A Coder in Courierland
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 flourescent 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 teen 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 it's 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 was 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 favor 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 zealand 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 favored 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 maneuvers 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 armor, 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 practice 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 recieve 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 comraderie 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 comraderie. 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.
- And finally: Be best friends with the dispatcher.
Notes: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.