By Chris Lane
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Klotz says that your first few months on the job also required that you work for shady, fly-by-night companies for tiny pay. Another who remembers it the same way is Chris Wathen, who almost gave up on the trade before finally finding a way to put in ten years downtown.
Back in 1992, Wathen was training to become a sheet-metal worker, but he had a serious mountain bike habit on the side. Most weekends would find him tearing up Memorial Park's Ho Chi Minh Trail and other hotspots in the area.
One day, some friends told him about bike messengers. "They told me there were a bunch of guys down here getting paid. They were couriers." Wathen was incredulous. "Getting paid to ride bikes? What, are they racing?" he asked. "They said, 'Nah, they're delivering packages from one building to another.'" Wathen was still in disbelief. It sounded to him like people were just handing out free money.
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He signed on and gave it his best, but at that time, the few veterans already on the scene at the time had all the plum gigs on lock. After struggling for a few months, Wathen returned to the machine shop to continue his apprenticeship. And then one day, one of the vets dropped the ball, big-time.
"I got a call one day telling me that one of the old guys had thrown up in the office of one of the big law firms," Wathen remembers. "He'd been major partying the night before."
For Wathen, the build-up to the Super Bowl hastened the end. He'd just turned 30 and had started having coughing fits, so he went to see a doctor. After running some tests, the doc asked if he was a smoker, and what he did for a living. Wathen told him he was a nonsmoking bike messenger. The doctor asked because the tests revealed that Wathen had lost 30 to 40 percent of his lung capacity. "The doctor said the only thing he could think caused that was all the dust I was breathing in from all the construction downtown. He said it was time I got off that bike, downtown anyway. There were places down there then where there would be three streets in a row just dug down deep into the earth. It was hell on earth down there."
Today, Wathen is a process-server and a dispatcher for one of the few remaining messenger companies. Wathen says that at least 50 percent of the old-school couriers from downtown in the '90s evolved into process servers. He drives to many of his appointments in his new field, but tends to take his bike and his old courier uniform with him. "If I am going to a problem neighborhood, I'll park my car around the corner and throw on my shirt and ride my bike up to the door. I'll knock and people think, 'Who is this lunatic on his bike at my front door?'
Klotz has become a nurse and is looking for work in his new hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. Cisco the Kid, the publisher of Humidity, one of the two local messenger 'zines published in the heyday of the scene, is now a personal trainer. (John Rittman published the other — MPH, which stood for "My Pussy Hurts." A case of multiple sclerosis ended his messenger career, and he now works as a bartender at messenger hang La Carafe.)
It's quite the dwindling party. And yet few messengers are predicting extinction for their breed. "There will always be a need for a few," says Cisco the Kid. " It will probably come down to the lucky top five."
"What Old Man Tim taught me was perseverance," says Wathen. "You never give up. When he first started as a messenger, he was riding to and from Humble every day, and then putting in a day's work."
And Bleakie is still the very embodiment of that virtue. Back on our ride, he sets aside his vendetta against Lo-Jack and talks about how it didn't take him long to start finding many a silver lining in the black cloud of e-filing. Not having employees enabled him to eliminate hours and hours of weekly paperwork — he always loathed sitting behind a desk, and having to do payroll was like torture to him, he explains. It wasn't the perpetual recess he had in mind when he rode away from his old life and most of the demons therein. Not having a company also enabled him to travel; last year, he assuaged his gloom with a hard-earned riding trip in Tuscany.
Out of the blue, while steaming down the MKT trail through the Heights, he announces his three favorite "messenger bromides."
One — "A turning wheel is an earning wheel" — is not original to him.
"Be hungry, never starving" is his. So is this one: "A bike messenger should be able to get where he's not supposed to go, know what he's not supposed to know, and do what he's not supposed to know how to do."