BICYCLE COURIERS: Psyching out the downtown rhythms, the flow, calibrating Washington to the last slithering tick of a well-oiled derailleur, pumping through traffic with those definitive sprinting strokes that look like they're priming an engine that will catch at any moment . . . all this merely in the service of paperwork and red tape--legal briefs, press releases, judicial opinions, invitations, transcripts, filings, happy birthdays, the staff of life here in Document City.
"We've got a guy named Powerslide that can lift the whole bike up in the air, both wheels, and jump curbs with it," says Electra Ridgeway, a dispatcher at Courier Systems Inc.
"That's right," she says. With a pachuco cross tattooed on her arm, and a big button on her shirt reading "Dykes for Public Orgies," Ridgeway is a bit of a free spirit herself.
In the alley in back of CSI, Philippe Jenney, a.k.a. Powerslide, age 19, puts a black metal crate six inches high on the ground and gets ready to jump it with a Raleigh International 10-speed. No ramp, just levitation here.
"They call me Powerslide because somebody saw me riding down 17th Street last winter in the snow and I went into a spin, did a full 360 and kept on going," he says. "I'm going to write a book about all this some day, called 'Street Warfare.' The other day I'm coming down M Street behind a dump truck and he stops by a construction site and starts to back up. I'm caught, I have to swerve for the curb, and I go 30 feet down a dirt ramp into the construction hole."
Powerslide had "five to seven" accidents last year, he says. He's aiming for TV, next. "I'm going to be on 'That's Incredible.' This friend of mine is going to shoot me with a Taser, it's this gun that hits you with two darts attached to wires. There's 50,000 volts going through the wires, but no amps. You get knocked unconscious for a few seconds. I'm getting $50 for it, but I'm not doing it for the money, I'm doing it for the experience."
He rides to the end of the alley, turns and sprints, rocking from side to side, the effect being that the bicycle is having a hard time keeping up with him. He gets a yard or two from the box, lurches upward, the bicycle levitates, nothing to it, piece of cake.
"What a rush," says Powerslide.
People love this job. Most of them work on commission, making 40 to 55 percent of the billing for each delivery. A downtown-to-Capitol Hill run might have a price of $6 on it, with the rider getting $2.50, for instance. At most courier services, there are no health benefits or unemployment insurance. Riders supply their own bikes, sometimes spray-painting them drab to discourage thieves. They take home about $300 before taxes on a very good week, though the business is full of legends of $550 weeks, a lot of them attributed to the famous Leland Summers of Metropolitan Messenger and Delivery Service. Summers is now said to be captaining a sailboat off either Guatemala or Costa Rica, depending on who tells the story.
"I'll tell you about Lee. I'd get out of his way, that's how fast he is," says Clay Byrne, with the tight nod that accompanies ultimate compliments. Byrne, who is one of the speedsters at Speed Service, is just back from a day's work, red-cheeked and still panting as he fires up a cigarette with a certain Lafayette Escadrille panache, these guys being, after all, the closest we come in this town to single-seater stunt men. He's 21, rides a $500 Lotus Legend, and says he's "pretty competitive."
A good day's work, he says, is 30 runs.
What's his best day?
"About 62 runs," he says.
What's the Speed Service record?
"That's it," he says.
Let's hear it for the bicycle couriers, who are the ghosts of the once and future free men inside the rest of us, Mercuries twitching through traffic with merely ceremonial pauses for the red lights, phantoms who materialize smug and dripping to remind us that it is sleeting outside our offices--offices that make cowards of us all.
"Free spirits," says Jerome Kuh, 25, a sanctioned amateur racer who gets up early for two hours of riding practice, then rides downtown from Takoma Park, then spends all day hauling paper around downtown Washington.
"The best part of the job is being part of the stories you read about the next day. I picked up the opinion that set the trial date for Hinckley President Reagan's assailant and took it to his lawyer. I see people all over town. Right after the election I saw John Anderson, I saw Reagan. You see things all the time. People treat us in this ambiguous way: We're nonexistent except that we're important."
Kuh wears a purple bandanna for a touch of style, style being crucial to the job. Not just the little Campagnolo hats with the brims turned up, the Eddie Bauer rain suits for the more affluent, or the occasional pair of cross-country knickers that appear in the winter. It's a whole way of riding; of standing up, no-hands, looking for daylight between the dump truck and the Nigerian taxi driver; of coasting the wrong way down one-way streets standing on one pedal, not riding the bike, officer, just walking it along at 20 miles an hour; of always hitting the button for the top floor on the elevator when getting off to make a delivery, then hitting the call button so that the elevator will be returning just after the delivery gets made, unless it's at the National Press Building, where the elevators rise at the speed of bargain thermometers . . . so a lot of riders will run down, if they're no higher than the sixth floor.
The bicycle messenger style does not always demand speed, however. Simple valor and loyalty will do to build a legend. Speed Service is proud of Colleen (Gusty) Gustafson, who admitted that she was, in fact, a little tired one night, and called in the next morning to say that she would not be riding that day because she'd just given birth to a son. Gusty is known for being slow but steady, hardly ever changing the gears on her bicycle as she pumps out 30 to 35 runs a day. She is supporting two children, 3 and 5, this way and, at 29, has no plans to quit.
"I don't like being confined inside an office," she says.
For slow and steady, though, the king of the city is almost certainly Wesley Pyos. He's a little tiny guy in an earflapped flying helmet and goggles who rides a great big black 1956 Raleigh called "Mountain Mule" slower than any physicist would tell you was possible to sustain balance on a two-wheeled vehicle. He can balance that bike for seconds on end, standing still, in fact, a trick which must have something to do with the careful placement of four mirrors, two headlights, a generator, a horn and massive mudflaps.
"They made bikes back then. They don't make 'em now. They look good and cost a lot of money, but they don't last long," he says over a hamburger in the luncheonette next to his employer, Rowley's Blueprint Service.
He's 48, with 30 years in the business. "I was wild and young," he says to explain why he dropped out of school and started riding.
"Other people ride worser'n I do. They take chances. I take my time. I can keep up with 'em, no problem. There was one fella the other day kept passing me, but I kept catching up."
Like all the riders, he's got a litany of hazards and woes: the wind, the rain, the snow, the thieves, the cops.
But cars are the real enemy. All cars, moving or still.
Watch out for the parked cars, they say, the ones where the driver is about to open the door .47 seconds before you hit it, arcing you akimbo through the air for an amount of time both impossibly long and impossibly short before you land against car, pavement, hydrant, pedestrian, whatever. Bam. And don't split lanes with a taxicab, if you're on the right, because that's where the cab is going to move as soon as a hand waves from the curb. And the buses: They hound the bicyclists front and back, gaining on them, then passing them to pant carbon monoxide all over them, especially on those endless August afternoons when the sun hangs motionless and grimy red over Rosslyn, and the faster the couriers pump to cool off that sweat, the more they sweat. (There are no fat bicycle couriers, period.) And the cops who write the tickets for running lights, riding on sidewalks, riding down the dotted white line between the same-direction lanes on a four-lane street (the safest place, but illegal, the riders say).
And there's always the worst possible case--the couriers have a hard time forgetting Mary Gaffney, who got killed by a truck in Georgetown, on June 30, 1980.
Then again, it's one of the primal jobs, a job they don't have to explain to people, unlike most jobs in this city, being assistant project coordinator for incremental development strategy or whatever befuddlement it is that so many Washingtonians practice in the name of a day's work.
At Archer Courier Systems Inc., with 540 part- and full-time bicycle couriers, branch manager Joel Gininger says that he likes to hire "people who are interested in something else than this, people who are overqualified. We like to attract what I call the artist colony. The best guy we ever had was a graduate of the Georgetown Foreign Service School, super high energy, I used to think he was throwing packages away, he got them delivered so fast. We had one guy nominated for an Academy Award for a score he'd written for a documentary."
Exactly. Everybody wants to be these folks, but nobody else wants to hire them. Isn't it nice to know that they're always looking to hire people, that one day you could haul the old bike out of the cellar, call up the boss and tell him to go to hell, and start flashing around town free and alone, a spirit of the best in all of us?
Says Archer's Jerome Kuh: "It beats working."