tale of toil by zoe noe
I picked up my last paycheck on Friday. Afterwards I passed by the usual crowd of bike messengers hanging outside Harvey's 5th Street Market, buying beers on credit and shooting the shit at the end of a working day. I turned the corner and entered an alley, where I ran into a young black woman, unkempt and shabbily dressed. She practically grabbed me for a handout, and someone to spill to:
"I was a good biker. I could fly—do 40 tags a day. And then they fired me—they fired me! I went in this afternoon, but they wouldn't hire me back. Nobody will hire me, and here I am in this alley now, reduced to. . .to. .PANHANDLING!'' She screamed the last word, and went on. "I need a job! I'm going back to that motherfucker and say, "I'll kill you motherfucker if you don't hire me back—I'll kill you!''' She raved on with spite, kicking and screaming. It was useless for me to stand there with her longer. There was nothing I could do for her.
I myself could fly on occasion, and make pretty good money at it when I wanted to. Yet when I was working, I felt oppressed by a different kind of poverty—a poverty of spirit, of time trapped. I worked over 40 hours a week, with plenty of unpaid duties. I would get home after dark with no energy left for anything else. It was life on the run, without medical coverage, expendable, unprotected, easy prey to any maniac behind the wheel of a Cadillac or MUNI bus—any driver who doesn't believe in turn signals or decides to open his car door at the wrong moment. I was vulnerable to horizontal showers in rainy season, and ticket- happy cops who hate bike messengers. I endured the hatred of men in 3-piece suits who depend on bike messengers and yet look upon them as something less than human. I challenge any of them to try being a bike messenger for even one day!
I had never seen bike messengers before I had my first job in San Francisco, as a legal file clerk/part-time secretary in the Financial District. I was fascinated and inspired by crazy long- hairs in propellered baseball caps, howling loud and long as they hurtled down hills. I saw a subculture in action as they zipped about the city on their one-speeds. I wanted to be a bike messenger!
I landed a job with Fly By Night Messenger Service in June. There were days it was such fun that it hardly seemed like work, but after half a year and months into the rainy season, I lost most of my enthusiasm. I felt I was wasting my days, chained to a dangerous dead-end job, and I knew I could do a lot more creative things with my time.
The comforting delusion that I was at least making an honest living was amusingly shattered for me one day in November when I was dispatched to a law office in 1 Embarcadero Center for a return trip going to a copy service and back. A matronly secretary handed me a manila envelope marked with strident instructions for the copy service: that this was a third try, to color-xerox it, and could they please get it right this time. She also handed me a five dollar bill. I arrived at the copy service in the basement of a building on California Street and perused through magazines while waiting. I overheard snatches of conversation from the back room—that these were transcripts, so both sides needed to be registered perfectly. That seemed odd, and I asked the woman behind the counter why transcripts would need to be color-xeroxed. She confided to me that they were the lady's daughter's high school transcripts, and a couple of grades needed to be "changed,'' and that color-xerox was the only way to duplicate it to look authentic.
"In other words it's called cheating,'' I said.
"She keeps sending it back to us, bugging us to get it right. We're making money off it, so why should we complain?'' she answered.
I felt like a partner in crime. I got the completed transcripts, had the tag signed, and was off with the return. In the elevator, to satisfy my own curiosity, I opened the unsealed envelope and had myself a look. Sure enough, two tiny "C''s were pasted on the original transcript. The copy looked perfect, as if it had been printed that way. I peeled the C's off, revealing two "F''s underneath. For a moment, I thought of aborting the mission, but realized I couldn't be that moralistic either. I was part of the scam, and had an extra five dollar bill in my pocket. It was such a mild scam, but symptomatic nonetheless, and I was thinking, "I don't even want to know what's inside the rest of the innocuous-looking manila envelopes I deliver!''
Like most delivery services, Fly By Night did not pay its bikers an hourly wage. Pay was based on a strict commission—a percentage of the delivery cost. That meant having to bust your ass to make any kind of livable wage. When you tried your bloody best to go fast and make money, everything and everybody seemed to be doing their best to slow you down. In such situations I occasionally lost my temper (and perhaps supported certain people's assumptions that bike messengers are indeed something other than human.)
For instance, I have the distinction of having been banned from the Pacific Telephone Company building at 666 Folsom Street. PT&T offices are a bike messenger's nightmare. Each "room'' is like a labyrinth: a whole floor of partitions, each bearing a different room number. Room 500-F might be next to room 512-G, but nobody can tell you where any of the other room numbers are. I was in a hurried mood on a busy afternoon, and I had to pick up a super- hot payroll delivery on the 8th floor at 666 Folsom, nonstop. Most phone company buildings make you sign in and out; a cumbersome process if one is in a hurry. I signed in and out at 666, flew, and was back at 666 in 5 minutes with the return, and refused to sign in again. The lobby guard, a short, grouchy man with a pencil-moustache, was furious that I actually just walked right by him, completely disregarding the rules.
"Come back here! You have to sign into the building!''
"I just signed in 5 minutes ago, and I'm not going to sign in again. This is a super-rush that has to get there yesterday!''
"Well if you signed out last time, you have to sign in again!'' I was struck with the absurd logic that if I had not signed out the last time, I would not have to sign in again this time. I ignored him and boarded the elevator, and he immediately gave chase, stopping the elevator before it could move. Another bouncer-type appeared out of nowhere to assist him in removing me from the elevator, where I stood defiant and a few secretaries stood surprised, their routine interrupted. The guard led me back to his station, towards the door, and said, "You're never allowed back in this building again!''
I laughed back at him. "That's fine—I hate this building anyway, and I would never come here if I didn't have to!''
"By your conduct,'' he stormed, "you're showing that you have no respect for the phone company and its employees!"
"You're damn right. I have no respect for the phone company at all!'' How I had always wanted to say that! I thrust the package at him and said, "Since you won't let me upstairs, you'll have to do the delivery yourself. They`re in room 880. Get hot!— They're dying on it!''
On another day, truth serum ran deep when I went into Crank Litho, one of Fly By Night's biggest accounts. Crank got anything it wanted: till 5:15 p.m. to call in overtimes, instead of 5:00, and a handsome price break of $1.25 per delivery instead of the $2.00 we normally charged. They generated enough business so that Fly By Night could turn a tidy profit, but we messengers were the ones getting screwed. We even had to chronicle our own oppression by adding the price of the delivery to the tag, which we never had to do for anyone else. Most of us bikers resented this insult—I remember that one guy, whenever dispatched to Crank, would always emit an obnoxious foghornish "Rog!'' over the radio, instead of the customary "10-4.''
One day I showed up to work wearing a large button I had fashioned, that read "I (heart) Crank Litho's Prices!'' and managed to cause quite an uproar in their office without even saying a word. Later that day when I was back, the president of the company pulled me aside and said, "I would appreciate it if you don't wear that button anymore.'' I smiled, and calmly removed the button.
On the return trip, I encountered the man next in charge (who handled the business end of the account with Fly By Night), and he shit a brick when he saw the delivery cost—$11.25 for an overtime rush—and at first refused to sign the tag. He called up my office and bitched for a few minutes, then hung up and turned to me. "I'll sign it, but I'm going to take it up with your boss in the morning. How do you figure your price for overtime deliveries? Your regular price is $1.25...''
I cut him off, sensing the opportunity. "Our regular price is $2.00. You guys are getting a break at $1.25 which I think is scandalous, but that's from my point of view as a biker.'' He looked surprised, yet surprised me by saying that he could understand it from my point of view. Of course, not another word was ever said about the matter.
Around that same time I knew my days as a bike messenger were numbered. My attitude was garnering numerous complaints from miffed customers, and I started taking days off to refund my sanity. The taste of life off the treadmill just made me more dissatisfied. The rainy season was becoming endless, and my favorite dispatcher was now out on bike; obviously the result of a power-struggle. The boss had frequently complained that he was being much too close with the bikers, telling us things about the company and about our paychecks that we weren't supposed to know. I had fond memories of late evenings when he was behind the boards, when a few of us would have our own little "proletarian office parties,'' when the office was ours and we spent hours bitching about the bosses, or got crazy and sent me out with bike and radio, and dispatched me out for coffee and donuts. Somebody had to pull the plug soon. My boss got to it before I did, and I was fired.
About a week before I got the jerk to the big desk in the back office and the axe came down, I had taken an unsolicited day off—it was storming and I felt miserable. The next day, a rare sunny one, I arrived early, feeling better and ready to roll. The boss, trying to put the fear of authority into me, said, "I'm not ready to let you roll. I haven't decided what I'm going to do with you! Come back tomorrow.'' (It was too obvious to me what he would have done with me had it been raining as usual.) I figured myself fired, and wasted no time getting out of there. Walking up Kearny Street that same morning, with a spring in my step, enjoying the sun without having to "get hot;'' I felt like somebody had unlocked the door of my jail cell, woke me gently and said, "You're free to go.''
Author's note: Some of the names have been changed to protect the guilty. But it's not that I wanted to single anybody out or hide the truth—that they're all Fly By Night.