From Mad Messenger to More Peaceful Cyclist

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Alex Marshall some time in the not-too-distant future...

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I was a bicycle courier.

It was in the fall of 1979, during the semester I took off from college to start a rock band in Washington DC with friends. When not playing guitar in a roach-infested apartment in Takoma Park, Md., I cruised the streets for a courier company, picking up thick envelopes from the American Petroleum Institute and other public-spirited institutions and taking them over to Capitol Hill. Stuff like that.

I think about that sometimes these days, as I poke along Bergen Street Brooklyn, or Lafayette Avenue in Manhattan, on my mountain bike with my bad back, weak right knee, and other afflictions.

Bicycle messengering had a certain cachet back then, although fewer people know about it. It had not evolved into the almost cult-like institution I sense it has become now.

Does bicycle couriering teach you anything practical? A little, although not much.

What it does mostly is to acquaint one with cycling in traffic, which is useful in New York City. You either become comfortable with cycling amid a herd of cars, or you stop. Despite two minor accidents with cars while being a courier, I came to love mixing it up with city traffic.

I can still feel that urge to merge now course through my middle-aged body, when a car cuts me off or I'm jockeying for position at a traffic light. It's something to watch out for. Through the lens of age, I can see now that good cycling, safe cycling and civil cycling comes from striking a balance between aggression and passivity. Too much of either is not healthy or safe for the people around you.

I did get better at simply steering and staying on a bike. I used to be amazed at my ability to keep the two wheels of my bicycle inside the white stripe on the edge of a road, when I felt like it.

Also, sort of like a fish being accustomed to the water, you became very accustomed to balancing on the two wheels of a bike. At day's end when I lay down to sleep on the mattress on the floor in our roach-infested pad, I would close my eyes and start to drift off to sleep. Then I would often jerk awake, because I would catch myself losing my balance and falling off my bicycle. I was still mentally on the bike. In a curious way, I got to like this feeling and would sometimes imagine falling off my bicycle as a way to put myself to sleep.

Most lessons I learned while being a courier did not have much applicability outside the industry. Like how to get in and out of a building quickly. This was more important to one's total daily commissions -- and one did work by commission -- than riding fast on the streets.

The principal time sucker at buildings was waiting for an elevator. To avoid this, I learned a few tricks, one being that one can actually often pull the doors of an elevator open after it has closed, if only a second or two or has passed. This led to frequent scenes of a car full of people seeing the doors that had just closed on them being pulled apart by a tall, scruffy looking youngster.

All in all, it was a fun job. And I made a lot of money, or what seemed like a lot of money at age 19. But eventually I left it and went back to college. Our rock band didn't get far. But I retained my love of cycling in traffic, which I still do, albeit in a more middle-aged fashion.

Photo: Aaron Naparstek, Drachten, Netherlands.