Archive for April, 2011

High Visibility

April 19, 2011

It happened again.

Different driver, same threats, and a weapon involved this time.

Don’t worry – I’m physically unscathed, just very very shaken. In nearly three years of doing this ‘dangerous’ job, this is the first time I’m actually scared to go to work.

Two more days on the road, and then I’m spending the Bank Holiday week sitting in the middle of a field in Wales. It couldn’t have come at a better time.



April 15, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I was drinking juice in CycleLab when a nice young man came in, introduced himself, and started talking about my blog. I’d never met him before, but he’d recognized my bike locked up outside.

I don’t really mind things like this.

Last summer a motorbike courier in a loading bay said “Hello Esmerelda!” (let’s pretend my real name is Esmerelda). I didn’t recognize him, but assumed he must work for my company. (My photo had been up on a noticeboard as ‘courier of the month’ fairly recently, so most of my colleagues knew what I look like, even if we hadn’t been formally introduced.) But further conversation revealed that we’d never met, and he’d never worked for Pink. I didn’t dare ask how he knew my name. Could it be that motorbike couriers make it their business to know the names of all the female cycle couriers? After all, we are pretty scarce, and very visible. And we have a reputation for being attractive.

This I find slightly creepy.

Yesterday I had an unpleasant and fairly frightening encounter with a cabbie on Charlotte Street (I’ve reported it to the police, so am not giving too many details). And this afternoon, the same cabbie (on foot this time) accosted me as I was locking my bike up on Montagu Place, and continued the altercation.

Luckily he walked away once he felt he’d made his point. I was terrified, and trembling even more violently than I had been after our first encounter. In fact, I thought I was about to burst into tears, which almost never happens. So I did something I’ve never before resorted to at work. I phoned my mum.

This helped immensely. She listened, made all the right noises, and expressed her outrage at ‘the way people will behave when they’re safely in their metal boxes’. But that wasn’t quite it. It wasn’t that the cabbie had threatened me with his car, or even anything he’d said. It was that he’d spotted me again in the street within 24 hours. You assume that won’t happen, in one of the biggest cities in the world.

I usually forget how visible – and therefore vulnerable – I am. I have had cabbies shout “if I see you again I’ll f___ing kill you!”, and let it go over my head, assuming that, in such a massive metropolis, they’ll never see me again, and wouldn’t remember me if they did. I’ve never seen the same cabbie twice – but then, you don’t really notice what people look like when they’re in cars. And cars all look the same. (So do most cabbies, come to think of it.) A female cycle courier is a different matter entirely. We stand out, and there’s not much we can do about it.

You know the worst thing?

This is what I see as I leave the house every morning.

Yes, I even live next door to a cabbie.

Spring, and all that

April 14, 2011

It’s spring again, there’s no denying it. And we’ve had a couple of days of very unseasonal heat, and my silly tan lines are coming back, and I don’t like it at all. I feel like we haven’t had enough winter. There hasn’t been a single snowfall since Christmas. I miss cold toes, and wearing five layers, and the cosiness of dark mornings and dark evenings. I know no one’s going to sympathize with this. But I’m bored with spring. I keep meaning to take some illustrative photos of fluffy blossoming trees, but I just can’t be bothered to get excited about them like I did last time around*. I want December back. Spring is too easy.

I don’t know why I’m trying to cling onto the seasons so much this year. I didn’t want summer to end, and I didn’t want autumn to end, and I didn’t want winter to come, and now I don’t want it to end. Why is this? Could I really be getting jaded with the changing seasons? Or is it that I know this wonderful job can’t last forever, and I want time to slow down?

The very worst thing about spring: it’s now impossible to get a park bench to yourself, unlike in January, when it was basically just us and the tramps.

Bah, humbug!


* Though I note from the entry I’ve linked to that spring came about a month later last year. This is interesting, and possibly also alarming.

A Real Courier

April 6, 2011

Not long after I started this job I was joined on a park bench by a veteran courier called Sid. He’d been on the road 16 years and I’d been on the road a matter of weeks, so you can imagine how the conversation went. He smiled indulgently at my silly questions, and told me a few snippets of how it had been in the good old days, when there was actually enough work to make a decent living, and his girlfriend used to call up his controllers at 7pm and beg them to let him come home. He wished me luck for the next few months.

“You’re not a real courier till you’ve done your first winter – that’s what they say.”

I took this to heart perhaps more than I should have. I hadn’t started couriering with a clear goal in mind (six weeks? six months?), but now all that mattered was making it through November, December, January and February. I work best when I have something to prove, even if only to myself.

I was later told that you’re not a Real Courier until you’ve done two winters, just in case one wasn’t hard enough or something. I don’t think anyone else takes this as seriously as I do. But I’ve now done three winters, and two of them were particularly difficult ones, so I think I finally qualify.

But what is a Real Courier?

If you judge it by the ‘two winters’ rule of thumb, then clearly a Real Courier is someone who’s proved themselves by sticking with the job for a certain length of time and through a certain amount of hardship, who’s grown out of all their silly rookie mistakes, and who has enough experience both to command the respect of other couriers and to have something to talk to them about over post-work beers.

I’ve been around for a while now, so people usually take me seriously – but of course I’ll still defer to gnarled old veterans like Overdrive and Gertie and Von. (Edit: and Zero, who is older and gnarlier than the lot of them.) That’s just the way it is. And quite right too. A courier who’s survived two decades deserves a lot more respect than someone who’s survived a mere two winters.

I’ve just started reading Rebecca Reilly‘s Nerves of Steel.

It’s a fairly exhaustive study of 1990s bike messenger culture in the US and, although it’s by no means great literature, it is great history and I’m finding every page fascinating. Expect to hear a lot more about it over the next few weeks.

One thing that’s struck me so far is Reilly’s anthropological dissection of courier hierarchies in many of the cities she worked in.

Camaraderie in the messenger community is hard won. A rookie is almost never immediately absorbed into the larger community. Most often, rookies operate on their own until an older messenger takes them under a wing mentor them. Rookies expecting instant camaraderie are shunned harshly. Rookies who are more humble in their approach are more readily accepted. Generally there is a one- to three-year probationary period. (p. 36; her errors)

I’m not sure I like this, or entirely agree with it. It’s not all that different from my experience, but I’d suggest that the lengthy period before a ‘rookie’ becomes part of scene proper has as much to do with the fact that we’re a geographically dispersed workforce who often only see each other riding furiously in the opposite direction – it takes a lot longer to make friends with everyone than it would if we all worked in the same office every day. And there isn’t as much elitism as she implies – at least not in London. Lots of the couriers who first struck me as aloof or unfriendly turned out to be just a bit shy or socially awkward.

Reilly implies a much more rigid system, with clearly defined roles and categories.

Professional messengers are those who have lived through their first crisis of confidence and made the conscious decision to remain messengers. … Because professional messengers are still somewhat energetic at three to eight years on the road, they tend to make waves, and draw the criticism of veterans. (p. 36)

Veterans are messengers with ten or more years on the street. They are the tribal elders who pass on the knowledge of being a messenger, complete with tricks and free food spots. They not only pass on information, but they also decide when rookies have come of age. Veterans are picky about who they hang out with and sometimes won’t acknowledge new messengers until they have been on the road for more than five years. (p. 36)

I’m not going to bother refuting any of that, because I think we all know enough examples to the contrary.

But what strikes me about this is that Reilly, along with the rest of us, espouses a cultural, rather than a functional idea of courierdom. That’s to say, what is “a courier” is defined by authorities within the community (in fact, the community itself is probably defined by those same authorities), rather than by the simple fact of being paid money to deliver items by bicycle.

The problem is – who decides who is and isn’t a courier? Put like that it sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? Still, I’ve agonized in the past (here and here) over whether I’ll ever actually qualify. I certainly don’t fit any of the popular stereotypes and, in my more paranoid moments, I worry that my accent will lead people to believe that I’m just a trustafarian playing at being a cycle courier. I’m not, but I do have other career options. I’m doing this through choice, rather than because it’s the only job that’ll take me.

None of this should matter, of course. I’m out ten hours a day, all year round, in all weathers. I deliver packages. I ride a bike. So I’m a cycle courier.

And so’s the old guy in the tracksuit on the Argos hybrid.

And so’s the fakengeralike in the designer jeans.

And so’s the new girl who’s only been on the road two days and might not last the week. Yes, even her.

I had a conversation about the State Of The Industry with 24Tee recently, in which she pointed out that, of course, if you think about it, the majority of people who work as couriers do so on a temporary and short-term basis, either because they can’t handle the pain and suffering and low wages, or because something better comes along.

It’s true. This is a job with a very high turnover. I’ve been with my company less than three years and already I’m the most senior on the fleet (well, in terms of having worked here the longest, I hasten to add!). Dozens have come and gone since I started. Some moved on to other companies, but most are long gone, having decided after the first day, or month, or winter, that couriering wasn’t for them. Of all the people who become cycle couriers, the majority don’t last longer than a couple of months.

Everyone (myself included) likes to criticize Travis Culley, who wrote his memoir of the Chicago courier circuit after only nine months on the road. Several old-timers have questioned his authority to comment on a scene he barely knew, and accused him of naivety and inexperience.

People say I haven’t paid my dues as a messenger, but I don’t pretend to be an authority on the subject. Some of them want to believe it’s noble to remain a messenger. They can criticize me, but to me messengering is a transient job for transient minds.

I still dislike Culley’s book – and his attitude – but I no longer entirely disagree with his classification of couriering as a “transient” job. For many people it is. And of course, since they’ll only define themselves as cycle couriers for a few months, before they go back to being students, or web developers, or journalists, or mechanics, or whatever, no one’s ever going to look to them for an authoritative comment on the subject, the way they do the self-appointed ‘career couriers’, and those who’ve been on the road long enough that everyone knows their name and looks up to them. True, someone who only spent four months on the road won’t be able to describe the courier industry in the same breadth and depth as someone who’s worked in several cities over more than a decade. But, since these short-timers make up such a huge majority of cycle couriers, surely their experience, however limited, is no less valid.

The “transient minds” are still a huge part of the courier story. Hundreds of the people who are on the road this week won’t be here next year. But they’re here now. And they’re cycle couriers. Real ones.

No, THIS is the most annoying loading bay in London!

April 2, 2011

Portland House, SW1. If you’re a courier you’ll probably know and hate it as much as I do.

It used to have one of London’s more user-friendly loading bays. A nod from the security guard, straight down the ramp (wheeeeeee!), across the car park and the lifts are pretty much straight ahead of you. On a good day you could probably be in and out within a couple of minutes.

But not any more. Some facilities manager, in their wisdom, has decided that it’s ‘unsafe’ to let couriers ride their bikes down into the loading bay, so now:

The security guard instructs you to lock your bike up outside the building. You scowl at him. If it’s your first time since they changed the rules you’ll probably also try and have an argument with him about how you’ve always been allowed down the ramp in the past, but he’s heard it all before, and anyway, he didn’t make the rules.

He unlocks the door, lets you into the security office, and gives you instructions to carry on through the door at the back, straight along the corridor, through two sets of double doors, to the lifts on your right. Take the lift down to -2, follow the signs to the loading bay, and ask the security guard there which floor you want for whatever company you’re picking up from. No, he himself doesn’t know which floor you want. You have to ask the security guard in the loading bay.

So you follow his instructions, wander along the featureless white corridors until you find the lift, and descend to the loading bay. Except you don’t get to the loading bay. The lift turfs you out into another anonymous maze of white corridors, there are maps here and there, but it would take you more time than you have to decipher them, and you’ve already lost all sense of direction.

There are signs pointing you to the loading bay, and you follow them, but they’re only sporadically placed, and I’ve never yet managed to find it first time – I always end up having to retrace my steps at least once.

You finally reach the loading bay. Hurrah! Then you try to attract the attention of the security guard. He’s usually over on the other side, at the bottom of the ramp, so you have to climb down off the walkway and walk across the loading bay – thereby exposing yourself to just as much risk of reversing lorries, etc. as if you’d just ridden your bike down there. (Possibly more, because couriers are professional cyclists, but only amateur pedestrians.)

He checks his clipboard. You want the 20th floor. So you recross the loading bay, climb back onto the walkway (because there are steps at the far end, but that would involves walking all the way round the edge of the loading bay, and you really can’t be bothered with that, even if the security guard is going to tell you off), and proceed to the main lift shaft. It’s pretty easy from here, as long as you remember that there are two different lift shafts – one for the upper floors and one for the lower ones.

You pick up the package and take the lift back to the loading bay. Strangely, according to this lift the loading bay’s on -1 rather than -2. If it’s your first time it’ll take you quite a bit of backtracking and confusion to work this out.

And now the fun really starts. You try to find your way back to ground level. (Remembering all along that you could have ridden your bike back up the ramp in a matter of seconds.) You wander haphazardly along the anonymous white corridors for a while, taking junctions almost at random, until you come across a lift. But this is one of those massive buildings that has multiple lift shafts. The first lift disgorges you into an identical maze of anonymous white corridors. You don’t recognize anything, but you’re pretty sure this isn’t how you got in. So you wait for the lift again, go back down, and wander around on -2 for a bit longer, looking for another set of lifts. By now your sense of direction is completely shot to hell.

You find another lift. It looks a little more like it might be the right one. But you’re no longer sure. Everything in this building looks the same by now. You wait for the lift, get back to ground level and wander up the corridor, and then down the corridor, and then stand and look all around you, and then backtrack once again, and you’re finally back at the security office.

You vent your spleen on the poor security guard, apologize to your controller for the lengthy delay, unlock your bike, and are at the other end of town in less time than it took you to get to the 20th floor of Portland House. Seriously. The first time I went there after they changed the rules, it took me 25 minutes to get in and out.

Did you find that boring? You should think yourself lucky. You only had to read it once. I have to go through it in person several times a week.