The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh CulleyThe Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh Culley

The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power

byTravis Hugh Culley

Paperback | August 13, 2002

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Travis Hugh Culley went to Chicago to make his name in its thriving theater scene, yet found in his day job a sense of community and fulfillment—and a brotherhood of like-minded individualists—that he encountered nowhere else.

In The Immortal Class, Culley takes us inside the heart and soul of an American urban icon: the bicycle messenger. In describing his own history and those of his peers, he evokes a classic American maverick, deeply woven into the fabric of society—from the pits of squalor to the highest reaches of power and privilege—yet always resolutely, exuberantly outside.

Culley’s voice is at once earthy and soaringly poetic—a Gen-X Tom Joad at hyperspeed. The Immortal Class is a unique personal and political narrative of a cyclist’s life on the street.
Travis Hugh Culley, a director and playwright, has worked as a bike messenger in Philadelphia and Chicago, where he currently lives.From the Hardcover edition.
Title:The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human PowerFormat:PaperbackPublished:August 13, 2002Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0375760245

ISBN - 13:9780375760242


Read from the Book

Chapter 1Chapter oneDaybreak6:48 a.m.there is no distinction between man and machine when I mount a bike likethis one. Trusting all of my weight to the right pedal of a simple pulleysystem, I overcome the resistance of two thin tires bound by an aluminumframe and a steel chain. A small disk at the axle of the back wheel, slowlygiving way to the force of my weight, holds the pressure taut against thechain. As I lean forward, the weight of my body pulls the cog around therear axle, turning it one inch. The wheels, held tight by a matrix of metalspokes fixed to a hub, are pulled around a set of ball bearings by thetorqued cog. Eighteen inches of rubber wheel crawls forward.My weight shifts from pedal to pedal, reversing the side-to-side tilt ofthe frame. Like a plucked guitar string, the sideways sway of the cycle isnarrowed. Lateral motion is exchanged for speed. Ten yards. One block. Onemile. This specific process repeats itself endlessly. The press and pull ofmy legs draw the chain around a disk attached to a set of crank arms andpedals. All the parts work as a single organism, absorbing the asphalt andthe cold wind while adding power to the spin of the wheels to buildmomentum. My torso, held up by arms gripped to handlebars and toes clippedinto pedals, yanks the seat side to side. The bicycle and I shoot forward,going south into the Loop as the Great Lake rolls eastbound and another daybegins in Chicago.As I bolt headlong down from the Michigan Avenue Bridge to Madison Street,each dark Bauhaus shape blurs into the cold stone facade of its Gothicneighbor. I keep on, coasting in the pedals, taking a wide right turnwestbound on a vacant three-lane street through the center of downtown.This first delivery of the day shakes off my morning lag, pumping warmththrough my veins, bringing the first bit of sweat to my brow. The air isclean; my head is clear. I look for a left turn onto Wells.This morning, before the computers are booted up, the banks unlocked, andthe stock market scrolls clicked on, I am running delivery routes under thecity's yellow streetlights. The elevator banks are empty and the trafficlights, at what will soon be congested intersections, hold and change forno one. Most deliveries I make at this hour are to locked offices, wherepackages are slid beneath dim glass doors. I move as quickly andefficiently as I can, preserving my energy. A day of messengering is like ahard drug: you never know how rough it will be until you've slept it off.Out here, while I'm coasting unobstructed through the shadows of morning,the world seems at perfect peace. The whole city is still and relaxed. Evenbuildings get their beauty sleep. Coming out of the spinning doors of theMorton Salt Building, I keep a swift rhythm skipping down the cold steps,heading to the Grinch, my yellow Cannondale road bike, locked to the bridgerailing overlooking the riverbank. While the sky changes with dawn, asteady stream of people crowd the revolving doors over my left shoulder.Their eyes are half open, their manner calm; they smile softly like babiesstill tucked into bed.I enjoy this quiet time when the city's rhythm is slow. I can empathizewith the early-morning modesty, and I share the reflective awe that I seein the pious postures of people walking. This respect will fall away whenthe colors in the sky turn blue and the city awakes. These same quiet faceswill struggle for a spare minute, a phone number, a positive response froma supervisor or a client. Sincere people doing honest work will be driveninto shouting matches, compelled to insult each other, tempted to quitright on the spot.I'm with them every step of the way. I have seen the red faces and thefeelings of distrust as shoulders brush in crowded yet silent elevators. Ihave seen the masklike smiles they wear through stressful meetings aboutbottom lines. And yet I know none of these wandering souls. I talk to veryfew of them; they are somehow another species. Their machinery, and theirmythology, move in one direction only. They stand packed into tight spaces,they look up to the brass trim of elevators, and they rise like they arespirits ascending to a gilded afterlife. Is it a floor number they areafter? A title that will follow their name? A certain number of digits intheir salary? Perhaps they just want a little safety? I don't know. Butthey are on a path and they will kill to stay on that path.Every day I see them, good people yelling at each other, running past eachother, and stepping over each other. I see them at their worst: in thepublic space, on the street, where no one is looking and no one cares.I don't have time to be caught up in the sorrow of this. As my eyes havegrown tired of fanning over as many as a million people in a single day, myheart has grown weary of caring for them. My relationship to these peopleof the city is reduced to suffering the silence of elevators with them, orwalking through the ritual pickup and drop-off of packages with them, ormuscling through traffic where "please" and "thank you" are lost to theaggravating assault of car horns and uncalled-for profanities. I have foundthat these good people, so engrossed by their own private struggles, areoften incapable of conversation or a courteous word. They areconcentrating, holding up the weight of their self-made worlds, trying tofind higher ground.While these masses groan over the decisions they have made and theresponsibilities they have undertaken, I float above. I am free of theirideas of good and bad, rich and poor, right and wrong. As an uncommonlaborer I may not amount to much in their eyes, but I am free of theirjudgment. I am sometimes seen as a social misfit, a freeloader, a junkie,but I am also envied for the color, the vigor, the picture of America I canfind while they push their way through the weekday treadmill routine.I love my work and the people I work with. I admire the arrogant history ofthese old buildings, the monuments to the free market, and the avenues theyare built upon. They tell epic stories of the city's forefathers, hintingat codes of conduct that apply to some and not all. Street names givecredit to the elite like deep-rooted propaganda. Chicago remains acontentious city where big politics are played out on local levels, wherelawmakers learn their craft from kingpins, where virtue and suffering arethe poor man's plight. From its long history I still hear shouts of civiloutrage that echo down these quiet streets, reflecting moments in historylike the riots of '68, the burden of Black Friday, and the shock that cameafter the great fire of 1871.There is always some heated debate going on in the public squares.Protesters walk the streets and chant in the courtyards of governmentbuildings. Wanderers wear signs bearing political slogans. They are notasking for money or running for office; they simply believe in something,and they let you know it. I like being inside the arena, somewhere near thefight. I achieve this every morning with a radio, a set of wheels, and ateam of dependable couriers out to make a living.We wake the city along with freight trucks and the quiet tide ofpedestrians pouring out of suburban trains. We read about the latestatrocity on the cover of the Tribune as the papers are cut from theirbundles and loaded into curbside metal boxes. We ride familiar paths aroundthe city's feet and palms, seeing the abuses of the night before on herscarred back. We call out her landmarks, as we need to, keying in over theairwaves the pet names we've christened."Thirty-nine to base.""Number Thirty-nine go.""I'm out of the Lockbox, with a bag full o' rags.""Start rolling the Peat and call me on the Foote, Thirty-nine.""Yeah, boss.""And where is my Punk?""Thirty-three to base?""Hey, Punk, drop the coffee and call me out of the Litter Box. The Katz gotan Oil Can with your name on it.""But I am not drinking coffee-it's a mochaccino.""You're on route to the Kat, you rat, and Punk, make it snappy."The banter is one of the joys of the job. Each courier company develops itsown special brand of street language. That talk is shared between us duringthe day, after work, at home, making even the unseasoned courier feelaccepted-part of a larger group. Though we may treat each other harshly,there is usually a great deal of respect among us.Transcending age, sex, color, and all of that divisive sociopoliticalbullshit, the courier industry is supported by a very like-minded people.Many of us are artists and musicians, usually in our twenties. Most of ushave been broke long enough to be masters of survival and have dreamt bigenough to avoid the constraints of a salaried existence. I came to thiscity to succeed in the theater. I survive as a courier. Cadence for cashand Money for miles-these are the mantras of many a struggling genius. Wework for materials and we herald our poverty for the liberties it grantsus. Every week or so on the street I meet another ambitious biker who has abag full of handbills for their next big show or their next exhibition ortheir next club gig.Beyond these surface similarities, there is a deep and unspoken bondbetween couriers. When one is down, others carry the weight. When one ishurt, others are there to help. Some days the work can be so intense thatbikers dehydrate, panic, end up confused or lost, or get messages scrambledon the radio. We have to look out for one another. Bikers get hurt, andwhen we do, we are often our only family.Today, we talk about the gender of pigeons on the two-way radios, we watchthe world roll slowly before us, and we wait for pickups to be dispatchedover the airwaves.8:43 my rookie days, when I was still amazed and daunted by this rectangularhorizon, the job felt like some kind of sadistic punishment. I was clumsy,accident-prone, inefficient. The city was huge and complicated. I had towonder if I could last out here more than a week or two. But I continued. Icontinued because I had to, pushing through every day with ghoulishresignation. In no time a few lessons about the city surfaced as tricks orshortcuts. With them, I could more easily navigate and plan my maneuvers.But these lessons grew deeper as time went on, more profound. Eventuallythey took the shape of philosophical insights that helped me positionmyself mentally for the work. It is true: how you see things determines howyou live among them.The first major lesson came after only one week on the job. I was exhaustedfrom the miles I was putting on the bike. Mentally, I was fatigued by theeffort of being awake at every instant, organizing the excessive stimuli,learning the streets, the daily shuttles, and, of course, the talk. Thenone morning, I was called in to base to pick up some packages that wereleft undelivered from the night before.I pulled into the Service First alleyway, which was clogged with illegallyparked cars belonging to drivers who handled oversized orders and suburbanruns. The office was a converted garden apartment with a propped-open backdoor leading into a kitchen without cabinets or a sink. Only some tablesand chairs, littered with loose receipts, were scattered across the floor.An old refrigerator stood in the corner, loose water bottles and half-emptybeer cans rimming its top. The messengers' smudge marks and bike parts hadlong ago scraped out the domestic feel of the apartment. Bedrooms were madeinto private offices, closets were used for file management, and the whitewalls were tinted light brown from the support staff's afternoon sessionsof stressed-out chain-smoking.When I arrived, the dispatchers talked to me through a Plexiglas window cutinto the drywall of the cramped radio room. Chris Coster, a.k.a. Zero,handed me a few large envelopes. I'd sat down to organize them in my bagwhen Pat, Number Thirty-four, lurched through the back door, bike in hand.Pat had dreadlocks like short twigs pointing in every direction. He wasmuscular and tight, with tattoos tarred beneath his glistening black skin.His personality was part voodoo priest, part Wicker Park punk. "Man, fuckthis," he spat. Sweating and panicked, he rummaged through his plastic binfor a T-shirt that didn't smell too bad and a new helmet. In brokensentences he proceeded to vent through the sliding window that he had justgotten into some shit with a cabbie.Apparently, Pat was in the left lane trying to make a right turn when ataxicab accelerated, blocking his way. Pat sped up and signaled that he'dbe cutting in front to make the turn onto Grand Avenue. Just when he feltsafe to proceed, the driver sped up again, nearly swiping Pat off his bike.Pat swerved away and regained his balance. By this time the cab had drivenahead. Pat sprinted forward. (I know how he rides. The man has thedexterity of a mountain lion.) He pulled his U-lock out of his bag, came upfrom behind the taxi on the driver's side, and smashed in the window onlyinches from the cabbie's head. The driver hit the brakes and Pat was gone.Now, with a different colored helmet and shirt, he was ready to vanish intothe early-morning streets again, free from any possible retaliation.I was stunned into silence. I saw no point in relating to another humanbeing with violence. How did it help Pat to smash in the window of even themost obnoxious driver? How would it alter that driver's behavior, even ifhe was wrong or rude or pushy? Beyond this, I was astounded that he wouldshare this news with Chris and Dave Goldberg. These were the people who hadhired him. Maybe it's okay, I thought. Jesus, maybe it's normal!"Are you okay?" Zero asked Pat, sharply looking for information, caringnothing for his feelings."I'm good-just a little shaken," Pat came back easily."No shit!"Goldberg came to the window, asking if he thought the cabbie had seen thecompany name."Nah, he was a little distracted, I think.""Yeah, boyyyy!" Chris erupted in laughter."Take a few, Pat. Cool down.""Nah, man. I'm ready now. I'll call ya out of the Can in ten.""10-4. You go girl," Chris called out as the back door closed.

Editorial Reviews

“A book that could be called Zen and the Art of Bicycle Messengering . . . Just try to ignore [Culley’s] story. . . . He lived to tell the tale, and it’s a great one.” —The Arizona Republic “The Immortal Class deftly blends high theory with adrenaline-spiked tales from the front . . . that offer a fascinating look at a landscape few office workers ever glimpse.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer“Culley has written a paean to his profession.”—Chicago “An ever-kinetic prose straddling narrative and polemic, with an ear all the while for the small pebbles slipping beneath its feet.”—The Seattle Times“Fresh . . . On the frenzied rawness of courier life, Mr. Culley excels . . . Lively prose.”—The Economist