It’s midday, and I’m sitting with a group of bike messengers at the Beach – a hangout known by most passersby only as a cement bench near Place Ville Marie. At the moment I’m speaking to Papa, who, at 47, is one of the older messengers in the group. He’s standing a few feet away holding his bike and a joint, and telling me how he quit his job at a rubber factory to become a messenger.
“At this job, you’re outside; you have central control over what you are doing,” he says. “Me, I can smoke my joint a couple of times a day, and no one bothers me. I can smoke it all day long, that’s it. Couriers aren’t in boxes.”
Maybe I’m wrong to begin with this image: While it’s not surprising that Papa is so open about getting stoned on the job, not all messengers smoke. Like he said, bike couriers don’t fit into any definite mold. A huge variety of people take on the job, so I should mention that my experience is limited almost solely to the guys at the Beach: this article is really about them.
Couriering works something like this: individual couriers are contracted out by dispatch teams to deliver anything from cheques to blueprints. Since fax machines and the Internet have become the major mediums for document exchange, there has been concern that the bike courier could go extinct, but there are still some things, like signed documents, that need to be delivered by hand. For now, the community is alive and kicking.
Kole was the first messenger I met. I accosted him on the street one day, and later, over coffee, he hashed out the basic details of his job. He explained that there are three different kinds of messengers: those who approach it as a nine-to-five profession, those who only stick it out for the summer – the despised “butterflies” – and those who treat couriering as a lifestyle. To me, the lines seem a bit blurry – the professionals and the lifestyle couriers fade into each other – but for Kole, who has couriered around Europe and North America, the distinctions are clear.
Later in the interview Kole vents about couriering in Montreal, claiming it’s the worst city he has worked in. According to him, couriers are treated with little respect here.
“On like six separate occasions, I had people ask me what a courier was. [People will ask] ‘Is it, like, a mailman?’” he tells me. Kole and another friend later conclude they are basically “squeegee mailmen.”
There is an interesting paradox in Montreal: messengers face a lot of hostility, and yet aspects of their lifestyle have been appropriated into popular culture – everything from fixed gear bikes to messenger bags. I even heard one go so far as to complain that a lot of hipsters were trying to dress like geeky messengers.
Most messengers insist that their job is far from glamorous. Couriers are paid commission of a per-delivery basis. An average messenger earns between $50 and $70 a day; those with a particular knack for running red lights and weaving in and out of traffic may rake in $100. Though messengers sign contracts with dispatch companies, the companies are not legally or financially responsible for their employees. The messengers are technically self-employed, and thus have no job security, disability insurance, or other benefits. They pay for any mechanical problems with their bikes, and for the consequences of their accidents. After a crash, one messenger tells me, “I radioed in to say I’d been hit, and they were like ‘Alright, take 15 minutes.’” Furthermore, Montreal messengers aren’t unionized, and their efforts to join the Postal Union have failed repeatedly.
Denied financial and physical security, people don’t become messengers for the job perks, but because they do not have the skills – a university degree, proficiency in French – to work elsewhere.
“I don’t have the choice of another job…here I only make $50 to $60 a day at most,” says Houman, a lone courier I met on the other side of Place Ville Marie. When I ask why he keeps going, he tells me what I would hear again and again: that if he has to work for a minimal wage, he’ll at least do something he enjoys.
Kole feels the same way. “The money isn’t so good. But I don’t do it for the money. I do it because I like the job. I like the freedom, the exercise. We work eight hours a day non-stop. Fuck the Olympics, these are the people we should be respecting,” he says. “You have five minutes here to grab a cigarette, five minutes there to grab a coffee. On average you have 32 jobs a day – [but it can get up to] 64 pickups over an eight-hour day. That’s one building every seven and a half minutes, including distance, the elevator, and the signature.”
Couriers take exceptional pride in their work, mainly because of the danger it involves. Many messengers carry themselves with a certain bravado stemming from their consciousness of precisely how much work goes into the job. In Montreal, a courier-wannabe can only break into the inner circle by biking through an entire winter – a trial by fire, given Quebec’s climate.
But messengers are quick to recognize who genuinely deserves recognition and who does not. There is definite disdain for “hipsters” who dress like messengers without doing the work. When Jesse, who has been a courier on-and-off for five years, sees kids on fixed gear bikes he yells, “Hey buddy! It’s a full time job!” The Beach guys, at least, try to keep these “possengers” away.
“For sure it’s one of the subcultures that exists for real – and its not just something you can sell,” says Naki, one of the guys at the Beach, of the messenger culture. “You don’t have to go to school for it, and you have a lot more fun than you’re supposed to.”
Although couriers are able to build reputations within their inner circles, many remain on the periphery of mainstream society, as observers or ghosts. Almost every messenger I spoke to has a tale of an important event they witnessed before the media arrived, though they seldom partook in it themselves. One messenger remembers hearing a co-worker over the radio say: “Hey guys, I’m down by Dawson, and someone just walked in with a gun.”
Many messengers have trouble finding their own space in the city. The job is all about mobility, but there is still some downtime, and it is in these periods –between calls, for example – where messengers’ marginalization stands out. The Beach is often an alternative to their bikes, but it’s hardly a haven. Even there, couriers get pushed around. Chris, a former messenger, says that for 20 years messengers have struggled to claim the space.
“We always kind of move around Place Ville Marie because of our smoking. We’ve gotten pushed further and further down the cement promenade lately. Then they put Starbucks in, and now they’re complaining about the weed smell,” he says.
I have to note that the Beach is definitely a boys’ club. There are very few women in the industry, which some couriers attribute to the job’s physical demands. While I expected to witness some misogyny, overall the guys I interviewed seemed extremely respectful of their female counterparts. When it came to ineracting with women outside of the industry, though, they acted a bit like teenage boys.
It took me some time to wrap my head around how couriers get on their bikes every morning, knowing how many risks – and how few rewards – they face throughout their workday.
Papa does not deny that the danger, though seductive, is a source of stress: “As much fun, and as easy as it seems to be a messenger, one of my friends died, another was in a coma for two weeks, and another is not walking. [The weight is] right on your back, but at the same time it’s the knowledge of all the difficulties the industry goes through every year that makes it interesting. Otherwise it wouldn’t be that enjoyable.”
It seems that because they work outside of the city’s norms, in some ways messengers make their own rules. Several told me they enjoy breaking laws all day long, running red lights or bypassing traffic. Some push their limits even farther, and take revenge on aggressive drivers by kicking in their rear-view mirrors. For some, the danger and excitement make the job. One messenger describes himself as a “terminal adrenaline junkie.”
“You want the danger to bother you – you know you need to take concern. But I think I like the danger,” says Sebastian, another messenger at the Beach. He is aware, however, that though this is part of the fun, his attraction to dangerous situations is not necessarily self-contained – others could pay the price for his recklessness. Messengers pose a danger to pedestrians and other cyclists, even if they try to be careful. With non-couriers adopting messengers’ clothing style, it’s not hard to imagine other bikers would also copy their well-practiced recklessness.
Bike messengers are by no means class warriors, but there is a certain amount of class-consciousness among the Beach guys. Papa, Kole, and a few others are very aware of the middle class lives they chose to reject.
“I could’ve gone to school and been a lawyer or in middle management,” says Kole. “I’m 36 and have older friends with kids and houses, and once in a while I say, ‘you should’ve done that.’ But it’s not about making lots of money, but enjoying life – living.”
As a McGill student, I felt I had to cross a significant barrier – one that may still be there, in the messengers’ eyes – to make it in their crowd. They joke about people with disposable incomes, who ride with their specialty cycling gear. Though I suspect my bike, which I bought off the street, was stolen, I still felt as though the messengers placed me within that category. Still, it was the messengers’ rejection of a materialistic lifestyle and my own romantic notions of living outside of middle class norms that inspired me to write this piece in the first place. I am happy to say that the people I met managed to dispel a lot of my preconceived ideas. I admit, though, that I became a bit of a groupie. Like the Beach messengers themselves would put it – “it’s hard not to be seduced by the danger.”
-Images by Stephen Davis