Wings of Steel

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Wings of Steel - The personal story of Steve P., who was a bicycle messenger in Philadelphia.


I was a Philadelphia bike messenger for nearly ten years.

For the most part, we moved around packages that couldn’t be faxed. Legal documents, architectural drawings and graphic art pieces — those were our mainstay. A bike could get around in Center City far easier and faster than cars...

We were the pony express on wheels of steel.

Growing up with two wheels

Bikes went way back with me. My Uncle Charlie taught me to ride when I was five, and I got my first real bike when I was twelve — a ten-speed English Racer. Bright orange, it had those swirly ram's-horns handle bars wound with black friction tape. Two gears in the front, five in the back and two little levers to shift them. Trim and sleek.

There were two months of slipping chains, free-spinning pedals and loud clicky noises before Sleek learned to shift smoothly. After that, Sleek and I would go off almost every Saturday morning. I’d have breakfast, pack a lunch, throw it into my backpack and we’d be off.

There were many trails to follow, countless unknown sidetracks. We would ride on until noon. I’d stop to eat and then attend to Sleek. I rubbed him down, taking off the dirt, dust and mud that the road kicked up, checked his brake cables and greased his chain and gears a bit. Then we set out for home. We might not know where we were, but we were never lost. Sleek always knew the way back home.

A new start

Sleek had been retired for almost three years before I became a bike messenger. I was twenty-three and at the edge of my parents' patience. I had done a year and a half of college and dropped out; I felt lost there. I was working at Gino’s, a fast food burger chain, looking and hoping for better.

I found better one day in our local neighborhood paper, The Globe Times. “Now hiring. Center City bike messenger service. Apply American Expediting. 23rd and Arch Sts.” I smiled wide and broke out into laughter. Every day would be Saturday and I would get paid for riding around all day.

Early the next morning, I hopped onto Sport. He was lime-green and a bit shorter than Sleek had been. His saddle was wide, padded and spring loaded; I could ride forever on that seat without getting sore from the ruts and road bumps. There was a milk crate wired to his handlebars—his trunk. We rode the gentle downgrade into the unknown territory of Center City. It took some time, but we finally spotted a great big blue leather awning with ‘American Expediting’ in white across it.

I was handed some papers to fill out, told to get a messenger bag from Goldberg’s, the local Army/Navy store, and come in the next day at eight with ten bucks for a talkie.

Work on wheels

I got to know Center City real quick. It’s pretty much a regular grid. Streets that ran north and south were numbered. Streets that ran east and west were named after trees. Except for the two major streets; Broad Street ran north and south, Market ran east and west and the two met in a circle that went around City Hall. Other than little tucked-in side streets, it was as regular as a checker board.

I got to know the business fast too. There were about a dozen major accounts; a dozen pick up points to learn. We rode back and forth and roundabout through the city; a pick up here, a drop off there. We rode around in circles, big west to east sweeps, quick tight squiggles, smooth easy rides; all at the direction of our dispatcher.

Rob had been a biker for six years before he got bumped up and into the office; he didn’t just know Center City, he was Center City. After a new biker had been on the road for a few weeks, Rob had him pegged. That’s why he was the dispatcher; he had some sort of psychic radar. He tracked half a dozen of us; we were his main team. The rest of the messengers filled in the gaps.

There were two kinds of messengers:

  • The first were bike messengers, like I was. It was the ride, the freedom of the outdoors that attracted us. There was the adventure; every day, every hour was new and fresh. We looked the same as any other person who rode a bike, but more content, happier.
  • Then there were bike racers. Being a messenger was their high-speed obstacle practice. You’ve seen them rushing through the streets. They were the ones with the fly-eye amber colored wrap-around sunglasses, streamlined helmets, spandex tights, racing shoes and a four-figures bike.

You might think the racers made out better then the messengers with all their hustle, but they didn’t. As we went from pick up to drop off, there was a good chance that a job got called in that was somewhere along our way.

If you went too fast, you missed it. A tortoise and hare kind of thing.

Being a bike messenger was a dangerous job and everybody eventually got their big one. Getting "doored" was our number one hazard. We rushed along the street as far to the right as we dared. We would get into someone’s blind spot as they were coming out of their car and—WHAM!—there was a car door in our face.

If we were fast and sharp enough, we swerved around and missed clipping the door. If not, when we crashed into the door, we hoped to fly over the window; otherwise we would either smash into the window or bounce off the door and snap our heads against the top of the car.

I was real lucky. When I hit the door, Sport bucked up and his milk crate shattered the window. The impact stopped me, leaving me safely between the door and a shocked driver.

All manners of accidents left their marks on other messengers. Marks like pins holding bones together, a great chest scar from getting hung up on a door, a leg fused at the knee, a small plate to cover a hole in the skull.

And two of us were killed on the road. One was a fellow worker who lost out to a taxi. The other was a messenger from Kangaroo Couriers; a street cleaning truck sucked him under.

My own big one came on a quick run from Independence Park to Liberty Place. Sport and I were starting through a small corridor between a UPS truck and a Brinks Armored truck flashing its four-ways. It began to park with us right in his blind spot.

I squeezed Sport’s brakes so hard that the left cable snapped and whizzed past my ear. I threw all my weight to the right; we slammed hard against the UPS truck as I tried to slow us down. My shoulder and Sport’s handle bars hit hard against the truck. We bounced off and smashed into Brinks Armored. The impact shoved Sport’s handlebars to the right, and as the recoil threw me back to the UPS truck, Sport’s front wheel was snatched by the merciless front fender of the Brinks truck. The hole was shrinking fast.

Sport butted his ram’s horns hard against the front of the UPS truck. With a horrible screechy screaming they etched a desperate spiral dent along its crumpled side. Sport’s horns twisted and compressed, the milk crate snapped apart and pieces flew up and at my face. The hole was closed up to nearly nothing when Sport’s mangled front wheel bucked up and I was thrown backwards off the saddle.

I rolled to my feet and stood behind the trucks, watching Sport disappear into what was basically a trash masher.

The trucks separated and Sport’s metal corpse clanged to the sidewalk between them. I ran over to Sport, fell down over him and cried. Two men got out of the Brinks trucks; the UPS man came back; the police came and took their report — all the while I hung over Sport.

For a long time I looked at Sport’s mangled and gnarled body; paint slashed off, his front wheel almost doubled over, his horns crushed. A pedal had snapped off; I found it tucked under scraps of his milk crate. Brinks ran over my talkie and left it crushed amidst little scattered bits and pieces of Sport’s remains.

I gathered everything up and into my bag. Then I gently picked Sport up and, cradling him in my arms, walked the long way back to the office.