801 226-6660 office
801 376-9390 mobile

Bike messengers

published photograph: © Pat Christian

Downtown zipping


     There's a million stories in the naked city, but none so raw as those of bicycle messengers, today's urban Pony Express riders. 
   Snow fell last week in downtown Salt Lake City. 
Bundled-up pedestrians braved slippery streets, careful not to fall on their butts. 
   Car radios and heaters blasted inside vehicles as downtown motorists negotiated heavy traffic. 
   Dressed nearly like an Olympic cross country skier, Mia Johnson busted out the door of Legal Messenger Inc. at 17 E. 400 South as if he were the messenger from hell. LMI is one of three bike messenger services in the city. 
   Seconds later, bike messenger Eric Thomas flew out the door on the heels of Mia on a separate but parallel run. 
   With imagination, it looked like Butch and Sundance had just robbed a bank and ridden out of town with a fleet posse after them. 
   Pedals flying, Mia took the sidewalk shortcut to the corner then disappeared up Main Street, passing a UTA Trax train like it was a slippery snail. 
   Eric took to the street right away and caught up with Mia as they turned onto Main. 
   In only a few sweeps of a second hand on a watch, Mia skidded to a stop in front of a towering skyscraper, locked his bike and hurried to an upstairs office where he grabbed a legal document and raced back downstairs. 
   Eric was off to some other destination. 
   Back in the blazing saddle, Mia sprinted down Main at 30 mph. 
   He jumped curbs, Trax tracks, wove in and out of metro traffic and into slippery dark allies. Soon Mia had the documents back at LMI. 
   Here, from "deliverance central," Adam Davis, another LMI messenger, relayed the document to Third District Court, and click went the court time stamp on it. 
   Eric rode familiar streets today. 
   "It's my last day. I'm going to school in Logan," he said. "I've been working here exactly two years today. I worked a year before that for another messenger service in town." 
   He said his father told him to be especially careful on his last day. "I'm going to miss it a lot. And when I come back into town I plan to ride through some downtown traffic just for the fun of it." 
   It's an asphalt jungle in downtown Salt Lake. Messengers' powerful lungs suck up tons of downtown smog spewed by tight, angry traffic. 
   But there's something about the downtown that gets into messengers' blood. 
   It's especially a concrete jungle complete with "tigers" when city buses crowd bike messengers and dirty brown snow makes downtown city streets slippery as snot for LMI messengers like Mia, Eric, Adam Davis, Adam Compton, Justin Hyde, Tyler Hansen, Jay Boyd and Jason Copier. 
   Now running LMI and doing most of the dispatching, Jason doesn't ride much anymore and it shows a bit. 
   "Last winter when I was a full time messenger, I weighed 178 pounds, but I weigh 190 now." 
   But don't challenge Jason to a bike sprint. He can still beat the pants off most cyclists, especially through heavy traffic where there is the exciting threat of being crushed to death. 
   "I still occasionally will take a run, and I ride all the time on the weekend just for fun," he says. 
   Answering the phone, he clenched it between his ear and shoulder while writing down dispatch information. 
   "Yeah. Uh huh. I can have a rider up there in three minutes. 
   "To Third District Court? Sure, no problem." 
   Hanging up, he remarked that his riders are mostly longtime friends he sweet talked into messenger mayhem and deliverance -- deliverance from a plethora of more boring jobs. 
   Each rider gets paid by the document or package they deliver. It's just about half what LMI makes. 
   And each rider is an independent contractor who has to pay to fix their own broken bodies after inevitable crashes. 
   These street gods -- following such mythical messenger predecessors as Mercury in Rome, Quetzalcoatl in ancient America or Hermes in Greece -- don't wear helmets. 
   But wait, didn't Mercury wear a winged helmet? Or was that broad brimmed hat just a petasos? 
   "I wear a helmet on the weekend when I bike for fun. But the traffic in the city can't really get going real fast," Jason says, not really doing a good job trying to justify the kamikaze foolishness. 
   "It drives me crazy," his fiancee, Julia Peterson, says about messengers not wearing helmets. 
   She met Jason at a club and didn't even know at the time what a bike messenger was. 
   "Now my driving habits have changed because I'm afraid I might run over one of his friends." 
   The lion's share of LMI's delivery business comes from attorneys who always seem to be in a race to get a legal brief time stamped at one of the city's court buildings, Jason says. 
   "I remember one run to federal court when I had a huge legal file box in my shoulder bag, one of those cardboard tubes through the strap, and I was also balancing another file box on my handlebar," Jason says. 
   He delivered that time without getting tagged by hectic traffic or busted by the bicycle cops for jumping curbs or sidewalk riding or blowing through red lights. Time is money they say. Citations are an occupational hazard. 
   But he said he still remembers at least one of his failed deliveries. 
   "I got hit by a car on West Temple when a 'blind' lady decided to pull into a parking place in front of me." 
   "I did about eight hundred dollars damage when I hit her Suburban, and what I remember is landing on her hood, looking lamely at her for a moment and then crashing to the street." 
   Each delivery is worth money to a rider. And when Jason realized he could stand up and that his damaged bike could still be pedaled, he tried to negotiate with the motorist to finish his deliveries before returning to wrap up the details of the crash. 
   "She wouldn't go for it and I had to stay there. I ended up calling the dispatcher for another rider to come and make my deliveries." 
   Mia said he'd been working in a Salt Lake restaurant before becoming a bike courier. 
   "I saw Jason messengering and thought it was cool." 
   He said riding downtown is a lot like mountain biking a technical trail, "except some of the obstacles are moving and seem to be trying to hit you," Mia said. 
   "You have to plan your strategy." 
   Most runs are downtown. A few longer runs are made by a rider on a motorcycle or in a car. 
   But Adam remembers a particular biking run from "deliverance central" to Bountiful and Farmington. 
   "I got on the bus with my bike in Salt Lake and got off in Bountiful to deliver to court there. 
   "I had planned on continuing on the bus to court in Farmington, but a look at the schedule told me I wouldn't get the legal document to court in time, but could make if I rode real fast on my bike." 
   Halfway there, he encountered a rider on a road bike who was dressed like a racer and they ended up more or less racing, leap-frogging each other. 
   "Finally we got to the outskirts of Farmington and into heavy traffic and as I entered an intersection, I was hit by a car and sprawled out on the road." 
   Surviving the collision, Adam got up and limped on, arriving at the court at the last second.  

   A version of this this Story appeared in The Daily Herald.
 related column



© 1999-2003 Pat Christian
read copyright notice