Messenger space, messenger body, messenger mesh

Of all that is written, I love only what a person has written with his own blood.
– Old Fred

I think I mentioned the other day that I’ve been reading Iain Borden’s essential Skateboarding, Space and the City, which I’m enjoying immensely, both as a detailed social history of a domain I’m more than cursorily familiar with, and for the way it frames skating as a performative critique of the urban condition. In Borden’s reading, a skater, in physically addressing the various spaces and surfaces offered up by the city, reclaims them from their ostensible or official purpose, reassembling them into nothing less than an alternative and highly personal telling of place.

We’re not too far, here, from what the Situationists originally meant by “détournement,” but there’s also a delicious, inescapable viscerality to this particular act of appropriation that I recognize immediately. Here’s Borden describing the thrill of skating an emptied swimming pool:

First…skaters encounter the wallness of the wall, sensing how the pool presents itself as a surface changing from floor to wall under their very feet…[T]he higher up they go, the more vertical, the more wall-like that surface becomes. This involves a quadruple movement of body and architectural surface: initially comes the sudden compression of body hitting the bottom curve of the transition, where terrain is felt to press back on the skater, translating momentum into a forced acceleration of his or her trajectory up the wall; at this point the second stage arrives, tense compression is released, and the skater feels the enclosed concave curvature of the transition give way to vertical flatness, and to a corresponding sense of speed and expansivity of space. The third stage is that stalling space-time where the skater reaches the top of the trajectory, hangs momentarily, and begins the kickturn – for the skater, this is a highly physical yet simultaneously fantastical and dream-like experience, where space-time are conflated and frozen into a dynamic-yet-stable instance.

I’ve never done that, but I’ve skated enough to know that Borden gets it just right, in a mode I might call the physical-lyrical. Here, as in the rest of the book, what I like about Borden’s writing is that he appropriately insists on the granular, the momentary, the local and the specific. A material culture can only emerge from a description like this if it’s properly characterized, right down to details like the precise composition of a pool surface and the particular Santa Monica and San Fernando Valley schoolyards first appropriated for skating. (Actually, it doesn’t have a hope at all of so emerging: we all know that these are things that can only be fully understood if lived. Only the most tenuous smear of a subculture’s nature will ever be conveyed to those distant from it in space, time or sensibility. And even then, only if the details are spot on.)

Borden deserves recognition for taking the (occasionally ridiculous) artifacts and cultural apparatus of skating as seriously as any anthropologist ever did a tribe’s rituals and fetishes; I confess that I get a great big kick out of reading a solid ethnographic account of transitions that I lived through, like the shifting fashions in deck widths, wheel durometer readings and graphics that accompanied the turn from pools, ramps and parks to street skating in the mid-80s. But, frankly, one of the things I am enjoying most about Skateboarding is that it has given me permission to re-examine a parallel domain of physiospatial experience which, despite being considered at the distance of what is now quite a few years, might yet shed some light on the broader urban condition: my time as a bike messenger for San Francisco’s Aero Special Delivery.

I hasten to point out I was the world’s worst and least representative bike messenger. What’s more, I enjoyed this status for a mere half-year or so, between my arrival in San Francisco at the tail-end of 1990 and Aero inviting me inside to work order entry sometime around July of the following year. (Hey, it was a much better wage, and I already knew I was no good on the bike, or at least distinctly nonoptimal. What would you have done?)

Notwithstanding the brevity of my experience, I feel that it served to adequately instill in me enough of the messenger worldview, ethos and sense of space/time that I can unapologetically relate some of its essentials to you here.

The messenger and the city

For the bike messenger, the city is a particularly rich and complex terrain, in which anything reasonably smooth and approximately horizontal can become a thoroughfare, however interstitial and whatever its legal designation. Onto this terrain the messenger subconsciously maps the contours of an economic geography – known sources and sinks of courier assignments, or “tags” – and a threat landscape, this latter comprised of blind corners, cable-car and metro tracks, and traffic lanes sufficiently wedged up against parking lanes that the risk of being “doored” is increased.

Bike messengers – or at least those in San Francisco at the very beginning of the 1990s; your mileage, as ever, may vary – are paid by the job. We called this “pulling tags.” The faster, the more cannily you are able to exploit the city’s fabric of possibilities, the quicker you can close out one tag and pick up the next. The upside of this constraint is that it gives rise to an extraordinary repertoire of creative and only incidentally illegal uses of space, in which just about anything can be transformed into circulation. The downside is that a slow or otherwise incompetent messenger can easily reach the end of the day having earned something less, when averaged out, than the legal minimum hourly wage; at one particularly bleak point in my brief career I calculated that I was paying out more in calories than I was bringing in by dollar equivalent.

Key to the messengering proposition, at least in the technosocial milieu obtaining fifteen years ago, was that we were radio-dispatched from a central office. Fitted out with the predictable variety of self-styled sobriquets and callsigns, we wore clunky walkie-talkies fixed to the straps of our bags by elastic webbing, and received from them the stations of our daily transit of the city.

The relationship between a bike messenger and his or her dispatcher is simultaneously curiously intimate, intensely political (your livelihood depends on staying on their good side!) and thoroughly mediated. I worked a solid – efficient and remunerative – month with a replacement dispatcher I never once met in the flesh. I was delighted to see William Gibson attempt to limn this relationship, and just about pull it off, in his 1993 Virtual Light.

As I remember it, the specific magick of the competent dispatcher was to weave together for you a customized and maximally efficient selection from the series of tags crossing his desk in something pretty close to real time, based on what he knew of your current position vis à vis both other available (or soon-to-become available) messengers, and the destination. In this way, he’d impose a coherent narrative on your day, a thread connecting the end of one run with the beginning of the next.

(“He” because my dispatchers, at least, were invariably male; I specify “what he knew” of your position because it was entirely self-reported, which is just one of the many aspects of the messenger experience which cannot help but be undone by the advent of ambient informatics.)

Sometimes, of course, it was politic to fudge your actual location. Some intersections were particularly dense with architectural, engineering or legal practices, television stations, and the like, and you could invariably count on proximity to these to generate a high volume of tags. Either you were angling to pick one of these up when you were properly out of the catchment basin, or – for me, anyway, unusual among messengers in that I generally privileged the prospect of spare time over the three dollars I might pick up over the afternoon’s last tag – dissembling the fact that you were no more than a block from triple-five Cal when a superhot tag lit up the board at ten minutes to six.

It’s only now, with heat maps and other sorts of sophisticated information visualization edging their way into the broad public consciousness, that the bike messenger’s internalized and therefore “intuitive” macro/micro read of the urban surround might find a representational strategy capable of conveying its nuances. For me, it was something that ultimately found its most accurate map in the arrangement of my nerves and muscles.

The messenger’s body

I once described what happens to the body in Basic Training as the “yoga of organized violence,” and so it is here: efficiently linking micromaneuvers like trackstands and bunnyhops (which I suck at) with the larger pattern of drifting and weaving through traffic entrains a certain way of being-in-the-body that I can only think of as the yoga of urban logistics.

As with many varieties of yoga, this one begins with a becoming-conscious. When you’re whipping through a labyrinth of very large, very hard things in unpredictable motion, all too unable to forget that force = mass x acceleration, microfeatures of the traversed terrain and of the bike itself weigh heavily in your situational awareness. An unseen rut an inch across or a marginally underinflated tire can mean a blown tag, even a broken collarbone; coming to recognize the timing of stoplights is all-critical. You learn, and learn quickly, to model the world in four dimensions, to run that model ahead of real time, and to project optimal traverse corridors into and through a situation which is at the threshold of becoming actual.

But that’s all between the ears. That awareness corresponds with another one, this one musculoskeletal: the characteristic patterns of tension and relaxation that take up residence in the messenger’s body. These are stereotypic, keyed to certain stock situations, and once they’ve receded from conscious thought you can string them together pretty fluidly, building an appropriate response to the emergent pattern of fact around you just as you can make of words you use everyday a perfectly valid sentence that’s never before been uttered on earth.

(Some trace of this survives in my body/thinking to this day. Biking crosstown is largely uncomplicated, but it turns out that I have a specific bodily strategy for riding each of Manhattan’s avenues – a trace of which I never became consciously aware, until starting to write this paragraph.)

And finally there physical facts like sunburn, soreness, stiffness, and the persistent feeling of never quite having had enough to eat. These are by no means univocal, in that they speak simultaneously of your poverty and your exposure to the elements, but also of your freedom. And trying to unpack all of that leads inevitably into a consideration of the precise nature of the network(s) the [you+bike] assemblage is embedded in.

The messenger mesh

Here’s where messing really helped me understand something like actor-network theory.

Whenever you utter the words “bike messenger,” you’re really talking about a exemplarily rich domain of activity, in which regalia, patterns of affiliation, codings of class and ethnic origin, nomenclature, etiquettes, syndromes of muscular development (and occupational injury), the manufacture and marketing of bicycles and bicycle components, the economics and technics of dispatch, the perceived need for same-day crosstown transport of distinctly LTL-scaled shipments, the formulation of municipal code, habitual and even stylized patterns of substance ab/use and a whole lot more besides are all folded into one package.

This package is passed whole from person to person every time it’s invoked, and only rarely held up for examination. The human being, the actual messenger, stands as synecdoche for a sophisticated human-machine interface, which in turn lies at the heart of a broader nexus of ideas about cities, transportation and logistics. Sometimes this human being’s hard-won body/knowledge is fed back into the system that implicates him or her, as personal efficiency, as methodological innovation, or as offerings to a shared repository of culture. On other occasions, that system retrieves from individual practice some flag of identity only to mobilize it somewhere down the line as a fully commercialized signifier of notional freedom or rebelliousness. (A mildly interesting article on the popularity of Timbuk2 bags in last week’s New York Times Magazine only scratches the surface of the possibilities here. Full disclosure: I carry a Timbuk2 now, sure. In the day, mine was a Zo.)

Whatever else it means, whatever other functions it serves, though, messing is a way of knowing the city that comes to be written in the sinews and tendons, in the curve of a quadriceps and the permanent scarring where gravel has once embedded itself in the flesh. Having been a bike messenger even for so short a period of time is still and always will be a source of tremendous pride to me, but it’s also something I remember at a level far deeper than words. And (not to get yet another dig in or anything) it’s precisely the sort of possibility this exultant bodily knowledge represents that is foreclosed by any transposition of the urban into the virtual. There is little doubt that there are inequities, frustrations, and imbalances beyond number bound up in the figure of the bike messenger, but I despair to think what cities would be without the specific quality of their exertions.

10 responses to “Messenger space, messenger body, messenger mesh”

  1. Enrique Ramirez says :

    Cool! Reminds me of these … perhaps as historical antecedents?

  2. speedbird says :

    Ha, totally! (One of my favorite aspects of Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! – which survived into its incarnation as Soylent Green despite the film taking place twenty-five years further into the future than the book – was that he had Western Union boys still running around Manhattan.)

  3. dailytransit says :

    Riding through traffic feels meditative: there has to be focus on every aspect – as you said, “blind corners, cable-car and metro tracks […]” – or you’re gonna get creamed. Living in the moment for the sake of staying alive…

    I have friends who are messengers (out here in the Midwest cold) and say it’s hell on the body, I’m sure they’d relate to the “yoga of organized violence.”

  4. OmieWise says :

    This is really an excellent piece of writing. I was a courier for two years, around the same time, but in DC, and although I’ve thought a lot about that time and was greatly affected by it, I’ve always considered some of it’s more intense qualities to be ineffable. I see I was just not thinking about it in quite the right way. (Although I did later feel a real affinity for the Situationist critique of city life.)

  5. speedbird says :

    So glad you dug it, OmieWise. It’s a pretty polarizing piece among the mess community, as far as I can tell. ‘Bout a third seem to think, yeah, he nailed that, and most of the rest think it’s a towering stack of verbose bullshit. I can live with those odds. : . )

  6. Alex says :

    That middle bit is one of the better summations of the messenger experience (mine anyway) and worldview that I’ve seen. Really took me back to that fish-in-a-river feeling of moving in traffic!

    Maybe with just a side of verbose bullshit ;)

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