Beauty and Autonomy on the Bike

           “You have to understand,” he says to me, gesturing with a can of PBR in his hand. “Being a courier is just being a weirdo with a bunch of other weirdos. Being on the bike is like a big freak salute, but we’re all in it together in this strange group of people who don’t belong anywhere else. Couriers are maniacs, psychos, or rejects.”

          “Which one are you?” I ask Brian with an elbow poke to his side.
          “Oh, a little bit of all three,” he smiles.

          At 7:47 a.m. on a Tuesday, Brian’s iPhone buzzes on the wooden nightstand next to his bed. A few beams of thin winter sunlight stream through his window and across his forearm as he reaches to turn off the alarm. An alert from his Chess app waits on the screen: it’s his turn to make a move against his online opponent. This game has been going for three days now. Since signing up he’s been undefeated and doesn’t plan on breaking his record anytime soon. He considers a move before thinking better of himself to play so early in the morning. He’ll reconsider his options later.
          He rolls over wearing yesterday’s t-shirt, puts on his black long-sleeve UnderArmour, black leggings, and black wool socks. First things first: coffee, then the bike. In the kitchen he pulls out a grinder, French press, and a bag of imported whole beans—Costa Rican. He grinds four tablespoons, fills his teapot with water, and goes to brush his teeth while he waits for it to boil. When he hears the low whistle of the teapot, he removes it from the flame and slowly pours it over the ground beans in the press. He waits five minutes, presses the coffee, fills a mug, and slides on his socks across the wooden floor and down the basement stairs.
          He pulls the string on the light bulb over the bottom of the stairs, turns on another lamp in the hallway, unbolts the back door to the laundry room, slips past the hot water heater, turns on the overhead light and plugs his iPod into the stereo. He needs a soundtrack while he works. He pulls his fixed gear bike off of its wall hooks, picks up a few dirty rags and a container of oil. He begins to work the oil into the chain, the pedals, the crank-arms, the brakes. With a warm, damp towel he wipes off the frame, removing salt from his snowy ride the day before. It’s March, and the road salt has worn away the color and branding from the frame. By summer it will be completely rust colored, damaged from riding daily in the snow-covered Chicago streets during a winter that many locals said was the worst winter in city history.
          He moved to Chicago from Buffalo looking for something. He wasn’t sure what it was, aside from calling it “meaning.” It was as if he took to the streets on his bike in the middle of a frigid winter, he might find it somewhere. In the grid of the city, maybe in one of those back alleys where he waited between calls from the dispatcher, or in the eyes of one of his clients on a delivery, maybe he could rearrange his life the same way he moved a rook or a pawn in a game of chess, aiming to topple the king. He would learn the entire city by street number instead of by street names, and certain buildings and intersections became mental landmarks with memories of power-tripping security guards, under-tipping clients, and jovial spirits of the other couriers as they passed each other on the bike or on foot.
          He woke in the mornings trying to convince himself he was not crazy, though he believed that he was—riding through the worst of the winter weather on a bicycle, and for what? But he kept doing it. Maybe knowing it was crazy kept him going. Somehow it was right. He worked as many hours each week as he wanted. He played horns and mixed music in his apartment at night. He didn’t work in an office, but was on his bike all day still managing to pay the bills. And there was no place he’d rather be. Except maybe in the studio writing or recording.
          When word got back to Buffalo about what he was doing, his phone rang.
          “So Brian, what are you doing out there?” His mother asks him from five hundred miles away.
          “I’m searching for meaning, Ma,” he says with a slight shrug to his shoulder, though she can't see his gesture.
          “Oh, Brian, yeah, well, stay safe out there.” She has no idea what he means by all of this.
          “We don’t know what he’s doing,” his mother tells other family members when she reports back. They collectively sigh.

          I hold my leather purse close to my thigh, hoping to shield it from the rain beginning to fall on Belmont. As the stoplight turns yellow, I dash across Sheffield hoping to make it inside before getting too wet. I pull open the glass door to a bagel shop and order a veggie sandwich before choosing a high-top table where I can rest my computer bag and purse. A tall, lanky man catches my eye. I don’t know him, but he feels familiar to me. His must be seven feet tall and he’s dressed in almost all black, except his shoes. Black t-shirt, black jeans cut off at the knees, thin black belt, and through one of the loops hangs a black bike U-Lock. On his feet are worn Converse All-Star low tops, off-white from the city grime. His entire left calf is covered in a black tattoo, his nails are painted black, and he has black oil on his fingers. Ear gages. Stubble. A courier, no doubt.
          A walkie-talkie sits on the table in front of his bagel. He finishes his sandwich quickly. The little black box cackles. He puts his ear to it, crumples up the sandwich paper, picks up his orange CUT CATS COURIER bike messenger backpack, and swings it onto his back. A red bandana hangs out from the side zipper. He clasps his helmet straps underneath his chin, tosses his trash in the can, and heads out into the rain on Belmont. I look out past the glass double door in curiosity and admiration for the people who ride all year long, no matter the weather. Another glimpse into the culture I never knew existed before coming back to Chicago and still was only partially able to understand.
          I see them everywhere: in the elevators downtown, in my office in River North, on the streets near my house, and passing me on my left in the bike lanes around the city. Maybe you’ve seen them, too, maybe on a couch in the south end of the Merchandise Mart during your lunch hour. You knew who they were because they looked so out of place. Dirty cutoff jeans, sweaty hair, and noticeably oily fingers contrasted too strongly with the beautiful carpeting, lamps, and cushy couches decorating the entrance to the center of the city’s design industry.
          I was never curious about bike messengers until my friend Brian became one. And then I noticed them everywhere and couldn’t ignore them: not the speed with which they rode, the character it took to ride a hundred miles a day mid-winter in Chicago, the non-conforming hairdos, the cutoff pants, and tattoo-to-skin ratio. The more I noticed them, the more I began to wonder why the hell these crazies did what they did, the same way I wondered about rock climbers, people who did Iron Men competitions, and friends of mine who had bungee jumped. Except being a courier was a full-time job. On a bike. In a city. In the Loop. I thought they were nuts.
          After Brian spent just a few weeks “on the bike,” as he would say, I was learning more and more about an entire community built around the values of elbow grease, literal grease, beauty in the little things, and autonomy. The more I learned about the job—the ten-hour length of the shifts; the heaviness of the deliveries from one end of town to the other, using just a backpack; the relentless snow and subzero temperatures that winter—the more I appreciated the way of life of the courier. All of it was beautiful in a way. It was mathematical, the way jobs were assigned, the way riders flew through small gaps in car and pedestrian traffic, negotiating space and time in a strategy to get the job done without dying. It was kind of like a game of chess, but with real consequences.
          I’d get the inside scoop via cultural lessons over burritos and bowls of stir-fry, a few rounds of beer, or a game of Settlers. From Brian I learned what I could only otherwise understand if I were a courier myself.
          “There are three kinds of people on bikes,” he lectured me one evening after a shift. “Joy-riders, pedi-cabs drivers, and messengers. I hate pedi-cabs and joy-riding cyclists. They are either riding slow trying to pick up drunk people in Wrigleyville, or they are average Joes riding Divvy bikes in the left-hand lane of Lakeshore Drive.” I try not to take offense, being a Divvy rider myself. He went on, “It’s like how taxis hate all other cars because while they are driving, they are on the job. The cabbie is always shaking his head at all the other cars like, ‘C’mon! Oh my God.’ Couriers can’t stand anybody else because they are riding on the job, and they have to get there—wherever there is—fast.”
          “You can tell right away by looking at somebody if someone is faster than you. And you want to be faster than them. You just want to be the fastest, because you don’t want someone rolling up on you while riding and asking you who you are or who you work for. Being rolled up on is a power thing. You want the power to roll up on somebody, not have them roll up on you, you know?” I didn’t know, but I tried.

          I once heard that there was a system of old, unused tunnels underneath Chicago. At one point, they were used for transporting goods from one part of the downtown area to the other without disturbing the rest of the city motion above ground. By now, they are no longer in use and some are supposedly sealed off from curious spelunkers, but still they exist down there. I imagine Chicago’s couriers kind of like those tunnels: a subterranean culture only visible by some, a little bit under appreciated, making deliveries to the entire city by a means that’s artistic and graceful in its own grungy way, the map of the city hardwired into their minds, every back alley and shortcut penciled in. Like the L system and the freshwater pipes, the couriers keep the city alive by making hundreds of runs from offices, homes, beaches, and warehouses each day.

          When he comes over for a party on a Friday night he asks if he can store his bike in my apartment. While he’s over, the lifestyle of the courier comes up again. Between the two of us, he being the expert and I the curious tutee, it is inevitable.
          As he’s leaving that night, something about my questions about being a courier makes him reiterate a phrase about his life. “I’m just searching for meaning,” he tells me, looking at me while holding the door open. The way I saw it, one of the smartest guys I knew quit his job in a lab at Harvard to deliver documents from River North to Lakeview, and booze from downtown Chicago to Montrose Harbor in a giant padded backpack. I knew he was smart, so I figured it must be worth it. And I did start to see the power in the autonomy, the adventure of being a bike courier in Chicago. He grabs his pack and holds his bike carefully across his shoulder, heading down the stairs of the apartment, off for a midnight ride home across town. It’s not until a few hours after he left that I realize I forgot to hold the heavy door open for him.

Claire Tighe is a Chicago-based writer and coffee-drinker. She holds a degree in Women’s and Gender Studies from Dickinson College. Her previous work has appeared at Belt Magazine, RH Reality Check, and, among others. Find her on Twitter @ecofeminismo.