The bicycle as a revolution: Inside the messengers' world

On Books

April 22, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

Bicycle messengers are a distinctive life form -- aerodynamically dressed, navigating the streets of traffic-clogged cities and -- whether the observer is on foot or on wheels -- faintly alien. Now comes a book that makes sense of them, or at least convincingly articulates their strangeness. It is "The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power," by Travis Hugh Culley (Villard / Random House, 324 pages, $19.95). It's a flawed book. But within it there's a compelling tale.

Culley was 25 when the main narrative of the book begins. A theater major in college, he came to Chicago hoping to work as a playwright and a director. He did dead-end jobs and arts-related ones that barely paid. Then one day he saw an ad and turned up at a bike-messenger company.

He got a tryout. And there is the start of his story. Many of the other messengers are artists and musicians. Many drop out.

Gradually, he gets to be very good: "Success for a biker depends essentially upon two things: how well you can keep a rhythm and how well you can keep a temper." He keeps both. He begins in the morning before rush hour, before the city comes to life. Chicago seems at perfect peace. He feels free of the concerns and responsibilities of the people around him.

The messengers and dispatchers live by their banter on two-way radios, in a jargon and an immediacy of their own. It gives them solidarity, an almost tribal bond.

It is often risky work -- dashing, swerving and driving at breakneck speed through traffic, sometimes dodging hostile drivers. Bikers ride the edges of traffic laws; they are vulnerable to unsympathetic, occasionally antagonistic, police.

Culley masters the craft, and he begins to find himself in a state that could only be called ecstatic. He moves faster than seems possible, delivering packages in numbers far beyond what is expected, seeing himself "floating, softly looking down upon the city, pointing out my passage through all the blind corners and tricky buildings." At the top of his form, he makes $300 a day, carrying 60 packages.

On with the job

His narrative of the actual job has frenetic energy, which -- at its best -- is poetic, enchanting. It is almost always fast and strong and clear, except when the tribal patois simply takes over and becomes a music of its own. Not surprisingly, it begins to get redundant. That is an almost hypnotic effect that Culley may intend -- he is, after all a trained stagecraftsman. Reading the crackling dialogue among riders and home base is almost -- never quite -- to be there. I felt lost in it, swept up into a sensation of a sort of biker's infinity.

After establishing the extraordinary force and rhythm of the messenger in motion, he begins to weave in the story of his youth. He had a poor, often empty Florida childhood. Brimming with adolescent defiance, he went through a series of part-time jobs and failed at most because of bad attitude. Then came bike messengering.

Culley's counterpoint between youth and work is well disciplined. As his story unfolds, Culley writes about freedom and independence and pride and responsibility to self. He joins bike riders -- not all of them messengers -- who are activists and radicals and quirky idealists trying to change the nature of city life.

"We were a cult that saw the bicycle as a lifestyle," he writes, "a political choice, an economic necessity, and an ecological vision,"

Bikers are going to cure the city, the nation -- the world. Redistribute the country's power and wealth and means of locomotion. He organizes an art show called "Autogeddon: A Critical Response to Car Culture."

"The bicycle," he writes at the height of this rant, "is more than a sport and more than a job. The bicycle is a revolution, an assault on civilian territory, intent upon taking, from the ground up, responsibility for the shape of our cities. It is a mutiny, challenging the ever-one-way street. The bicycle is a philosophy, a way of life, and I am using it like a hammer to change the world and to redeem our war-torn cities."

Damning the car

About midway in the book there is a chapter about the social, economic, geographic, architectural structure of the city of Chicago. It is interestingly informed, but it, too, overreaches, becoming pompous and preachy -- a massive indictment of all motor transportation. Internal combustion is the enemy.

So there are two books. One is an astonishingly strong one -- about individual drive, initiative and discovery. The other is the strident and unconvincing diatribe about the evil of the reciprocating engine and commerce -- and the great good of the bicycle. The two themes clash, creating a conflict between enjoying Culley's bicycle story and tolerating his lectures.

The book would have benefited a great deal from a brutal editing. That would demand some compacting of descriptions of exciting experiences that get less exciting with redundancy.

The failing over all is that the preachy side of the book ends up dominating. It is full of certitude -- the sort of cocksure verities that are a matter of clear black and white usually only until a person begins to approach the age of 30.

Culley was 25 when he began the job and is now near 30. His cocky naivete is part of the charm -- and the source of the energy -- of the book. Without it, Culley probably couldn't have succeeded as a bike messenger,.

And had he not suceeded in that, readers would have missed out on his delightful insights into this ever so slightly alien world.

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