Memory lane: on being a “pushie” for a year
An ode to bike messengers
UPDATED 11:15AM-For clarity and to fix typos.
Occasionally on MyWHaT the discussion turns to scofflaws on bikes and how they are out of control in this quaint little town in northern Michigan. I have even been stopped on the street, received several emails, and have even had a phone call of someone needing to rant about it. Some of the more dedicated commentators seem to bring it up at almost every chance they get.
I haven’t yet responded with a thoughtful and, potentially, educational commentary. It is on the to do list, but today isn’t the day. Today, I feel like reflecting on my year as a “pushie”, Australian for bicycle messenger, in Melbourne, Australia. A job that required behavior counter to all that is recommended on the streets of Traverse City.
Not recommended at home
It needs to be pointed out that pushies are not normal. Their riding technique through the urban context is not recommended nor encouraged. I don’t want to say that as a pushie I thought the rules of the road didn’t apply to me , because that isn’t accurate. I simply learned that in order to do what was demanded of us by clients and dispatchers necessitated that I not follow the rules. The machines of finance and capitalism demand expedient service; pushies deliver.
For instance, we had a service in the CBD that was guaranteed delivery 7 minutes from the time the delivery was booked. In that 7-minutes, at a minimum the following must happen: the job is booked, then dispatched to a pushie, who then navigates to the proper building, finds the lift, waits, takes the lift to the mailroom (sometimes on the 50th floor), waits for the mail room grunts, back down, to the bike and then crosses the city to the drop-off site a mile away. Now, to complicate the task, and because there are only so many pushies and they are hungry, they may actually have a few of these express jobs in their bag at the same time. Red lights weren’t just ran, they were often not even noticed.
That said, I’m a midwestern yank; from Traverse City nonetheless. I had a difficult time shutting down the obedience to cultural norms and the law. I would often get blown-by while waiting at a red light as another more uninhibited pushie found the space between traffic to cross a busy intersection. If I knocked a side-mirror off of a car that got too close, my response was to stop and say sorry. An act my coworkers would ride me about for the rest of the day. “Come on yank, go!” I’d hear the ribbing over the radio so much that I’d hear it in my dreams. A lot of the job’s success came as a rider gained experience in shutting-down normal inhibitions. I knew I had developed that edge when with an impossible delivery in the bag and a dispatcher barking in my ear, I jumped on Kings Way highway, the City’s busiest arterial, in a downpour. My knuckles turned white; I still delivered.
The Melbourne police would time to time flood the CBD with pushie cops to crack down on the scofflaw couriers. I recall one month was actually officially called “operation courier”. It was senseless of course. Dressed in our full body Lycra suits (thankfully, no pictures of me survived) we had the advantage as superior athletes, slightly crazy and who watched out for our own. Cops on bikes are easily spotted, so we’d announce over the radios their positions throughout the day–”Pushie cops at Collins and Williams.” If that failed we simply didn’t acknowledge them–”Sorry mate, didn’t see you.”–and continue to roll on, ducking down the next alley or through the next plaza. I got one ticket in the year–an after-hours knick for not wearing a helmet. I could have bolted, but I was whipped after a day of sprinting 50-60km.
My skill wasn’t technical. I certainly wasn’t descending stair cases, hopping over benches, or slalom racing though crowds of people. My skill was brute speed, efficiency, and an ability to shut off the brain. I became hyper-aware of my surroundings and simply willed myself from point A to point B as if in a parallel universe separate from everyone else. There were plenty of close calls; most of them I remain unaware of. Every so often though, it’d be close enough to cause even the most committed pushie to take pause, find a park bench, and take some long, thoughtful drinks from the water bottle. “Why am I doing this again?”
From what I hear, things have changed since the 90′s. There are no longer near the number of time critical actuals in need of delivery as the internet has replaced the exchange of drafts, checks, and signatures. As well, I believe they now require pushies to have registration numbers on their backs, so cops now don’t chase, they just send a ticket to the office. Still, in my mind’s eye, there remains a platoon of pushies descending on the city from 8-6 everyday.
It’s with this memory that I look forward to some Hollywood action eye-candy with the first bicycle messenger film to come out since Quicksilver…
Who is interested in a screaming ride down U.S. 31 to see Premium Rush? (Just checked the listings and it hasn’t reached TC yet–shoot.)
* If any employees of Minuteman Messengers between 1996-97 sees this post, please drop me a message. Cheers, mates.
- Courier Delivery Becomes Race Against Clock in ‘Premium Rush’ (voanews.com)
- Review: Shannon rides away with ‘Premium Rush’ (utsandiego.com)