Art-deco bikes hung from the ceiling. Paintings from around the world adorned the walls. More than a dozen bands – and one trapeze act – waited to perform. The audience? Hundreds of bike messengers.
That was the scene at the SOMArts Gallery on the Labor Day weekend of 1996. The occasion was the very last Road Rash Bash – a recurring show put on by Dogpaw Carrillo’s bike messenger art collective. This two-day bash was organized in response to the first Cycle Messenger World Championships held in San Francisco.
The world championships brought messengers from around the world into the San Francisco messenger scene – and the Road Rash Bash gave them some insight into the rich, diverse culture of the city’s messenger community, said Carrillo.
That weekend, as he watched the SOMArts Gallery fill with bike messengers from around the world, Dogpaw Carrillo’s tenure as a messenger came to a close. But his identity as a messenger has stuck with him, as it has with many of his fellow messengers who watch the current resurgence of bike messengers and remember their own times – the ways the dispatcher worked, the art, the drugs and the friends lost to it all.
Work as a Bike Messenger
Back before cellphones and GPS, a bike messenger’s whole job revolved around the dispatcher – the mastermind back at the office mapping out routes for each messenger and doling out jobs. Newbies were given two rolls of dimes to call the office for their next assignment, said Carrillo. Veterans got radios.
Most bike messengers at the time delivered blueprints and parcels, though not just that: Carrillo remembers delivering dentures, jewelry, and once a $250,000 ring.
“There was always something else. I remember delivering a skeleton from the medical building at 450 Sutter,” said Dogpaw. “It’s sitting in your basket, grinning, and people are going, ‘Whoa, look at that!’ ”
Between pickups and drops, messengers would congregate at Jackson Park or at “The Wall,” a granite wall on Sutter and Sansome streets. Many would crack open a beer and roll a joint, according to Dennis Dread, a messenger who worked from 1985 to 1986 and again from 1990 to 1991.
At bike messenger haunts like these, “there’d be 50 bike messengers having lunch, drinking lunch, or smoking lunch,” joked Carrillo.
Of course, not all was fun and games: it was hard work, and the risk of injury was high. Off the top of his head, Howard Williams, who worked as a messenger from 1982 to 2004 and even served as the president of the San Francisco Bike Messengers Association, could think of five messengers who were killed in accidents while working, hit by cars or trucks.
Dread had some close calls while biking, including the time he was trying to make a left in front of Zeitgeist bar on Valencia Street when a Volkswagen ran right into him and sent him flying. He was left with a broken arm, a broken leg, and some internal injuries.
“There’s a spot on my head that’s numb to this day from nerve damage,” said Dread. “It wasn’t pretty.”
A Creative Community
Despite the risk, many young people were still drawn to the job.
One of the great things about being a messenger, said former messenger Rick Byrd, was that you didn’t go home with anything to work on. “At the end of your day, you’re done. That gives you a little bit of freedom,” he said.
Many used this freedom to pursue other interests. Some musically inclined messengers formed bands and put on shows at different haunts, like The Farm – a house at 1499 Potrero Avenue owned by a couple who, in the late ’70s, decided to bring a little nature into their urban life and raise barnyard animals in their home.
“$4 for normal entry, $3 with bike messenger ID,” read promotional posters made by other messengers, including Carrillo. IDs were issued by each messengering company. Carrillo still carries his with him: a laminated white and red card with his picture, name, basic information, and “Aero Special Delivery.”
Carrillo estimates that when he started, there were about 500 messengers on the road, split between some 18 companies. Of those messengers, he says, around 100 were actively involved in the community in different ways: from making messenger-related “zines,” to organizing demonstrations, to just partying. Today, there are some 300 people with bike delivery jobs, estimated the current president of the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association.
“We were close knit,” recalls Dread. “There were cliques, but we still all knew each other.”
The revelry even attracted non-messengers, most notably, longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who attended a party at The Farm, according to Carrillo.
“He was a vision,” said Carrillo. “He’s this old guy from the 40s…and he’s in this room full of characters, and he’s got a brunette on one arm, a blonde on the other arm. They’re both in red, they’re both stunning. Yeah, he was one of our heroes.”
The Drug Scene
Despite all the fun, and the “good, gentle, forward-thinking, radical” community that Carrillo remembers, for some the reality was harsher. The drug culture was everywhere, according to Dread, and far harder to navigate than the roads.
“They were crazy,” said Dread of the parties at The Farm. “There were people slam dancing. Lots of beer was consumed. And there was acid.”
“People were just off the hook,” added another former messenger, Louisa Hesselgesser, who worked throughout the ’80s. “People were just over the top, we did everything to the extreme. ‘Hey, want to try this? Hey, want to shoot some coke? Hey, want to drink until six in the morning and then ride our bikes through South of Market and then go to work?’ ”
Carrillo, who prefers to focus on the “camaraderie” of the events, reluctantly agreed that there was a lot of LSD at the parties. “Great fun under adult supervision of course,” he called it. “And there’s barnyard animals to keep us entertained!”
Hesselgesser was very involved with drugs during her time as a messenger, she said, and it interfered with her work: toward the end of her messengering career, she remembers days when she and her friends would forgo delivering any packages, and party instead. They would then either quit or be fired, and go off to another company.
Luckily for Dread and Hesselgesser, they were able to get out – but that was not the case for everyone. Dread estimates that since he left the scene in 1991, around 50 of the messengers he worked with have passed away. He had one friend who died from a heart attack caused by speed on his 21st birthday.
“I’m gonna be 58 in November,” said Dread. “Which is not really old. If you died before now, then you died too young. You died too early, behind drugs.”
Trouble with Authority
Mix a feeling of indestructibility – and sometimes drugs – with bikes, and you get risky riding, said Dread. The more they rode, the more brazen they got, making more and more dangerous moves for “the thrill,” he added.
Dread remembers when he once rode his bike under an unusually tall tractor trailer.
“When I popped out the other side the guy was like ‘What!??!’ ” laughs Dread. “He looked at me like I had three heads.”
Carrillo also remembers the summer of 1985, when he and his friends would wait at the firehouse to draft behind fire trucks.
Of course, this kind of behavior didn’t make for a very amiable relationship with the police. The messenger-cop antagonism was especially tense tense during the “crackdowns” of 1984 and 1989, when the messengers felt the police were targeting them specifically for traffic violations, according to Williams.
In 1989, a messenger named Mark “Markus” Cook – who passed away from a heroin overdose in 1996 at age 35, according to Williams – organized a demonstration at city hall to protest the crackdown. His group of messengers were given a meeting with city officials, said Williams, and afterwards the police loosened up.
Of course, not everyone was an adrenaline junky. Some took the job very seriously, like Rick Byrd.
“I would be that guy – the ‘of course’ guy,” said Byrd. “You could send me anywhere. You want to send me to Marin County? You send me to Marin County. You want to send me to Daly City? You send me to Daly City.”
After a year at college in New Hampshire, Byrd, a Washington D.C. native, moved to Santa Cruz and later became a messenger in San Francisco. An avid biker, he skipped parties on the weekends for 200-mile bike rides. While others were cracking open a beer in the morning, he was drinking Gatorade and doing stretches, he said.
People “always try to make messengers seem like some wacky circus extension, like circus animals on the street,” he said. But in reality, he said, it took a lot of hard work and responsibility to do well.
Byrd also saw bike messengers as innovators. They were the best test riders for new bike products, he said, “because…what a normal test rider does in a month, a messenger does in a week and a half.”
Though Byrd stopped messengering in 1989, he is still an avid biker, and now builds bikes. He also has six patents – two of which are for specialized bike locks – and has even held conferences on bike security.
Byrd was not alone in his attitude, but, as Herb Caen understood, messengers were a mixed lot.
“And to think there are those who do not admire our mad bike messengers,” Caen wrote in his column on January 6, 1983. “They never cease to amaze, amuse, and frighten me.”