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A Coder in Courierland (Culture)

By transient0
Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 04:31:55 AM EST


Once upon a time, I was a coder not unlike yourself. My day consisted of coffee, perl and java hacking, meetings, and e-mail. I had a cubicle with fluorescent lighting, my own bookshelf and two computers. And I traded it all in.

Even before Office Space, white collar workers peered out the window (if they were so lucky) and imagined a more romantic life doing real work out under the sun.

Well, having no children, no great career ambition and no financial obligations more pressing than a crippling student loan, a year and a half ago, I decided to live this dream.

I became a bicycle messenger and now I'm here to report back.

Bits in Bags and Archetypes on Wheels

There are a number of reasons why the courier life was particularly attractive to this budding young programmer. Part of it was of course standard Office Space fantasy. But there was more. Gibson and Stephenson had taught me that the messenger, the mailman, was a vital romantic figure. The soldier of the information age.

And I won't pretend that I was blind to the fact that, in this urban world, the devil-may-care deliverator is something of a sex symbol.

And besides, I liked to ride. I loved it.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

It's no surprise that the first week on the job was something of a shock to my body. One of the first things to go was my sleep cycle. As a coder, I had long ago acclimatized myself to a roughly 3 AM - 9 AM sleep schedule. For my first week or two as a messenger, I found myself sleeping about twelve or thirteen hours a night (a slight increase from my usual six). Basically, I would wake up at seven in the morning, have coffee and a light breakfast and then call in to work. The next eight to ten hours would be spent on the road. Upon returning home I would fall directly into bed and die for three or four hours, then waking up just long enough to eat dinner before returning to the sweet paradise world of non-hurting muscles which we call sleep. Basically the only things i did were eat, sleep and ride.

But within the month I suddenly found myself getting by quite easily with eight hours sleep. For the first time in my life, I was going to sleep regularly before eleven PM. And the insomnia which had plagued me on and off my entire life had discreetly packed its filthy bags and hitched out of town.

I was also surprised at about this time to notice myself roughly ten pounds lighter. I freely admit that I had developed a bit of a paunch during my cubicle years, and I surprised how quickly those first ten pounds shed off1. And I was feeling generally stronger and happier as well. It is amazing how much crisper the general experience of life becomes when your body is given a chance to develop a little strength.

I am the same person I was in September 2003 when I threw off the shackles of curly braces and semicolons, but there is a certain well-being and sense of tranquilo that permeates my life that I hadn't even realized I was missing before.

Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Dreadlocked Speed Freaks...

I was a little surprised to discover that the courier grind takes all kinds. There certainly exist a fair share of hopped-up hipsters and granola-munching hippies (two demographics whose representation i anticipated) but there are also more than a few no-nonsense middle-aged manual labour types (some of whom are supporting children) and fitness-freak jock types.

The gender distribution is skewed in favour of Y chromosomes, but not so pronouncedly as you might expect. I would say that roughly one courier in eight in Toronto is female. Interestingly however caucasians are considerably over-represented. I find this particularly strange because among walking couriers, metropass couriers and car couriers the ethnic distribution seems roughly the same as that of the city, so I can't imagine why the bicycle variety would be a uniquely white-washed niche.

But gender and race aside, the demographics of courier culture could hardly be more heterogenous. I could fill a book with courier character sketches, but the top three couriers at the company i ride for are: a forty-something ex-footballer from New Sealand who rides a Kronan cruiser, a late thirties dreadlocked philosophy masters grad who rides a Trek Alpha road bike and a twenty-five year old emo-rock singer-songwriter who rides a rusty old Peugot fixed gear.

Two Wheels and a Meat Motor

The most common sort of bike you will see couriers on is your standard street bike. Light frame, slick tires, no suspension and between 18 and 24 gears. Among veterans however, the favoured bikes are single speeds. There is a large variety among single speeds as well (fixed drive or freewheel, coaster brakes or hand brakes, etc.) but they all share the advantage of being mechanically simple machines. When you are riding eight hours a day, any part that can fail, eventually will. And probably dramatically. Thus, the simpler the mechanism, the lower the mechanic's bill.

However, if it rolls, some messenger somewhere has worked on it. I have seen couriers on full suspension mountain bikes, on adult-sized tricycles (slow but can carry plenty of cargo) and there is even one messenger at my company who rides a BMX.

Personally, I ride an ultra light Trek MTB frame with old-school Rock Shox. I have replaced almost all of the components to suit it better to the task at hand and have converted it into a single speed. It is fast.

Breaker One Nine

One of the defining items of the courier pastiche is the radio. Though, in fact, these days it is much more likely to be a phone. The phone my particular company uses is a really snazzy unix based number by Motorola with 'net access via the Telus network. We use text messaging for general communication and each courier has their own PHP generated webpage which they access to view their jobs. When voice communication is needed, the phones also function as MIC radios.

I found it really amusing that I gained a reputation as a technical whiz on my first day by showing the couriers how to access hotmail on their phones (management sets each courier's home-page to their personal package queue and none of the other riders had ever realized that they could just hit [#] and enter a URL of their choosing). I have also developed a skill I previously thought unique to high school girls. I can type out text messages on the phone keypad as fast as my thumb can move without looking, and even while riding through traffic.

Incidentally, the phones aren't the only place that unix is used in the company. The managers and the PR/New Accounts people all use MS-Windows, but the dispatching and all the package tracking is done on a network of half a dozen p-100s running HP-UNIX. My geek's eye immediately noticed half a dozen places that a quick code patch could smoothen things out, but of course they don't encourage couriers to hack code.

Taxi Taps, Flesh Pylons and Door Prizes

As a courier, you will get hit by cars. It is an occupational hazard. Most of the skill involved in being a bike courier relates to making sure you never occupy the same space as a car at the same time. Even so, no matter how hard you pedal, you can't outrun the law of averages.

A certain brash courier from another company who liked to refer to himself as "The Fastest Messenger in Toronto" (and he may well have been, arrogance aside) once told me that he didn't wear a helmet because having a safety net makes you reckless and that if you are fast enough, you don't fall. The next week, he went through the back window of an SUV that stopped suddenly and spent two weeks in the hospital. I don't know a single courier who has worked the job for more than a year and not been hit at least once.

Personally, I have been hit twice while working. The first time was by a cabbie who changed lanes into me. I was knocked from my bike. My front wheel and shocks were damaged, but i wasn't. The second time was a door prize. As i rode north up Yonge, someone opened the door of their parked car directly into my path. This one was very scary, as the fall sent me rolling across three lanes of busy traffic, but both my bike and my person came out of it unharmed.

One thing I was surprised to discover is that pedestrians are almost as dangerous to the full-time cyclist as drivers are. Especially if you indulge in sidewalk riding, but frequently even if you stick to the road, people will dart in front of you or suddenly stop or change direction without even the most cursory glance or indication of intent. A car, at least, can't change its direction of travel by a full 180 degrees in half a second. Personally, I have never hit a pedestrian, but on at least two occasions I have bailed in the process of sudden evasive manoevers which they required of me.

What it comes down to it is that it is a physical job and a dangerous one. If you are afraid of getting a little scratched up, stay out of the kitchen.

Full Plate with Magical Helm +1 vs. Asphalt

Among couriers in general, the no-helmet crowd is a slight majority. Personally, I always ride with a helmet and padded gloves (the head being the most serious injury and the hands being the most common). There are those who wear basically full kevlar and plastic body armour, but most people prefer to simply try not to fall too often.

As far as general gear goes, it's about a fifty-fifty split among couriers between those who wear cycling shorts and jerseys (or weather appropriate equivalents) and those who wear street clothes (of which faction I am). Almost everyone however wears clip pedals. Personally, I ride SPDs, but a lot of couriers ride Tymes.

You're not the Boss of Me

One of the most appealing aspects of the courier lifestyle is the freedom. I don't really have the ambition required to make a good entrepreneuur, but I've always been drawn to the idea of working for myself.

I often describe myself as a chronically lazy person, but to be honest, I don't mind working. I simply hate working under an oppressive structure. As a coder, I would find myself slacking off just because the environment gave me no motivation to work hard. And at the same time, I hated the obligation to look busy from nine to five, regardless of how much actual work their was to do. And I hated working in a cubicle ten meters from my supervisor's office.

I think I may be the only courier who even knows what PHB means; the concept would be so foreign to their experience. The people in charge are almost exclusively ex-couriers themselves and they have neither the power nor the inclination to peer over your shoulder as you work. Your only obligation is to get the packages where they have to be when they have to be there. So long as you do that, no one cares what else you do. And if you don't do it, you don't get paid. That simple.

If it's a slow afternoon and you want to lounge around outside the hub drinking coffee or even beer, no one will ever come over and ask you if that is an appropriate way to spend company time. Ever.


$1000 or the Box of MysteryTM?

And what exactly does a bike courier spend all this time carting from Alpha to Beta?. Undramatically, it is mostly just legal documents and cheques. I fear that once average people get more comfortable with internet encryption, courier companies will go out of business. We also deliver a lot of corporate gifts (bottles of wine, theatre tickets and what-not) because, apparently, there is a certain prestige in having a sweaty punker on a bike rush these things to your office or doorstep.

The most interesting things we generally carry are reels of film from set locations to editing studios and glossies from modeling agencies to magazines and casting agencies (hilariously, I once nearly caused a modeling agent a heart attack when he mistook me for his two o'clock appointment). And on two occasions I have been called upon to deliver a bag of blood from one hospital to another (which weirds me out a little, just because I assume that legally you are supposed to be certified in some way to do that).

They Shot Horse Thieves, Didn't They?

Yes, this is another occupational hazard. There doesn't exist a lock that can't be opened in under five minutes with the right equipment (and I don't mean the key) and as a courier you will be locking a (probably) nice bike in busy parts of the city all day long.

A large portion of thefts are actually a result of free-locking. This is the practise of locking the frame to one of the wheels and then leaning the bike against a wall, rather than locking it to some sort of permanent structure. When a bike is locked like this, anyone can just walk off with it (or throw it in the back of a pick-up truck) and break the lock at their leisure. Still, every courier does it sometimes because a lot of buildings don't have bike racks and it can be a big time sink looking for somewhere good to lock your bike. It is a calculated risk. Of course that doesn't mean that you aren't really fucking pissed when a free-locked bike gets lifted.

A lot of couriers, myself included, are in the practise of uglifying our bikes with spray paint and duct or hockey tape. It won't fool the trained eye, but it makes the bike look like crap to a casual observer and even if someone can see through the smokescreen, it vastly reduces the resale value.

Also, most bike thieves can recognize a courier bike and there is a certain danger to lifting them because a good courier is almost never away from their bike for more than five minutes and there are a lot of us, we are fast, and we have radios.

I have had two bikes stolen, but neither of them while I was working. One was stolen from my garage and the other from in front of a restaurant where I was eating.

Have Travelling Machine, Will Travel

One of the nicest things about being a courier is job security. Certainly, it is not unheard of for couriers to be fired but, unless they are completely incompetent or are a prick of epic proportions, an experienced courier will never be long out of work. In any largish city, there will be at least half a dozen companies to choose from and, though there are lots of couriers, the majority of them at any given time will be newbies. The fact of the matter is that six months on the road will make you a bona-fide veteran and such are always in demand.

And, even if you move to a new city, you will find that, like hookers and bartenders, you are employable anywhere (well anywhere large). Just buy a new map, study it for a day or two, and dive in. I made the acquaintance of one courier in Toronto who had, over the past two years, made his way from Vancouver by bicycle, stopping to work for a few months each in Edmonton and Regina along the way, saving up money for the next leg of his trip.

A Boy's Got to Eat

So, you're asking at about this point what the downside is. Well, if you (like me) are used to skilled work like coding, the most obvious drawback will come in an envelope at the end of every second week. To be honest, the pay isn't that bad compared many other varieties of unskilled manual labour, but it doesn't begin to compete with cube wages.

As a courier, your pay will be based entirely on commissions from the packages you carry. And of course, not all packages will be worth the same amount of money to you. The heavier ones will be worth more. The ones that are going farther will be worth more. And the ones that are more urgent will be worth more. The big trick to this is that, although it is more work to carry a heavier package and more work to carry a package further, it is not really any more work to deliver a package with more urgency. Urgent packages put a heavy strain on the dispatcher, but not much of one on the rider (who will generally be riding about as fast as they can maintain most of the time anyway).

So what it really comes down to is that on any given day there is only so much money to make and it is the dispatcher that decides how much of it you get. You can work your ass off all day delivering basics and make less scratch than another guy who delivers a couple of emergencies an hour. A good dispatcher will try and spread the gravy jobs around more or less evenly but still, perhaps the best advice I can give a beginner courier is: "Be the dispatcher's best friend."

In the final cell of the spreadsheet, you'll probably be looking at about $7CAD ($5.8USD) per hour when you first start out. However, once you've learned your chops you should be up in the $10 - $12CAD ($8.3 - $10USD) range within the month. As you climb the pecking order (or switch to a veteran company) you will see a slow increase in your paycheck, but it will never get much higher than this. And remember that it is very rare for a company to guarantee you a minimum income, so it is entirely possible to see your wage dip dangerously low from time to time with the fluctuations of supply and demand.

It's also worth noting that most companies pay you not as an employee, but rather as an independent contractor. This means that you will not qualify for employment insurance if you lose your job nor (more importantly) will you receive worker's compensation if you are injured2. The company for which I work does however have a policy of offering any injured biker office work until such time as they are able to work again (unless of course they prove massively incompetent at same).

The plus side of the independent contractor scheme is that it makes tax evasion quite easy if you are so inclined. And even if you do pay taxes in this socialist country, Canadian law allows couriers to deduct all bike related expenses as well as up to $10 per day in food expenses (fuel).

But Tell Me, Does it Rock?

Issues of pay aside, I can easily say that couriering is the best job i have ever had (and I have more than a few eclectic jobs on my resume). It is fun, the people are friendly, the stress is almost non-existent, it keeps you in excellent shape, and you spend most of your time outside (although this isn't really a year-round plus in Toronto). And, even considering the fact that my pay as a courier is between half and two thirds what it was as a coder, it is a rare day that I seriously consider going back.

One thing that I was worried about was that riding would cease to be fun. Delightfully, this never happened. Admittedly, riding does feel like work these days, but I still derive pleasure from it. And no matter how gruelling my day, when the time finally rolls around to call in "see you tomorrow" and turn off my phone, the act of riding home is immediately transformed from work to play. In fact, I still ride for fun on the weekends.

And couriering will teach you to know your city in ways you never imagined. I have always loved Toronto, but if you will forgive the metaphor, I feel that my relationship has transitioned from that of a secret admirer to that of a lover. I can call up at will the most intimate details of the financial core and of various tendrils extending therefrom.

You will develop a camaraderie with the other peoples of the street. You will find yourself exchanging knowing nods with hot dog vendors and buskers. Even mailmen and FedEx drivers (with whom couriers share a mutual conviction that each's job is superior to the other's) become your brothers and sisters of sorts.

And yes, if you have even the slightest bit of charm, you will have plenty of opportunity to pick up hot receptionists.

And so, I Leave You with Two Anecdotes and a Bullet List

Excerpt from diary (Fri Mar 19th, 2004):

Four times a day, sometimes five, I'll be sitting at the coffee shop near the hub and my radio will spring to life. When I check out the display it will invariably show four or five packages which need to get from the banking district to either St. Clair or Eglinton. And one of those packages will have twenty minutes left on it.

The ride up Yonge is fun every time. There are plenty of red lights that it is perfectly safe to blitz and there are always morons stopped in the middle of the road with their blinkers on. Not to mention wide sidewalks full of flesh pylons. It's a fast-paced obstacle course with all of the thrill and a tenth the risk of playing chicken with beamers on Richmond or Adelaide. It takes me nine minutes to get to Bloor. The light at Bloor is always red when I get there. Always. I stop in front of City Optical, I glance to see if 212 or 164 is having a smoke in front of 2 Bloor West. Chances are good that one of them is. It's winter now, so the seventy year old man with the karaoke machine, the car battery and the "Better than Viagra" T-Shirt isn't singing Sinatra in front of 2 Bloor East. Give it another month or so.

Then the light is green and I'm northbound again. There's a Tim Horton's on the right. I used to drink coffee there a lot when they had me on the Bloor East run, but there's no reason to stop there anymore now that I'm on St. Clair and Eg. The street dips slightly downhill and I feel like I'm on fire every time I fly past the gas station at Yonge and Church where I bought my map of the city on my first day on the road. But it's not 'til I reach Summerhill that the real fun begins. The dip bottoms out and the street starts to climb once again. The first couple of times you ride under the Summerhill bridge, when the hill disappears from your view, you can convince yourself for a few precious moments that it isn't actually as high or steep as it looked. But when you emerge from under the bridge, those delusions are quickly shattered. I have stopped courting them long ago.

I shift down as I pass under the bridge's shadow. I'm a torquer, not a spinner. I rarely venture out of the highest gear as I roll around the city, but I've got a special relationship with the St. Clair hill. I ride it with my pedals spinning fast. I don't let it break my stride and most of all, I never, never, stand up upon my drivetrain. I fix my eyes on the big CHUM sign. "Dial 1050" it tells me every time. I would if I could. And, firmly attached to the seat, I spin. I don't smirk at any of the people I pass who are walking their bikes. I smile slightly to myself as I fly past those who are standing and pumping desperately. They are saying to themselves, "If I can just rotate these pedals twenty more times, I'll be at the top." My cranks are spinning around the bottom bracket five times a second. The joggers I nod to with elitist camaraderie. Unless they have dogs.

And, in minutes that seem like sweat soaked seconds, I am passing underneath Dial 1050 and I am shifting up again. I'm only two thirds of the way up the hill, but the slope is starting to shallow out, and I love the feeling of acceleration as I fly, muscles burning, out of the steepest section of the curve. And though I know that in thirty minutes or so I'll be roaring back down Yonge, rims spinning without my aid, it is not this that I am thinking of when I smile at the corner of Yonge and St. Clair. I'm thinking about how, in about an hour and a half, I'll be sitting at the coffee shop near the hub and my radio will spring to life.

The St. Clair hill has become a friend to me. Today it threw me from my bike on the way back down. I'm in a fair bit of pain, but I'll forgive it. I'm sure it didn't mean anything by it.

Excerpted from diary (Fri Sep 5th, 2003):

The morning started off great: a few simple deliveries, flirting with a few hot receptionists, getting a little more buddy-buddy with the other couriers.

Then, at eleven o'clock I had a priority delivery to the 3rd floor at 2 Bloor St. West. I got in the elevator at the same time as two bussinesswomen. I punched "3" but the light didn't come on. The light had come on for the floor that the suit-women had punched, but not for mine. I looked at them, shrugged, and said "broken light, I guess."

Little did I know. The elevator cruised right past the 3rd floor and stopped at 7. The suit-women gave me sort of nervous smiles as they got off the elevator. When the door's closed, I punched "3" again. Nothing happened.

Ever resourceful, I punched in "4" instead, figuring I'd just take the stairs down one level. It let me off at 4 with no complaints. I wandered around for a few seconds until I found an unmarked door that had that "stairs" look to it. I turned the latch and, lo, there were the stairs. The door clicked behind me. In a moment of panic, I spun around and twisted the handle. Sure enough, it had locked behind me. Stoically, I made my way down to the third floor and the door there was not only locked, but boarded over. I went down to the first floor and once again, locked. I pounded on the door, but no-one answered. There was another door, a red one, that said "emergency exit only. alarm will sound."

I debated that route of escape for a few moments, but setting off the fire alarm in a forty-two story office tower in downtown Toronto is not something one should do lightly. I tried to call back to base, but the giant concrete bunker that is 2 Bloor West was interfering with my reception. I ended up running up and down the stairs pounding on doors for about half an hour until finally someone opened a door for me on the twenty-first floor. I went back down to the lobby and asked the security guard what the deal was with the 3rd floor. He said: "there is no third floor."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I mean, they're completely re-doing it, it doesn't even have carpeting right now."

"Well then," I asked, "what am I supposed to do with this?"

He looked at the package and said: "Oh, that's mislabeled. That office is on the 33rd floor."

Um, About that Bullet List

Oh, right. So you want to be a bike courier? You read this whole article looking for a few simple tips to make the transition easier? Well, here they are:

  • Have two bikes. You don't want to miss a day or two's work every time something fails on your bike and neither do you want some asshole bike thief to deprive you of the ability to pay your bills with one fell swoop of the bolt cutter. Anyway, no matter how fast your primary bike is, it feels nice to switch it up every now and then.

  • Buy a map. A good one. No matter how well you think you know the streets, you will be referencing it a lot. So don't buy a folding one, buy one that's bound like a book. Ideally, a water-proof one at that.

  • Put some money away from the big paycheques so it doesn't hurt as much when you get the small ones.

  • You will fall. Wear a helmet and then don't stress about it.

  • That said: First learn to ride safe, then learn to ride fast.

  • Capacity is more important in a bag than style.

  • Don't bother packing a lunch the week of hallowe'en. Every secretary's desk will have a bowl of free candy on it.

  • And finally: Be best friends with the dispatcher.



  1. What is perhaps even more surprising though is that, even though still a good ten pounds above what my doctor claims to be my ideal weight, I never lost another pound. I guess some people are just biologically destined to a slight roundness of tummy, no matter how much exercise they get.

  2. These observations are based on the Canadian system. I have no idea how the American equivalents of EI or Worker's Comp function.

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A Coder in Courierland | 181 comments (168 topical, 13 editorial, 4 hidden)
How the hell... (none / 0) (#165)
by Russell Dovey on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 08:19:04 PM EST
(antipagKILLTHESEWORDSanda@gmail.com) http://antipaganda.site.net.au

...do you go up steep hills on a single-speed bike?

"Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light." - Spike Milligan

myth: writing off your food expenses (none / 0) (#145)
by doviende on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 02:39:31 PM EST
(pete AT resist dot ca) http://anarchocyclist.ca/

you mentioned that you attempt to write off $10/day as food expenses, but i don't think you're allowed to do that.

my brother is a bike courier and my mom is a professional tax account at a large tax firm, and she has (as yet) been unable to find any canadian case that references this supposed ability...EXCEPT for a case that specifically says that you're NOT allowed to write off your food expenses.

IANATA, but you should probably consult one before trying things like this, unless you want to play the "will they audit me?" roulette game.

Torquer vs. Spinner (none / 1) (#144)
by Mr.Surly on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 02:33:23 PM EST

I shift down as I pass under the bridge's shadow. I'm a torquer, not a spinner.

I'd assume that "torquer" refers to keeping the bike in a medium gear going up a hill and just pushing a lot harder on the pedals, while "spinner" means to downshift and pedal really fast.

Back In The Daytm, I had an 18 speed mountain bike frame with slick 100# tires.  And no car.  It was my only form of transportation.  After riding for a couple of years I discovered:

  • Never, ever stand on your pedals.  Use your leg strength to push through it, and don't downshift too much.  I guess I'm a torquer.  Always fun when your main bracket decides to give up it's bearings, that roll down the hill behind you.
  • Red lights are completely optional, and are only used to determine the direction traffic might be going.
  • Lane directions are also optional.  Lane splitting is allowed, even if it's against traffic flow.
  • "Close calls" with vehicles is subjective.  To you, it wasn't close at all.  To the soccer mom, it was way too close.
  • You can ride more precisely than most people can walk.  Try telling a pedestrian you just rammed that you were riding just fine, but they were weaving all over the place.  People refuse to believe that they're sloppy walkers.
  • Friendship means picking small rocks out of someones back after they wipe out.
  • Cops don't care if you just nearly got killed by a car who didn't (and was legally required) yield the right of way to a bicycle.
  • "Bike Path" is a euphemism for "Geriatric walking path" (where they walk 4 abreast), or "Dipshits on mopeds / gas scooters", or "People walking vicious dogs", or "Other cyclists who are rank amateurs".
  • People in cars don't care if you're legally allowed to use the entire lane.  Even if you're keeping up with the car in front of you.

  • Ahh the Chum Hill (none / 0) (#140)
    by mitd on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 01:52:18 PM EST

    I grew up in Toronto, right around Yonge and St. Clair and I remember the 'Chum Hill' oh so well.

    Every Saturday I would grab my bike and head to a little church located at the bottom of 'the hill' to pay my paper route bill.

    It was during these trips that I learnt the secret of a successful ascent back up the hill. I would gather all my strength under the railway bridge then I would leap aboard my trusty CCM , pedal madly for about a block and a half, and stop right in front of the Summerhill Gardens restaurant. Ah the Summerhill Gardens where they knew me by my first name always gave me a seat by the window where, without asking, my Strawberry Milkshake and Cherry pie would arrive at my table.

    My window seat afforded me an excellent view of the topless 'Ports of Call Mermaid'. Sometimes I would get lucky and there would be a pair of midnight prankster painted nipples on the usually nipple-less mermaid. Milkshake, pie, and nipples life doesn't get much better for a 12 year old paperboy and the 'Chum Hill' ... hey no problem, no standing on the pedals, -- no sweat!



    I think like a child in order to act like an adult.
    -- MitD

    Dot Matrix Printers (none / 1) (#137)
    by omegageek on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 12:14:57 PM EST

    News of the death of dot matrix printers is exaggerated. They aren't going away and aren't likely to anytime soon. You can't print multi-part forms on a laser or inkjet printer. Remember that the next time you keep the white copy, give the customer the yellow copy and file the pink copy...

    Digital Rights Management? Hell no! The only person with any rights on MY computer is ME.

    I really enjoyed this. Thanks... EOM (none / 0) (#135)
    by Yaroslav The Wise on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 11:29:16 AM EST

    I'm seriously tempted (none / 0) (#133)
    by nebbish on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 11:16:28 AM EST
    (nebbish * gmail dottkom) http://wetfloor.co.uk

    I love cycling, and now I live closer to work I even miss my old 13 mile commute on my bike (I walk now). Having said that, the cut in pay and London traffic are offputting.

    Still, you've tempted me to at least check it out.


    My career after an I.T. meltdown (3.00 / 2) (#126)
    by cetaceous on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 06:47:39 AM EST

    I stopped working as a sysadmin a few years back, I got a part time job not long after at a local marina looking after hire boats and teaching people to sail which was a hobby of mine since childhood.  Not long after starting there I was speaking to some friends at the yacht club who are ship masters (or captains in oldschool).  The more I spoke to them about what they did, the more i realised it was for me. I've known these guys since i was a kid but for some reason never realisticly considered doing what they did, it just seemed too good to be true.
    Anyway they put me in contact with a shipping company based here in Australia and just over two years ago I was accepted as a trainee deck officer, or officer cadet, which is essentially the bottom rung of a ladder that ends at captain.
    The company agrees to pay all my training costs including my accomodation whilst at university in tasmania for 1.5 to 2 years as well as a basic wage(25-30k AUS) during my cadetship which lasts just over three years.  During my training I've had to spend 18 months at sea on various types of ships in the company's fleet which ranges from a few passenger ships to chemical carriers.
    I've travelled all around Australia and Asia loading, carrying and discharging cargoes and generally just having a ball, staring out a panoramic window ten stories up looking out over the ocean for two four hour shifts per day, with only the interruption of having to fix positions every half hour or so on a nav chart.  Without trying to sound too much like a dolphin huggin hippy, doing this job has made me realise just how amazing and beautiful the world is, I get to see dolphins, whales, sharks etc etc pretty much daily when I'm at sea as well as a whole lot of other cool and freaky stuff that I guess you could attribute to weather anomalies.
    And if chatting up receptionists is your thing, on a passenger ship there can be around 2000 crew, including stewards/esses, gym instructors, lifeguards, hairdressers, beauticians etc etc, and they all have to share cabins.  Not the officers, they get nice big double cabins just incase they want to take their spouses away with them, which alot of companies allow.  (then there's the passengers, which alot of companies do not allow fraternising with but they still expect officers to dine with them several nights a week).
    All that aside, when i finish my cadetship and become third mate, I can look forward to a annual wage of somewhere between 60 to 110k (aus), depending on the type of ship, with six months leave annually (six weeks on, six weeks off).
    The cruise ships pay less and the leave ratio isn't as good but they are pretty desparate for trainees at the moment, particularly from anglo countries like Australia, USA, UK and Scandinavia.

    I guess this comment applies more to the previous story, oh well.

    just be careful (none / 0) (#125)
    by jcarnelian on Tue Mar 22nd, 2005 at 04:54:50 AM EST

    I am an occasional bicycle rider and a frequent driver, and I just have to say: be careful, ride conservatively, obey traffic laws, but don't assume that anybody else obeys traffic laws.  

    I try to be pretty aware of bicycles, and I still have had two near-collisions with bicyclists, plus have had bicycles almost run into my door several times.  Drivers do make mistakes, even if they are aware of bicycles, like bicycles, and even if they try to pay attention.  Bicycles can be damned hard to see, too.  And in a collision with a car, bicyclists are going to lose.

    I wish we had more bicycle-friendly cities, with safer bike lanes and cars banished from many roads.  But until that happens, just be really careful: this is a really dangerous job.

    Awesome (none / 0) (#120)
    by mintee on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 10:27:46 PM EST
    (mint@freshstation.org) http://www.freshstation.org

    Awesome read... Good luck on your future travels.
    -The Lazy Writer
    EI and couriers... (none / 0) (#119)
    by Run4YourLives on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 10:17:39 PM EST
    ('run4yourlives'@'gmail'.'com') http://run4yourlives.com

    You are most certainly allowed to claim Employment Insurance in Canada as a Bike Courier.

    See Here
    See Here

    As well, you are also covered under Workers comp.

    See Here.

    It's slightly Japanese, but without all of that fanatical devotion to the workplace. - CheeseburgerBrown

    Fixed-gears and more on messenger culture (none / 0) (#111)
    by estance on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 05:03:04 PM EST
    (brian __at__ vermonster = com) http://www.vermonster.com

    Tons of messengers here in Boston. Check out fixedgeargallery.com for some great rides.

    Here's another great article on the messenger counter-culture. It is based in the Boston but undoubtedly mirrors other urban scenes.

    The bicycle (3.00 / 2) (#109)
    by rodentboy on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 03:53:28 PM EST

    To me I would say that the bicycle is the best human invention ever.

    Unlike the car which isolates you from your environment, the bike immerses you in it. The bike does not abstract away your physical nature, your muscles and lungs, it augments them perfectly and rewards you with a sense of true speed you can't feel trapped in a vehicle.

    It is an essential prosthetic that no one should be without.

    It's funny that you should write this right now. I've been lucky enough to live a year in Vancouver. The north shore mountains call me like a siren like from my bedroom window. There's nothing like waking up on a nice saturday after a week of coding under fluorescent lighting, and looking out across the water and knowing that at least you can head out and ride the best trails in the world. It's good either way: ride alone and really get in the flow or enjoy the camaraderie of challenges well met among friends.

    I'm moving back to Toronto now, we are going to have a nice house in a great neighbourhood and I'm going to a great job, but I was blindsided by the sense of loss. I just can't shake the feeling that I had something in my grasp that I'm letting slip out of my fingers.

    I better end this before it degenerates even further. Thanks for sharing.

    Pedals (none / 0) (#98)
    by phraud on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 11:25:49 AM EST

    You actually ride with clipless pedals, not clip pedals. Time's and Shimano SPDs are clipless. Also, the post about having 2 bikes because you may break something. Learn how to fix stuff on your bike. I used to ride all the time when I was younger. I lived for mountain biking, so I got a job at a local bike shop and became a mechanic for awhile. Nothing on a bike is difficult to fix with normal tools except maybe the bottom bracket, or maybe a threaded headset. Its rare that the BB will fail, especially in the city where your not submerging it in muddy water. Also, one of the main things I would do if I were a courier would be to make sure your hubs are tightened properly and are lubed up real nice. Worn bearings, or hubs that are tightened too much will crate a lot of drag that you will have to overcome with your legs and lungs. Also, if you aren't going over rough terrain very much (maybe you are, maybe you aren't), you should think about riding without suspension. If your shocks are set up too soft, they will be absorbing some of your energy instead of transferring it to the road. Last thing, your article is inspiring - I have been thinking about dumping my office job for some outside work, but HOW do you ride all day long in Toronto!? Its like 32C + 100% humidity in the summer, and blowing, wet snow in the winter.
    You create your own reality. Leave mine to me.
    What the hell (none / 0) (#95)
    by tuxedo-steve on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 10:53:37 AM EST

    I'm a between-jobs coder who loves cycling and you've made this sound rewarding enough to justify giving it a shot. Anyone got any good suggestions on how I might find a bicycle courier job in Melbourne, Australia?

    - SMJ - (It's not just a name - it's a bad aftertaste.)
    how do you deal with winter? (none / 0) (#89)
    by circletimessquare on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 02:49:51 AM EST
    (at gmail dot com)

    say what you want about canada, but one observation trumps all positive ones: spring, summer, and fall are all packed into july

    how you can spend a toronto winter on a bike is beyond me

    if i were canadian, i would be in love with the idea of global warming

    He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.
    - William Blake

    San Francisco (none / 0) (#87)
    by exppii on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 01:54:01 AM EST

    Unemployed in SF, bike for fun but nowhere to go ('cept north). This has piqued my interest. Do I just go cold-calling from the yellow pages, or would someone like to give me some tips on who's good? Actually, going down to Market St. and asking around seems like it might be a good idea. Do I need to get my own cell phone before I start?

    a quick way to lose a thumb (none / 0) (#85)
    by greenplato on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 01:08:24 AM EST

    I have also developed a skill I previously thought unique to high school girls. I can type out text messages on the phone keypad as fast as my thumb can move without looking, and even while riding through traffic.

    Mere mortals should not, under any circumstances, challenge a messenger to a thumb wrestling contest. Spending so many hours each day punching in text messages and spinning the scroll wheel on the fancy Blackberries allows messengers to develop thumbs that are as fast as a mongoose and as strong as a bull.

    For some reason I tried to thumb wrestle one of Washington DC's jolly couriers. He pinned me instantly and damn near removed my thumb.

    A similar but shorter experiece (none / 0) (#84)
    by Plastic Jeebus on Mon Mar 21st, 2005 at 12:57:11 AM EST

    After I got my CS degree I was pretty tired of writing code. So for a few months, I worked as a pedicab (bicycle powered taxi).

    The hours were sweet (three nights a week) and it didn't really bother me that I was only just making rent + bills. In fact, even though I was perpetually broke during those months, I was happier than ever. I was also in the best shape of my life (hauling 500-800 lbs of drunken flesh is teh best exercise evar!).

    Courier culture and pedicab culture sound like they have a lot of overlap. In fact, one of the guys that rode for my company also worked as a courier. Even the gender ratio is the same. I think the only difference is the bike preferences. Multiple gears are a necessity when you're hauling 800lbs of drunken flesh. Weight is of no concern since it's essentially noise after you attach a cab to your bike. Locks aren't needed since you rarely leave your cab and if you do, someone will usually watch it for you.

    These days I'm a code jockey. I could still pedicab since most of the work is on the weekends, but I just don't have the will to risk my life without the financial necessity hanging over my head.

    To those of you bitching about dangerous bicyclists: you're mostly right. BUT. Cars are equally to blame. As a pedicab, you have to be even more careful since you're carrying other people. I was threatened many times by asshole taxicabs and other drivers -- just for being on the road. It's a small percentage of cars that are assholes. The same applies to cyclists.

    -- The second coming was scheduled for 2000, but the mother aborted.
    Thank You (none / 0) (#81)
    by banffbug on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 10:55:17 PM EST

    I recently gave up my job slaving away at retail department store hell for a bicyle courier job here in calgary, about a month and a half ago, and won't turn back. Great timing for an article on a website i've been reading for years, here's my tidbits:

    Route planing and communication with your dispatcher are the most valued skills, followed by safe fast riding. You should have fun working too, or else the day quickly becomes a chore. To stay mad at yourself for bad routing leaves you prone to more errors, and to rack your nerves because of some asshole driver that makes it dangerous for you to earn a living gives no inner satisfaction. Stop to expain a close call when you are at fault and don't book it from the scene, blow a kiss instead of giving the finger back to some horn honking mr./miss. Important, and act professionally instead of kicking in doors and mirrors. Just remember, shit happens once in a while.

    Most courier companies in Calgary have a wear what you want dress code, and only one (mine) has a manditory bike helmet policy on top of a leased uniform, allowing West Direct to charge its clients more competitively. Of the other companies, I'd like to say 20% of the bikers wear helmuts, but i think they'd need us included in the count to make that happen. Most communicate by radio, but pager or text message systems are everywhere, and some companies run blackberrys with 85-90% of comunications by email.

    The vast age spectrum of employment spans from inexperienced teenagers to able 50 year olds biking for fun, money, exercise, and thrills. No one gets fired because you work as a contractor, not an employee, so you're not fixed to an hourly rate. Survival of the fittest demands that those who can't cut it quit because the job won't pay the bills. The first week is hell, you mess up a lot, but as you learn the city better, and you will, quickly, the days start to form a familiar rhythm as you watch the minutes between deliveries roll by.

    One misconception by office workers is that a bike courier is insanely happy to be inside from the winter storm, and appreciates being delayed for an extra minute of heat. It does no good, because by the time i leave the building after riding to the 29th floor and back down the elevator at lunch hour every pore i own is letting water vapour escape. I actually enjoy the cooler weather with snow, just hate the offices.

    I wish I could do something like this... (none / 1) (#80)
    by CrackHappy on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 10:36:42 PM EST

    Growing up into an adult, my experiences with cycling were both memorable and enjoyable.

    I vividly remember a time when I made a wrong turn coming home from school.  I was heading down a long, steep hill and turned left on the wrong street.  This street ended about 50 yards after I turned onto it.  The end of the street consisted of a guardrail and a dirt slope leading down to a gully.  My brakes weren't all that good, I wasn't paying that much attention, and needless to say I didn't slow down anywhere near enough.  My front tire impacted with the guardrail and I somehow simultaneously leaped off the pedals and spread my legs far enough apart to clear my handlebars.  I then landed on my feet and skidded down the slope about halfway before falling on my keister.

    I have still not been able to account for how I did that.  To this day I have never fallen off a bicycle.  

    That does not mean that other people didn't fall off the bicycle I was riding.  

    About 10 years ago when my youngest sister was 9 or 10 I was giving her a ride on the handlebars of my cousin's bike in Eugene Oregon.  We were only travelling at 10mph at the most.  I was screwing around and not paying attention, again, and managed to run into the curb.  She fell off the front and scraped her forehead on the sidewalk.  She still has a faint scar above her eyebrow.  :)  Something to remember me by...

    I am sorry for the rampant nostalgia.  I will attempt to keep it in check.  Down Boy!  

    Unless something amazing happens, I do not know if I will ever be able to ride a bicycle like I did in the past.  The reasons:
    - I have a genetic condition that causes my lungs to collapse either randomly or under stress.  i.e. if I exercise too hard it could collapse.  This first happened when I was 19, in my left lung.  After the 3rd collapse my doctor operated and "fixed" it.  This is by removing about 10%-15% of the "bad" parts of the lung and stapling the rest together then covering the entire lung in a very strong antibiotic.  The antibiotic causes the lung to scar on the surface which then bonds the lung to the chest cavity wall.  Essentially that lung should not be able to collapse again.  However, my right lung has not had a problem yet and I would prefer not to take stupid chances.
    - March 2003 I had testicular cancer.  The cancer is "cured".  This means they removed the cancerous testicle and followed up with a very invasive surgery to remove a good portion of the lymph nodes in my abdominal cavity.  I have a nice 19-inch scar from my sternum to my pubic bone.  One of the results of the second surgery is a strange chronic pain in my right thigh.  It has gradually decreased over time, but without my medications it makes it difficult to walk.  I Hope  that it will disappear eventually.  The pain as far as I can determine must have been caused by the epidural I was using for the first four days of my hospital stay but none of my numerous doctors has been able to effectively diagnose it.  So we are just treating it with Neurontin / Gabapentin and elavil.  

    It is still possible for me to ride a bicycle but I must be careful as if I strain that right thigh too much I must pay the piper the next day.  

    It is kind of ironic that as a bicyclist I am afflicted with the same disease as the most well known bicyclist today.  

    I am also a coder albeit not that experienced a coder yet.  I am the lead developer for my company developing in a proprietary system as well as using open standards to build out our web presence.  I have been using ASP / IIS 5 and JS primarily along with the MSXML4 COM object to do data processing and transformation in the 3 tier system.  I recently did a full code review and standards compliance check.  I still haven't gotten the applications I have written to XHTML 1.0 yet but I will get there.  For the near future I am developing most new projects in ASP.NET and .NET Framework 1.1 and cannot wait for 2.0 to come out.  My personal preference would NOT to be developing any of this in a Microsoft only environment, but I have not been able to make any headway on that front.

    To make a very very long story as short as possible I wish that I could truly bike again.
    Wherever you go, there you are.

    Most excellent (none / 0) (#78)
    by kinrowan on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 10:19:48 PM EST

    One of the best I've read on kuro5hin. Come back soon, and write more....
    Nice article. (none / 0) (#77)
    by creature on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 09:55:15 PM EST

    I enjoyed this. I'm actually considering doing it now. Maybe when I've finished my degree I could do something like this for a couple of months. Could be fun.

    Great story. (none / 0) (#70)
    by skyknight on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 06:07:04 PM EST

    Thanks for sharing.

    Er (none / 1) (#63)
    by trhurler on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 03:26:03 PM EST
    (abuse@ file:///dev/zero

    About weight loss:

    First of all, you almost certainly packed on some muscle and lost some fat. Remember, muscle weighs more than fat. As such, expecting dramatic weight loss from such a job is not realistic; expecting dramatic changes in body fat probably is more realistic.

    Second, most men pack on fat in their stomach region underneath the abdominal muscles rather than over them, and this is unbelievably hard to get rid of. Odds are that you COULD, but I doubt a regimen of pure cycling would do it. I have no idea why it works this way, but I know that it does. Still and all, you're most likely in better shape than 99% of humanity, so I wouldn't worry about it too much:)

    'God dammit, your posts make me hard.' --LilDebbie

    Factual inaccuracy: (1.55 / 9) (#59)
    by a beautiful goat on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 02:31:10 PM EST

    I was a coder not unlike yourself.

    I, sir, am not a coder. You fail it. Lol. Coders should be totally banned from the internet they're just total jerkwads.
    born coder (2.80 / 5) (#58)
    by viisii on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 02:14:15 PM EST

    What can one say to people that are born "coders".
    The man wanted a change thats it. There are bands out there that take a break from their music, sometimes up to 5 years.
     He never said he didn't code when he got home or on weekends, he just said a made a career change for a bit.I personaly have been in the IT industry for 8 years and guess what...I had a two year stint of manual labour the House Removal & Storage industry in between.Guess where most of my clientel comes from now?
    You might be a "born coder" but you cannot critisize someone for wanting and making a change. I think some of the comments on this story are from people who are afraid of change or doing something different, or maybe people who think they are special because they code.

    Take a break it clears your mind.The old Zen saying goes "from one thing learn a thousand".
    You never know what inspiration or business opertunities you would get..... or maybe you should just keep taking orders and doing your job.

    Sorry if this came out a bit rash but I dont ussualy respond to comments on forums.

    Advice. (1.31 / 19) (#56)
    by dxh on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 02:03:04 PM EST

    Sorry to be the one to say this, but it needs to be said.
    1. Grow up.  You apparently have issues and have some trouble with being a grown up and having a grown up job.  It seems like you still want to be a kid for the rest of your life riding you bike around with your buddies.   The best this little job is doing is to prolong your childhood.  Thats nice and all but eventually your gonna have to grow up, and while your wasting your time with this gig, the rest of us will be getting valuable job experience in the real world and be 10-steps ahead of you.
    2. Get a real job.  Do you really think that you can raise a family or save anything for the future with this job?  Do you expect the rest of us in society to pay for your living when a) you get hurt b) you get too old to do this job.  This job sounds nice now, but your obviously smart and wasting your potential.    
    Making less money than you could potentially make  is only "noble" if your doing it for something that serves a higher purpose, such as teaching or doing charity work or something... doing something like this is just simply an act of selfishness and the lack of your willing to such it up and be an adult.

    There. I said it.  I bet your parents wanted to say the same things to you. :)

    in atlanta... (none / 1) (#55)
    by durkie on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 01:37:21 PM EST

    it seems like there very few couriers that would also describe themselves as bikers. i can think of one maybe 2 couriers i've seen with clipless pedals, let alone spandex. i've also seen people riding timetrial frames with a downward sloping toptube, but with bigass cruiser bars. argh. it seems like a perpetually hip business, where you have to know someone to get in, and thus its culture of old steel track frames, trucker hats, cutoffs, and a couple tattoos is maintained...

    that's a an outsider's perspective though. there are only a few companies in the city, and i've never been able to land a job.

    Both of them here. (2.33 / 6) (#51)
    by DildoSpandex on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 12:02:55 PM EST

    I'm a programmer, but I always fantasized being a courrier, just because of the spandex.

    I'm gay and exhibitionist, and I once had a job I biked to, and no one objected when I coded wearing flashy spandex (blue is my favourite, but I also have yellow and light gray. I don't like black, it makes me look like a funeral director and you can't show-off well).

    Plus, I'd always volunteer to do urgent errands downtown, just for the sheer pleasure of walking into an impressive office lobby, wearing tight flashy outrageous spandex, flashing my package and ass amongst those 3-piece suits types.

    My favourite was the tax department. The office was always late for the income tax deductions, so I'd gladly rush them the cheque to their cash, where I would stand in line, legs apart, right in front of a huge, impressive fiftysomething matron who would inevitably keep a fixed stare on my spandex-clad cock.

    Most of the time, I'd take the opportunity to go to the bank, but at the head-office branch. There is nothing like the feeling of walking, provocatively dressed, into a fancy marble building...

    Unfortunately, there are no gay couriers; in all the few times I rubbed shoulder with them, none ever triggered my gaydar even though they looked hot (but why hide your crotch under baggy pants???), so I did not have the experience of impromptu quickies in the many nooks and crannies of office buildings... :(

    as a taxpayer... (1.00 / 6) (#45)
    by /dev/trash on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 09:35:07 AM EST

    I'm slightly taken aback that you think a student loan is an obligation you can just not pay nack.

    Updated 02/20/2004
    New Site
    You are not a programmer at heart (2.11 / 9) (#41)
    by JosephK on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 08:47:22 AM EST

    He may have been a programmer, by virtue of his job description, but he was certainly not a programmer at heart.

    True programmers love to do it. Would you ever seriously entertain a story from a gear-head who loved to work on his old cars who suddenly "saw the light" and decided he now cares only about jigsaw puzzles. Of course not. Because it doesn't happen; if someone loves the zen of automotive maintenance, then it's in their heart. PRogramming, because it was supposedly financially lucrutive, has attracted a lot of posers in the last 10 years. I say enjoy your new life; it's clearly more suitable for you.
    HTML is Dead.
    Intern for $10/hr (none / 1) (#40)
    by n8f8 on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 08:47:06 AM EST
    (tlowing@nospam.lowing.org) http://www.Lowing.org

    I'm hiring an intern for an R&D project for about $10/hr. (soon to be posted here) Flexible hours so nothing would prevent someone from riding a bike to work. I think there a lot of better jobs to be had where you can see the real world and code.

    Of course I make way more than $10/hr, I run 2-3 miles a night ans live a block from the beach where I'm learning to surf. Oh, within reason, I set my own hours. I wouldn't trade programming for a living for just about any other job.

    Sig: (This will get posted after your comments)

    Toronto... the memories... (none / 0) (#38)
    by elgardo on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 05:22:35 AM EST

    The details of Yonge St, Bloor W building, St Claire hill... *sigh* Articles like these remind me of my days in Toronto, how I miss them...

    those were the days ... (2.66 / 3) (#36)
    by ccdotnet on Sun Mar 20th, 2005 at 03:35:08 AM EST

    I was a (motorcycle) courier on and off for 3 years. Not exactly the same as doing the miles under your own pedal power, but there's plenty of overlap so your article has brought back a lot of good memories.

    Couriering was hard work - after 10 hours you arrive home both physically and mentally exhausted. 12 years of IT consulting later: fatter, saner, better off, but there are still things I miss about being on the road. You've summed up most of them well - nice work.

    Ah, the memories... (3.00 / 12) (#34)
    by ktakki on Sat Mar 19th, 2005 at 10:29:33 PM EST

    I was a bike courier in Manhattan back in 1979. It was a summer job I had between freshman and sophomore years at college, so I only rode for about four months. I got the job, by the way, by opening the phone book and cold-calling. At about my sixth or seventh call, I got an offer over the phone, so I went to work for the Bionic Messenger Service.

    The office was a tiny cubbyhole in a building on Broadway near 49th St., run by a dispatcher named Avalino Ramos, a rumpled looking guy who looked like he slept in the office. His favorite phrase was "holy seeit" ("holy shit" in a Newyorican accent). The rest of the crew were black and Puerto Rican kids my age and younger (I was nineteen at the time).

    This was before fax machines and the Internet, so everything went by courier. About 75% of what we carried were documents, though sometimes you'd get a suspicious looking package going from one apartment building to another, and it was pretty much understood that you didn't want to get stopped by the cops on those runs. We didn't have pagers, either. Just a roll of dimes and a payphone on every streetcorner.

    I got car-doored once (by a lady stepping out of a Checker cab on the street side instead of the sidewalk side), and run off the street once by an asshole in a Lincoln. That last incident sticks in my mind after all these years because, after I wiped out hopping the curb, two kids came running down the sidewalk and one of them launched into a flying kick, cracking the windshield of the Lincoln (I think they had just seen one of the kung fu movies that was playing in Times Square at the time). The asshole in the Lincoln (with Jersey plates, of course) sped off.

    I never wore a helmet except for that one day when Skylab was supposed to re-enter the atmosphere. That day I wore a hardhat.

    The money was pretty good, actually. I split the waybill 50/50 with the company and kept my tips, so I'd come home with between $75 and $125 per day for between 4 and 8 hours of work (not too bad for 1979). I was in pretty good shape anyway, so I didn't really see any physical benefit. The downside was that at the end of the day I would be covered in a fine layer of soot from car, truck, and bus exhausts.

    If I didn't have to go back to school, I would have kept working as a bike messenger, albeit at one of the better companies, like Good Flash (their couriers made up to $200/day). Riding in the winter would have been a cast iron bitch, but that's what always set apart the dilettantes like me from the pros. It did, however, prepare me well for a future job: driving a cab (delivering packages was about 25% of the workload).

    "In spite of everything, I still believe that people
    are really good at heart." - Anne Frank

    Personally... (3.00 / 6) (#31)
    by jd on Sat Mar 19th, 2005 at 10:12:22 PM EST

    My experience with "unskilled" jobs is that employers reckon on there being more people interested than there are jobs, so generally don't look at how to make the job worthwhile or attractive.

    Having said that, you've obviously managed to carve a good niche for yourself, which - ultimately - is the only worthwhile thing to do. Those who work for money work for misery. Rich misery, sure, but they'll never enjoy either job or money. Those who work for the love of their job are typically poor but happy. The problem there is that the cost of living isn't paid by happiness.

    So, congrats on making it work for you, but I'd advise anyone else thinking of such a career shift to at least check that it's doable first.

    This is a really good article... But... (1.75 / 12) (#30)
    by givemegmail111 on Sat Mar 19th, 2005 at 10:10:59 PM EST

    ...I can't find it in me to +1FP something that promotes bicycle riding on busy streets. In my experience, bicyclists are the biggest hazzards on the road, as they can never decide whether they're pedestrian or traffic. They want the privledge of using the roads, but they don't want to obey traffic laws. They'll block traffic and then shoot through red lights. I'm sure there are plenty of perfectly good law-abiding bicyclists out there, but you say yourself that all couriers get hit at least once in a year of working. That professionals have this many accidents says a lot about the safety of bicycling on the street.

    I do commend you, though, for not having the arrogant attitude about cars that a lot of bicyclists have. At my old school there was a yearly protest of idiot bicyclists riding down the street together blocking traffic to promote the message "We're not blocking traffic". Very obnoixious.

    fuel deductable (3.00 / 7) (#29)
    by problem child on Sat Mar 19th, 2005 at 10:10:25 PM EST

    Here's a story about how that came to be.

    I just have to say (none / 1) (#20)
    by Resonant on Sat Mar 19th, 2005 at 07:12:44 PM EST
    (resonantwave@hotmail.com) http://resonant.homelinux.com

    When this moves to vote, +1 FP. Entertaining and interesting read. I need to find a job like that and learn how to live off the paycheck. :)

    "I answer, 'This is _quantitative_ religious studies.'" - glor
    What do you wear? (none / 0) (#15)
    by pinkcress on Sat Mar 19th, 2005 at 05:32:15 PM EST
    (let X = @ in gtc X mm.st)

    Exercise gear? Some form of uniform?

    damnit all these 'facts' getting in the way of my writing - turmeric
    +1 FP, getting outside and riding a bike. (3.00 / 5) (#5)
    by Adiabatic Expansion on Sat Mar 19th, 2005 at 03:44:51 PM EST

    It's something that I wish I had more time (and better weather) for in the course of my studies. Though I imagine you can get some really shitty winter days in Toronto.

    As a cyclist myself, I have a few questions. I ride a Serotta with road bars and high end drive-train components. What kind of handlebars do people generally prefer in the courier business? I've ridden mountain bikes on long road rides before, and it just numbs my hands right up after about 20 miles.

    Also, does anyone use bike shoes and clip pedals, or is it your regular old bike pedals and sneakers? I hear that mountain bike shoes are much more practical to walk around in, but I've never tried them myself.

    My dad got some unpadded gloves recently and says his hands don't get numb anymore on long rides, vs. his old padded gloves. Maybe padded gloves aren't so good, I don't know.

    One more thing - street clothes, or bike shorts?

    Call me a nut, but ... (1.81 / 11) (#3)
    by Peahippo on Sat Mar 19th, 2005 at 02:53:04 PM EST
    (peahippo@hotmail.com) http://peahippo.tripod.com/

    ... I think that people who go from coding in a cubicle to riding a courier bike for half pay was not really a coder to begin with. I'm glad these types are leaving IT to the real lifers like myself.

    [misbehaves on Slashdot as LaCosaNostradamus]
    A Coder in Courierland | 181 comments (168 topical, 13 editorial, 4 hidden)
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