Readers of a certain age will remember a little of life before the internet. You will remember the birth of the answer phone, which saved you from having to actually be home to get a message from a friend. You will remember walking, or driving, or riding around town on a Saturday night propelled by rumours of a party, hoping to meet your friends ‘somewhere on Aro St’. You’d turn up to the party and there would be no one there but the hapless host so you’d make your excuses and leave, only to find out the next day everyone arrived half an hour later and you missed the party of the week.
Another quaint ancient practice was looking for jobs in the newspaper. You’d buy The Post on Saturday, take it home and sit with your cup of tea and go over the pages with a pen in your hand. This was called ‘looking for a job’ and it took all of 5 minutes a week. I suppose if you were really serious you went to an agency, but I hoped I would be going to drama school so I didn’t want that kind of job - I didn’t want to be that tied down (man).
But within a month or so of getting back to Wellington I stumbled on gold - an ad from a new firm called Office Express looking for bicycle couriers. Get paid to ride a bike all day? Seemed like a no brainer to me.
So I turned up to a a small office on Taranaki street (two sweaty rooms lined in brown formica) and was interviewed by Tom and Steve, the two guys who had set this thing up.
As I demonstrated the key requirements for the job (a bike, the ability to speak and the availability) I was employed on the spot. I was the fifth sub-contractor for the company and became instantly known by the romantic and evocative handle of ‘Bike 7’. The owners were Bike 1 and Bike 2.
I had a day shadowing Tom, one of the founders, who it turned out was younger than I was. 19. As I was busily foreshadowing 90s slacker attitude he was forging ahead as a shining example of 80s self-starter endeavour. Needless to say he’s generally had quite a lot more success with the outside world than me over the years - hi Tom!
The job itself was simple. A dispatcher called out jobs and if you were near you called it in. You went to wherever it was, picked up the item, took a ticket for it, took it in less than an hour to wherever it was needed. At the end of the day you took your ticket stubs back into the office and you got half the ticket price. A standard one hour job was $5, so you got $2.50 per ticket. A standard day was worth about $80-$100, so that was about 40-50 jobs a day.
That’s the job. Took about as long to learn it as it took you to read that last paragraph. It was a classic kiwi, zero-hour, paid by performance, sub-contractor opportunity. If I’d had my head screwed on the right way I probably could have claimed lycra depreciation and tyre wear.
Most of the early riders were bored firemen. They worked long shifts and then had a week off and rather than sit around and watch TV they would pull a few days on the bike to make a bit of money and keep fit. Temperamentally they were ideal - totally reliable, fit and impervious to ‘prevailing conditions’. There were a lot of ‘Steves’.
This was long before the rise of the MAMIL. In the late 80s we would have been the first cyclists that many people would have seen in the city. Bikes were still for kids. We had the luxury of being a novelty where now couriers - and cyclists in general - are seen as smears of humanity by the Clarkson set. I don’t think it had much to do with me but there was certainly an appreciative sector of the receptionist population. Firemen. In tight shorts. ’Nuff said.
I was, as ever, the clown. I can’t stop my performative self leaking into my everyday life so I would do things like wear bright-red tights, or put fluffy dice on my handlebars. One day I answered my radio in appalling ‘Allo allo’ French and caused enough mirth that I was forever known as ‘Pierre’. Even in my McJob I couldn’t help but play up, spin a new personality, invent something.
It won’t come as a surprise to you to learn that your style of riding becomes somewhat, errr, loose. The perception of couriers is that they are some dumb grunt on a bike trying to look cool why they just about run everyone over. It certainly can look like that, but the aim of the courier is not to go fast it’s to not stop. You want to keep a steady speed as it’s the slowing down and speeding up that takes concentration, wears out your brake pads and reduces your ticket count. And stopping gets plain boring when you have to do it 100 times a day.
So after a while you start to read everything in terms of mass, direction and velocity. It all starts to feel a little like this…
Doesn’t matter if it’s a car, a truck or a person, everything is processed as a thing moving in space, something to be ridden around with the greatest possible efficiency. This is why couriers look like they are ignoring you and staring blankly past you - they are ignoring you. Instead they are assembling a complex map of movement, hazards and impacts of which you are but one 55-90kg object moving at around 5kph, pretty low on the hierarchy of things that might kill you.
It also won’t surprise you that this perspective puts you in conflict with the general car driving population. They get cross at watching cyclists wantonly break laws. These days I am a very cautious rider but back then I simply didn’t give a shit. As long as you didn’t hit anyone (and I never did) then any manoeuvre was fair game.
Not everyone saw it that way. I remember one guy in a cement truck chasing me down the middle of Upper Taranaki Street screaming ‘you deserve to die’ repeatedly at me. Easily outrun, but you don’t want to get in the way of one of those, trust me.
Despite being surrounded by hills the CBD in Wellington is dead flat. It’s 15 minutes maximum from one end to the other, in world terms it’s tiny. So you did a lot of laps in a day, taking the same corners dozens of times in a week. With it’s one-way streets it’s a bit like riding a circuit race all day.
Round and round, in and out, up and down.
Day in, day out, fair weather and foul.
You learn to deal with the cold and having rain driven down your neck and being saturated at 9am with a whole day in front of you.
You learn every pothole on every street. Which manhole covers are slippery in the rain. Which cracks to ride over and which to jump. You learn all the shortcuts, where the pavement is a viable option, which alleys go nowhere are which are a secret back way into a building. You literally know the heights of certain kerbs - which ones are an easy bunny-hop, which ones you need to wheelie onto.
Given Wellington’s climate somedays it was more like sailing than riding. You learned the wind-sheer of certain blustery buildings and the streets where the wind gusts like a cannon. The Northerly would funnel down Lambton Quay, forcing you to a crawl as you made you way up it, your satchel like an air-brake. Then you’d go onto a howling broad reach as you headed briefly east in front of the railway station, where the whitecaps on the harbour became briefly visible between the warehouses on the docks. Then you’d get the benefit of a top-gear run down Waterloo Quay, easily outpacing the 30 mile an hour traffic, the wind biting at your back like a pack of playful wolves.
There is a hard-won delight in this kind of mastery of the environment. When you’re fit and in the groove, circling the city for hours on end has a real joy to it. You have your own rhythm, a bike rhythm. It’s certainly not the rhythm of the workers, you are a long long way from their stress - the designers getting something to print for a deadline, the lawyers trying to close a deal - they are kind of over there. You are outside. Sure, you are in a lot of traffic and often the weather is absolutely shit, but you are not inside, in an office, owned by The Man (man).
Instead you are in that hinterland of people who are not central to whole capitalist thing, yet still have a role in it. A supporting role. Couriers, cleaners, sandwich jockeys, baristas. No one cares who you are, and that has it’s own attraction. You might be in a lift dripping with road grime, rain and sweat with a couple of suits looking at you, slightly appalled, like you were a kind of tramp, but at least I don’t have your job you fuck.
Such things mattered at the time. I still feel pretty much the same when I get in lift of suits at my current job. It’s not their fault of course, and it says more about my ongoing immaturity and misplaced idealism than anything about them. Looked at objectively I was very much one of them, just another of the capitalism-drenched cogs grinding through the machinations of so-called free enterprise and government.
We were still in a world where faxes were not good enough for official documentation, where advertising and marketing material was assembled by hand or drawn - a world of letraset, instructions by hard to typographers, photolithography that had to be checked and proofed by eye, where corrections had to be sent back to printers and then back to agencies and then to the client and then back to the printer. From the marketing machine to the law machine to the finance machine to the politics machine. Then back around again.
And back then they really were machines. You’d hear them through the door. The rattle of an electric typewriter, the whirring-clank of the printing presses, the nervy staccato of the dot-matrix printer, the long steady stride of the photo-copier. It’s hard to conjure this world for people now, it seems distant and heroically naff. A world where you walked into an office and wouldn’t see a bank of computers. Instead someone might be typing, someone would be at a layout table or a desk with a pen, with ink in it, and paper. And a lot of people were smoking.
My dad smoked a pipe. At work. Inside.
There was so much paper. The CBD was a constant and endless stream of physical documents, a whirling vortex of proofs, letters, contracts and litho-plates that had to land in the right place at the right time. We were the way these things moved around, the ultimate sneaker-net, a pre-internet of things. Seen in this way we were entirely functional, a pluggable unit of delivery that took something from one place and put it accurately into another place, a ‘transfer protocol’.
We were wheels within wheels that rode cogs and wheels. Seen with a logistics eye my bike and my legs were another set of tubes and moving circles that kept it all going - energy as food converted into utility of movement through a machine converted into monetary value.
Looking back on it I wasn’t escaping The Man (man), I was just avoiding the full horror of having to stare into his dark eyes from the position of a desk. Instead I was riding round his feet, poking him in the ankle, but still serving. Just another orc to the dark master of capitalism. At the time it was mostly just great fun, in a young man in unnecessary danger kind of way. And I was Pierre, how could it not be tres amusing?
The only thing that wasn’t very amusing was the office Christmas Party. As a ‘treat’ one of the Steve’s bought in a stripper. What he was thinking I have no idea. What she was thinking as she started to take off her clothes in a tiny room full of sweaty, drunk men in lycra I hate to think. I suspect I was many times more embarrassed for her than she was. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for anyone. I hope.
I can see how the job itself can become a way of life. There’s plenty that have, and we should listen to them, because they have a unique take on life and are very entertaining.
But while I enjoyed being Pierre I was not was sticking around. I’d been mucking around on stage during the year and had the good fortune to get into Drama School, so I rode out my second summer and then bid Office Express goodbye. I’d also had the luck to meet the woman who is now sitting over the table from me many years later, reading my previous post and having the good grace to chuckle every now and then - hi Steph! - so it was a great year all round.
Oh, the bike?
I started out on the ‘Kuwahara’ and then Tom sold me someone’s old racing bike for $300. It was not stickered but we think it was a base model Vincolo.
Vincolo was a small builder based in Palmerston North. He made some spectacular frames.
This was not one of them. They also (I believe, someone correct me) had frames made by various people around the country, and maybe even restickered some overseas frames?! Mine was a base model, just a collection of Reynolds 501 steel tubes in a very standard set of angles with a basic Shimano group set. A classic steel road bike. There was none of this fixed-gear posing, ace-of-spades card in the spokes or tattoo nonsense, that was still twenty years in the future. Aside from the fact it had had 6 speeds at the back rather than 5 it was pretty much identical to the Black Gios I had started racing on seven years previous. In fact the frame is almost identical to the one I rode into work on today, over twenty-five years later.
I sold it back to Tom when I left the company, it was a one of those bikes that seemed to live in the business. A workhorse.
So now I was back down to one bike, my Diamond Back. Did I mention that somewhere in there I had bought a new mountain bike?
Better go onto that then…
Next: Via the Apex
I found a lot of great material on couriers as I hunted for clips for this piece. I even started a Youtube Channel for your amusement, where I will post things that didn’t make the final cut.
Here’s a more recent take on being a courier, from a thoughtful Londoner.