In Washington, a Two-Tire Industry Goes Flat
Athletic rebels swathed in Lycra, zipping in and out of traffic to beat the delivery deadline, watch their livelihood evaporate.

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Getting a meticulously prepared legal brief to a courthouse or federal agency on time used to require a bit of comic-book valor. Just before deadline, exhausted lawyers handed off the document to a character in the tight Lycra of a superhero, the shoulder bag of a Pony Express rider and the bulging thighs of an athlete. One of Washington's legions of bicycle messengers would then dart through perilous traffic and any weather to deliver the goods in the nick of time.

Now, as the last of the area's courts and agencies begin to allow electronic filings instead of demanding piles of paper, deadline dramas in many law offices are being reduced to little more than hitting the "send" button.

The courier business -- for decades a quirky by-product of Washington's No. 1 industry, paper-pushing -- finds itself in rapid decline. Tighter security restrictions imposed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks have closed off many government office corridors to couriers, and the recession has dampened activity at law firms and lobbying shops, rendering the life of a time-sensitive document in the District a lot more boring.

The number of full-time couriers in Washington has fallen from a high of about 400 in the 1990s to about 150, said Andy Zalan, a longtime bike messenger and head of the D.C. Bicycle Couriers Association.

"Those of us left are making a lot less money," Zalan said. "This last week, I set a personal best for futility: I sat out here for seven hours and made $25."

The decline is being felt in all cities, according to Michael Gualtieri, president of the Messenger Courier Association of America. In New York, consolidations and business failures have cut the number of courier companies from a high of almost 500 to about 40, he said.

But Washington bike messengers have been hit particularly hard because of the recent shrinkage in the government's document stream. "There's just not as much paper being pushed," Gualtieri said. "In the past few years, we've seen quite a few more government agencies go electronic."

The falloff threatens to end what has been for decades a very public aberration from Washington's buttoned-down business culture. Downtown has long been filled with messengers racing the clock -- and sometimes each other -- along the streets (and sometimes sidewalks). On weekdays, the parks at Dupont Circle and Farragut Square were piled with bikes and swarmed with couriers awaiting a call from dispatch. And generations of workers from K Street to Capitol Hill knew the experience of being in an elevator filled with six men who looked as if they'd been taxidermied by Brooks Brothers and one who looked like the Silver Surfer.

"I always took great pride doing deliveries to House and Senate buildings dressed like Boba Fett," the Star Wars bounty hunter, said Matthew Ayers, who worked as a messenger briefly after finishing law school at American University. "Without the messengers, these people might take themselves too seriously and implode."

Longtime messengers bond over tales of epic wrecks and glorious rides. Veteran messenger Matt Dwyer (broken middle finger '96, fractured mastoid '98) once took a "super rush" job from Georgetown to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Northeast in less than 10 minutes.

"I picked up the filing at 4:51 and made FERC by the 5 o'clock deadline," said Dwyer, 46, a messenger for 13 years who still delivers every day even as he runs his own courier company. His vacation in July was a solo ride from Montana to New York.

Mark Gross, a courier in the 1980s and now the owner of Quick Messenger, remembers the time he and six other riders scrambled to deliver a hot-off-the-Xerox press release to all 535 congressional offices. Elapsed time from getting the panicked call from the public relations firm to dropping off the last envelope: 80 minutes.

"You can fax something that fast, but is anyone going to actually look at it?" said Gross.

In their heyday, bike couriers reigned as a kind of sweat-soaked office avenger, helping secretaries avoid deadline catastrophes, facilitating billion-dollar contract negotiations and helping prescription refills and forgotten eyeglasses catch up with their VIP owners.

Gross once responded to a request to pick up a packet from a McGraw-Hill reporter on deadline. His assignment: take the package from the third floor of the National Press Building all the way to the fourth floor -- of the same building.

Couriers rode, and loafed, with impunity. Gatherings at Dupont sometimes topped 50 riders, Zalan said. And until neighborhood complaints finally led to a crackdown in the late 1990s, many riders displayed a famously casual attitude about public drinking, and more.

"We were openly drinking beer and smoking pot pretty much every day," Zalan said. "There was a kind of understanding. The police would roll through, everyone would put their beer down or whatever and he had done his bit and we had done ours."

Washington couriers managed to keep riding through the advent of the fax machine and the first several years of e-mail commerce. But the beginning of the end came with the security shocks of 2001, first the attacks and then anthrax. Messengers were relegated to alley entrances and basement mailrooms.

Veteran riders still find ways to get their rushes through; White House staffers, who aren't allowed to accept handoffs through the iron fence, have been known to meet couriers at nearby coffee shops. But gone are the lucrative days of blanketing Capitol Hill with hand-delivered packets. (Some companies have found new employment for their Capitol-savvy riders: sending them to stand in line on behalf of lobbyists who need seats at crowded hearings.)

But couriers who were holding on to messenger work felt the ground shift beneath them when the economy gave way last year. "Almost in one day, we were getting a lot fewer rush jobs," said Marcia Vottero, 28, a rider for Washington Express. She knew of 25 female riders when she started in 2000. Now, she says, she is one of two who ride regularly. Like a lot of messengers, she works a second job, as a bartender, to supplement her salary.

"I used to be able to make $1,500 a week, not even working long hours," said Vottero. "Now that's cut in half, and I've got to work all day."

Vottero, who has clearance to deliver inside the Department of Justice and the World Bank, is on the high side of earners. More typical now, according to several couriers, is $400 to $500 a week.

Almost all couriers work as contractors, without benefits or much job security. An independent, unruly bunch by nature, they have never been able to organize effectively, Zalan said, allowing companies to keep pay rates low.

Still, he and many of the dwindling number of hardcore messengers ride on, addicted to the adrenaline of the rush job, thrilling to the freedom of life on the roll.

At a party recently, someone noted his riding jersey and asked Zalan if he was a professional cyclist.

"And I thought, yeah, actually, I am," he said. "The bottom line, dude, you're making money riding a bike. It's the childhood dream."

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