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Bike Messenger Days

Description: A description...Was reading the cover story of the latest SF WEEKLY about the Critical Mass bicycle activists group, and was shocked to see a photo of Junior in the article, still working as a San Francisco bike messenger. Junior was the number one gravy dog at Rocket Messenger Service back in 1977 when I was working there. And he was considered an “old-timer” back then, having been a bike messenger since 1968. Bike messenger is a young man’s game. It's sort of like being a professional athlete and most messengers are in the 20s and only work at it for a couple of years. So Junior is an odd duck. 45 years at the game.

Seeing the photo of Junior was like seeing a character out of my dreams. When I look back on my past, it's like a barely-remembered movie that was starring some other guy playing me.

But I remember those Rocket Messenger days. They had a garage on 5th and Folsom. The dispatcher was this wise-ass little guy named Charlie who had a cute, little baby-face but a vicious tongue. He could really slice you up if you screwed up. This one hapless messenger, Irving, was always taking the brunt of Charlie’s rage. And we’d all hear it over our walkie-talkies: “Irving, you stupid weasel, you are the WORST bike messenger in the HISTORY of bike messengering!”

I was always leery of Charlie because he could really screw you if you got on his bad side. He’d send you peddling all the way up to the top of Nob Hill to get a 75 cent delivery. Or if he liked you he’d send you on the “gravy runs.” Messengers got paid by the delivery so the dispatcher could make or break you. It was also the reason we rode around like mad men, running through red lights, going the wrong-way down one-way streets, running over pedestrians on the sidewalk, etc.

I did the bike messenger thing for 7 years. Usually I’d work 3 or 4 months and save up enough money so I could quit for 3 or 4 months and work on developing my cartooning career (so-called). Finally, in 1984 I was able to quit for good and spent the next 10 years at my drawing table hacking out the comics.

In a way, bike messengering was like the ideal job of a 10 year old boy. What kid wouldn’t want to get paid money to ride around on a bike all day and talk over a walkie-talkie? And most of the messengers reminded me of big kids. I remember this other guy that worked at Rocket, this guy named Crud, who was sort of a self-styled “colorful San Francisco bike messenger character.” Crud really played up that angle. He wore a beanie with a propeller on it and did all kinds of reckless, Evil Knievel type stunts on his bike (like working a whole day while tripping his mind out on acid). Crud, like Junior, was another bona fide bike messenger legend. He too had been at it since the ’60s. By the time I met him his act had worn down, mostly from having broken just about every bone in his body during his messenger career. Did I mention it was a dangerous job? Blasting around for 10 hours a day amidst the murderous downtown traffic.

Yeah, I remember those days. I can still picture Charlie standing standing over the board, barking out instructions to all the messengers scattered all over the city. Him and his assistant usually started drinking beer in the afternoon, and by quitting time he’d often be pretty buzzed.

I remember this one evening Charlie seemed even more drunk than usual. He was standing outside the Rocket Messenger building on Folsom with his assistant and he seemed like he was going to start crying. I wasn’t working there at the time, but I lived nearby on 2nd Street in this flophouse that was the last remnant of the old Skid Row ($17 a week rent if you can believe that). So I just happened to be passing by.

“I suppose you heard what happened today,” said Charlie.

“No,” I said.

“This new girl, it was her first day on the job. She was riding down Market Street alongside a Muni bus when she hit the side of the bus and fell underneath the bus. The bus dragged her for about 5 blocks before they even knew she was under there.”

“Holy shit,” I said. “What happened to her?”

“We’re gonna have to ship her back home to Kentucky in a box,” said Charlie.

So yeah, 45 years at the bike messenger game is quite something.###

All contents © 2011 by Gene Mahoney