To @1ookmumnohands! …last weekend for an evening spent in the company of bicycle messenger Rebecca Reilly. A rare UK visit for the author of Nerves of Steel: Bike Messengers in the United States, was the opportunity for the friendly folk of Look Mum (East, natch) to invite Rebecca to share some of her messenger stories with the London riders.
Buffalo Bill introduced Rebecca, telling tales of how her status was legendary on the messenger scene as a single-minded, hard as nails rider. I could feel my legs pumping away in anticipation, despite taking up a seated position.
Rebecca then gave a forty-five minute free-for-all chat covering a selection of the stories narrated in Nerves of Steel.
She confessed that this was:
“The story of accidental trouble-making on two wheels.”
No need to apologise, Madam. It’s a fine strapline in which to go about your bicycling work and play.
“It’s not a good idea to get into a fight with a NY cabbie, right in front of your drop”
As opening stories go, the tale of physically taking on a beefed up NY cabbie in the days pre-bicycle lanes and cycle awareness was quite a showstopper. Police intervention followed, with the cops more in awe of Rebecca’s attitude than condoning her actions.
And so why write the book in the first place?
“I wanted other riders to learn from it.”
Rebecca’s working life as a messenger saw her undertake a cycling tour of US cities in search of work. We heard how the first fixie rider in DC took a twisted enjoyment in not locking his bicycle up, and then watching a succession of Bike Thief Scum come up cropper, unaware of the demands of fixie riding.
Concern for other riders within the messenger community was a strong theme. Rebecca spoke of how you may personally dislike another rider, but you always look out for them on the road.
Alley Cats were mentioned, and the belief that these were a meritocratic way in which to prove your messenger worth.
The Nerves of Steel title of the book comes from the daily risks that bicycle messengers still face. The evening took on a sombre feel as Rebecca talked about the painful reality of what happens when a rider goes down.
R.I.P. Rides became an all too common occurrence during Rebecca’s time on the road. Police escorts showed the respect that messengers had managed to build up.
A particularly moving tradition in San Francisco is for the bicycle of a deceased rider to be loaded up with their favourite items, and then tossed into the Bay.
Post 9/11 was a turning point for Rebecca. There was a downturn in work, with estimates that a weekly wage fell from $500 to $150 – clearly not enough to make a living from. Rebecca took the decision to bail out and join the Marine Corp.
“Are you CRAZY? You’re going to get KILLED!”
…was the response from a friend.
Same old same.
Rebecca re-visited the US cities in which she had worked back in 2005. She found that the number of working messengers had fallen sharply.
But there is a future for bicycle messengers. Rebecca believes that when we ride, we make a city more livable. Messengers lead the way for the hipster, which then becomes mainstream acceptance of the bicycle and what it can achieve in the city.
This is a message of which there was little disagreement at Look Mum. For a cycling cafe to be thriving in London would have been unthinkable only five years ago.
Some might call it a Critical Mass…