By John Greenfield
At the Cyclists Annual Messenger Picnic last Saturday bike messengers from Houston, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and New York City joined Chicago couriers in a series of contests. The 50 people who showed up sprinted from "Mishwack," courier-speak for the intersection of Michigan and Wacker, to Chinatown and back. They scrambled in the "alleycat" race to find the most efficient route between the Sears Tower, the Amoco Building, the Board of Trade, the Hancock Building, and other landmarks, picking up envelopes and mailing tubes along the way. They also competed in a bike limbo contest, a cargo race in which they stuffed 60 pounds of boxed bricks into their delivery sacks or balanced them on their handlebars and then charged up a hill, and a Shit Bike Toss, in which they hurled a department-store cruiser as far as possible.
It was the second multicity rally sponsored by the Windy City Bike Messenger Association, a three-year-old loose confederation of a few dozen of Chicago's 700 or so bike couriers. "This is a great town to be a messenger in," said Brent Olds. "It's flat, and there's a lot of work out there. I like the fact that there are a lot of different levels of couriers here, from the elite racer types to the homeless guy who can get a Huffy, a helmet, and a lock and make money. That's a beautiful thing." And he lauded the midwestern work ethic. "We're like, hey, give me a fucking bike and I'll work. You don't see that on the east or west coasts."
Jack Blackfelt, who used to work in Chicago and is now in New York, said New York City was a harder place to work. "As far as dodging traffic and avoiding injury, it's the toughest place I've ever experienced. Of course winters are a joke--they're nothing like Chicago."
Guenevere Nyderek complained that sexism was worse in Chicago than in other cities. "People like to comment on my gender, like it's not a girl job or something. They say, 'Wow, you're the only woman I've ever seen as a messenger.' Sometimes they say harassing things, commenting on my physical appearance." But she also said that bike messengers generally don't get much respect here. "Sometimes you get comments like 'Why don't you get a real job?' or 'Why don't you contribute something to society?' I think Chicago is just a much more aggressive place--people are more hostile to each other no matter what job they're working."
America Meredith, a courier from San Francisco, disagreed. "The hospitality here has been incredible," she said. "The streets are wide, the traffic is mellow, and it's easy to get around."
The day's most dramatic event was the track stand competition. A line of messengers balanced on fixed-gear, single-speed cycles with no hand brakes, trying to stay upright without letting the bike roll forward more than a couple inches. One by one they lost their balance and let a foot touch the ground.
"Three minutes," barked Donnie "Quixote" Terry, the timekeeper. Then he upped the ante. "Take one hand off the handlebars!"
Several contestants promptly lost it.
"Six minutes. Both hands off!"
Another batch dropped out. Only a handful of bikers remained, sitting bolt upright, their arms outstretched.
Finally only two people, both Chicagoans, were left--Joe Hunt and Patrick Babcock, better known as Bobcat. When the humorless Hunt dropped his foot, the crowd cheered. Babcock remained perched on his bike.
At nine minutes Terry ordered Babcock to take one foot off a pedal, and for one amazing moment he hovered, three extremities waving in the air. Then he and the bike clattered to the concrete.
"I try not to mind fart," he said afterward, explaining his strategy. "I stared at a little pebble on the sidewalk in front of me, just concentrating on concentrating. It's kind of like messenger work itself--if your mind starts wandering for a moment you fall. It's a very delicate balance."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrew Gregg.