Don't Kill the Messengers

How bike couriers plan to survive the internet age.

"I'm looking optimistically," he says. "The delivery business is going nowhere but up from here. Maybe working for law firms isn't the way — you're gonna have to be more creative, do more hot-shot runs than courthouse runs, but I'm not gonna give up on the business. Look at FedEx and UPS — they are majorly expanding."

And when it comes to finding a way to keep on pedaling that Cinelli, Old Man Tim is nothing if not creative.
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This courthouse run used to be the culmination of every workday, Bleakie explains over the course of the all-day ride I took with him on a balmy, breezy December day. On slack days when a biker couldn't scare up morning work, he sat around at the Tower, as the messengers call 1 Shell Plaza, and waited for his beeper to go off and his dispatcher to key in his orders.

At first, Chris Wathen thought his friend was joking when he heard that some people were paid to ride bikes. Ten years later, it would take a stern lecture from a doctor to get him to quit.
Chris Curry
At first, Chris Wathen thought his friend was joking when he heard that some people were paid to ride bikes. Ten years later, it would take a stern lecture from a doctor to get him to quit.
Back in the good old days, the bike gang was a larger and harder partying group.
Zines by Cisco Kidd and John Rittman; Photo courtesy of Tim Bleakie
Back in the good old days, the bike gang was a larger and harder partying group.

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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.

Faux Go Go Go: Not all those bike messengers you see are the real thing.

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Pre-radios and cell phones, dispatchers beeped coded numbers to the riders: Each downtown building had one assigned number, the floor had another and the suite a third. Bikers pedaled like crazy all over downtown, Baker Botts to courthouse, courthouse to Andrews Kurth, and so on and on. Each one filed his suits, collected his signatures and then, a little past five, found himself a party, had a few beers to cut the adrenaline and swap war stories with others in the tribe.

"It's kind of a game because you can have hours of boredom followed by the most intense fucking 30 minutes of your fucking life," explains a bike messenger who wanted to be identified by his first name — Sean — and his old dispatcher number — 328. He recalls unwinding after especially nerve-wracking or hectic Friday afternoons that would find him trembling behind three or four beers, his adrenalized hands still shaking as he poured one after another down his throat. "I would still be keying on my radio an hour after work would end. My beeper would go off and I would be like, 'Go!'"

These days, the courthouse run is hours away from Miller Time. At least it is for Bleakie. For him, it's more like the midpoint of his workday. Each day at five, he pedals over to Bombay Pizza downtown and slings pie for another five hours nightly.

Since he bikes upwards of 225 miles a week, Bleakie is supposed to consume 4,000 to 5,000 calories a day. On his tight wages, it can be a struggle to maintain his already super-spare frame. That's why he views his extra work as a win-win: He gets extra money and cheap or free food.

That's what it takes now to stay on the road. It wasn't always so. Back in 1993, the then-36-year-old Bleakie abandoned the American Dream — a career as part-owner of a bottled water company and a three-bedroom house with a backyard pool — to live a life he had fallen in love with.

On the day of our ride, it's easy to see why Bleakie succumbed to this life, even though the pay was a big step down from the $35,000 or so he was making in the water business then, and even more of one now. Back in the '90s heyday, Bleakie estimates that there were about 125 messengers riding full-time in Houston, and now there are about 20. There were once about ten companies dispatching these riders, and now there are three.

A former Houston messenger who wanted only to be identified as Cisco the Kid said the situation was even worse in other Texas cities:  Austin is down from 20 riders to eight, and Dallas is down from 50 to about five, he says.

Bleakie says the situation is a little bit better in the old Blue State metropolises: "The cities that were built before cars still have lots of messengers," he says. "People there know that it's still the fastest way to get messages around. The streets are smaller there and there's very little parking. You may be able to drive to a building, but you can't get to the door any faster than what I could do."

Bleakie is known as Houston's "Long Runner," the one guy who delivers not just downtown but everywhere inside the Loop. Today, our backpacks are full of fancy coffee from Catalina, a java shop on Washington Avenue owned by a former messenger buddy of Bleakie's. The canny Old Man Tim realized that packaged coffee — lightweight as it is — would be a great cargo for his service,  so he struck a deal with the owner to hand-deliver orders when practical.

Today's consignment consists of a dozen or so people on former mayor Bill White's Christmas list, and our route would take us everywhere from chi-chi bayou-side condos near Memorial Park to humble Heights bungalows to several addresses in the elite, walled Montrose enclave Courtlandt Place.  In between the coffee runs, we would be called downtown for hot-shot law missions, once zooming in from the Heights to pick up a suit, only to return it to an office tower on Waugh Drive. Sweet Jones, my beloved beast of a beach cruiser, was not going to be up to keeping up with Old Man Tim, so I knew I would have to make other arrangements.

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