Don't Kill the Messengers
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."
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.)
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
This puking Wally Pipp gave rise to Wathen's Lou Gehrig-like career. He spent the next decade downtown, and says the job pretty much ruined him for everything else. He only quit on doctor's orders.
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."
Right now, bike messengers are supposed to ride off into the sunset along with other '90s relics like fax machines, beepers and CD players. Old Man Tim stands as a John Henry against the immense steam drill that is the Internet. He'll knock down that mountain with his legs. He's not supposed to know how to survive this, but it's apparent that he will.
"I was hoping to run the clock out with this deal, and I still am," he says as we slowly pedal amid the historic mansions in Courtlandt Place. "The law stuff used to be good gravy. Now we need to look for other gravy. Like Winston Churchill said, 'We must never surrender.' There will always be some messengers around. At least me."
Faux Go Go Go
Not all those bike messengers you see are the real thing.
Some casual observers on the streets of Houston may mistakenly believe that there are now more bike messengers than ever out and about. There aren't. Well, who then are all those people on fixed-gear bikes, wearing grungy messenger-looking clothes, with bike bags slung over their shoulders?
In a word, hipsters. And the old-school bike messengers hate them. "Fuck them all," says former messenger Butch Klotz. "And their moustaches."
Klotz backs up on that assessment a tad, but only a tad. "I'm happy that there are so many bikers here now that are tearing shit up," he says, but he remembers all too clearly his first encounter with one of these messenger replicants. He recalls the very corner he was on when it happened: Dunlavy at Westheimer. He saw a guy who looked to him like a messenger in from out of town, and as his is a close-knit international fraternity, he rode right up to introduce himself.
"So I'm like, 'Hey, what's goin' on?' and I get the fuckin' stink-eye," Klotz remembers. "The guy looked me up and down, like, 'You couldn't possibly know shit.' And I was like, 'What the fuck just happened here? You fucking turd. I'll bet you're in your car the first sign of rain.'"
Old Man Tim Bleakie shares Klotz's view. He, too, is glad more people are on bikes, but...
"They're a dime a dozen," he says. "You see them out there with their messenger bags that you can tell have never seen a rainstorm, or probably never even a package. And they usually use the sling-bags, and I've never used one of those because to me that's not really an appropriate way to be carrying things. The loads swing around, you get back problems...We call 'em coffee-shop couriers, or coffee couriers. The signature is the messenger bag." (Bleakie uses a backpack on his rounds.)
And then there's their choice of bike. Most of the old-school couriers came out of the mountain biking scene. While many have moved on to road bikes, hipsters nearly universally favor a more recent phenomenon, one that some messengers have also adopted in the last ten years. Namely, fixed-gear bikes, or "fixies": one-speeds with tiny, straight handlebars, no brakes, and the ability to be pedaled backwards and forwards.
"It's a fad, a style," declares Bleakie, who favors a road bike. "If they're on a bike, fine. If they want to ride around on the street with no brakes, be my damn guest, but don't expect to get paid if you get hit."
Bleakie also mocks the little handlebars. "They've all got those teeny straight-bars, and I'm sorry, but that's got to be the most uncomfortable and unstable way to ride you could possibly get. But if they think they're cool and they're riding their bike, man, my hat's off to 'em. I think I'm cool and I ride my bike, too."
"With that in mind," he continues, "people who ride without brakes or experience, who do it just because it's a fashion accessory, are fucking crazy."
"Some of these kids don't know how to ride them," Klotz says. [These hipsters] don't have toe-clips or clipped-in shoes. There's no recourse for hauling ass and being able to stop fast. I don't understand that."
Like many messengers, Klotz loves riding his fixed-gear. "The thought goes from your brain to your legs to your tires and to the street," he enthuses. "You get used to the rhythm of your bike. You know when you are coming up on a stop sign or an intersection that it's time to decide whether you will not make this one or you go through it. You have to adjust. Instead of bailing, you have to be real kung fu and find your way through the problem, instead of avoiding it."
The thing is, he and the other messengers on fixed-gears know what they are doing. "Now I am so absolutely tuned into it, my feet don't touch the ground except for when I get off the bike."
But the recent hipster embrace of fixed-gears has ruined some of his enjoyment.
"I can balance at a light, but I don't even do those tricks at lights anymore," he says. "Now that the words 'hipster' and 'fixed-gear' are in every fucking thing you read, I put my foot on the ground at lights so that I will look like a rookie. I'm gonna save that shiny stuff for my friends, but I don't want to give other folks a chance to lump me in with those turds."
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