Processed World #15

Issue 15: December 1985 from

Submitted by ludd on February 20, 2010

Table of Contents

Submitted by ludd on December 29, 2010

Talking Heads

from our readers

poem by harvey stein

Quarantine Corner
collective editorial

Dear Del Monte
article by paxa lourde

Chainsaws & CRTs Do Not A Forest Make
review by primitivo morales

Fire Against Ice: Cannery Strike
article by caitlin manning & louis michaelson

Montgomery Street Morning
fiction by steve koppman

Road Warriors & Road Worriers
nyc bike messenger tale of toil by bob mcglynn

by simon, paris, watson, hamilton, zable & warden

925 Crawl
fiction by kathleen hulser

Remembrance Of A Temp Past
review by d.s. black


Dear Del Monte

article by paxa lourde

Submitted by ludd on February 20, 2010

Dear Sirs,
What is wrong with Asparagus Spears that would make them so soft and mushy after you put cheese sauce on them to serve for guests?
Complaint letter to Del Monte Corporation

It was the closest thing to an assembly line that I had ever worked. The complaints were the raw material. The final product was soothed feelings, assurances of quality and care. It was the production of ideology, really. Trust in the system, in the humanitarianism of big companies like Del Monte.

The production process? The mail would come in big bags early in the afternoon. Somebody would do the initial sort: promotional correspondence (things like people sending in 15 coupons for taco holders) off to the promo half of the office, boxes in a bin, rest of the letters to us. The boxes were gross. People would send back food, yummy things like TV dinners put back in the carton and mailed, worm-ridden prunes, cans of discolored Chinese food (love those rotting bean sprouts). The food might sit in someone's house for a couple days then be sent through the U.S. Postal System where it would be thrown about, dropped, stamped, crushed. It would reach its destination, only to sit in an overheated office for a week or more. We, the clerical workers, weren't required to open the boxes. The supervisors were supposed to, which was fine with us. The idea was probably that the supes were better able to deal with the health hazard of decay. Now and then one would go through the bin and try to stretch the distinction between a box and a letter, giving us the small boxes to be opened along with the letters. I let this slide just once before I began immediately and obviously dumping the boxes right back into the bin.

Not that the letters were much better. People felt obliged to send us the sticks they almost choked on, the ‘field debris’ (worms, mouse carcasses, dirt clods) they found in their cans, discolored, misshapen pear halves wrapped in baggies and made even more discolored and misshapen by automatic postal equipment. The department responded to an astounding volume of complaints. I was there in the slow season when we were handling 250-300 a day. The letters would be opened, date stamped, read, and then coded. In coding, we would write down Del Monte's standard name for the product, the can code, and a code for the complaint. The can codes were an issue. The label asked that customers include the letters and number found on the bottom of the can when writing about problems. Encapsulated in that nine-unit alpha-numeric code was the date and location of the packaging. Needless to say, consumers were very interested in cracking the code. People would want to know the age of some cans they had just bought at a warehouse sale or had found at the back of Grandma's shelf. No help from Del Monte.

The information from the coding would be entered into a computer. The computer would (1) compile management reports on all this information and (2) spit out a personable letter, supposedly from the head of the department but in actuality signed by anybody, expressing grave personal concern for the unfortunate experience and assuring intensive quality control. Coupons good for the purchase of more Del Monte products would be offered as compensation. There was a bizarre schema for determining how much compensation the customer Would receive. For a 50 cent can of peaches with a worm in it, the customer would get a $1 coupon if she noticed the worm upon opening the can. If she dumped the peaches into a pot and saw the worm, she would get $2. If the peaches reached the table, $4. If the wormy peach was dished out onto a plate, $6. If somebody bit Mr. Worm in half, she would get the grand prize of $8 worth of coupons. For choking, if done by an adult, $3—if by a child, $5.

When customers wanted an explanation, they usually got it—but the explanations were disingenuous. We had form letters detailing the dangers of old, rusty, bent cans. (Surprise! Don't eat food from cans that are leaking and smell funny.) Another letter assured that canned fruits and vegetables were just as nutritious as fresh—after, of course, chemicalized vitamins and minerals were added back in to substitute for those killed in the preserving process. The supervisors were trained to identify chemical compounds or different species of insects that might be found in someone's package. When the supes were stumped, they sent it off to the lab who could do chemical analyses or identify, say, a found bolt as coming from the drying machine for raisins. If a customer was really hurt, the complaint went to Legal so that they could fast-talk her into signing releases in exchange for minimal, but quick, reimbursement.

The response would be sent and the complaint would be filed along with any materials that accompanied it. Squashed-up pears, rotting worms and stale breakfast pastries would be stuck in the filing cabinet, The office reeked—and this was in the winter. I understand that in summer the place stinks to high heaven.

After working in the office a while, most of the workers found themselves avoiding canned and frozen foods—especially the ‘problem products’ like cream corn or canned salsa (I myself opened at least six letters relating how palls were cast on New Years Eve parties when someone fished up broken glass on their tortilla chip.) Some workers frankly said they were revolted by the stuff. Some asserted that fresh vegetables were healthier. Others commented that most of the letters were from out of state; in California, though, we have a completely different way of eating (the snooty way out). Whatever the reason, we were all alienated from seeing the problems of the corresponding consumers as our problem too. We knew better than to buy the stuff in the first place.

Stale Joke

I liked working in this office for about a week. At first, the letters were interesting, funny documents. Instead of being grossed out, unable to eat, I found myself obsessed with food. Reading about a freezer-burnt chicken pot pie filled with artificially flavored cornstarch would make me think of the wonders of a chicken pot pie done right—a butter crust filled with chunks of stewed chicken and baby carrots in a light cream sauce. Returned cartons of Hawaiian Punch that looked and smelled like anti-freeze made me thirsty for fresh fruit juices, for bittersweet carrot juice, cloudy organic apple cider, bottled Napa Valley wine-grape juice. Letter after letter about shoddy canned vegetables made me hungry for crisp green beans cooked in butter, garlic and fresh oregano from my garden, swiss chard with an olive oil and white vinegar dressing and lots of freshly ground black pepper, or artichokes served with homemade mayonnaise...

But the amusement and heightened sensuality soon wore off. I became depressed. There were sad things, infuriating things, going on in these letters.

What were the letters saying? To paraphrase and simplify an idea developed by Claude Levi-Strauss—humankind as biological beings stand midway between nature and culture. Food is our primary link both to nature and to each other. Our system for obtaining and preparing food indicates both our relationship to nature and the structure of our society.

Take this letter:

Dear Sir:
Last night my husband came in from work late so I fixed him a “Del Monte Fried Chicken Dinner.” He found a hair in the broccoli. It has always made him sick to find a hair in anything he eats. So that was my wasted money, time, and a dinner.
He is on his lunch hour now. So I fixed him a Salisbury Steak Dinner. I'd been busy with my daughter and I really didn't expect him home because of the terrible weather. When he started to eat, he found a very long hair in his steak gravy. Well he was going to eat it, and ate the steak, but found another hair in the au gratin potatoes...
Since this has happened, I'm going to buy Morton dinners, again. *

* (Morton is made by Del Monte. In fact, the Del Monte frozen foods are supposed to be top of the line relative to Morton. So it won't do this consumer any good to switch.)

The classic working-class family. The husband works at some low level job where it's normal to go home for lunch. He is the breadwinner, the king of the castle. And out of utter gratitude for her state of dependency, the wife is expected to be his personal servant, preparing all his food on demand. Bad enough. But what about TV dinners? The foodstuff is of poor quality, the portions meager. An analysis would reveal high salt content (just the thing for that high blood pressure) and destroyed nutrients from the cooking-freezing-baking cycle (three, three, three processes in one!). And let's not forget the various unnecessary and potentially carcinogenic chemicals used to color, thicken, flavor, emulsify, leaven, preserve.

Nobody likes to find hair in their food, but why should it be so unexpected? To be sure, all kinds of disgusting things happen in food processing plants. Field rats go into catsup.. Workers drop rubber gloves, hair nets and chewing gum into vats. A friend of mine worked in a Watsonville brussel sprouts factory where a junkie friend of hers barfed on the belt. My friend watched in smug revulsion as the vomit-sauced cabbagettes were packaged and frozen. (Aren't these stories oddly fascinating?)

The husband's horror of the hairs is embedded in the modern food distribution system. Until recently, meals were prepared in small kitchens by people intimately associated in daily life. If you found a hair in your food, it was Cousin Bette's, or maybe the landlady's. A hair in a TV dinner, on the other hand, is an anonymous yet intimate intrusion. It provokes a correspondingly vague-yet-intense dread of contamination.

This separation from the source of food and its natural qualities can take on absurd distances, as in the following letter:

I recently purchased your product Del Monte “PITTED PRUNES.” While chewing one of the pitted prunes, much to my horror, I bit down upon a pit—you will find this pit attached plus the purchase wrapper.
This pit incident has caused damage to my tooth [which is capped]. I cannot predict the extent of damage until I see my dentist, however, when the pit made contact with my tooth, I heard a loud “crack” and I now find the area to be very sensitive.
As you can well imagine I am in great distress and would appreciate hearing from you as soon as possible.
I cannot afford dentistry as I am unemployed.

The food companies can't even leave untouched the most ostensibly ‘natural’ foods. There are ways to eat prunes and avoid the pits—you can hold the prune and just bite around the pit, or gingerly puncture the end of the prune and suck the pit out, or stick the whole prune in your mouth and chew around the sides of the pit with your molars. If you expect to find the pit anyway, you can deal with it. I read many other letters where people were similarly ‘horrified,’ ‘shocked,’ or ‘appalled’ to find a naturally-occuring part in their food. And because they really weren't expecting it, they often hurt themselves when they choked on a bean or grape stem, cut their cheek on a chicken bone, or bit into a prune pit.

We need to know what to expect from food so that we don't find ourselves poisoned, down with a case of the runs, or unexpectedly drugged (what delicious mushrooms!). But we also desire variety, both for nutritional satisfaction and sensual interest. The desire for variety could be an evolutionary adaptation, enabling humans to obtain the nutrition they need in a range of environments. Tribal people, except in times of extreme shortage, usually have a varied diet obtained from small-scale agriculture, hunting, and gathering. One tribe in the Philippines can identify and use 1,600 different plants. Similarly, peasant cultures, though usually burdened by landlords, banks and profiteering middlemen, diversify their diet by raising vegetables appropriate to the season, gathering herbs, greens, berries and nuts in the wild, and hunting and trapping. The people in outlying towns and cities benefit from their resourcefulness—witness a European or Chinese town on market day.

The food corporations flatten diversity. Choice and variety exist as an array of commodities. What we find at supermarkets is not real variety; the same things in different packaging take up large amounts of ‘shelf space.’ A standard American ‘junk food’ item like chocolate wafers with ‘creme’ centers is offered in the name brand form (Oreos), the competitive brand form (Hydrox) and the ‘economy’ house brand form (Lady Lee, Bonnie Hubbard, Frau Sicheweg, etc.). In the produce section, you can buy the standard tomato, the standard zucchini, the standard peach. But a perusal of any seed or fruit tree catalog is a revelation. Every ‘basic’ fruit or vegetable exists in several forms, each varying in taste, texture and appearance. Unless you have your own garden, it's impossible to obtain the variety our agricultural heritage has to offer.

The Del Monte letters revealed a great deal of atomized, isolated food consumption. Particulary sad were the old people who would write about how they lived on TV dinners. Since they ate by themselves, they found the portions just right, with no waste or leftovers, and the dinners were easy to prepare, But TV dinners are not a healthy diet, especially for older people needing to restrict their consumption of salt, fat, and refined carbohydrates. These atomized meal preparations reveal the sort of community that people in our society age into—none.

True, at least a third of the letters claimed a “guest” or “company” was present when food was found to be defective. Like the asparagus letter at the beginning of this article. Or this one:

Last evening I had guests for dinner. I was serving the fruit cocktail as an appetizer when one of my guests found this bit of extra on his spoon [a grape stem]. Needless to say, I was very embarrassed...

But having guests was such a common claim that I suspect it often wasn't true. People didn't feel confident in asserting complaints on their own behalf. They needed a witness, imaginary or otherwise. Somehow, they were embarrassed about eating alone.

Meal sharing is a way of experiencing human connectedness—care, equality, friendship. From this point of view, the nuclear family dependent on corporate merchandise is clearly a failure. Inside it, people are bored, tense, harrassed—like the harried housewife with her Steak Dinner. Outside, they are alone. The most fundamental human collective activity—meal preparation and consumption—is done in solitude, even after the preparation becomes strenuous and the consumption delicate, as it is for the elderly. In many suburban families, it is common for people regularly to eat their dinners while watching separate TV's, unless they go out together to eat.

Del Monte
Consumer Affairs:
Katherine M. Randle:

Dear Ms. Randle:
My husband and I have just returned from a vacation and upon my return I found your letter awaiting me.
I was sick to my stomach for 3 days on my vacation, due solely to the memory of my opening of the Del Monte can of Yellowstone or Freestone Yellow Peaches, taking a quick sip of the usually delicious syrup, and seeing this horrible cock-roach, floating up to me right under my eyes. The mere thought of it still sickens me. I very easily could have swallowed some remote part of the roach or even its feces. I tasted the syrup. I did not eat any part of the peaches.
Your letter explains in detail the procedure you take, and I quote, “You take particular care that the product is wholesome and free of any foreign matter” unquote. How then can you explain the presence of this ugly horrible roach floating in the juice, floating up to me before my eyes?
I have the roach itself frozen in a Baggie, the can with the number stamped intact on the bottom of the can in my freezer, as per instructions from the gentleman with whom I spoke at the State Food and Drug Administration. I would very much like to get the filthy thing out of my freezer.
I was ill for 3 days after the incident, wholly due to the fact of remembering the roach. My stomach was truly upset. Nice way to start a vacation! On the 5th day we took a tour in Honolulu to the Dole pineapple fields and saw the sign of the Del Monte fields, and the mere sign “Del Monte” conjured up my memory again of the roach. I will never again be able to enjoy the delicious taste of a cold, juicy freestone peach from any brand again. This thought alone makes me very, very angry. So, Ms. Randle, I'm sorry to inform you that 3–$1.00 coupons is not going to compensate me for the misery I encountered on my vacation and the future sacrifice of any enjoyment I would derive from eating a dish of nice canned peaches.
I am returning your 3–$1.00 coupons, and hopefully some remuneration in accord with the misery I endured will be forthcoming. If not I shall take the horrible cock-roach and the can and consult my attorney.
I thoroughly dislike writing a letter like this Ms. Randle, I know you're just doing your job, but I have no alternative.

Mrs. Dorothy Mann
LaMesa, California

The Price of Grain and the Price of Blood

The Third World is starving. Some would claim that it is wrong to be concerned with alienation and sensual deprivation in the U.S. when many people can't even get a minimal daily serving of rice and beans. Such an attitude fails to see the interrelatedness of the problems; how the same institutions are responsible for both. It also misses the possibility for a politics rooted in our daily life, leaving us powerless to do anything except donate money to this or that relief agency.

In Food First by Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins, you can look up Del Monte in the index, and then go down the sublistings to find out how the company usurps traditional farm practices in different areas.

  • In Costa Rica, the company gives special loans to politically well-placed landowners.

  • In Guatemala, Del Monte owns 57,000 acres of agricultural land but plants only 9,000. The rest is fenced off just to keep the peasants from using it.
  • In Mexico, the company pays the farmers 10 cents a pound for asparagus that it gets 23 cents a pound for in the U.S.
  • In the Philippines, armed company agents coerce peasants into leasing their land to Del Monte's pineapple plantations. Cattle have been driven onto planted fields to destroy crops. The peasants and their animals are bombarded with aerial sprays.

    See also sublistings for Kenya, Hawaii, and Crystal City, Texas.

An anonymous source in Del Monte middle management relates a bit of company lore, In the early seventies, a new data entry clerk punched in the wrong destination code for a 480-boxcar shipment of lima beans grown in the Philippines. Instead of arriving in Japan for processing, the limas wound up, completely rotten, in Kenya. The company fired the clerk and cavalierly wrote off the loss as a food donation to starving Africa. Such charity.

A principal mechanism used for the destruction of native food systems is the conversion to export-oriented cash economies. The best lands are stolen/bought by the corporations—or, more usually, by their agents in the local upper class. Companies like Del Monte serve as the notorious “middleman,” taking over the secondary role of broker, shipper, packer, merchandiser. The displaced peasantry surge onto marginal land which is quickly exhausted, farmed to death. Those remaining work for wages on the coffee, cocoa, rubber, luxury vegetable plantations. They buy their food from stores, much of it now imported and alien to the native cuisine.

Here in the United States, the best lands are obliterated by housing tracts, shopping malls, industrial plants. I grew up in the Marysville-Yuba City area of California. Dividing the two towns is the Feather River. Like the Nile, the Feather River used to flood once a year, depositing a layer of fertile silt. This silt built up into a topsoil suitable for wonderfully productive orchards. The area used to be forested with peach, walnut, almond, plum trees. Until the construction of expensive, ecologically destructive dams, the towns used to worry about rainy season flooding. As I was growing up, more and more of the orchards were covered over by housing tracts. Immediately outside of town began the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, a region not as suitable for intensive farming but more pleasant for living (above the fog, below the snow, and with a view). And the foothills didn't flood. It seemed obvious that people should live in the hills and leave the valley floor either in its natural state or as farmland. As an adolescent, I would spend afternoons mapping such ideal communities, sketching in community greenhouses and herb gardens as well as libraries, theaters, and hospitals.

I still fantasize urgently about such communities. I imagine little burgs with lookout points onto the valley, parts of which are laid out for agriculture, parts of which have been reclaimed by nature. The housing tracts and shopping malls have been torn down—the material from the old buildings has rotted away, been recycled, or been shipped off to the anthropological section of the Museum of Natural History in San Francisco. The orchards have been replanted—but instead of miles of boring Elbertas and Freestone peaches for the canning industry, we grow many varieties of fruit. This not only enlivens our diet and prolongs the seasons in which different fruits are available, it ensures that entire stands aren't threatened by blights or bad weather affecting either certain genetic strains or particular times of ripening or blossoming. The diversity also satisfies the cultural preferences of the different peoples who have settled in the area.

There are fields of grain, again of diverse varieties and genetic strains. We never export grain, though. Most areas of the world are regionally self-sufficient in staple agriculture, and have well-maintained warehouses to protect themselves from food shortage. We do ship off a few regional delicacies, like spiced canned peaches—we had to do something with those old canneries!—nut butters, a Chinese-influenced plum sauce, virgin olive oil, wine. But our exports are nothing we can hold anyone to ransom with.

Individuals or small collectives have trusteeship for plots of land that they work themselves. I and a couple of friends oversee an olive orchard planted on the lower slope of the hills, a prune orchard a little below that, an orchard of mixed fruits—fancy peaches, kiwis, persimmons, other things we raise for the local market. Next to the orchards is an open cropped field that sometimes grows wheat, sometimes safflower, sometimes clover for grazing goats. The work required by our land trust varies from season to season, year to year. Things are especially hectic in late summer and fall when the olives need to be picked and pressed, the prunes dried and stored. We divide chores as best we can, but people have different capacities and other pulls on their time. Inequities happen, quarrels do flare up as a result and need to be mediated. Other collectives have been known to fragment in huffs of personal resentment.

We use a mixed-bag technology. Even if we wanted to use petroleum-based chemicals and fertilizers, we couldn't. They're just not available; oil is too scarce. We learned a lot from the farmers on a work-learn excursion we made to Italy, which has a climate similar to ours and grows similar crops. A lot of the stuff that comes out of the transformed U.C. Davis is useful, too. Davis, previously a research center for agribusiness, is now a bustling study center for the decentralized western North America food production systems. But many improvements come out of our own experimentation. We own the tools and machinery that we use day-to-day. The special stuff we either borrow from the county warehouse or have brought in by special jobber teams that share in the harvest.

At home, I have a vegetable garden shared with the woman next door and her daughter. Now and then I coerce my lover to go out and pick some squash or rake the paths, but he mostly likes to stay inside and read. Jeff is a teacher; for him, dirt-poking ranges from tedious to uninteresting.

How do we prepare our food? Sometimes we cook at home, sometimes we warm up leftovers, sometimes we eat at the neighborhood kitchen. The cooking at the neighborhood kitchen is usually good, and the kitchen is a great place to catch up on local gossip and caucus for county meetings. Now and then, to celebrate, we eat at a specialized restaurant, where the real cooks operate...

Crusts of Brie and Such

Such utopian thinking is not irrelevant pending some grand historical juncture. Instead, we should use such thinking now, both to critique the present world, and to imagine and build the world that we want to create.

A sane food system, both for the Third World and for us, would mean community responsibility for, and control of, local food production resources. To leave them in the hands of the corporations is to be vulnerable to their repressive and irresponsible economic, political, and ecological practices.

Parts of such a sane food system already exist. In San Francisco, there are a couple of fairly good cooperatively-run grocery stores, a farmers’ market where small growers can sell their produce, and a community garden network. There used to be a widely-patronized home delivery cooperative. These institutions should be emulated and broadened. But along with such worthy do-it-yourself projects, we should examine the land use in our vicinities. Our cities are built on valleys and plains that were once farmland—land that should still be the ground of our sustenance. Possible activities to retake this ground range from organizing community gardens on vacant land (especially in an urban area, it's a good idea to get the soil tested for lead and other chemical residues before you start a garden. Make the landlord pay for it!) to fighting construction projects that eat into agricultural districts, demanding a redistribution of that land to small growers who use ecologically responsible methods.

When I announced at the Processed World shop that I was working an article about food, someone jibed, ‘'I don't know if I want to read it. It will tell me about all the things I shouldn't eat but do anyway.” We expect an analysis of the food industry to conclude by listing things that are unhealthy (like chemical and fat laded processed food), or deprive other people of needed resources (like the meat industry or the production of cocoa and coffee), or should be boycotted (like Campbell's soup, Nestle's, table grapes ... ). Such calls for abstention not only sounds like yet another puritanical injunction against enjoyment, but can also be impossibly inconvenient. Our food distribution system has been colonized by the food corporations, too. For instance, you're late for work and you don't have time to pack a reasonably nutritious lunch. You're going to have to forage at the company lunchroom or the corner roach coach. What kind of food do you really expect to find there?

People have a fierce emotional attachment to what they eat. Food is pleasure, security, cultural affirmation. A politics of food needs to account for all these things. Pleasure particularly is discounted in discussing food. Take pains with a pie for a party and you're immediately accused of being a yuppie. Propose that a group meet at a local cafe and somebody will assert that McDonald's is more working-class. Yet a reclamation of regional cuisine can be a motivation for a Third World people to reject the banal diet it has been forced to adopt since the destruction of its native agriculture. A similar urge on our part can be an enticement to the development of food distribution systems that supersede the corporate food industry because they offer food that is more pleasurable as well as produced in socially and ecologically responsible ways.

We also find pleasure in the communality of food—sitting down and gossiping while peeling apples, hoeing a garden together, sharing a feast. Such activities may seem too homely for political consideration. But think about what it means to have these activities supplanted from our daily life in favor of the more quickly prepared, the more brilliantly packaged. There are many ways to be starved. Food is our primary connection to the world around us and to each other. Leaving it to the corporations is self-destructive in more ways than one. Establishing an intimate relationship to food is a way of reviving our own diminishing humanity.

by Paxa Lourde


Road Warriors & Road Worriers

nyc bike messenger tale of toil by bob mcglynn

Submitted by ludd on February 20, 2010

by Bob McGlynn, a.k.a. The Enigmatic Emissary
(opinions expressed here are mine and not that of any group or organization of messengers)

[h3]a true story:[/h4]

    He was riding his bike on 46th toward Broadway. Up ahead was an illegally double-parked bus going in reverse, and across from the bus was a car that was pulling out of a parking lot, ready to enter 46th. The biker had the right of way but signaled the car anyway to let her know he would be proceeding on. The car driver accelerated, and the biker was caught between the forward motion of the car and the reversing bus. His body was crushed and he lost one leg immediately in a pool of blood. The cops showed up but basically did nothing. They didn't even fill out an accident report. They let the driver go. It was another biker who called the ambulance and found out the guy's name before he lost consciousness. The cops were white; the driver was white and was seemingly drunk. The biker was Black ... and a NYC bicycle messenger."

I remember once asking at a meeting of 50 bike messengers, “has anyone here not had an accident? “ No one raised their hands.

Such is the reality of bicycle messengering beneath the human interest stories which romanticise “those nonconformist free spirits, going for the big bucks” ; and/or condemning us for murderous wild riding, “law breaking,” “bad attitudes ... .. mental retardation,” etc.

I find that many peoples' overcuriosity about bike messengers borders on the neurotic. “You do that!? ... Wow...” or (jealously) “Well you've got some freedom but you can't do it all your life you know.” Perhaps they want/need a little of that “free spirit” stuff: the relative frontier of the open street vis-a-vis the unnatural enclosedness of 9 to 5 land can be quite intriguing with its danger and autonomy.

I'm going to concentrate on my own experience as a bike courier, although there are many types of messengers, primarily foot messengers, truckers, MC's (motorcyclists), and your occasional skateboarder or roller skater.

Bikers work mostly for messenger companies that specialize in messengering, although some companies (say in the film industry) employ their own in-house bikers.

What we do is simple; we ride to one place, pick up ('p.u.' in our lingo) a letter, package, whatever, put it in a bag strapped around our back, and deliver it to another place. We get most jobs by continuously calling up our company dispatcher who directs us to the next assignment. The alternative if you feel like saving phone money (we aren't reimbursed for phone calls, although many clients let us use their phones for free), is to go back to the company to get assigned more work, but that's normally inefficient. If we're lucky, we'll get a few jobs at a time—if things are slow, we'll get them one at a time, or none. We get paid mostly on both a piece rate and commission basis. We get paid per job and get paid a percentage of the job cost (i.e. what the client is charged). So if the average minimum cost for a midtown pickup and delivery is about $5.50, and the average commission is 50%, then we make $2.75 for that job. Many companies have additional costs added on for extra distance traveled (''zones” ), size and weight of pickup (oversize), waiting time (if the p.u. isn't ready when we get there), etc. Some of us make another 5-10% on rain or snow days. If we kill ourselves and ride hard and fast without breaks, a number of us can make a generalized average of about $9 an hour, but others, who are newcomers or who aren't so lucky or adept, make $5.00 an hour. There are also slow periods when everyone is making shit. Legendary stories about how we're all making $100 a day ain't true. And I've never met anyone that's clearing $18,000 a year (not that some lone lucky maniac isn't pulling that). Ya gotta take breaks in this business (plus we have to cover bike repairs and all other expenses related to the job). Last but not least, we are (on paper) “Independent Contractors” : meaning we are “our own bosses,” and not employees. More on that BULLSHIT later.

Bicycle messengering began as a new industry somewhere around 1972. It was started by my first boss, who later got forced out in a scandal where he was illegally charging us for workers' compensation and then pocketing the money for his coke habit. His wife took the company over—(She was formerly a biker who worked for and then married him—and then divorced him—Yo, Dallas in NYC!). There's a couple of thousand of us, almost exclusively male, 60% Black and Hispanic (mostly Black), 40% White (years ago I'd say it was more like 50-50), average ages 18-late 20s. We do have our handful of 50-70 year old heroes, and as the years go by, there's an increasing amount of “oldies”— people who stick with it year after year getting into their late 20s and early 30s.

In general many of us do fit the outlaw-counterculture-street person image (with no apologies from us), that we're either romanticized or condemned for. A lot of us wouldn't be caught dead working in an office or factory (that's our preference—we ain't the snobs!) and biking is an easy place to find work. The scene is extremely transitory, companies are incessantly hiring, plus they overhire “to keep themselves covered” which fucks everyone, especially the newcomers because there's less work to go around. On the other hand it's often the only gig in town—no one else is hiring—so we end up with a crowd of poor types trying to make a buck and also some arty and intellectual sorts who can't make any bread at their profession.

All in all there's a great deal of camaraderie among us as the joints are passed and tools are shared—it is especially apparent when we rush to the side of a biker that's been hurt in an accident in this bohemia of the streets. The hellos exchanged in elevators, the whistles, the bikes, their speed, the nicknames, dread locks, colorful or torn clothes, sleek biking clothes, grimy and sweaty faces, fingerless gloves, and the superficial command of the day definitely makes bikers a “cool” group. The City is “ours” as we have an aura of strength that lacks of any trace of uneasiness or intimidation; we know who we are and where we are going and for this we reap a type of “respect”. People will “stand aside” as we flash in and out of offices.

On the other hand, biking can be a grueling fuck of a job: dealing with the traffic, weather, cops, stolen bikes or bike parts, stuck up office workers and bosses, bus tailpipe in our faces, pollution, discrimination ("Are you a messenger? Please sign in before taking the elevator.”), painful loads, exhaustion, and the accidents we all eventually have. The “Independent Contractor” status imposed by the companies is a joke. By claiming we are not employees, they don't have to worry about workers compensation or health plans, unemployment insurance, paid sick days (we're sort of prone to things like colds, sore throats, etc.), paid personal days (maybe our work is kind of hard and we need breaks once in a while?), holiday pay, etc., etc. Additionally, it makes us responsible for all job related gear and expenses like our bikes, bags, locks, tools, rain/snow gear, bike repairs and phone calls. It's a legalistic fiction and ruse since the real social relationship we have with the companies is like that of any other boss/worker situation.

On the other hand the game is a plus for us because they don't take taxes out of our paychecks, and our work expenses are tax deductible (although I don't know of any bikers that keep track of their phone calls!). We are not off the books though, as our companies file our wages and we're required to figure out and pay our taxes like everyone else. But it does leave the outlaws among us with some fun opportunities that the State and Feds are well aware of. For their own opportunistic reasons, they are trying to abolish the Independent Contractor bit and are battling out that gray legal area with the companies.

After all, if couriers don't pay their “dues,” how will Ronnie and Nancy be able to afford to eat?!

City Government Decides to Regulate

Last but not least is our problem with the city where our “coming of age” comes in. The spark (for the city) started when Councilwoman Carol Greitzer was almost hit by a biker. (She was unsure whether it was a messenger or not.) Now good old Carol is your prototypical snob, just the kind of person your biker loves to hate, and in this situation, the visa-versa was very important; she began a crusade to get bikers regulated and licensed. The climate was certainly ripe—it's clean up and control time in America.

In the context of an increasingly gentrified NYC, clean up and control also meant a few local specifics such as: restricting food vendors (from whom the working class gets a relatively cheap and quick lunch) from midtown Manhattan and other parts of NYC, further regulation of cabbies that would have put uniforms on them—and of course—getting those rowdy messengers (there are other things of course, like NYC cops cleaning up graffiti by beating to death graffiti artists like Michael Stewart) .

As an aggregate we messengers mess with the clean-cut sensibilities of the new “for the rich only” urbanization. It was bicycle messengers out of that trio, though, that ended up losing. This was due in part to the fact that messengers weren't organized. Organization is difficult because of our scattered “factory of the streets” atomization. We were easy to pick on by politicians who wanted to score political points with constituencies whose prejudicial popular wisdom (fed by media distortion and the pols) had us pegged as crazies who unendingly mow down innocent civilians.

So in 1982 along comes Greitzer with a vengeance, and the process of formulating a bill to regulate bikers began. Some of the original proposals were totally bizarre. They included the creation of a wholesale new bureaucracy to license and regulate all bikers, shit like having messengers pay $1,000 (!) for a license, requiring us to have large identification signs attached to “the baskets” on either side of our bikes (What a gem! The last time I saw anyone with wire baskets was in 1966 in the suburbs. No one has them in our industry!), and forcing bike couriers to keep a log of all their trips. Eventually the bill the City Council would vote on was:

    1) We'd have to carry a special I ID card
    2) We'd have to have a license plate on our bikes
    3) We'd have to wear a uniform jacket or T-shirt with our company's name and our license number
    4) The companies would have to keep a record of our trips

Criminal penalties would be applied: $100-250 fine and/or 15 days in jail for not complying.

Messengers Organize Resistance

No messengers ever knew any of this shit was going on, but some of the bosses were in on the proceedings. They were opposed to the regulations because they didn't want the added bureaucracy of keeping a trip record, they would in all probability be the ones to have to issue the ID cards, etc., and they didn't need their business getting screwed up because their workers were being stopped by the cons and maybe hauled off to precincts. Just about one month (late Spring '84) before the City Council vote, I noticed a newspaper article on my company's office wall concerning the regulations. I knew my boss taped it up and asked her what the story was. She started bragging that she'd been fighting it all along with a “where were you guys” attitude. I clued her in that we were never notified of anything by anyone. But so much for that bull—it was panic time!

I immediately booked out to a phone and called a biker friend to get some organizing going—the messenger insurrection had begun! A bright pink leaflet by “Rough Riders” was issued entitled “WAR!!—CITY COUNCIL VS. BIKE MESSENGERS” explaining what was happening and calling for a meeting. Fifty workers came to this meeting from a group that's always been accused of being “too individualistic” and “utterly unorganizable.” The “Independent Couriers Association” (ICA) was born that night ("Rough Riders” lost out as a name—oh well, too bad) which would be nonexclusionary; all messengers (foot, truck, etc.) would be welcome as would company office workers. But because of emergency circumstances regarding bikers, the flavor of organizing would orbit around us. Structurally the ICA was loose and democratic with a core of the most interested (people who regularly did the shit work, went to all meetings, etc.). Women played a role out of proportion to their small numbers in the bike messenger force. Over the next few weeks, we planned and did the works: we issued petitions, had phone-in campaigns and wrote letters to the mayor, City Council, and media—we demonstrated, lobbied, leafletted, held press conferences and chaotic “war-party” meetings of 50-100 bikers in the middle of Greenwich Village's Washington Square Park.

The heat was on—the cops were harassing the crap out of us—enforcing chickenshit laws to the max like ticketing us for not having bells (Gimme a break—a loud “yo” or a whistle will do it, nobody needs the distraction of taking a hand off a brake to ring a bell no one may hear) or not bearing to the edge of traffic (the most dangerous place for us since people open car doors which we crash into—being “doored”—pedestrians walk in front of us from in between parked trucks where we can't see them (crash) etc., etc.), and most importantly, for going through red lights and the wrong way down streets. Many stories circulated about bikers getting ticketed for laws they didn't break, getting beaten up by the cops, and snagged by special police traps set up around midtown. Black couriers were getting it worse, and eventually we issued a special police complaint form for bikers to fill out. The media, of course, was uniformly opposed to us and backed the law.

Ostensibly the reason for the proposed bill was to help identify us if we hurt someone. It was also meant to deter us from busting red lights and booking the opposite way on one way streets, since if caught, we'd either have “proper ID” to get summoned (as opposed to giving a phony name and then ripping up the ticket), or else we'd have to pay stiff penalties. It all sounded sooo reasonable to a culture drowning in bureaucracy and servility. To us it was an unnecessary, unworkable and abusive affront.

Why were we singled out to carry a special apartheid-like ID? The law did not concern all bikes, but only commercial bike riders (which besides us would also include delivery people from Chinese restaurants, drug stores, groceries, etc—but clearly these laws would not be enforced against them) and was therefore discriminatory. The issue of hitting people was bullshit. We do often ride wild (we have to to make a buck), but hurting anyone is a rarity—we'e the “pros” out there while your normal biker is not. Statistics backed us up that we were involved in few collisions and they don't say who's fault those accidents were. We know damn well most accidents are the pedestrians' fault (The New York Times that opposed us admitted that in an article). Stories abound about “those crazy riders, one of them almost hit me the other day! “—the key word (for us) being “almost.” Bicycle messengers are like any of the rest of the “controlled chaos” of NYC's cabs, cars, pedestrians, etc.; we gotta get to where we're goin', and fast!, with the inter-hostility and danger among us all being mutual. Our position was: Hey, if a messenger hurts someone, let him/her be dealt with like anyone else in a similar situation.

All counter arguments against us were in the realm of “What if”—what if we break a light, hit a pedestrian and kill them? Well how about “What if a pedestrian breaks a light, jay-walks in front of a courier, the courier swerves over but it's into a racing truck?” Should jay-walking be forcibly outlawed? Should pedestrians have IDs tattooed on to their foreheads? Perhaps midtown should be cleared of everyone. Both the light breaking biker and pedestrian have the same attitude—“give us a break, it's no big deal.” Crowded, fast-paced urbanization is a sick unfortunate fact, and those of us stuck in it basically do the best we can with the marginal inconvenience we cause each other.

The uniform was the most disgusting thing; shove it we said, we are not prisoners or slaves (and if there were a license plate with the same info, why have it twice?) What if we forgot our uniform or ID card one day or our plate got stolen—should we get busted for that?

It would also clearly be unworkable and chaotic, There were no provisions in the bill for any central issuing agency or coordinating center. How would cops who's a messenger and who's not? Would they summons someone on a bike who didn't have the license, etc., but wasn't a messenger? If they tried to summons a messenger, what would stop the messenger from saying she/he wasn't one? Although most messengers carry similar bags and have a certain look, there's no way a cop could really prove whether someone was really a courier on the spot. What if we're out riding one day with our standard courier bag but were not actually working that day and we get stopped? What about the person who's not a courier but digs our bags and carries one—will they be stopped by the cops for not having a license? This opened up a big area for police fascism and being that a lot of us are longhairs, Blacks, etc., we didn't want the fuzz having an extra excuse to fuck with us We also tried to make a common cause with bicycle clubs but they didn't show too much interest.

Our most militant argument was: WE JUST WEREN'T GONNA DO IT! And as for the obvious law-breaking stuff—going against the lights and the wrong way clown the streets—the most vocal amongst us said it quite plainly: “Why shouldn't we be able to do it?” Being prevented from doing so was our worst fear, and the law could definitely put a crimp in our style. Freedom of the road was a necessity since time and money were synonymous.

In all probability, though, the war against us was that type of political show that emerges every so often (headlines screaming “Crackdown on Pushers!” ''Crackdown on Cabs!”; one columnist labeled us ''The Killer Bikes”), and eventually the cops would pay attention to more important stuff and basically leave us alone (thereby the whole thing being a waste of everyone's time).

Practical Subversion

But back to the City Council. Predictably they passed the bill with only one abstention, Miriam Friedlander (a supposed ''progressive,” she later supported it when the bill was partially modified) and one no vote.

The bill then went on for Mayor Koch's signature—but there was a surprise on that day. Fifty angry bikers showed up (while losing work time) to testify against the bill. Koch did some thing he never does; he postponed signing it, which was a moral victory in the fray if nothing else. We succeeded in setting the tone and atmosphere for the day; we put the city in the embarrassing position of being the bully picking on an ass-busting, hard-working, “defenseless” group of young people. Soon after of course, he did sign it with one provision watered down; the criminal penalties for not having the ID car would be dropped, and the fine for that reduced to $50—big deal, right?

So then came the process of hammering out the specifics for the regulations like who would issue the license plates, what color would they be and other nonsense. The ICA demanded to be in on that meeting, and that was accepted. (I had reservations about being in on my own ''self -managed” oppression, but I wanted to observe the show.) In attenance was the ICA, company bosses, and reps from the mayor's office, Dept. of Transportation and the cops.

Then the fun began. The people from the city didn't know anything about how messengering works, and it was quite a laugh watching them trying to figure how to implement a turkey of a law that would have no central coordination. For instance, the law said the license was to only have three digits. Add on to that the fact that there would be no central list to refer to, and you'd have a lot of bikers with the same number! Who should be responsible for getting the plates, signs, and ID cards; the companies or the riders? Were we employees? Were we Independent Contractors? In a major victory before the negotiations started they dropped the uniform bit—but we'd have to have some sort of “sign” on our backs.

We asked (satirically) “How are you gonna contact all those thousand of Chinese restaurants and groceries and tell them and their tens of thousands of commercial bike delivery people about this?” It was good watching the fools enter territory of which they knew not. The police lieutenant was the best as he kept quiet, slouched crumped up in his chair, chain smoking and smiling at the circus? “Hey lieutenant, do you think we can store the trip records (records for around 1,520 million jobs a year!) in a police warehouse or something?” “Yea, uh, I guess we got room in a corner somewhere.”

Because the whole thing was so dumb and because we used our brains, we managed to get important modifications and concessions. Also, the plate under our seats would not be the large size the city planned on which would have been hell for our thighs and crotches as we mounted and dismounted. It could be as small as possible, as long as the company name (or abbreviation) and license number can fit in one-inch letters and numbers (did any of the jerks ever ride a bike? ) The sign on our back could simply be another license plate attached to our bag. We wouldn't back down on our insistence though, that the whole “sign” idea had to go. The city said “they'd consider it” (bullshit). We also demanded the cops have a meeting with us to discuss the way they were fucking with us bad, That “uppityness” astounded them! They agreed to “arrange a meeting” (more bullshit). We also managed to get the implementation of the law postponed. The most important thing won was a method of circumventing the thing altogether (Sorry readers, for security reasons I'll have to ask you to use your imaginations)—we walked out of the meeting smirking.

And so ... the charade went into effect January '85 in all its predictability. The heat from the cops had already cooled off. and the deadline for complying with the law came and went with zero fanfare. I'd say 75% plus of bikers aren't complying. Many are refusing and others work at companies that aren't even supplying the ID and stuff. The majority of those that do, do it only partially—they'll have the plate but not the sign, or visa-versa. Some will have a plate but keep it in their bag. I saw one plate that was on backwards!

The Song Remains The Same

Bikers remain the same, busting lights, and tearing down the street the wrong way, hopping sidewalks and riding in the (safe) middle of traffic. There's been no mad rush by us to install “bells” on our “killer bikes.” The pavement ahead remains our prey. Gone are only the screaming headlines against us. A “terrorized'' city is back to the old grind cursing us only under the breath as we do them amid the hassle and hustle but general harmlessness (as regards sheer safety) of it all, just trying to survive in a speeded-up world not made by or for the majority of any of us. And please—if you've read an inference into this article of “Fuck the cabbies,” “Fuck the pedestrians,” the way others say “Fuck the bikers,” it wasn't meant. Not that bikers don't engage in the same infantile prejudices that others direct against us.
But inane hatreds and prejudices get us nowhere. The point is to look out for and love each other, dummies!

It's good to see a nicely working dialectic sometimes. The bike regulations that were meant to repress us provided the catalyst for the only sustained bicycle messenger organization ever: The ICA. Some prior attempts included couriers at one company that was overhiring too much trying to organize a union. That attempt.fell apart in afew weeks. The Service Employees International Union tried it on city-wide basis some time ago, but after some months that too faded. Of recent memory is the Teamsters. Some messengers who had a Teamster visit were glad when the amazingly stereotypical mob type character left (reportedly he referred to the only woman courier there as “honey” and said “you fellas don't mind if I call her honey, do you?”, to which one gutsy guy said “don't you think you should ask her?”).

The word “union” is certainly scary to the bosses, but so do some bikers have problems with it. They fear it would mean the loss of the Independent Contractor status, and they'd have to face the regimentation of taxes being pulled from their paychecks, they'd have to punch in and out (because some companies are lax now about your comings and goings and taking days off) and no company will pay an hourly wage similar to what can be made on commission. Besides unions have a bad name for being self-serving authoritarian bureaucracies—just the thing that many messengers dig escaping. There are examples though of other types of “Independent Contractors” that have successfully bargained with employers without losing their status. In any case most all couriers agree that we need our own group; we have a legitimate basis to organize for our welfare.

So the ICA lives on. Whether they can get the messenger regulations junked remains to be seen. They hold regular meetings, publish a newsletter and are concerned with everything from potholes to the lack of workers' compensation some riders are faced with. A grant has been received, a messenger concert/ bash is planned and the ICA has even gotten some bike shops to give discounts to its card carrying members. The “unorganizable” have remained organized?—an ironic anomaly in the age of Reagan

Theoretical Insurrectional Addendum

Bicycle messengers as a group aren't exactly your young Republican types and would make in interesting addition to a backward, comatose and (dying American Labor movement. Delivery services seem to be a growing industry amid the withering of your more traditional blue collar staples such as steel. Information as such has become a highly valued commodity and bicycle couriers, along with others such as computer workers, make up some of the labor of that circuitry. The narrowing of gaps in space by speeding up time is what makes your messenger on a ten-speed hurtling across midtown or your relative Federal Express efficiency attractive to a capitalism pathologically hungry for profits that depends on getting things done as quickly as possible. This is where the pivotal importance of information processors, circulators and transport workers comes in. Capital is finding it much more efficient to bypass and circumvent the sometimes inefficiency of the Post Office and use the immediacy of such as bike messengers, private package carriers, and machinery that can zap text and graphics from one locale to another in seconds (ironically less work—in terms of increased speed, efficiency and agility—often means more work here as peddling is harder than hoofing it, and because we can do more jobs per hour, then we are gonna do more jobs per hour. The same goes for the secretary and the word processor vs. the secretary and typewriter—because stuff can be typed quicker and more efficiently with the former, then that secretary is gonna be loaded with that much more work.)

That which is so important to the circuitry of Capital can also be its short circuitry. Neither messenger companies nor their clients can store away messenger runs for instance, like a coal company might hoard coal in anticipation of a strike. Any job action by couriers would have an immediate debilitating effect on those concerned. We can cut power off at its source and sever completely the lives of transmission

Why not? We owe nothing to a society, that would burn out its young on danger-ridden streets in an envelope of polluted dirty orange haze no matter how ''hip” our job may appear to be (the world of Appearances being what helps con and control us as we unendingly accept our daily oppressions). Death in industry or death in war—these are the choices America the Beautiful offers. Who the fuck needs it? Wouldn't it be interesting if “ignorant” and “unorganizable” messengers might be among the ignition points of a future rebellion against this dollar-and object-centric society, and for a people-and life-oriented one? Imagine a coalition of the street (couriers) and office (secretaries, computer programmers, etc.)—Yo! It's the Revolution! OK, OK, so it's silly fantasy, but such wild imaginings have a habit of becoming very real in history a la France '68, Poland's Solidarity, or say Black insurrection in South Africa. If the farmworkers out west could get organized, why couldn't we? (Our social statuses are quite similar in ways.) Still, I have to smile everytime someone says to me “Ya know, it'll probably be the bicycle messengers who'll overthrow the fucking government.” But what if...?

In the meantime you can catch me plowing blacktop—and hating and loving every second of it.