Back in the 90s, I was a bike courier in DC. The internet and the economy have conspired to make it a lot harder to earn a living as a messenger since then. To see how things have changed, I spent a day with Julian Root, a Philly courier I had met in 2010 while we both worked at the Bicycle Coalition

The day I rode with Julian topped out in the mid 20s, with just a little bit of wind and residual ice and snow only on the side streets. Given the winter we’ve had — and are still having — it was a pretty mild day and wouldn’t be filed among the war stories of my courier days. Here’s what Julian had to say.

So … the weather?

Ah, weather. Couriers are often the barometers by which the office workforce determines the outdoor conditions at any moment. I suppose that’s the result of most of one’s waking hours being spent in the seasonless abyss of the office. These idiots will see me walk in, completely drenched, and ask if it’s raining. Every single courier in Philly (and likely the world) will attest to this. Also, everyone wants to know “how we do it,” whether they mean in the rain, snow, cold, heat, or some combination of the four. Well, I’m one of those lucky dudes who was born waterproof, I guess. How do you deal with being stuck inside all day when it’s 75 and sunny?

Fake Ass Messengers

FAMs seem to be a dying breed. When the fixie craze of 2008–2011 fizzled out, so did the interest among many tatted and pierced art school students towards couriers. Sure, there’s still the stray full-size courier bag being toted around various college campuses, but not nearly to the extent that there was a few years ago (Admittedly, around the time I got into it: 2007. I’m no lifer.) The fact is, those bags suck for toting books around in. They really do. Guys (and gals) that don the look nowadays seem to want a license to break rules and act in ways so reckless that they are generally scorned by most seasoned couriers.

Jaywalk responsibly! If you’re going to step out into traffic, please first check to see if there is, in fact, any form of traffic approaching.

Errant pedestrians

Pedestrians can be a real drag. Jaywalk responsibly! If you’re going to step out into traffic, please first check to see if there is, in fact, any form of traffic approaching. If I had a dime for each time I overheard some errant pedestrian mumble “I almost got hit by a bike,” well, I’d be able to buy a new tire or something. A nice one, too.


Fly on the (elevator) wall

When you’re riding in an elevator, waiting in line at a security desk, or handing over a package, the other person sees you as some lesser agent in the daily current of city commerce. Essentially, a nobody. But nobodys get to encounter people as they really are, since I’m only here to deliver a package. You get 30-second conversations with raw character. No one acts appropriately around a courier. When no one puts on airs, you get the real thing. That can be as uplifting as a freight elevator operator singing you his blues or as jarring as an executive verbally denigrating someone who just got off at the last floor. No one cares that you’re there, so they speak unencumbered.

Changing times

The greatest shift in the courier experience was probably the pre/post-9/11 security world — before my time. I’ve heard tell of a time when a courier could simply walk into any building in the city without the drudgery of signing in. This sucks. Really, there’s nothing more infuriating on the job than waiting around for some thick-skinned security guard to call some chump upstairs to tell him some guy he’s never heard of is here to pick up a package. Another thing — I average about 20 visitor passes a week. That means I get roughly 1,040  passes a year. This is the endgame of most security check-ins. You get the pass; you can now freely roam the building. Never once have I been asked to show my pass. It’s such a joke.

The muck and the mire

Another thing– please please don’t tell me to “stay warm” or “stay dry” or “stay cool” when all traces of common sense point to the futility of these statements. You wouldn’t walk down a prison row and cheerily say to the inmates, “Stay outta trouble!” Don’t tell a courier to stay dry in the middle of a tropical storm. It ain’t gonna happen. And don’t ever, ever assume that because we do it all the time, we are somehow “used to it.” We’re not acclimated to this shit any more than you would be, had you the tenacity of spirit to deal with it like we do. We just suck it up and realize that riding through the muck and mire are merely the dues we pay to enjoy all the glorious weather we also get, when everyone is suddenly jealous again. The bottom line is that the right gear and the right attitude will take you as far as you need to go. Only one of those, however, is available at your local bike shop. The other you gotta go out and find on your own.

To see how much of Philly Julian and I covered that day, check out this ride recorded on Strava.

Pano K is a Philadelphia-based photographer focused on photojournalism, travel photography and portraiture.  His work can be seen here.