Wednesday, October 07, 2015

All Roads Lead to Reuben

About a decade ago, I wrote and posted a piece about D.C. motorcycle courier culture in its heyday, the nineteen seventies and eighties. From time to time, I still get a response from one lost soul or another seeking to reconnect with their past. I’m surprised to find the piece is first and practically only legitimate hit when you Google some key phrases. The responses are pretty consistent, asking who I am, when was I there, do I remember so-and-so, did I ever work with somebody, and so forth.

And I try and respond, but most of the queries are anonymous, so we never have a conversation, simply a long disjointed series of free-floating comments, seeking connection but never attaining it.

Because of the ongoing interest, and my own interest in the subject, I wanted to reach out to the primary sources while I still can. Jerry Blum is gone; likewise, Dave Watson, Lap Nguyen and Dave McComb. Those are just the ones I know of. The others? Scattered to the winds…

I wanted to write the story of a place and time that is long gone, so those of us who still share that common experience can better remember it and maybe compare notes. I know that for a lot of us who passed through Metro Messenger, we will remember it as one of the best jobs we ever had. Not for the money, but for the sense of being part of something that’s hard to explain. I’d never want to do it again, and I wouldn’t want my kids to do it, but I’m glad for the experience. And proud of the three and a half years I spent on the street, logging about thirty thousand urban miles on a succession of Schwinn Travelers.

So I dug up an address from the internet, and wrote a letter to Reuben W. Moore asking if he would meet with me and tell his story. I mailed the letter, feeling like I was throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean. I wondered about it for a few days, and then forgot about it. At least I had sent the letter.

Imagine my surprise several weeks later when I got a voicemail with a distinctive, unforgettable and instantly recognizable voice. It was Reuben.

He and I spoke that evening for almost half an hour, establishing a common frame of reference and, oddly enough, comparing notes on the infirmities that age brings. He graciously agreed to meet with me the following week.

We met on a sunny June afternoon at his home in the Northern Virginia suburbs. As I arrive he is sorting various boxes in the garage, clad only in running shorts, running shoes and a baseball cap sporting the insignia of the 82nd Airborne. His garage is home to an admirable collection of motorcycles—all of which he still rides from time to time. Among them is a /2 sidecar rig, modified with the engine from an R100. It was custom made for him by the late Lap Nguyen, longtime mechanic for Metro Messenger and Capital Cycle, who went on to own and operate a shop in Alexandria, specializing in BMWs of all kinds. That shop is now run by Lap’s son, Khan. Also in that collection are a well-worn R75/6, an R100RS, (my personal all-time favorite bike; sadly, sans its distinctive fairing), and a first year K100.

A native of the D.C. area, he has recently moved to this house from his long-time home in Great Falls with his third wife. The house is spare and uncluttered; there is still much unpacking and sorting to be done. He remarried following the unexpected death of his second wife of twenty-five years some two years ago. He is haunted by the sudden tragedy, and the conversation tends to revert to that subject abruptly from time to time.

Despite the air conditioning, he remains shirtless, and I see that three decades has not softened his physique. It makes me suddenly very self-conscious of how out of shape I am as a longtime mouse jockey. He always had an uncanny ability to appear out of nowhere, anytime or anyplace in the city, running from one thing to another, ready to catch a careless rider off guard. He appears to keep his veins on the outside of his body, and while I suspect his peers would consider it an accomplishment to complete eighteen holes using an electric golf cart, he has run every day of his adult life, until sidelined recently by surgery. He clearly resents the interruption of this routine.

I sit across from him at a simple oak table in the dining room. We are joined by an elderly one-eyed Portuguese water dog, whose contribution to the conversation comes from gnawing on one squeaky toy, then a different toy that incessantly bleats out something about bananas. But the dog is fond of leaning into my leg, and is endlessly amenable to being petted and scratched behind the ears. I come prepared for a full-on interview, with notepad, list of prepared questions, and two recorders. But from the moment we step inside, it is clear this will not be an interview, but a conversation between two old acquaintances. I have a slight advantage, because there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of motorcyclists and bicyclists who passed through Metro Messenger back in the day. But there was only one Reuben Moore.

Reuben grew up in Montgomery County, Maryland. He was educated by nuns before leaving home to join the Army. He went to Fort Bragg where he joined the 82nd Airborne. It was in the chow line at Fort Bragg that he met Jerry Blum, who he later brought on to manage Metro Messenger.

Besides introducing Moore to the joys of jumping out of airplanes, the Army also took him to Germany, where he discovered BMW motorcycles. His first BMW was an R26, a single-cylinder bike (produced from 1956 to 1960) which produced a whopping 15 hp.

When the Army was done with him, he returned to the D.C. area. In a story familiar to many who followed in his footsteps, he attended college while working two part-time jobs: He made deliveries for the Washington Post in the morning, and for CBS news in the evenings.

With time, the volume of deliveries began to overshadow his coursework. Slowly and gradually, he began to accumulate BMWs and the riders to operate them. Metropolitan Messenger & Delivery Service was formed, operating out of a warehouse off Blues Alley in Georgetown. Now a new challenge presented itself. The motorcycles needed to be taken care of.

While making some of his early trips to Germany—he would make more than a hundred such trips during his career—he made valuable contacts within BMW and its network of over fifty OEM suppliers. It simply was easier to become an importer of parts for the motorcycles; in short order, Capital Cycles was formed as a mail order supplier of BMW parts—and an in-house resource for Metro Messenger’s fleet of bikes. It even served as its own customs broker, with a dedicated full-time customs brokerage clerk.

Metro Messenger and Capital Cycle operated from Blues Alley from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. He describes being in Georgetown during the 1968 riots. Parts of the city were so devastated they have only recently recovered, nearly five decades later. “You could smell the smoke from Georgetown. The smell clung for years. It looked like what I imagine Dresden looked like.”

He confirms the apocryphal tales of training new hires by leading them from the Georgetown base out on deliveries ‘Mother-goose’ style. He would initially lead the way, holding up fingers to indicate the appropriate gear to be in for urban riding. It was not something that came naturally to all riders. He has harsh recollections—to put it mildly—of some of his less capable charges. Mistakes were not tolerated, and carelessness with a Metro Messenger motorcycle could result in dismissal on the spot.

At its peak (at the time I was part of Metro) the Metro fleet comprised an assortment of BMWs from vintage /2s to relatively late-model R80/7s. Most were /2s and /5s; all carried a simple fiberglass fairing with a Plexiglas windshield. All the bikes were painted bright yellow for visibility, with the company name and phone number on the fairing. (There is still a yellow /2 gas tank from a Metro bike in the “museum” at Bob’s BMW in Jessup, Maryland). There is a photograph of the fleet, some two dozen bikes in all, parked in a row somewhere on L’Enfant Plaza S.W. That picture hung in the Metro dispatch offices for many years, and now hangs in Reuben’s garage.

Part of the fleet was equipped with rear-fender mounted radio boxes with whip antennas; the rest of the riders wore two-way radios in holsters on their hip. In the early eighties, Metro began requiring all its riders to wear bright yellow reflective safety vests, to help reduce their accident and injury rate; the vests were uncomfortable and awkward; riders generally hated them and would make any excuse to ditch them. But riding without your vest was a fireable offense, and eventually they were accepted as a necessary evil, though protests persisted.

The conspicuous radios frequently caused Metro riders to be confused for Police or other officials by tourists; the rider’s use of ‘10-codes’ to talk with dispatchers exacerbated the confusion. Simple questions for directions or the location of one attraction or another were likely to be met by an indifferent stare and a roar of exhaust as the rider wordlessly rode off.

Packages were carried in canvas bags slung on each side beside the rear wheel and above the mufflers. Once in a while, the bags might catch fire from the heat, as one rider enroute to Dulles Airport, twenty or so miles outside the city, discovered. He was described as racing out the Access Road, trailing a thin line of white smoke behind him much of the way, only to arrive at his destination with smoldering bags and an incinerated package.

As both companies expanded, Reuben brought Jerry Blum into the picture to run Metro; while he focused his attention on the parts import and distribution business. I asked if there was a “Good Cop/Bad Cop” dynamic with them; many riders felt that way. He rejects that notion, but adds that he was always more serious about the business side of things, while Jerry was more affable and interested in socializing and ‘being friends’ with the staff.

I will add that from my recollection as a young twenty-something bicycle courier, Reuben was frequently intimidating and terrifying and someone to steer clear of, just in case. There were all sorts of folk legends about what might happen if Reuben spied you doing something untoward while he was running about the city. In hindsight and with the benefit of speaking with him in person and at length, I think my concerns may have been exaggerated; his approach to the business seems quite reasonable.

After Blues Alley, both companies moved to 2328 Champlain Street N.W., a block east of 18th street in pre-gentrified Adams Morgan. Capital Cycle operated from the first floor, opening onto Champlain Street, while Metro Messenger operated from the second floor, accessed via the ramp and loading dock from the alley. The relatively short, steep ramp served to launch both motorcycles and bicycles into the alley at the beginning of the day as well as to stall their entry on returning at the end of the day. The garage was lined with steel lockers and had enough space for the fleet of motorcycles to park, as well as space for bicycles to be wedged in here and there.

The office and dispatch bullpens, nominally off-limits to couriers, faced the front of the building and were a smoke-clogged cacophony of phone calls, shouted interrogatories, crackling radio calls and urgent commands barked in 10-codes.

The ramp and loading dock were the hangouts of choice when the day was done. Beers were consumed, cigarettes et cetera were smoked, fables spun, advice given, notes compared, receptionists ranked, hazards discussed, outrages shared. The camaraderie was thick; what we experienced on the street was difficult to share with outsiders. It was hard to convey the good or the bad to people who weren’t doing it all day, every day. And yet it was critical to be able to unwind, to share in the common experience. The only respect or regard you received came from your peers; you faced an unflinchingly hostile world from the moment you rolled out in the morning until the moment you rolled back in at the end of the day. The outside world just didn’t get it.

It was easy enough for an upstart company to poach a disgruntled client or two from someone else with the promise of cheaper rates and faster service; just a handful of clients in different lines of business were all it really took to get off the ground. As long as there was a certain degree of counter-cyclical business built in, you could hardly go wrong. The growth of the federal regulatory sphere in the late seventies and early eighties (even well into the Reagan era) fed a booming band of competing companies, some as Washington outposts of national companies, others home-grown.

The barriers to entry in the courier business were few and slight. A cheap office and a phone line or two were all you really needed to break into the business; the niceties could come with time. Couriers communicated with the dispatchers through a mix of payphones, pagers, two-way radios and the courtesy phones of patient, long-suffering clients.

Riders who “aged off” the street (via burnout, injury or simply through wising up) would often be repurposed and recycled into any available office position. If they were presentable and personable, they might become an outside salesperson; if less presentable, they might find themselves answering phones. A very few former riders had the right mix of instinct, knowledge, patience, temperament and fortitude to become dispatchers. And a very select subset of those became good dispatchers. The best worked for Metro.

I started my courier life on a sweltering June morning at second-tier company located in the nondescript-est of nondescript office building in N.W., the D.C. outpost of a Manhattan-based company. I hated the dead end job I had, and an article in the Washington Post Sunday Magazine told of the exciting and thrilling life of a bike messenger. I took their written test and passed with flying colors. It was a single page with questions about which side of the street the odd addresses were on, what streets met at Dupont Circle, what street ran north from the Capitol, and such. I thought I was a whiz for doing so well, but realized quickly that passing and failing meant pretty much exactly the same thing as far as that company was concerned.

The pace of work there that summer was languid, and my paltry commissions reflected it. Their office shared a block with a bookstore with a large cart full of esoteric remainders, so at least I was well read.

Working there was kind of like how you see taxi or delivery services portrayed in movies or on T.V. A dispatch window; a fetid waiting room full of characters who were assigned a run, went out and completed it, called in to the dispatcher, then came back to the office and got back in the rotation. On a good day you might do a dozen jobs. After two summer stints there, about a year in total, I got annoyed by some trivial incident (…how was I supposed to know nobody makes money in the summer because D.C. shuts down?) and got the word about Metro. I was told to go and ask for “Jerry Rubin” or something like that. I applied and was told to come back the next day, ready to go to work.

It was a rude awakening to say the least. Kingfish was my “Mother Goose,” and I was his ugly spastic duckling. I did my best to keep up with him as he flew across the city. I had no idea what was going on, and by mid-afternoon I was convinced the bones in my feet were ground to powder. I was hungry, dehydrated, and I ached in places I had never felt before. We raced from point to point, interweaving picks and drops in what I had to admit was an amazingly logical fashion. I strained to understand the gibberish and static that came over the radio, but failed miserably. When it came my time to speak on the radio, I could never find a moment to get a word in edgewise; everyone else was so quick and fluid. We never went back to the office until the dispatcher barked “R-T-B” to us at the end of the day, telling us we could return to base. I was utterly exhausted, confused, overwhelmed, my head was spinning, and sure I couldn’t cut it. This was the big leagues, for sure.

My first few days were embarrassing and a little humbling. At Metro, you were expected to know which entrance to a building you used to get to a specific room number. You were expected to park your bike in the right spot. You took the elevators up and ran the stairs down, except where the stairs might take longer. We didn’t bother with signatures or manifests; they wasted time and time was money. Every second spared added up to a few more jobs by the end of the day. I once trailed one of my coworkers as he sprinted down a hallway, whipping envelopes under doors as he passed; I followed into one of those offices to see the receptionist pick up the envelope from under her chair without moving.

The dispatchers all knew exactly how long a task should take, and knew the second you were overdue. The singularly unforgivable transgression was “ghosting”—disappearing while on a run. It was the equivalent of being “AWOL,” but with the added concern that someone unaccounted for might be in trouble. If you wanted to have a steady stream of work lined up for you, you learned quickly to be where you were expected when you were expected. Being smart was good; being fast was good; being predictable was even better.

What I didn’t appreciate at first was the peculiar dynamic of a place like Metro Messenger. Turnover was high, something like four hundred percent annually by my rough estimate. Long-timers simply didn’t bother getting to know rookies; it wasn’t worth the bother because so many came and went every week. But around the three month mark, suddenly you ‘vested.’ You became 100% part of the group simply because they had seen you around long enough and all of a sudden, you were part of the club. It was an amazing transition to witness, even better to be a part of.

Metro spawned a number of competitors over the years like Speed Service and Mar-Sid, and through the seventies and eighties, services founded or staffed by Metro alumni followed a similar business model, though generally without the owned fleet of motorcycles. Metro begat a veritable Genesis’ worth of progeny over the years; second and third generation offspring traced their lineages back to Blues Alley or Champlain Street. Each new generation explored either a different niche or took a different approach to solving the same problem: How to make money by getting something from here to there.

By the early eighties, the relationship between Reuben and Jerry Blum began to fray. Eventually, a schism erupted between the two men that resulted in severing the long-standing partnership of Capital Cycle and Metro Messenger. Reuben turned Metro over fully to Jerry, and in 1982 Metro moved into new quarters at 2327 Champlain Street N.W., directly across from the old building. The new space had a fenced parking lot with parking for couriers, a larger garage, and office space upstairs which allowed the management offices to be separated from the dispatch area.

With the relationship with Capital Cycle sundered, the BMW fleet was no longer commercially viable. The decision was made to begin phasing out the BMWs and operating the newly released Honda Rebel 250 instead. (The Metropolitan Police Department has just added Rebels to their fleet, so the logic seemed sound.) Metro even made an appealing offer to its motorcyclists to help ease them through the transition from the prestigious BMWs to the more downscale Hondas: Ride a Rebel for a year and you can have it. Of course, most experienced riders added the phrase “…what’s left of it!” to the offer. The cheap, underpowered Rebels would be no match for the daily abuses a courier motorcycle experiences. I don’t know if anyone ever managed to earn their Rebel or not.

Capital Cycle left D.C., moving to new quarters on Moran Road in Sterling, Virginia, an area near Dulles Airport which was undergoing a transition from abandoned farmland to industrial parks and exurban sprawl. The location near the airport greatly improved the logistics of receiving inbound freight shipments from Capital’s many overseas suppliers, and outbound shipments of parts to its many customers.

Metro Messenger began using independent contractors in place of employees, offering a higher commission as an incentive. But the transition away from company maintained BMWs diminished the company’s reputation among the young riders of the city, and gradually there was little to differentiate Metro Messenger from its myriad competitors to potential riders.

At the same time, fundamental technological changes undermined the foundations of the delivery business worldwide. The fax machine is certainly cited as the primary blow to an industry built on moving papers from one place to another, but the emergence of desktop publishing and the laser printer (through the joint efforts of Apple, Aldus and Xerox) was another upheaval. Printing companies and the design, editorial, and prepress companies they worked with were all benefactors to the messenger business. The demand for sending bulky, deadline-driven analog artwork and proofs represented a large percentage of many companies’ revenue and many couriers’ earnings.

Microwave transmission of news stories from remote sites was another blow to demand for courier services. Couriers were a mainstay of the news business from the post-WW2 era until the eighties, when suddenly every network and most local affiliates had trucks with antennas and built-in mobile editing bays. No longer was a roll of film popped from a camera and handed off to a waiting motorcyclist who would rush it back to the network’s bureau on M Street or DeSales Street or Nebraska Avenue to be developed. By the mid-eighties the news was beamed back to the bureau immediately, ready to go on the next news segment, before the onsite talent stubbed out their cigarette.

The local messenger business which had grown so explosively from the sixties to the mid-eighties began to implode. Complex systemic changes shattered the foundation of the delivery business “Version 1.0,” long before the Internet or World Wide Web caught the public’s fancy in the nineties. Revenues collapsed across the board. It would take decades for a resurgence of sorts to occur, not to move paper anymore but to address the “last mile” problem of online retailing and logistics; when the delivery business did rise again, it had little use for bicyclists and motorcyclists. Metro Messenger never recovered to the heights it experienced in its heyday. As the business faltered, so did the health of Jerry Blum. He died in 1998.

In 1990, Reuben sold Capital Cycle. Today, it is no longer on Moran Road, but just a few miles away, still in Sterling, near Dulles Airport. He describes his post-Capital Cycle life: “Every day is Saturday.”

I ask him if he thinks he had a hand in growing BMW motorcycle culture in the mid-Atlantic. (The Washington metropolitan area has long has a higher proportion of BMW motorcycles registered than most parts of the country.) I posit that his introduction of so many hundreds of motorcyclists to the pleasure of riding and the quality of manufacturing of BMWs enticed many to adopt BMWs for their own pleasure riding.

It was certainly a common phenomenon to see many new Metro riders arrive at work on any number of other brands of motorcycle initially, only to succumb to the next available used BMW to appear in the want ads and never look back. And it was not uncommon to chat up a BMW rider on the streets in the D.C. area and find a Metro Messenger connection somewhere.

Certainly, the presence of Capital Cycle made it easy and affordable to maintain a BMW in the D.C. area, another factor which certainly had to contribute to the healthy BMW community here. If there were an award for “Friend of the Marque,” he would certainly merit it. But he demurs, and suggests he never considered that he had played such a role. The humility with which he rejects my suggestion is endearing.

We move from the living room to his screened-in porch to watch the lengthening shadows cross the lawn and enjoy a beer. We discuss his interest in politics and religion and backpacking and skydiving and a host of other things, and I discover we have many interests in common besides motorcycling. In fact, I find that our paths have likely crossed a number of times, and we have explored many of the same places—though his list of places explored is an order of magnitude greater than mine.

We have now spoken for hours. The dog, who listened patiently to most of our conversation, needs tending. So we step outside into the June evening, and walk with the dog to the end of the street, so the dog can sniff things and do whatever it is that dogs find important.

We end our visit with a handshake and thank-yous, and the suggestion we make the time for a ride when the conditions are appropriate. Suddenly, I understand that time in my life a whole lot better than I did when I was in it. Metro Messenger was as Sui generis and integral a part of Washington, D.C. in the sixties, seventies and eighties as Ben’s Chili Bowl, Go-go and Straight Edge punk. The city is poorer for losing the unmistakable growl of a vintage /2 wound out and roaring up Pennsylvania Avenue past Lafayette Park; poorer without the flash of canary yellow as the bike zooms past; poorer without the rider’s grin flashed from behind mirrored sunglasses.

We now transact our 4g business in drab, colorless, virtual exchanges facilitated by gaudy apps on smartphones. It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, our transactions were made possible by scores of young people—mostly men—who were willing to ride bicycles and motorcycles in urban traffic year round, eight or ten hours a day, in sub-zero to triple-digit temperatures, rain or shine. All for a buck or two a delivery, plus the sheer joy we got from getting paid to ride. Yeah, honestly, sometimes it just felt like a scam to get paid to ride, whether you were riding a yellow BMW or a Schwinn 12-speed.

When I look back on that business in D.C., it’s impossible for me see it as anything but a gigantic tree, planted back in the sixties. Branch upon branch grows, splitting and dividing into countless smaller branches over time; some branches wither and drop off. Yet regardless how far the branches go, the roots all go back to Reuben.

He made a good thing back then, Reuben did.

2 comments:

Matt's Blog said...

I knew Reuben before he began Capital Cycle. I have a story about how he came to decide to build the business...matt fried mattf@aol.com

Stock Wilson said...

In the early '70s I worked for Big John over at Speed Service but spent a lot of time around Metro/Capitol. You called it, Reuben could be quite intimidating but I found Jerry was a real pleasure to work with when I moved to Handley Ford and took over service of Capitols Ford delivery vans. I rode a '68 R60US for Speed and look back on those days with great fondness. Thanks for the story!