Don't Blame the Messenger: Dispatch Riding in San Francisco

Where have all the cowboys gone?

They used to ride the range in huge numbers, drifting from cattle drive to round-up to rodeo across the West. They had a good horse and a six-gun and made their money through skill, luck and lots of hard work, only to blow it all in a liquor-filled weekend at the end of the month.

Now the cowboys are mostly gone, unless you count the millions of Stetson-wearing poseurs driving Chevy Silverados to their cubicle jobs.

Motorcycle messengers, the motorcycle world's equivalent of the cowboy, are also headed for extinction.

But why? Stuff still needs to get around, right? Since we all know that a motorcycle is the best way to beat traffic in dense urban areas, what happened?

In the `70s and `80s, San Francisco had a lively and colorful cast of messengers, bicycle and motorcycle alike. The culture that grew up around them was filled with tattoos, body piercings and hardcore rock-and-roll. Motorcycle messengers could be spotted by their dirty shoulder bags, scuffed black leather and flat-black, much-crashed sportbikes. Mike Holt has been a professional messenger for 13 years: "all my adult professional life." Photograph by Todd Sanchioni.

Motorcycle messengers ride with great grace and style and always stand out when you ride with them recreationally for their decrepit machinery and insane corner speeds. There's a few in San Francisco that have gone on to become club and national racers of some repute, and they all have a love for motorcycles that is as inseparable for them as the love a cowboy has for his favorite horse.

For an urban motorcycle guy, being a messenger seems to be an ideal lifestyle.  "Rick" has been messengering, on and off, since 1988. He's tall and thin, clad in worn, black leather and motocross boots. He likes being a messenger: "It's the best job." There's "no boss staring at can hang out on your couch and wait for a call." If you can ride fast enough, you can make pretty good money while doing something you enjoy.

Rick has been on the job 17 years. If you see him lying on the ground please prop him back up on his bike. "The other day I had a call to San Jose, which should take two hours. I finished it in less than an hour and a half, got another tag (package) to Menlo Park, then did another run to Alameda. I only worked five and a half hours that day." Rick loves the freedom of the job, which he's had for over 17 years. With "no boss staring at you", guys like Rick can maintain their own identity, dress as they please, keep their own hours and take time off and vacations as they see fit.

Rick and other messengers contract with dispatch services like the one Chris Stevens co-owns. Docket Rocket is one of a dozen or so messenger services in San Francisco, and Stevens shares office space with three other services to keep his overhead low. Stevens started his career as a bicycle messenger; now he rides a desk behind a computer screen, sending others out into the fray when he doesn't do the deliveries on his own bicycle. He said that motorcycle messengering is still a sought-after skill, but the demand is much smaller than it used to be. However, dispatch riders are indispensable for those last-minute jobs to far-away places during rush hour.

I think of myself as a faster-than-average urban rider, so I ask if I can tag along with Rick on his way to his favorite weekday morning activity, the City.  By the time I have my gloves on and my bike started up, he's already hopped on his 1999 Ducati ST4 and is headed the wrong way down a one-way street to roar down to the Embarcadero vehicle auction at Pier 70. He suddenly tells me he's heading over there, and before I can grab my helmet, Rick is out the door. By the time I have my gloves on and my bike started up, he's already hopped on his 1999 Ducati ST4 and is headed the wrong way down a one-way street to roar down to the Embarcadero.

I look around for a black-and-white, see none, shrug and gun my engine, weaving in and out of cars to keep Rick in sight. He seems to regard traffic laws, one-way streets and traffic signals as mere abstractions for other, non-motorcycle messenger people. Once on the Embarcadero, he wicks it up to about 80 mph on the six-lane boulevard as it winds past the ballpark on the way to the 280 freeway. He squeezes past stopped cars going about 50 mph, and as soon as he's on the 280 onramp, he accelerates to about 90 for the less-than-a-mile ride to the 17th street exit.

Rick's Ducati ST4 has 50,000 miles without a valve adjustment or belt replacement. It's the special salvage-title maintenance plan. He runs three more red traffic signals, and I never once see his brakelights until he rolls up to the fence surrounding Pier 70. He is off the bike, past the guard and halfway down a hill towards the auction warehouse before I can even park. Years of messengering have given him a smooth fluidity; there is no wasted movement. He is used to slipping past security guards in office buildings to save time, but now he's more careful: "Sometimes I'll run past them, but I'm afraid they'll shoot me [since 9/11]."

After getting past the security guard at the tow yard, I run after him down a hill to where a huge mob of surly and scruffy-looking people are looking at a vast sea of equally surly and scruffy looking cars. Some are running, with keys, most are not. There is a small, taped-off area with a few, forlorn-looking motorcycles and scooters. None of them are to Rick's liking, so he almost immediately turns around and heads up the hill: "I'm done here."

My Life as a Motorcycle Messenger in L.A.

To most motorcycle enthusiasts, the idea of making a living riding a motorcycle would be a dream come true. After all, what could be better than getting paid to do something you love and already do for free? That's the question most readers ask of us staffers even while they shout profanities at their computer monitors after reading one of our incendiary comparison stories or bike reviews. In the case of MO -- or just about any other moto-publication -- that question would be nearly un-debatable. But there's more than one way to skin a cat.

Los Angeles, CA has some of the worst traffic congestion in the country. Similarly, Los Angeles and most of the smaller metropolises surrounding it probably have the highest concentration of lawyers, law firms, legal teams/in-house counsel and law student hopefuls in the U.S., and factor in the Los Angeles Superior Court (LASC), one of the largest countywide court systems or at the very least the busiest in the country. I won't even bother to try and list all the ancillary businesses that exist because of Hollywood, or what is known locally as "the business" or "industry". Mix it all together and what you have is an environment that spawns a small, almost invisible industry born of necessity: motorcycle couriers.

When I first moved -- or rather "stopped by" -- the City of Angels over 12 years ago, I wasn't planning on staying, much less become a motorcycle messenger.

Nevertheless, as it is with all the couriers, I would safely speculate, I fell into the job. I hope that no one would ever aspire to be a messenger. The reasons for becoming a courier are almost as varied as the characters that take on the role. For some it's a job for those times when they're "in between" jobs. Just something to get them over a justification that lasted me over eight years. For others it's what they did between the spring and fall semesters. Still more people choose to become a courier because it's the only thing they can do, what with their rudimentary grasp of English and general lack of skill or education. But for what I perceived to be the majority of the most motley of them all -- the motorcycle messengers -- the decision to go from point A to point B in the shortest amount of time was one of a relentless spirit.

Many had held what the rest of the world would acknowledge as respectable jobs: carpenter, electrician, plumber, acoustic sound system designer/installer, animal handler for the movie industry and so on. One of the most experienced and successful, at least in terms of being a highly paid courier, was an engineer at one time in his life. Another holds an English degree. But there's also the "career" messengers, those who didn't seek out couriering as a livelihood but also didn't do much else with their life. Now they've reached the point of no return, at least in their own eyes. One of these road warriors has been making deliveries on a bike for nearly 20 years.

Photograph by Todd Sanchioni. The assemblage of motorcycle couriers might look like a small U.N. delegation.  I knew a few Frenchmen, at least two Irishmen, a German, a couple of Canadians, a Brazilian, an El Salvadorian or two and there was even a Russian who could spin a yarn so complex that you couldn't even remember how the conversation started. But without a doubt the largest non-U.S. born faction are the British. In my estimation they make up at least half of the motor couriers in greater L.A. Considering that there are approximately 75 to 100 messengers in Los Angeles alone, that's enough to make you want to say, "The British are coming!" Indeed, the Limeys have dominated the industry for a long time. Years ago when I asked one of them why they come and stay in L.A., he slowly but resolutely pointed up to the ever-present Southern California sun. Couriering in greater London is incomparable to anywhere else, with the constant inclement weather and old, narrow and confusing street systems. Veterans of Ol' Blighty are highly skilled messengers.

When I made my first delivery over nine years ago I had been riding a motorcycle as my sole means of transportation for three years. I was a fairly decent rider at the time but my hundreds of thousands of miles over the eight years as a high-speed lane-splitting lunatic doing battle on the highways and byways of greater L.A. honed my skills. So much so that I was deemed worthy enough to join in on MO shootouts before MO ever gainfully employed me. But lane splitting furiously isn't the only skill needed to keep beans and rice on the table; there's more to the job than just pointing and shooting between cars. I learned to develop what seemed to border on precognition when anticipating what cars, trucks and even other cyclists would do as I positioned myself to overtake them. Perhaps most important as any one of the many facets that make up lane sharing at high speed, the most beneficial to me -- other than a desire to lane share at all -- was looking into the vehicle's mirrors, to "see" where the driver's mind was. Photograph by Todd Sanchioni.

But even with my "Spidey-like" senses there was more than one instance where all of my skill couldn't have prepared me for someone's last-minute, erratic lane change. Oddly enough, these always seemed to happen when I wasn't lane splitting. There's nothing like ricocheting off the side of a mini-van -- which in hindsight I realized had kept me from careening into the freeway divider -- all because someone couldn't wait to get into the lane and crush my right foot and ankle, to make you reconsider your career options. But even with my "Spidey-like" senses there was more than one instance where all of my skill couldn't have prepared me for someone's last-minute, erratic lane change.Despite living in a proverbial riding paradise, the weather is most definitely a work hazard for motorcycle couriers. I'll never forget the El Nino of 1997. At the beginning of the rainy season a meteorologist said that the winter would be made up of little storms that would last two to three days and we could expect a new storm to move in about every four to six days. Damn if he wasn't the smartest man in the world that year. Without fail the rain would come, blindingly heavy at times, just as promised. Also without fail I would find myself deceived while driving up some obscure street in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.

What I thought was a thin layer of water cascading down the street was actually a six to eight inch deep stream. The poor infrastructure being what it is in most of Southern California, water builds up quickly on the surface streets and freeways. And if the right idiot at the right time passed me going in the opposite direction, a five to seven foot high wall of water would come crashing down on me at the most inopportune times. The oppressive heat of Palm Springs in the summer is something to experience on a bike, too. Lest I forget, there are the seasonal winds, both hot and cold depending on the time of year, to blow me across three lanes of the freeway. I've experienced a combination of these weather woes more often than I care to remember.

So what would I get for enduring hours and hours of horrible weather, a hundred plus miles of lane sharing, the most inept drivers in the country, road hazards that included ladders, furniture, chunks of recapped tires, left over debris from an auto accident, radiator fluid, diesel fuel or spilled paint? Oh, did I forget to mention correcting legal documents on the fly all because the secretary or attorney making ten times what I do doesn't have the slightest clue as to what the court systems expect procedurally, all while playing liaison with the inconsiderate, impatient and impersonal clerk? Typically what I could expect for all my efforts was about an average of $350.00 a week with the expectation that I would be back the next day and do it all over again. When I first embarked on the thankless journey of delivering packages and filing documents with a variety of government agencies pay was on a "commission" basis; a courier would earn anywhere from 30 to 50 percent of the charge to the client for handling their item.

Charges for delivery were either based on distance or destination or a combination of the two. I've made more than a few life-threatening runs for $20.00.

Today experienced motorcycle couriers are better off depending on which service they work for. They'll receive what is called a "guarantee" or daily salary. In other words they can expect a minimum amount of pay even if they only deliver a handful of packages. It's not unheard of to make close to $3000.00 a month if the courier has good negotiating skills. Unfortunately, too many of the courier companies or attorney services are far more interested in their bottom line than they are in honoring good, or even legal business practices. Routinely delaying pay for particular deliveries for a myriad of excuses, not reimbursing for out of pocket expenses on the client's behalf and what's known as double booking -- charging the client one amount while telling the courier the client was charged a different amount, then pocketing the difference -- are all pitfalls awaiting the unsuspecting messenger. I have no qualms about stating that just about every company I've worked for -- and I've cycled through most of them at least once, was crooked to one degree or another. Photograph by John Atkins.

Some might say my account of the messenger life is a little on the sour grapes side. To counter that opinion I'll restate what I've said over the years when people would ask me about being a motorcycle messenger: It's one of the best paying unskilled -- in the traditional sense -- jobs you'll find. Anyone that can ride a bike reasonably well, master a Thomas Guide and commit the streets to memory can pull it off well enough to at least make a living. Mostly though, it's a dangerous and thankless job, invisible to most of the world. However, I'd be remiss if I didn't admit that there is a certain romance to it. With its transient nature and disinterest in one's past the motorcycle messenger gig offers a freedom few jobs can, especially considering that that freedom is magnified by what all motorcyclists know and love: riding a bike.

I know I have a talent that I can fall back on. And I learned a valuable skill that an old courier friend dubbed "desperation mechanics": the ability to instantly diagnosis bike failure while pulling on to the shoulder of the freeway, then making that repair while you keep your eyes and ears open for that dreary-eyed tractor-trailer driver thundering by at over 80 mph. One of my favorite triumphs was turning a paper clip into a main fuse. MacGyver, eat your heart out. Also, it should go without saying that the amount of time in the saddle has been invaluable to my riding skills. (Or how about the time we used an adhesive vinyl sticker designed for leather suits, to plug the unwired & ejected oil cap on the Bandit when returning from Del Mar? 3M adhesives are definately something to consider when playing MacGyver. - Fonzie)

Yes, it was good when it was good but I'll continue to endeavor to never need to go back to that safety net and expect that I delivered my last package long ago.

-- Pete Brissette

In the parking lot, I admire Rick's motorcycle for a bit. It's probably the most battered and high-mileage ST4 I've ever seen. "I bought it salvage title and got new bodywork off of eBay" he says in a rare display of glasnost.  I ask him if it's had any reliability issues, and he tells me he's never even checked valve clearance in the couple of years he's had it. How many miles is that? He shrugs and guesses at somewhere around 50,000, although the Ducati's odometer froze at 10,000. 

I notice the empty hard bag mounts, and ask about them. "I got stuck [between two cars]! Traffic was stopped, and I asked the people in the cars to move, and as soon as I was free I took off." I also notice the mirrors are gone as well. He tells me that he "needs to be thin, so I lost the mirrors." If you think this looks dangerous, you should try riding in a MUNI bus down Market street. Photograph by Todd Sanchioni. Aren't you worried about police and other threats coming from behind? "I don't look back...if I think there're cops around, I just put my head down and go."

Does he crash a lot? "Once when I was doing a wheelie I dropped [the ST4], and it's fallen over a few times." I get the impression that despite Rick's fast riding and seeming recklessness, he somehow has managed to stay safe and licensed after 17 years. We should all be so fortunate, messengers or not.

Messengers hanging out at "the wall" in San Francisco's Financial District. Photograph by John Atkins. The demand for motorcycle messengers is smaller than it was during the dot-com boom, supporting only about "a dozen" full-time motorcycle messengers, according to "Jebus", a 38-year old messenger. Ray Roy, co-owner of Lightning Express Messengers in San Francisco, told me his business is down by half since 9/11. In addition, high insurance costs for employers and the risks of injury and police citations make it hard for employee and independent contractor messengers to make a decent living.

How does a guy like Jebus, who needs to break the law to earn a living wage, keep his license after eight years of flogging rattletrap CBR600s around the Bay Area? "I always make sure someone's going faster than me." He also tries to keep his presence low-key, avoiding noisy aftermarket exhausts: "that evil Emeryville CHP guy pulls you over for loud pipes." I also notice the mirrors are gone as well. He tells me that he "needs to be thin, so I lost the mirrors." Mike Holt, co-owner and founder of Asphalt Legal in San Francisco, has been messengering for 13 years, "all my adult professional life". He started his company as "Asphalt Missile Legal" in 1999, but he dropped the "missile" part after 9/11: "That part didn't seem to go over so well." He started the business with his wife after leaving a larger messenger service to work for himself: "the money's much better if you don't have the house taking a cut of the "tag". Working for himself also gives Holt a lot more freedom and safety. "I don't haul ass anymore: there's no point."

Despite what other messengers have said about safety, Holt acknowledges the constant threat of eating pavement. He points to the heavy, clunky off-road Mike Holtstyle boots he wears and tells me "I like motocross boots because they provide the best protection: I've gotten `doored' (ran into a suddenly-opened door in his path) wearing these and I came out OK."

Prevention is the best way to avoid injury, though; Holt avoids crashes by "using brains...lane splitting at 80 mph doesn't make sense."

Traditional couriers will be "gone in the next five years", according to Holt, because of the fax machine, emails and the Internet. For example, Federal courts now allow parties to file papers electronically, eliminating the costly last-minute runs to San Jose or other distant locations. Asphalt Legal now spends most of its time serving defendants with legal papers, and much of their business is legal research, service of process and non-Federal filings.

How many of you want to do this all day, every day? Photograph by Todd Sanchioni. Rather than take a last-minute filing across town for a law firm, or deliver corrected blueprints to a building site like they might have done in the heyday of messengers back in the `80s, messengers now seem to be more like ultra-mobile process-servers or legal researchers. Rick related a story to me about waiting for hours in an upscale neighborhood in Marin County for a woman to come home so he served her with legal papers, only to be harassed by the local police. He often has to wait for hours, waiting out misinformed people who believe they can avoid lawsuits by shirking process servers.

Despite constant dangers, shrinking markets, increased competition from the Internet and soaring costs of fuel, maintenance and insurance, these black-clad road warriors brave traffic, police harassment and San Francisco's gloomy weather to scratch out a bare living playing by their own rules while doing something they love. In a time of hopeless conformity, ruled by fear of strangers and those who do anything beyond the mainstream, the vision of a scuffed, black bike with an equally scuffed and black-clad rider splitting lanes gracefully at 80 mph is hopeful, proof that individuality and expression will always survive.


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