Chop-Shop Mentality

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Everyone thinks I’m slumming, and I understand why. When you tell people you’re going to be a bike messenger, they look at you strangely. They won’t accept that you actually need the money, or that it’s going to be good for you. Certain other facets of your life distract them.
I’ve published two books. I got paid for the books. Thing is, I’ll never get paid that much for writing books again. They gave me money thinking I’d be the next something-or-other. I haven’t been. Next time, maybe, I’ll get a quarter as much.

In the meantime, I’ve hoarded my money and I haven’t developed many skills. I’m one of about two million New Yorkers who can write and do web production. Plus I can’t speak Mandarin. I can’t even speak Spanish. I’m not the most capable 21st century man.

So I went in on a Friday. Finished up with my shrink at 9:30 a.m. and got on my bike. I have an 18-speed Lemond with Kevlar tires. To conceal my bike’s pedigree I wrap it in old inner tubes. My friend Jordan showed me how to do that. He used to be a messenger. He laughed when I told him I was starting.

“It might be good for you, I don’t know. Get a little bit of that chop-shop mentality.”

“The ‘chop-shop?’”

“Yeah, the hustle, the rip-off. These guys are going to rip you off left and right. It’s rough.”

I wanted rough. In the wake of my book, I started my own company and kept it running for two years. But I’ve never worked for anyone else. Not since I was a teenager. I’ve worked either for my mom or myself. Haven’t filled out a job application; haven’t sent my resume out on Monster; haven’t gotten up in the morning and drank coffee on my way to somewhere solid. Anywhere. Somewhere where I got paid just to be. It’s a horrific feeling and a serious need.

I sailed over the Manhattan Bridge. It was the second really cold day of the year. I knew I’d picked a good time to start. The people who couldn’t stand the cold were dropping off. They needed to be replaced. What kind of nut starts doing bike messenger work in winter?

My chest iced over and my phlegm took on a metallic taste. I thought about my body and how it could do better. I didn’t think about book sales or my Web site or my living situation (between my mom and my grandma—between my mom and my grandma) or how the mighty have fallen (Phi Beta Kappa, you know) or what I was going to do next. I thought about the metal bumps on the bridge, a pair of which cross your path at each tower, and accommodated them by pulling my handlebars up as I approached.

In my back pocket were my Google Maps. I’d gone on Google Maps the night before with the classifieds. There were seven listings for messengers. I was only interested in the ones with addresses and times to show up. I had four stops. First was West 17th St.

It was a sushi outlet on the ground floor, a tiny one. Maybe five people could stand in line to purchase sushi there. Maybe it was like the Soup Nazi; maybe they formed lines around the block. They were just putting the sushi out. I loped up to the third floor. On the way up the stairs were placards for a dance school, then a computer printout sign with early-90s clip art of a man with a big nose on a bicycle. You may have seen this clip art. “That’s me,” I thought.

Inside was a wide lobby area with a long table; then a glass partition; then, behind it, a half-dozen people on computers with blue screens and plain text readouts. In DOS. I approached.

“And who are you?” a flighty black guy asked.

“I’m here to apply for the messenger position.”

“Here, fill this out.” He handed me four stapled pages.

I came out to the lobby table. An older black guy—in his 40s, it looked like—was filling out his form. This was my competition. I sat down. I had no pen. See, I do have a lack of skills. I looked at the third person at the table—a stylish Hispanic kid with a clipboard in front of him, colored squares on it. He had a purple pen.

“Can I borrow that?”

He handed it to me without a word.

Address. Education. Three former employers.

Now, this was a bit difficult for me. Three former employers. Let’s see. There was my own company, which did web production and community development, but that didn’t have a phone number anymore, which meant I had to put the phone number of my ex-business partner, unless I wanted to put my phone number, which wouldn’t look too good. There was my parents’ business, the address of which I didn’t know for sure, besides which I already had my mom listed as “emergency contact.” If I listed her as the reference as well and she answered her phone by name, as she’s apt to do, they’d know she was my mom. And my third employer, the only third-party employer I’ve had since 2002, was Hyperion Books—was I going to put my editor’s number as the reference?

What’s important, I decided, is that I fill the thing up and not cross anything out. It should be a landscape of crisp text. That’s probably all they’re looking for—the gradient.

Page three and four were a test. The first question was “Where is the Empire State Building?” but from there it got difficult. Where is Pier 59? What building is at 89th St. and 6th Ave.? (Trick!) If you need to deliver a package and the customer isn’t there, what should you do?

I answered all the questions in the way that would least bother of my employers—that meant never selecting “call base.” Within ten minutes I was finished—the black guy had beat me—and I turned my app into a different man from the one who gave it to me, a fat white guy with whiskers.

“Boss’ll call you by next Friday,” he said. “We don’t pay by the hour. We pay by commission. Our bikers make way more than three hundred dollars per week.”

Jesus. I should hope so. I left. Next up was on Broadway; the whole building seemed to house messenger companies. As I walked in the office with my helmet on, the woman behind the desk said, “I don’t hire bikers.”

Champion Couriers was next. I was lithe with the traffic now. The one thing that I knew I had going for me with this job was the fact that I do not fear death. I nearly got hit with a flying garbage bag; I split the difference between two trucks with six inches to either side; I gave an NYU student stepping into a cab a true “Whoop!” moment, an unfeigned intake of breath and reflexive draw-back. I was good.

Champion had an even sparer “lobby,” with no table. A long-faced white guy gave me my application and then sat down and dictated a delivery from Versace to Star Magazine—“for Bonnie Fuller,” he said.

I always knew I’d be in with the power brokers.

I realized, again, that I didn’t have a pen—and there wasn’t anyone to ask here. I couldn’t ask the Bonnie Fuller handler who gave me the application—that was one of the few things you could do, I figured, to completely remove yourself from the hiring pool. So I caromed downstairs and out into midtown Manhattan looking for a single Bic pen—anyone, anywhere, please? There were no delis. There were no drugstores. I ended up buying one from a man in a newsstand—he was, in fact, in the smallest newsstand I had ever seen, with as much room to move as a veal calf. He charged me seventy-five cents.

Back to the office! Pull out a chair! Back to the application! The same set of questions, but this app looked older, more government-sanctioned, and there was no test.

The guy looked through my app. He looked at my paltry accomplishments and hard-thought-up friends. He looked at where I’ve gotten to in life and where I used to be, where I had the potential to be. He stood up.

“Come in on Monday at eight-o-clock. Speak to Elliot or me. I’m Mike.”

“Okay, sir.”

I’m not one to make big statements. I’m not interested in trying to answer huge questions about myself. But in all my life, why the hell hadn’t I just gone in somewhere and gotten a job? Why had I lived with the anxiety and frustration and bullshit of not knowing if I could do it? Was it just because I didn’t have to?

Well now I had to. And now I’d done it. And after that acceptance, I went to another service, for backup, and got hired there too, told to come in at nine-o-clock on Monday, so that if the eight-o-clock place didn’t work out I had somewhere to go.

I ate lunch. I felt more accomplished than I have for a long time.

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