In Washington, a Two-Tire Industry Goes Flat
Athletic rebels swathed in Lycra, zipping in and out of traffic to beat the delivery deadline, watch their livelihood evaporate.
By Steve Hendrix Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Getting a meticulously prepared legal brief to a courthouse or federal agency on time used to require a bit of comic-book valor. Just before deadline, exhausted lawyers handed off the document to a character in the tight Lycra of a superhero, the shoulder bag of a Pony Express rider and the bulging thighs of an athlete. One of Washington's legions of bicycle messengers would then dart through perilous traffic and any weather to deliver the goods in the nick of time. Now, as the last of the area's courts and agencies begin to allow electronic filings instead of demanding piles of paper, deadline dramas in many law offices are being reduced to little more than hitting the "send" button.
The courier business -- for decades a quirky by-product of Washington's No. 1 industry, paper-pushing -- finds itself in rapid decline. Tighter security restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have closed off many government office corridors to couriers, and the recession has dampened activity at law firms and lobbying shops, rendering the life of a time-sensitive document in the District a lot more boring. The number of full-time couriers in Washington has fallen from a high of about 400 in the 1990s to about 150, said Andy Zalan, a longtime bike messenger and head of the D.C. Bicycle Couriers Association. "Those of us left are making a lot less money," Zalan said. "This last week, I set a personal best for futility: I sat out here for seven hours and made $25."
The decline is being felt in all cities, according to Michael Gualtieri, president of the Messenger Courier Association of America. In New York, consolidations and business failures have cut the number of courier companies from a high of almost 500 to about 40, he said. But Washington bike messengers have been hit particularly hard because of the recent shrinkage in the government's document stream. "There's just not as much paper being pushed," Gualtieri said. "In the past few years, we've seen quite a few more government agencies go electronic."
The falloff threatens to end what has been for decades a very public aberration from Washington's buttoned-down business culture. Downtown has long been filled with messengers racing the clock -- and sometimes each other -- along the streets (and sometimes sidewalks). On weekdays, the parks at Dupont Circle and Farragut Square were piled with bikes and swarmed with couriers awaiting a call from dispatch. And generations of workers from K Street to Capitol Hill knew the experience of being in an elevator filled with six men who looked as if they'd been taxidermied by Brooks Brothers and one who looked like the Silver Surfer.
"I always took great pride doing deliveries to House and Senate buildings dressed like Boba Fett," the Star Wars bounty hunter, said Matthew Ayers, who worked as a messenger briefly after finishing law school at American University. "Without the messengers, these people might take themselves too seriously and implode." Longtime messengers bond over tales of epic wrecks and glorious rides. Veteran messenger Matt Dwyer (broken middle finger '96, fractured mastoid '98) once took a "super rush" job from Georgetown to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Northeast in less than 10 minutes. "I picked up the filing at 4:51 and made FERC by the 5 o'clock deadline," said Dwyer, 46, a messenger for 13 years who still delivers every day even as he runs his own courier company. His vacation in July was a solo ride from Montana to New York.
Mark Gross, a courier in the 1980s and now the owner of Quick Messenger, remembers the time he and six other riders scrambled to deliver a hot-off-the-Xerox press release to all 535 congressional offices. Elapsed time from getting the panicked call from the public relations firm to dropping off the last envelope: 80 minutes. "You can fax something that fast, but is anyone going to actually look at it?" said Gross.
In their heyday, bike couriers reigned as a kind of sweat-soaked office avenger, helping secretaries avoid deadline catastrophes, facilitating billion-dollar contract negotiations and helping prescription refills and forgotten eyeglasses catch up with their VIP owners...Washington couriers managed to keep riding through the advent of the fax machine and the first several years of e-mail commerce. But the beginning of the end came with the security shocks of 2001, first the attacks and then anthrax.
Messengers were relegated to alley entrances and basement mailrooms. Veteran riders still find ways to get their rushes through; White House staffers, who aren't allowed to accept handoffs through the iron fence, have been known to meet couriers at nearby coffee shops. But gone are the lucrative days of blanketing Capitol Hill with hand-delivered packets...But couriers who were holding on to messenger work felt the ground shift beneath them when the economy gave way last year.
"Almost in one day, we were getting a lot fewer rush jobs," said Marcia Vottero, 28, a rider for Washington Express..."I used to be able to make $1,500 a week, not even working long hours," said Vottero. "Now that's cut in half, and I've got to work all day." Vottero, who has clearance to deliver inside the Department of Justice and the World Bank, is on the high side of earners. More typical now, according to several couriers, is $400 to $500 a week.
Almost all couriers work as contractors, without benefits or much job security. An independent, unruly bunch by nature, they have never been able to organize effectively, Zalan said, allowing companies to keep pay rates low.
Still, he and many of the dwindling number of hardcore messengers ride on, addicted to the adrenaline of the rush job, thrilling to the freedom of life on the roll. At a party recently, someone noted his riding jersey and asked Zalan if he was a professional cyclist. "And I thought, yeah, actually, I am," he said. "The bottom line, dude, you're making money riding a bike. It's the childhood dream."
Well, first of all, Georgetown to the FERC at 4:50 in ten minutes? Puh-LEEZE. What, did he get lost or something? Stop at Starbucks for a latte? Second, odds are I was one of those six guys helping Mark Gross deliver those 535 packages to Congress, and don't get me started about that.
But what this brings to mind are some long-lost recollections of a time when I had pretty much full access to the city. Few folks realize how incredibly open official Washington was, not so very long ago, and the event that triggered the eventual choking of access we've come to accept as normal was the bombing of a washroom in the U.S. Capitol in 1983. And we're all poorer for the loss of that access.
Prior to that, a sweat-soaked bicycle courier in shorts and a tee-shirt could enter the anteroom of the Secretary of State, climb to the top of the tower in the Smithsonian castle, wander the halls of the Department of Energy unescorted. You could enter the door of your choosing and walk from one end of RHOB through LHOB and CHOB, take the tunnel to the house side of the Capitol, freely move throughout the hidden corridors and backways of the Capitol (including to those secret offices actually located in the dome) to the Senate side and continue to RSOB, DSOB and HSOB without ever coming above ground.
The decline of the business began long before 1983; the fax was emblematic of the technological change that gutted the business but was only one part of it. It was a death of a thousand cuts, and decline on the demand side was matched by increasing obstacles on the supply side. The September 11th attacks and the subsequent anthrax attack were simply some of the more recent wounds inflicted on what was once a lively and interesting way to make a modest living.
I was fortunate to have been a part of that scene during the twilight of its 'Golden Years.' For better or worse, it played a part in shaping who I am. I met most of my very favorite people during that time, and through subsequent connections. My kids grew up surrounded by courier culture, and have robust immune systems for that.
And I have to say I laughed out loud when I read the line (..echoing a thought I had countless times over 4-1/2 years):
"...And I thought, yeah, actually, I am," he said. "The bottom line, dude, you're making money riding a bike."