Don't Kill the Messengers

How bike couriers plan to survive the internet age.

Back in the good old days for bike messengers, every weekday at four o'clock, the front steps of the Harris County Civil Courthouse were the gathering spot for a happy hour for that pierced, tattooed, hedonistic horde.

Those days are as gone now as earnest talk of Monica Lewinsky's stained dress and jubilation over the Dome derring-do of the Killer Bs. Today, Old Man Tim Bleakie — at 55, his nickname is not ironic — is one of the last messengers riding. As he locks his snow-white Italian Cinelli SuperCorsa to one of the racks out front, he remembers the days gone by fondly.

"The '90s, oh, the '90s, you were at the height of the implant case, and there were no electronic filings or late filings," he says. "Everything had to be done by five o'clock. Four o'clock was basically social hour at the courthouse. Attorneys would hate having to come in there then because they would be around a bunch of sweaty bike messengers talking about partyin' tonight, partyin' last night, or partyin' next weekend."

Not even the Galleria area's horrendous holiday gridlock can slow Old Man Tim Bleakie in his quest to become Houston's longest-serving bike 
messenger.
Chris Curry
Not even the Galleria area's horrendous holiday gridlock can slow Old Man Tim Bleakie in his quest to become Houston's longest-serving bike messenger.
Law firms may not be generating the business they once did, but Bleakie's finding other things to  deliver to downtown office buildings.
Chris Curry
Law firms may not be generating the business they once did, but Bleakie's finding other things to deliver to downtown office buildings.

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What is it like being a bike messenger? Read our writer's account of a week on the road and watch a video of Old Man Tim at work.

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On this warm December afternoon, only one other bike messenger eases up to the rack. Bleakie hustles up the steps and breezes through the security checkpoint. "I don't know why they bother with it in civil court," he would say during one of the trademark philosophical discourses he delivers over the course of an eight-hour, 25-mile biking day. "It's just companies fighting companies in there. Now divorce court, that's a whole 'nother thing. And it was one of the last courts to get a metal detector!" He sighs. "Any ol' way..."

He hustles up the steps, long straw-blond hair bouncing from under the helmet he recently (finally) started wearing. After more than a decade on two wheels, it took a brain-rattling run-in with a garbage truck to finally convince him of the merits of protective headgear. Bleakie hands a clerk the lawsuit he just picked up from a Commerce Street firm, and is back downstairs and unlocking his beloved bike in minutes.

But that's long enough to darken his mood. Bleakie's thoughts have turned once more to his arch-nemesis: outgoing Harris County District Clerk Loren Jackson.

As Superman had Lex Luthor, as Sherlock Holmes had Moriarty, as Mack Brown has Bob Stoops, so Old Man Tim has "Lo-Jack," the smiling, blond, high-tech boy wonder of the courts whose embrace of e-filing has all but destroyed Bleakie's way of life. Because for Bleakie, this is not a job. No, bike messengering defines his very being.

"It was an implosion of my business when he mandated electronic filing," says Bleakie, noting that his Mercury Messenger Services had three employees and 22 clients before the advent of Lo-Jack. Not two weeks after Jackson mandated e-filing, Bleakie had lost every one of his clients and handed pink slips to his three employees. "He really flushed us down the toilet," he says. Now, Old Man Tim is Mercury Messenger Services.

Many lawyers and other courthouse types have nothing but praise for Jackson. They say he brought Houston's courts into the 21st century. E-filing saves litigants time and taxpayers money and the forest trees. It has eliminated the need for almost 10,000 square feet of storage space. Even some bike messengers, between cursing his name, will chalk e-filing up to the price of progress.

And sometimes even Old Man Tim will admit that there was a certain inevitability to it. "It's not really any better, it's just the way it's gonna be done now," he says at one point. "If it was 1900, I would probably be bitching about gasoline cars, which I do today anyway.

At other times, he seems to hate Lo-Jack with every fiber of his lean, 5'10" being. "He's a punk," Bleakie declares in another conversation, this one outside a Waugh Drive Jack in the Box. "Typical UT white boy," he sneers amid clouds of Marlboro smoke. "All he ever said was 'Let me tell you how we did it in Travis County' this and 'In Travis County, we used to' that. Well, at least we know where you went to school."

While many close observers of the legal world believe the Democrat Jackson's recent defeat at the hands of his Republican challenger Chris Daniel is a textbook example of the hazards of straight-ticket voting, Bleakie was downright jubilant, even though he professes allegiance to neither party. "I was doing cartwheels when I heard he lost," he smiles.

And right now Bleakie has more to smile about than the electoral demise of the fiendish Jackson. Whereas the summer of 2009 found a glum Old Man Tim fulminating about the approach of "a dark cloud" and contemplating a new career as a rickshaw driver, the intervening 17 months have cheered him up immensely.

For starters, he believes that the new district clerk will slow or even roll back some of Jackson's go-go reforms. What's more, he is beginning to realize that maybe there are other ways a guy like Old Man Tim can attain his goal to become the longest serving bike messenger in Houston history. (With 18 years in, he's a couple shy of the now-retired Andrew Medina's 20-year-run.)

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