Don't Kill the Messengers

How bike couriers plan to survive the internet age.

One of the law stops was an utterly dreary legal research firm downtown. Worker bees tapped at keyboards in the windowless, open-plan suite; each desk was decorated with an identical foot-tall plastic Christmas tree, all of which looked as if they longed to droop if they only could. No music played and no banter was exchanged. The wah-wah of the sad trombone blatted in my head as I passed through the cheerless doors; escaping back into the sunshine was like crawling out of a cave.

Later, humming down the sun-dappled Victorian streets of Old Sixth Ward, caressed all the way by matronly Gulf breezes, I asked Bleakie if scenes like that were positive reinforcement about the choices he had made in his life. He said it reminded him of his school days back in Bellaire, and before that, along MacGregor near UH. "You have to be inside, and you look outside, and some other kids are having extra-long recess," he smiles. "I am that other kid every day." Of course, that only applies on days like the one we enjoyed. "When it's 34 and raining, there ain't no romance to this," he says.

But most days this is very much a romance to Old Man Tim. The walls of the childless, unmarried Bleakie's snug Sixth Ward garage apartment are festooned with framed portraits of his beloved one: his Cinelli SuperCorsa. There she is in Tuscany, his favorite place to take his sweetheart for a honeymoon, and here she is parked in front of St. Louis Cathedral in the Vieux Carré in New Orleans — the native Houstonian Bleakie's second-favorite American city.

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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He knows lots of people would think his decorative sense was weird, but he doesn't care. What's more, Bleakie loves to liken his bike to his wife even more explicitly: "She takes me everywhere I go, takes me home when I drink, she doesn't talk back and nobody else gets to ride her," he says. "Riding is better than sex a lot of the time."

What he means becomes clear over the course of the day: Riding can be alternately gentle and idyllic — as in the Heights — or thrilling and adrenalized, as in downtown, where the potential of instant death is all around you at all times. As with river guides, park rangers and ski instructors, it's the sort of thrill-a-minute job whose sheer fun can make up for the near-starvation wages. Many are called, but few are chosen: Bleakie and other messengers say that about 40 to 60 percent of green messengers burned out before they made six months on the streets. Some couldn't hack the dangers, others couldn't survive on the money.

It's a young person's game. (Female messengers are rare but not unheard-of.) As the dean of Houston bike messengers, Bleakie has many workmates who are younger. Much younger. He says he was old when he started to ride in his mid-30s, and that was close to 20 years ago. Most rookie couriers are around 25 years old. Bleakie still loves to party, but increasingly wonders about the propriety. "I tell them, 'If you had some neighbors who were 10 or 12 years old and you had fun every time you hung out with them, wouldn't you wonder what that said about you?' Sometimes they get bent out of shape about that, but they will understand some day."

And don't get him wrong — Bleakie does love to have fun. He's loath to talk about many of the details of the hundreds of messenger parties he's attended, but he does share one telling detail about the all-night soiree that went down when the Bike Messenger World Championships came to Houston in 2002. He says attendees — many of them from Europe and the East Coast — wanted to keep the bonfire going in the wee hours and were out of wood, whereupon most decided simply to hurl their clothes on the fire.
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As with coal miners and deep-sea fishermen, there is a sense of camaraderie among bike messengers that is hard to find anywhere outside of other dangerous professions. It's also a profession wherein many misfits found their niche. One who discovered that was Butch Klotz, a former messenger best known to local music fans as the front man for northside punk group 30footFALL. 

Klotz discovered the messenger world when he was in his early twenties and had burned out on a stocking job at Ann Taylor. He had also just come off a 30footFALL tour. "There was this kid who lived downstairs and he couldn't hold a job for ten minutes, but he'd been a messenger for six months already," Klotz remembers. I said, 'Well shit, if he can do it, I can do it.'"

Prior to that, despite his success in the music scene, Klotz still felt like a misfit everywhere he went. "I didn't have a crew of people — every thing I did was solo. I did have the band, but that was such a mess of weird ego stuff, music and scene junk."

Acceptance in the messenger world didn't come immediately. It was and is a trade that requires plenty of dues-paying.  Klotz says he was a messenger for six months before he made it to one of the parties — an "Alley Cat," as they are known.  Klotz felt awkward at the Sixth Ward party at first, and suddenly he was unofficially welcomed into the club.  "They were like, 'Come on, man. Join in!' and then all of a sudden I've got people to call to find out what's going on every weekend and after work." Klotz remembers dozens of poolside parties in the summertime and living-room shindigs in the winter.

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