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On Video: Chip Williams shot the messengers

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With a Hi-8 camcorder strapped to his helmet, 31-year-old bike messenger turned documentarian Chip Williams spent the fall of 1992 crafting a 22-minute video that portrays a trio of his coworkers as eloquent peripatetics rather than two-wheeled vectors of disaster. Going beyond it-takes-one-to-know-one, Concrete Rodeo delivers the dizzy itineraries of messengers threading the Loop and offers insights into their maligned maverick subculture.

"It's a service industry," explains Curt, a messenger who wears a red beret sporting a Boy Scout insignia. "By definition we're servants and we're treated as such." But it's not all bad: "It's sexy. It's the closest I'll ever be to being a rock 'n' roll star. That's what suckered me in, in the beginning." With theatrical flair, he poses a syllabuslike list of pseudo-ponderous inquiries: "Am I avoiding preparing for a future by living exclusively in the now? Am I avoiding adulthood? Am I--as bike boy--a boy eternal? Is this job going to kill me or is it going to keep me young forever?"

"It's a kid's job, it's a dead-end job," states Jack, who admires rodeo clowns, collects old Victrola records, and has a spiderweb tattooed on his scalp. Renowned for his acrobatic riding style, Jack boasts he's "a professional athlete," then chugs a beer for his lunchtime fuel.

The third subject of Williams's video, Jenny, confides to the camera, "Why not experience something as intensely and as fully as you can, and then when it ends and you move on with your life, and you go on looking for the next thing." She has since moved on to bicycle mechanics and playing bass in a band.

Concrete Rodeo emerged from the wreckage of Williams's forays into writing a movie script for his master's project at Columbia College. Employing bike messengers as his characters, he said he was going for "a French existential story--kind of like Pickpocket meets The Bicycle Thief." Then one day as he got on his bike to go to work, the solution hit him like a CTA bus--why not do a documentary?

Williams had worked as a bike messenger a few years before, but it took a summer of mountain biking in Guatemala to get him in good enough shape for this shoot, which lasted from September '92 to January '93. Jack was notorious for maneuvering intersections with zigzagging elan, and Jenny took pride in power pedaling. "Jenny was incredibly fast and hard to keep up with," says Williams. "My greatest fear in editing was that I'd need to pick up more shots, but there was no way I was going to get in shape for it."

Instead of dwelling on the mechanics of the bikers' business, Williams is drawn to their inner gears. He keeps off camera, but prior to his premiere he recalled an epiphany of his own.

"It was the end of the day in the dead of winter, just after the holidays. I was sitting on some steps near the river with my bike and no more deliveries. All these office workers were flooding to the train stations, hunched up in their overcoats. It was like a line of worker ants. They stop traffic--they even block us on our bikes. We can't cut through. In the dim twilight it was just gorgeous. And I was hit by the contrast between our lives and motions, because there's nothing at all uniform about the movements of bike messengers."

Concrete Rodeo will be screened Friday at 8 PM at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division, as part of a program called "Chicago's Own," a batch of locally produced short documentaries. Admission is $5. Call 384-5533 for info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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