From Mad Messenger to More Peaceful Cyclist

Alex Marshall some time in the not-too-distant future…

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a bicycle courier.

It was in the fall of 1979, during the semester I took off from college to start a rock band in Washington DC with friends. When not playing guitar in a roach-infested apartment in Takoma Park, Md., I cruised the streets for a courier company, picking up thick envelopes from the American Petroleum Institute and other public-spirited institutions and taking them over to Capitol Hill. Stuff like that.

I think about that sometimes these days, as I poke along Bergen Street Brooklyn, or Lafayette Avenue in Manhattan, on my mountain bike with my bad back, weak right knee, and other afflictions.

Bicycle messengering had a certain cachet back then, although fewer people know about it. It had not evolved into the almost cult-like institution I sense it has become now.

Does bicycle couriering teach you anything practical? A little, although not much.

What it does mostly is to acquaint one with cycling in traffic, which is useful in New York City. You either become comfortable with cycling amid a herd of cars, or you stop. Despite two minor accidents with cars while being a courier, I came to love mixing it up with city traffic.

I can still feel that urge to merge now course through my middle-aged body, when a car cuts me off or I’m jockeying for position at a traffic light. It’s something to watch out for. Through the lens of age, I can see now that good cycling, safe cycling and civil cycling comes from striking a balance between aggression and passivity. Too much of either is not healthy or safe for the people around you.

I did get better at simply steering and staying on a bike. I used to be amazed at my ability to keep the two wheels of my bicycle inside the white stripe on the edge of a road, when I felt like it.

Also, sort of like a fish being accustomed to the water, you became very accustomed to balancing on the two wheels of a bike. At day’s end when I lay down to sleep on the mattress on the floor in our roach-infested pad, I would close my eyes and start to drift off to sleep. Then I would often jerk awake, because I would catch myself losing my balance and falling off my bicycle. I was still mentally on the bike. In a curious way, I got to like this feeling and would sometimes imagine falling off my bicycle as a way to put myself to sleep.

Most lessons I learned while being a courier did not have much applicability outside the industry. Like how to get in and out of a building quickly. This was more important to one’s total daily commissions — and one did work by commission — than riding fast on the streets.

The principal time sucker at buildings was waiting for an elevator. To avoid this, I learned a few tricks, one being that one can actually often pull the doors of an elevator open after it has closed, if only a second or two or has passed. This led to frequent scenes of a car full of people seeing the doors that had just closed on them being pulled apart by a tall, scruffy looking youngster.

All in all, it was a fun job. And I made a lot of money, or what seemed like a lot of money at age 19. But eventually I left it and went back to college. Our rock band didn’t get far. But I retained my love of cycling in traffic, which I still do, albeit in a more middle-aged fashion.

Photo: Aaron Naparstek, Drachten, Netherlands.  

  • I am sure there is a thrill in tempting fate, but it breaks my heart to see the memorials for dead cyclists. We should ask ourselves, do we want our children to ride in traffic? Let’s first rid the urban street of the private auto, then we can all ride and walk more safely.

  • Sainsbury

    The myth of a car-less roads being safer is bizarre. I was messenger in the early nineties. I can handle my bike well. Still ride a fixed gear. But, I won’t go near a bike path on weekends.

    Cars are reasonably predictable. Pedestrians and other cyclists are not. On the road, my biggest fear is a car door, not a moving vehicle.

  • Bike Vet

    Utterly tedious. What is the point of this?

  • not bike snobby nyc

    the point is that, even though he himself and others may think of alex as an old geezer who can just pass muster on his mountain bike now, he once had his wild, heady days as a messenger. Rrrrrrrowf! you old dog, you!

  • anonymous

    I’m a few years older than Alex, and a NYC bike commuter. To not bike snobby and bike vet:

    As you are, so was I
    As I am, so shall you be.

    but only if you’re really lucky

  • Andy B from Jersey

    “I would close my eyes and start to drift off to sleep. Then I would often jerk awake, because I would catch myself losing my balance and falling off my bicycle. I was still mentally on the bike.”

    Holy Moly! I’m not the only one who’s done this!

  • paulb
  • Alex, if you took time off from college in 1979 you are about my age–way too young to be talking that way. Go watch some Lucas Brunelle videos and hit the streets!

  • Responding to “BicyclesOnly” comment, I admit that for dramatic effect I perhaps over emphasized my old dufferness. I still get out. Although it’s also true that there is nothing like a bad back, something I’ve been struggling with lately, to make you feel old.

    Thanks to commenter number Six and Number Seven for the info on that falling asleep thing. That’s really interesting that I’m not the only one who has experienced this, and that there is a name for it.

  • Spud Spudly

    The Tom Friedman of Streetsblog strikes again. I read the first sentence and then scrolled down to see if it really was Alex writing again. And it was.


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