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A Dream on Two Wheels: San Francisco Messengers and the City That Was

Posted: Apr 11, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO -- I met Tom behind the black marble wall that stands over One Bush Street, its shadow offering the perfect cover from wind and watchful eyes. Over a lighted bowl he told me about his time in Appalachian country, about his love of Blue Grass. It was the early 90s, I was a twenty-something bike messenger, and my world was opening.

Sadly those days – and that city -- are gone.

Last week’s death of an elderly Chinese pedestrian after being hit by a cyclist has intensified a long-running debate in this city about street safety and the unruliness of cyclists. Or cars. Or pedestrians. The fingers are pointing in all directions, and there’s little love lost on any one side.

“What kind of teeth” can we give to laws governing cyclists, asked one reporter at a press conference in City Hall Tuesday convened by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu. “Can we revoke someone’s right to ride?”

The conference, called in response to the fatal collision -- the second implicating a cyclist in as many months -- focused on plans to implement a Safe Streets Program that involves, among other things, traffic schools designed especially for bicycle riders. Spearheaded by Chiu, a regular bike commuter himself, the initiative has the backing of most pedestrian safety and transportation agencies in the citySan Francisco, including the SFPD, the MTA and the Bicycle Coalition.

It seems like a reasonable plan. After all, we’re all commuters now. The city’s bicycle ridership is up 71 percent from six years ago and rising fast. There are now some 40 miles of bicycle lanes, nonexistent twenty years ago, stretched across the city.

As for the messengers, they’re mostly gone. Some deliver food, from what I’m told, giving new meaning to the phrase “hot rush.” With them goes the last remnants of a bohemian city that celebrated – or at least tolerated – one’s right to ride off the rails.

Tom had long hair and a bushy beard. He was more or less constantly stoned, wore cut-off jeans and Teva sandals in rain or shine. He was the quintessential messenger, if there was such a thing, pedaling from one office to the next in an ecstatic haze as the city pulsed around him… and he through it.

And then he stopped. Weeks later I was riding down Sansome Street, on a somewhat rainy day. A friend and fellow messenger asked in passing whether I’d heard about the accident on Market. I rode down and saw a crowd of onlookers gathered around a stalled bus. One I noted the Tevas sticking out from underneath.

Tom died later that day. I kept riding, encountering artists, hippies, drunks, athletes… individuals determined to live life and experience the world on their own terms. The bicycle was their tool.

After about three years I moved to New York, and quickly became part of a messenger scene not unlike the one I left behind, though grittier, more immigrant than punk. In San Francisco we were rock stars, in New York we were part of the grime. Unavoidable, irritating, necessary.

My first winter there I read about a messenger who’d been sandwiched between a passing bus and a garbage truck. The pressure, so I was later told, drove the chain he wore around his waist so far into his hips that it had to be surgically removed. I kept pedaling.

Two winters and several near-death experiences later I and five other messengers crossed the George Washington Bridge on the start of a two-and-a-half month ride to San Francisco. Just as we entered New Jersey, someone from a passing car launched a half-empty cup of coke that landed squarely on the side of my head. Still, I kept pedaling.

In Wisconsin a dairy farmer took pity on us as we huddled under a torrential downpour. We were a motley crew – green hair and tattoos – but for some reason she said we reminded her of her own son. 18 Eighteen miles down the road she paid for our breakfast and wished us luck. We rode on through South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and eventually California.

We returned to the city in time for the annual messenger world championship. Cyclists from Japan, Germany, Australia, London, and Toronto joined with messengers from across the United States for a multi-day, beer-fueled and smoke infested festival in celebration of our common bond – the bike. It was our means to a wider world unbounded by the constraints of … well, everyone else.

I still dream about it. I hear my former dispatcher yelling out my number, 901, realizing in a moment of sweat-soaked anxiety that I’d forgotten to turn up the volume on my walkie-talkie.

Then I wake up, strap on my helmet and pedal to work. Like my fellow commuters, I remain in my designated lane.

Image provided by Shutterstock.com

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