Get in the Way of These Kamikaze Bikers and You'll Leave More Than Your Heart in San Francisco
The world stands still
As I careen uncontrolled
On down the hill—
Don't wanna die, ain't ready to go
Just another dent
In some yuppie's Volvo
—From a rap song by bike messenger "Mark of Cane", 24
Call them what you like—concrete cowboys, scourge of the streets or the unsung heroes of corporate communication—San Francisco's bicycle messengers are a hair-raising breed apart. Like trigger-itchy desperadoes, these steel-steeded carriers, some 400 strong, slice through traffic, running red lights, nicking pedestrians, swerving to avoid open car doors and lane-changing drivers. They pump furiously up lung-searing inclines, then streak down from hilltops, just to make yet another routine delivery to the quiet confines of office America.
"I like the adrenaline rush that comes from being scared," says Pixie Marquis, 22, one of about 100 women riders for this latter-day pony express. Another bike jockey, John Dimino, 24, describes one of his daily fixes of danger with typical shoot-the-moon verve: "I was coming down a hill in the rain, sliding back and forth to slow down a bit, but I wasn't about to use my brakes; it's more fun that way. These cars were pulling out in front of me. Kids were pointing and people were screaming at me to slow down. But I knew I could make it, and I did. It was ready to be done."
Adds fellow messenger Craig Birnie, 31, "Sometimes you have to get in the frame of mind where you feel like God."
Of course many San Franciscans view the messengers as less holy than hellish—heedless daredevils who show only contempt for unwary pedestrians, motorists and traffic cops. Although pedestrian collisions are a rarity, in one month last year, after a 4-year-old boy was hit and severely hurt by a carrier, police handed out 200 citations to the riders. Recently a rider ran a red light, only to be chased along 12 blocks of streets and back alleys by a motorcycle cop and two police cars. They caught him after he tumbled over the hood of a patrol car blocking his path.
In their own defense the messengers say that because they work on a commission basis, earning up to 50 percent for every "tag," anything that saves time is a go. Red lights mean less money, so running them, as well as riding on sidewalks or against traffic on one-way streets, is strictly standard procedure. "Ride tough or go home" is a popular biker motto. Or as Craig Birnie says, "I go by a certain code. I don't hit anybody or anything. That's how I justify two or three hundred violations a day."
Such calculated abandon can earn a messenger up to $400 a week, as well as the esteem of his peers and employers. The bicycle services don't condone their riders' hell-bent behavior, but they respect the skills a biker needs to survive. And speedy runs also boost profits. U.S. Messenger Service Inc., for example, one of the larger delivery companies in San Francisco, employs 40 riders, including a few on motorcycles, who together average 1,500 deliveries a day, earning $6,000 in fees to be split between themselves and the company.
Aside from the money, riders invariably collect an unwanted bonus of "road rashes," acquired in countless spills and pile-ups sans helmets, which most of the riders shun. Boasting nicknames of their trade like Wing Nut, Mike the Bike, Warp Drive, Tyrone Shoelaces, the Moped Mute and the Baroness, the U.S. Messenger crew works hard to keep up its macho-cool rep. "I took out a guy's windshield," recalls laconic Steve "Hulky" Ogrin, a 6'5" 210-pounder who met his match when he collided with a two-ton Dodge. "Put me out for two months." Another courier, Craig "Crud" Savage, 38, once got tired of waiting for an elevator and jumped off a mezzanine balcony to the lobby floor below. Ignoring two broken wrists and a banged-up body, he raced off to make his delivery.
About 8:30 a.m. each business day, U.S. Messenger's riders start collecting their wheels in the parts-cluttered bike room before pushing off to their first pickups. Nearby, in a modern, computerized office, a dozen clerks will handle incoming calls through the day. Dispatchers relay the information by radio to the riders, who carry walkie-talkies in holsters. Messengers own their bikes, mostly sturdy, single gear, balloon tire models with front-mounted wire baskets for carrying parcels. Schwinn Cruisers are a common favorite. "We spray paint the bikes with Day-Glo because the more they look like junk, the less chance they have of getting stolen," explains Ray Gallagher, 27. "Bike rip-offs are like breaking one of the Ten Commandments. It's like stealing a man's tools," adds Kirk Beyler, 33.
After a morning ferrying packages to and from the city's business nerve centers, often with gut-check forays up to the lofty Nob Hill hotels, many messengers head to nearby Jackson Park for lunch, a few beers and maybe a little something else to soothe jangled nerves. "Sometimes you need a joint to contend with this job," says one messenger.
Break over, the bikers, most in their 20s and hoping to ride as long as their knees last, head back to the streets for an afternoon battling dizzying slopes, cable-car tracks, unrelenting traffic and the occasional haughty receptionist. But there are compensations. "Hey, out in the open there's nobody breathing down our backs," says Gallagher. "We have the freedom of being our own boss."
In the evening, when many of the messengers gather at the Hotel Utah, a favorite hangout, riders exchange stories like fisherman talking about the one that got away. This being San Francisco, there are poets and musicians among them, and a few even have college degrees. "Some people think we're the scum of society," says big Steve Ogrin, in a rare, sudden burst of verbosity. "I once walked into a Bank of America and these four people were standing there completely ignoring me, talking about this problem they were having in marketing. Now, I got my degree in marketing. I wrote a paper on the problem they were discussing. They hadn't mentioned one important theory that would have applied to their problem, so I stepped in and brought it up. There was this deadly silence. I handed them the package, and they signed for it right away. I really enjoyed that."