A Local Life: Nathan Osborn
Bike Messenger Traversed City, Strove to Improve the World
Sunday, July 10, 2005
In the bedroom of a condominium just south of Logan Circle in Northwest Washington, an old racing bike lies twisted on a sofa behind a collage of pictures propped on an easel. For many years, the bike belonged to Nathan Osborn, who until March rode it on the city's streets, weaving through traffic, picking up and delivering packages like a modern-day Pony Express cowboy.
Osborn, who went by Nate, was a bike messenger with Dynamex, a transportation services firm, which moved its local office from the District to Arlington in January 2004. For most of the past year, Osborn's Mondays began at 5 a.m. with an eight-mile trek to Dynamex's warehouse in Arlington's Virginia Square neighborhood.
After helping unload the company's trucks to prepare for the day's deliveries, he filled his own large, rugged shoulder bag with packages, said his wife, Daphne af Jochnick. He'd check his manifest, then hit the road again at 8 a.m., pedaling his way back to the District, where he would spend the next six hours traveling across the city regardless of rain, sleet or snow.
He briskly moved against the panorama of the Capitol, the monuments and the offices of government agencies, law firms and trade associations. In his 20 years as a bike messenger, he was in only one accident, his wife said. He was struck by a near-sighted taxi driver and broke his collarbone.
Otherwise, Osborn appeared as sturdy as the bikes he rode for work and pleasure. At 5 feet 8 1/2 inches tall, he was a stocky fellow with a square jaw and steely thighs. His long, straight brown hair was pulled into a ponytail that swayed underneath his burgundy bike helmet.
"He loved everything about bikes: the freedom of riding, the workout, the social interaction with people on the streets," af Jochnick said. "He tried a regular office job once, briefly, but it wasn't for him."
A son of an agriculture economist with the U.S. Agency for International Development, he was born in Portland, Ore., and grew up in Springfield and Washington. He also spent time in La Paz, Bolivia, and Mexico City. He graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, where he played football, in 1975 and from Alfred University, about 80 miles south of Rochester, N.Y., in 1979. He received a master's degree in business administration from the University of South Carolina two years later but soon discovered an interest in becoming an agent for social change.
Over the years, his life became deeply entwined in the subculture of bike messengers. He went to clubs to support his friends' punk rock bands and competed against other couriers in formal and informal road races that combined speed with orienteering skills. He also participated in Vermont's Bread and Puppet Theater shows for political and social awareness, along with other protests and demonstrations.
When he wrapped up his daily deliveries about 2 p.m., he would go to the Washington office of the political and human rights organization East Timor and Indonesia Action Network, for which he served on the executive committee.
Osborn helped with activities large and small. He organized some of the group's demonstrations at the Indonesian Embassy, wrote and performed scripts for its street theater and kept its corps of staff members, volunteers and supporters well fed at its fundraising events with homemade pizzas and baked goods. He hosted visiting East Timorese activists, attended national meetings in California and New York and helped formulate the group's policy to raise awareness of the push for independence in East Timor and for human rights in Indonesia.
"Nate was always interested in helping the underdog," said Karen Ornstein, the group's Washington coordinator. "He was involved in East Timor when it was not a mainstream issue. He was very dedicated to justice and human rights."
In 1999, he served as a U.N.-accredited observer of the East Timor referendum for independence. He spent about a month in Same, a town at the foot of Mount Kabulaki. When some of the townspeople in Same learned this year that Osborn had cancer, they sent a hand-woven banner stitched with a get-well message.
The banner arrived after Osborn, 48, died June 16 at a holistic health center in Tijuana, Mexico, where he had been receiving treatment for sarcoma, a rare cancer affecting the connective tissue. The cancer was diagnosed in April.
Af Jochnick returned to Washington with her husband's ashes in an urn, a wooden box with an image of Jesus emblazoned on the side. It sits on a table in a corner of their living room, near a vase of flowers and one of Osborn's favorite books, a worn copy of William Blake's poetry.
On the floor are baskets, one of which is filled with strips of brightly colored paper with handwritten notes of sympathy and reflections about a man with a wry wit and gracious hospitality. One of them described Osborn as a man who was "concerned with humanity and peace not social status and social climbing."