there is no distinction between man and machine when I mount a bike like this one. Trusting all of my weight to the right pedal of a simple pulley system, I overcome the resistance of two thin tires bound by an aluminum frame and a steel chain. A small disk at the axle of the back wheel, slowly giving way to the force of my weight, holds the pressure taut against the chain. As I lean forward, the weight of my body pulls the cog around the rear axle, turning it one inch. The wheels, held tight by a matrix of metal spokes fixed to a hub, are pulled around a set of ball bearings by the torqued cog. Eighteen inches of rubber wheel crawls forward.
My weight shifts from pedal to pedal, reversing the side-to-side tilt of the frame. Like a plucked guitar string, the sideways sway of the cycle is narrowed. Lateral motion is exchanged for speed. Ten yards. One block. One mile. This specific process repeats itself endlessly. The press and pull of my legs draw the chain around a disk attached to a set of crank arms and pedals. All the parts work as a single organism, absorbing the asphalt and the cold wind while adding power to the spin of the wheels to build momentum. My torso, held up by arms gripped to handlebars and toes clipped into pedals, yanks the seat side to side. The bicycle and I shoot forward,
going south into the Loop as the Great Lake rolls eastbound and another day begins in Chicago.
As I bolt headlong down from the Michigan Avenue Bridge to Madison Street,
each dark Bauhaus shape blurs into the cold stone facade of its Gothic neighbor. I keep on, coasting in the pedals, taking a wide right turn westbound on a vacant three-lane street through the center of downtown.
This first delivery of the day shakes off my morning lag, pumping warmth through my veins, bringing the first bit of sweat to my brow. The air is clean; my head is clear. I look for a left turn onto Wells.
This morning, before the computers are booted up, the banks unlocked, and the stock market scrolls clicked on, I am running delivery routes under the city's yellow streetlights. The elevator banks are empty and the traffic lights, at what will soon be congested intersections, hold and change for no one. Most deliveries I make at this hour are to locked offices, where packages are slid beneath dim glass doors. I move as quickly and efficiently as I can, preserving my energy. A day of messengering is like a hard drug: you never know how rough it will be until you've slept it off.
Out here, while I'm coasting unobstructed through the shadows of morning,
the world seems at perfect peace. The whole city is still and relaxed. Even buildings get their beauty sleep. Coming out of the spinning doors of the
Morton Salt Building, I keep a swift rhythm skipping down the cold steps,
heading to the Grinch, my yellow Cannondale road bike, locked to the bridge railing overlooking the riverbank. While the sky changes with dawn, a steady stream of people crowd the revolving doors over my left shoulder.
Their eyes are half open, their manner calm; they smile softly like babies still tucked into bed.
I enjoy this quiet time when the city's rhythm is slow. I can empathize with the early-morning modesty, and I share the reflective awe that I see in the pious postures of people walking. This respect will fall away when the colors in the sky turn blue and the city awakes. These same quiet faces will struggle for a spare minute, a phone number, a positive response from a supervisor or a client. Sincere people doing honest work will be driven into shouting matches, compelled to insult each other, tempted to quit right on the spot.
I'm with them every step of the way. I have seen the red faces and the feelings of distrust as shoulders brush in crowded yet silent elevators. I
have seen the masklike smiles they wear through stressful meetings about bottom lines. And yet I know none of these wandering souls. I talk to very few of them; they are somehow another species. Their machinery, and their mythology, move in one direction only. They stand packed into tight spaces,
they look up to the brass trim of elevators, and they rise like they are spirits ascending to a gilded afterlife. Is it a floor number they are after? A title that will follow their name? A certain number of digits in their salary? Perhaps they just want a little safety? I don't know. But they are on a path and they will kill to stay on that path.
Every day I see them, good people yelling at each other, running past each other, and stepping over each other. I see them at their worst: in the public space, on the street, where no one is looking and no one cares.
I don't have time to be caught up in the sorrow of this. As my eyes have grown tired of fanning over as many as a million people in a single day, my heart has grown weary of caring for them. My relationship to these people of the city is reduced to suffering the silence of elevators with them, or walking through the ritual pickup and drop-off of packages with them, or muscling through traffic where "please" and "thank you" are lost to the aggravating assault of car horns and uncalled-for profanities. I have found that these good people, so engrossed by their own private struggles, are often incapable of conversation or a courteous word. They are concentrating, holding up the weight of their self-made worlds, trying to find higher ground.
While these masses groan over the decisions they have made and the responsibilities they have undertaken, I float above. I am free of their ideas of good and bad, rich and poor, right and wrong. As an uncommon laborer I may not amount to much in their eyes, but I am free of their judgment. I am sometimes seen as a social misfit, a freeloader, a junkie,
but I am also envied for the color, the vigor, the picture of America I can find while they push their way through the weekday treadmill routine.
I love my work and the people I work with. I admire the arrogant history of these old buildings, the monuments to the free market, and the avenues they are built upon. They tell epic stories of the city's forefathers, hinting at codes of conduct that apply to some and not all. Street names give credit to the elite like deep-rooted propaganda. Chicago remains a contentious city where big politics are played out on local levels, where lawmakers learn their craft from kingpins, where virtue and suffering are the poor man's plight. From its long history I still hear shouts of civil outrage that echo down these quiet streets, reflecting moments in history like the riots of '68, the burden of Black Friday, and the shock that came after the great fire of 1871.
There is always some heated debate going on in the public squares.
Protesters walk the streets and chant in the courtyards of government buildings. Wanderers wear signs bearing political slogans. They are not asking for money or running for office; they simply believe in something,
and they let you know it. I like being inside the arena, somewhere near the fight. I achieve this every morning with a radio, a set of wheels, and a team of dependable couriers out to make a living.
We wake the city along with freight trucks and the quiet tide of pedestrians pouring out of suburban trains. We read about the latest atrocity on the cover of the Tribune as the papers are cut from their bundles and loaded into curbside metal boxes. We ride familiar paths around the city's feet and palms, seeing the abuses of the night before on her scarred back. We call out her landmarks, as we need to, keying in over the airwaves the pet names we've christened.
"Thirty-nine to base."
"Number Thirty-nine go."
"I'm out of the Lockbox, with a bag full o' rags."
"Start rolling the Peat and call me on the Foote, Thirty-nine."
"And where is my Punk?"
"Thirty-three to base?"
"Hey, Punk, drop the coffee and call me out of the Litter Box. The Katz got an Oil Can with your name on it."
"But I am not drinking coffee-it's a mochaccino."
"You're on route to the Kat, you rat, and Punk, make it snappy."
The banter is one of the joys of the job. Each courier company develops its own special brand of street language. That talk is shared between us during the day, after work, at home, making even the unseasoned courier feel accepted-part of a larger group. Though we may treat each other harshly,
there is usually a great deal of respect among us.
Transcending age, sex, color, and all of that divisive sociopolitical bullshit, the courier industry is supported by a very like-minded people.
Many of us are artists and musicians, usually in our twenties. Most of us have been broke long enough to be masters of survival and have dreamt big enough to avoid the constraints of a salaried existence. I came to this city to succeed in the theater. I survive as a courier. Cadence for cash and Money for miles-these are the mantras of many a struggling genius. We work for materials and we herald our poverty for the liberties it grants us. Every week or so on the street I meet another ambitious biker who has a bag full of handbills for their next big show or their next exhibition or their next club gig.
Beyond these surface similarities, there is a deep and unspoken bond between couriers. When one is down, others carry the weight. When one is hurt, others are there to help. Some days the work can be so intense that bikers dehydrate, panic, end up confused or lost, or get messages scrambled on the radio. We have to look out for one another. Bikers get hurt, and when we do, we are often our only family.
Today, we talk about the gender of pigeons on the two-way radios, we watch the world roll slowly before us, and we wait for pickups to be dispatched over the airwaves.
in my rookie days, when I was still amazed and daunted by this rectangular horizon, the job felt like some kind of sadistic punishment. I was clumsy,
accident-prone, inefficient. The city was huge and complicated. I had to wonder if I could last out here more than a week or two. But I continued. I
continued because I had to, pushing through every day with ghoulish resignation. In no time a few lessons about the city surfaced as tricks or shortcuts. With them, I could more easily navigate and plan my maneuvers.
But these lessons grew deeper as time went on, more profound. Eventually they took the shape of philosophical insights that helped me position myself mentally for the work. It is true: how you see things determines how you live among them.
The first major lesson came after only one week on the job. I was exhausted from the miles I was putting on the bike. Mentally, I was fatigued by the effort of being awake at every instant, organizing the excessive stimuli,
learning the streets, the daily shuttles, and, of course, the talk. Then one morning, I was called in to base to pick up some packages that were left undelivered from the night before.
I pulled into the Service First alleyway, which was clogged with illegally parked cars belonging to drivers who handled oversized orders and suburban runs. The office was a converted garden apartment with a propped-open back door leading into a kitchen without cabinets or a sink. Only some tables and chairs, littered with loose receipts, were scattered across the floor.
An old refrigerator stood in the corner, loose water bottles and half-empty beer cans rimming its top. The messengers' smudge marks and bike parts had long ago scraped out the domestic feel of the apartment. Bedrooms were made into private offices, closets were used for file management, and the white walls were tinted light brown from the support staff's afternoon sessions of stressed-out chain-smoking.
When I arrived, the dispatchers talked to me through a Plexiglas window cut into the drywall of the cramped radio room. Chris Coster, a.k.a. Zero,
handed me a few large envelopes. I'd sat down to organize them in my bag when Pat, Number Thirty-four, lurched through the back door, bike in hand.
Pat had dreadlocks like short twigs pointing in every direction. He was muscular and tight, with tattoos tarred beneath his glistening black skin.
His personality was part voodoo priest, part Wicker Park punk. "Man, fuck this," he spat. Sweating and panicked, he rummaged through his plastic bin for a T-shirt that didn't smell too bad and a new helmet. In broken sentences he proceeded to vent through the sliding window that he had just gotten into some shit with a cabbie.
Apparently, Pat was in the left lane trying to make a right turn when a taxicab accelerated, blocking his way. Pat sped up and signaled that he'd be cutting in front to make the turn onto Grand Avenue. Just when he felt safe to proceed, the driver sped up again, nearly swiping Pat off his bike.
Pat swerved away and regained his balance. By this time the cab had driven ahead. Pat sprinted forward. (I know how he rides. The man has the dexterity of a mountain lion.) He pulled his U-lock out of his bag, came up from behind the taxi on the driver's side, and smashed in the window only inches from the cabbie's head. The driver hit the brakes and Pat was gone.
Now, with a different colored helmet and shirt, he was ready to vanish into the early-morning streets again, free from any possible retaliation.
I was stunned into silence. I saw no point in relating to another human being with violence. How did it help Pat to smash in the window of even the most obnoxious driver? How would it alter that driver's behavior, even if he was wrong or rude or pushy? Beyond this, I was astounded that he would share this news with Chris and Dave Goldberg. These were the people who had hired him. Maybe it's okay, I thought. Jesus, maybe it's normal!
"Are you okay?" Zero asked Pat, sharply looking for information, caring nothing for his feelings.
"I'm good-just a little shaken," Pat came back easily.
Goldberg came to the window, asking if he thought the cabbie had seen the company name.
"Nah, he was a little distracted, I think."
"Yeah, boyyyy!" Chris erupted in laughter.
"Take a few, Pat. Cool down."
"Nah, man. I'm ready now. I'll call ya out of the Can in ten."
"10-4. You go girl," Chris called out as the back door closed.