, and well-qualified. All of them are known to be excellent and reliable couriers – the cream of the crop. And surely, with all the current focus on low carbon footprints and small local businesses, and with more and more people coming round to the bicycle as a viable mode of transport, these three in particular should be making a fortune.

Why isn’t it happening? What’s wrong with our industry?

The magnolias are back

March 13, 2011

And they’re a lot earlier than last year.

I keep track of these things.

Hooligans

March 9, 2011

When I tell someone what I do for a living, they almost always want to have the argument about how couriers all jump red lights, and are a bad influence on other cyclists, and a mortal danger to innocent pedestrians. If I try to protest, they tell me about how they were very nearly run over by a cycle courier once. It’s an conversation I have all too regularly, and I find it both highly frustrating and deeply boring.

But isn’t it true that couriers are, by and large, dangerous hooligans with little regard for the law and less for the lights, who will run you down as soon as look at you?

See what you think.

_______________________________

I was heading north on Red Lion Street yesterday afternoon, when a woman stepped off the pavement, about two feet in front of me, without looking. I managed to swerve round her and, in a fairly conversational tone, said:

“Careful – look where you’re going!”

The man she was with gave me a filthy look.

You look where you’re going!” he retorted, and muttered “How cheeky!” to his companion as they strode off. He sounded appalled, as though I’d said something disgustingly rude to him and he couldn’t quite believe my audacity. I didn’t get the chance to point out that they were bloody lucky I had been looking where I was going. And where they were going too.

_______________________________

A couple of months ago I was accelerating through a green light when, at the last minute, a fairly elderly gentleman began to amble across the road, straight into my path. I yelled “hey – hey!HEY!” and braked for all I was worth. He finally spotted me, panicked and luckily managed to flinch in the right direction. My front wheel missed his feet by mere centimetres.

Stop at the lights!” he squeaked, in absolute outrage.

I managed to swivel round to check as I sped off. The lights were still green. He hadn’t even bothered to look.

He sounded like he’d just had the fright of his life. He was probably back in his office within minutes, being asked why he was so pale and shaky, and telling the tale of the hooligan cycle courier who’d jumped the lights and come within inches of running him down.

_______________________________

Just before Christmas, I was riding along King William Street when a man stepped out from between two cars. He wasn’t looking where he was going – he was texting someone on his mobile phone. There wasn’t enough room to brake or swerve, so I went straight into him. He managed to remain upright – I ended up sprawled on the road, with a nasty bump to the head, that left me dizzy for the rest of the morning.

Luckily he was kind, and stopped to check I was OK. I suppose he didn’t have a choice really – there were so many witnesses that he couldn’t have got away with legging it. He apologized, and explained that he was on his way to a job interview, and had been checking its location on his phone when he stepped out in front of me. And although he did seem genuinely concerned about my head, he was also clearly desperate to get away, so in the end I let him go.

And I’m pretty sure that he didn’t walk into the interview and say “sorry I’m late – I just knocked a girl off her bike.”

He’s much more likely to have said “sorry I’m late – I was just hit by a cycle courier”, and the woman interviewing him will have tutted and sympathized, and perhaps even commented on what a menace these couriers are, and how someone really ought to do something.

______________________________

Hooligans, eh?

There’s no such thing as too many bikes…

March 3, 2011

…just too few zip ties.

(Many thanks to Sarah, Maggie and Jim of Brixton Cycles, without whom I would have undergone an intolerable amount of to-ing and fro-ing on public transport to get them both home.)