In another lifetime, I worked as a bicycle courier in D.C. year-round for four and a half years. I worked when it was over 100 degrees and when it was below zero. I successfully trained about a hundred bicycle couriers during that time.
Then I was fortunate to have the opportunity to manage a courier service for another dozen years, training a fairly large cadre of motorcycle couriers. I have very fond memories of the people I worked with and the time I spent in the business, and have stayed in touch with many friends from back in the day. I am proud to see the lives they have created in the “real world,” and to remember the time we worked together.
So when I needed to write about a folk culture, this seemed like a natural choice. It is adapted from an interview, and dedicated to all my old riding buddies.
For about two decades beginning in the 1960s, a fixture of the urban Washington, D.C., working scene was the motorcycle courier. Riding his own motorcycle or a company-owned bike, the motorcycle courier spent his day being radio-dispatched on a continuous series of pickups and deliveries in and around the Washington metro area.
As with their antecedents, the Pony Express, the historical duration of their profession was short, and the unique confluence of demographic, economic and sociological trends that brought the profession into being guarantees it will never return. Like the Pony Express, changing technology destroyed the economic niche that created and sustained the motorcycle courier.
“Couriers is a better word than messengers,” according to John C. Steinberger, president of Speed Service Inc. “Anyone can deliver a message, these people perform a service.” He founded Speed Service Couriers, Inc., in 1957 with a motorcycle, an operations center and a two-way radio…though he had drawn up the idea in the early 1950s. In those days, before the advent of portable tape rigs and movable wirephoto machines, dispatches were in the hands of the press courier. The seconds counted when the courier was on his way back with film…As still and motion picture cameras ranged farther and farther into the field, and with expanded deadlines and news shows, needs changed.
The first practical application of the Speed Service System came with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. A heavy snowfall stopped traffic; even motorcycles had a rough time moving about. There were a dozen [inaugural] balls to cover. Steinberger…solved the problem by having more men on the street, riding anything that could move.” (Mastrangelo).
The economics and demographics of the early-to-mid nineteen seventies caused an unprecedented expansion of the motorcycle courier industry. The gas crisises had driven consumer demand for motorcycles as an affordable, energy-efficient alternative to automobiles, and the number of registered motorcycles doubled between 1968 and 1973. This in turn led to the creation of a large pool of riders with some experience, primarily young men between the ages of 15 and 25. Motorcycle couriers were, for all intents and purposes, exclusively men, reflecting the composition of the motorcycle riding population of the time. The ready availability of this labor pool, along with the uncertain unemployment picture at the time, assisted the growth of the industry.
A final local factor in the local growth of the industry was the dramatic expansion of the federal government in the late sixties and seventies, catalyzing the change of the Washington metropolitan area from sleepy southern backwater to world-class city. This fueled demand for services by drawing hundreds of law firms, corporate government relations offices and lobbying firms to the area.
Unfortunately, this singular intersection of trends created just a brief heyday for the industry, which in later years would dwindle into insignificance, a victim of other societal changes. Foreshadowing this eventual decline, in 1975 alone motorcycle sales dropped by 25% from their 1974 level; the populations in the primary motorcycle purchasing groups were anticipated to continue to diminish in number steadily until at least 1985. At the same time, a steady stream of environmental regulations concerning exhaust and noise emissions were serving to increase the complexity, and hence the purchase price, of motorcycles to the point that discouraged new entrants to the endeavor (Business Week). This demographic shift has continued unabated to today.
In 1980, nearly a quarter of riders were under 18; by 1998 less than 4% were. During the same period, the total number of motorcycle registrations declined by about 30% from its all time peak, all but eliminating the pool of riders that made up the business in the 1970s and virtually guaranteeing that such an industry will never be reconstituted (Glamser). Meanwhile, the price of an entry-level motorcycle has typically more than tripled (in unadjusted dollars) discouraging investment by young, unemployed individuals looking to make a living. Thus, we can look back on a brief “golden era” from about 1973 to about 1985, when scores of young men made their living as full-time motorcycle couriers, logging hundreds of miles a week riding in and around the metropolitan area, rain or shine, year round.
Being a courier—of any kind—is generally not a career destination, but a way post to something better. When Metro Messenger placed an advertisement for motorcycle couriers in the Washington Post, Oscar—a classic candidate for the position—responded.
After a cursory interview to ascertain whether he actually knew how to ride a motorcycle, his ‘road test’ began. Metropolitan Messenger and Delivery Service (“Metro”) was unique in Washington in that it operated its own fleet of motorcycles, several dozen bright yellow BMWs of mixed vintages, with large radio boxes on their rear fenders and jury-rigged saddlebags made from “borrowed” UPSP mailbags. (Mailbags were inexpensive—unless you were the Postal Service—and readily available; the only drawback was their tendency to occasionally smoulder and catch fire from the heat of the motorcycle’s exhaust system. More than one load of deliveries met its end in such a fashion, with an oblivious rider blasting down the highway trailing a long plume of white smoke.)
One of the two owners of Metro, Reuben Moore, assigned Oscar to a motorcycle, a pre-1970 R60/2, and the two of them proceeded from Metro’s garage/office off “Blues Alley” in Georgetown for Oscar’s “road test,” a baptism-by-fire with Reuben riding his own motorcycle in the lead.
“They met in the Army…Jerry [Blum] was the people person, and Reuben was the one with the ideas, the smart one of the two of them…I became personal friends with Jerry; he helped me buy my first BMW…Jerry would go out of his way to help you if you needed help. The two of them made a good team, and Metro was a great business. It should have gone on…but unfortunately their business model was wrong.”
“Reuben Moore had me follow him…the opposite of what I would do. His primary concern was taking care of his motorcycles…he told me to follow him, and he would put his finger up in the air every time he wanted me to shift gears…if he put two fingers up, I needed to be in second gear…and so on…he was showing me how to shift the motorcycle. I was hired [at $3.00 an hour] but I was damn well gonna shift that bike the way he wanted me to.”
He tells of Reuben coming upon the scene of an accident involving one of Metro’s motorcycles while out on one of his regular jogs around the city. First, he picked up the bike to inspect its condition. Second, he walked over to the rider who was lying on the ground with a broken leg—still waiting for the ambulance to arrive–and told him he was fired. Then he went on jogging. In another apocryphal story, a rider quit and filed for unemployment; under his reason for quitting, he stated, “…his boss was crazy.” Reuben went to the unemployment office in person to contest the claim, and the examiner found in favor of the employee.
When asked about the people he worked for as a motorcycle courier—the clients—Oscar said, “The clients were all the same…except for CREEP. CREEP I’ll never forget. There will always be only one CREEP. 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue, sixth floor…they had a little office with the name on the door at first, but they removed the name…” [CREEP was the ‘Committee to Re-Elect the President,’ Richard Nixon’s re-election committee, and quite notorious in 1973 and 1974.] They (clients) haven’t changed in all the years that I’ve been in business…the receptionists still look the same, act the same… it’s all the same.”
He described an insular community comprising young, white, college-educated men who were “transitional…between things,” working 50-hour weeks, year round, rain or shine. “When it rained, I was wet…when it was cold, I was cold.” There was an egalitarian meritocracy functioning within the group. “The bad ones didn’t last very long; they either wrecked or they quit. The ones who were there, who had been there a long time—they were equals.” Annual turnover could run as high as 1,000%. Typically, long-term employees made up half the workforce; the other half turned over rapidly and repeatedly. This created a group that was reluctant to acknowledge newcomers until they had ‘paid their dues,’ which is to say, had stuck with it long enough to move into the inner circle. It took about 90 days to be recognized, at which point you were ‘fully vested.’ In a dangerous and demanding work environment, riders learned to be cautious about making emotional investments too quickly.
Following the brusque initiation at the hands of Reuben Moore, riders (as they refer to themselves) simply either succeeded or failed. Failure could mean any of a number of things—having an accident and being fired for carelessness, having an accident and being incapacitated, quitting because of the stressfulness of the job, quitting for not making enough money, simply deciding one was not cut out for the courier life, or any number of variations. Success meant one thing—showing up day after day and making a living at it.
The social order within the community bestowed status and a degree of prestige on ‘good’ riders. Despite the image of couriers in the media, speed, recklessness and wild abandon do not make a good courier.
“I wouldn’t think of couriers as risk-takers…it’s a misconception.” A good courier is “…efficient, shows up every day, steady and dependable, doesn’t hurt himself… a good courier, like in any job, is very efficient; he maximizes his motion, so he’s not necessarily racing down the street, but he knows the best route to take…he knows how to get on and off his bike, he knows where to park, knows how to get in and out of the buildings—he knows where he’s going. He knows exactly how to ask for the items he’s picking up…so it’s more efficiency, which translates into speed, which translates into production, which translates into money. Speed is certainly part of it, but there’s a lot of things that go into speed more than just racing through traffic.”
The garage was a special, sacred, safe place for the riders. There was a magical moment at the end of the day when a rider received the order “R-T-B” (“Return to Base”). Though a rider could be fired on the spot if their motorcycle was seen parked in front of a liquor store, however innocently (Reuben would jog countless miles throughout the city daily, always keeping an eye out for his motorcycles, and the list of Reuben-mandated fireable offenses was long and inscrutable) the last stop of the day was frequently to grab a six-pack before heading to the garage.
The garage was the gathering place for riders at the end of the day. Besides being the place where the motorcycles were signed back in and serviced, and paperwork was completed, it was a site for ‘male bonding.’ There was much bragging, lying, story-telling, cautionary tale reciting, and general camaraderie taking place. After a riders’ initial introduction to the business with Reuben (and later, as the business grew, with other senior riders), the garage was the where the real educational process took place. Newcomers would listen quietly on the periphery, absorbing as much information as they could. Old-timers would hold court, telling ‘war stories’ from that afternoon or years ago. Questions would be timidly asked, answers provided. Everyone would share information communally; of particular interest was information concerning riders who had been injured (regardless of what company they worked for—all riders shared a common kinship) or hazards to be aware of. Hazards could be man-made or natural; maybe just a security guard with a bad attitude. This daily storytelling ritual and exchange was key to building the culture of the motorcycle courier.
Timothy Tangherlini, writing in his book "Talking Trauma: Paramedics and Their Stories," says “Storytelling pervades our everyday lives and structures how we view the world. We learn the beliefs of our culture through stories, respond to certain situations by telling stories, entertain each other with stories, and voice our fears, hopes, frustrations, and joys…Even at work, storytelling can play an important role in how we perceive our jobs and our relationships with coworkers and in how we carry out our tasks. In many cases, the stories employees tell play a major role in the functioning of the organization. Workers rely on stories of coworkers' experiences, coupled with their own narratives about work, as a guide to day-to-day life.”
This was certainly true for the culture of the motorcycle courier. There was little competitive attitude between riders, except comparing daily production totals, which were eagerly awaited each evening; the competition was with the outside world as a whole: the city, the weather, the clients, the traffic. Alcohol was ubiquitous; marijuana was common, particularly in the office areas (where outsiders were less likely to wander in) and the general atmosphere was of relaxation and commiseration. In many ways, the role of the garage as safe haven helped accentuate the insularity of the rider community. It was a single sanctuary in a hostile world that had little appreciation for the work they performed.
Riders would frequently socialize together on weekends, taking ‘busman’s holidays’ on their personal motorcycles despite the 50 hours a week they spent riding for work. Oscar says: “ I remember going out on winter days and riding with these guys…and freezing. I remember lots of parties…I remember lots of marijuana; it was everywhere. There was lots of alcohol, but I don’t remember people using any of that stuff while they were working. I only remember it as an after work thing, or a weekend thing. It was a young group…it was, after all, ’73, early ’74, the behavior was fairly typical of what you would find. It wasn’t courier behavior, it was 1973-1974 behavior of people in their twenties.”
The day-to-day working world of the motorcycle courier is far removed from the few popular culture images we have been given. A typical day is a steady stream of overlapping pickups and deliveries beginning between 8:00 AM and 8:30. The rider begins by picking up item after item in series. The dispatcher, generally an experienced rider who was promoted (often a living testimonial to the Peter Principle) takes responsibility for keeping track of what each rider has done, is currently doing, and will be doing in the future, typically having to think hours ahead and anticipate what may come. During the late 70’s Metro had two dispatchers operating on two different radio channels; one was responsible for deliveries across the general Washington area, the other solely for deliveries between downtown and Capitol Hill. A third person served as a dispatcher’s dispatcher, routing jobs to one channel or the other.
With their bright yellow classic motorcycles, bike-mounted two-way radios with long buggy-whip antennas, colorful helmets and later, brightly colored yellow reflective safety vests, motorcyclists who rode for Metro were clearly delineated from the average courier in the city. Frequently, they would be mistaken for police of one kind or another by tourists, and it was not uncommon for the sudden appearance of a Metro motorcycle in certain kinds of neighborhoods to produce a panicked cessation of all visible activity.
But the delineation cut two ways. Besides the garage, the motorcycle represented the rider’s entire real workplace. Tangherlini similarly described the association of paramedics to their ambulance: “Many medics refer to the front seat of the ambulance as their “living room,” and see the vehicle itself as a safe haven from the dangers lurking outside.” The rider was safe and in his element while he was in the saddle, and woe to anyone who impinged on this tiny mobile universe. While there were few opportunities to ‘personalize’ an individual machines, a rider was generally assigned to a specific bike. It became his ‘trusty steed,’ and each rider grew to know his bike's idiosyncrasies and foibles intimately. The rider’s radio however, more than the motorcycle itself, was his talisman, the secret of his power. It was the link that kept him connected to his community of fellow riders and, while a constant tormentor, provided a modicum of emotional security. The rider could hear the transmissions to and from all the other riders, and could create an ever-changing awareness of who was where, a shifting constellation of the community of his fellow riders. This mental image became the virtual workspace the rider functioned in, that was every bit as real and as important to his working life as the tightly constrained workplace that was his motorcycle.
On occasions, a general radio failure could prompt a flurry of panicked phone calls from riders, far out of proportion to any real inconvenience. It was a true breach of faith if the radio was inadvertently shut off before the last woebegone straggler limped in at the end of the day, and more than once an irate rider stormed into the dispatch room wanting to know why he had been abandoned. [It was not an unreasonable question; riders counted on that lifeline if they got lost , had an accident or a mechanical problem.] In keeping with the quasi-police trappings of the job, riders were assigned a “unit number” which was used, sometimes along with, often instead of, their name when communicating over the radio. Radio communications were conducted using a modified “10-code” based on the standard Public Safety Officers series of 10-codes. As with paramedics, the use of codes on the radio represented a boundary between those in the profession and those outside it.
There were some very pragmatic reasons to use the 10-code system. It conserved airtime, which is critical when 30 riders are competing for the attention of one dispatcher; it was easily understood under poor transmission and reception situations; it was nearly symbolic, so it was understood almost intuitively. But is also provided intangible benefits when used in place of, or to augment, plain English. While plain English could be understood by anyone, radio codes helped create a mystique around the daily tasks, which in turn helped define and establish the place and worth of the individual. When arriving at a pickup location, the rider would listen for a break in radio traffic, give his unit number and say “10-7,” meaning he was where he had been sent and was awaiting further instruction. These terse exchanges continued all day long, until the rider was “10-30” (“all clear”) and would hear the eagerly-awaited “RTB.”
Oscar says: “I spent half my day on Capitol Hill; the other half in the K Street corridor…most of the afternoon was spent picking up two or three things for every one you dropped…a lot of times, you’d have fifteen or twenty things in your bags at five o’clock, then you’d start dropping…you’d get off when your bag was empty.” He presented an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, he described being a motorcycle courier as something “you would do for money,” and “get out of it as quickly as you can…the world is filled with jobs like that. What happens to a lot of people is before they know it, they’ve done it for five years or ten years; that’s the big risk.” He said he was looking for another job the entire time he was working at Metro.
On the other hand, he said it was probably the best job he ever had, and clearly he was nostalgic when recalling that period of his life. “It’s a young man’s job; I couldn’t do it now. It’s physical labor, and when you’re young, you can do it and you can still party all night.”
“I loved it. I loved it. It was hard work, but I loved it. I liked the people; I hung around with them after work, on weekends, and it was the kind of job where you didn’t take your worries home with you. It was a special kind of job, because you were doing something you knew not many people could do. You delivered that last package, and you were done…it was Miller time.” A common refrain from motorcycle couriers was “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this…”
The young men who worked as motorcycle couriers during the “Golden Age” were self-aware enough to recognize they were intelligent, highly skilled, talented, resourceful people doing a job that was dangerous, poorly compensated, had no future, no prestige and no social standing. However, the cohesive nature of the informal relationships within the group apparently provided more than enough job satisfaction to overcome the low-status, inherently unfulfilling work. The homogeneous nature of this group combined with the clearly defined sense of institutionalized traditions created by two charismatic founders created a strong and lasting social bond that invested the work—and the workplace—with significance and meaning.
Thousands of men passed through Metro Messenger over the years (as did many women in later years, though predominantly as bicycle messengers) and went on to successful “real world” careers. It is likely many will look back on their time at Metro as the best job they ever had. What made this the “Golden Age” was the strong and insular network this group created. Metro Messenger was sui generis, and was an avatar of the strong personalities of its founders. The strong sense of camaraderie created within this organization, the sense of place, and the sense of tradition (though the timeline would hardly suggest that traditions could have had time to form) provided a balance to the seemingly overwhelming negatives of the professional equation.
We will never see such a time and place again.