Jerry moved to San Francisco from central California specifically for his job. Gabriel, as well. And no, neither are in tech.
At a time when 20-somethings are moving in droves into the city for tech jobs, it’s easy to forget that there are other draws besides coding and startups.
It happens that San Francisco’s weather and culture are particularly suited for bike messengering – a niche industry that began in San Francisco in 1894, during a railway strike, and has transformed along with the economy. The advent of the fax machine squashed the 1970s tradition of taking drafts between design firms and printers, but bike messengers in the 1980s still had plenty of work delivering legal documents and parcels.
Nowadays, food delivery is on the rise, and once again, the profession is attracting young men like Gabriel. He discovered his calling after seeing a 2007 video by MASHSF, which has many videos depicting SF’s bike messengers owning the city – blithely scaling walls, steps and careening through streets jammed with traffic. To many, the job promises exactly that kind of freedom, as well as the flexibility to roam the city while making money and being a part of a tight community.
“There’s a lot of white collar, non-physicals jobs that people do here, and there’s a draw to do something that’s outside, that’s physical, that’s blue collar,” says co-founder of TCB Courier, Chas Christiansen, who has been in the messenger business for about a decade.
“There’s a lot of people who do it for three or four months cause they watch like Premium Rush – some Joseph Gordon Levitt movie that came out a couple years ago about bike messengering – and they think it’s super glamorous. But then you know, it’s hard work,” he said.
It’s hard work, but in San Francisco – more than in other places – that can pay off.
“I make three times more money here, and my rent is exactly the same,” says a messenger named Jake Ricker, who was working as a messenger in Seattle but moved to San Francisco for better pay.
Christiansen says residents here have “more money than time,” which adds up to “a really rich marketplace for people to charge a relatively high price for same-day delivery.”
Some messengers make upwards of $1000 a week, and many live in San Francisco. To earn that much, however, means daily double shifts, which they say is brutal.
Rob, a 20-something with a bushy brown beard and blue gauges that match his eyes, started as a messenger in Boston until one winter day when, “it snowed, rained, hailed, rained, and snowed all within one delivery.” That was the nail in the coffin, he says – he promptly moved west.
Rob and Gabriel work for Christiansen’s TCB Courier, which was founded in 2009 and is one of at least a half-dozen same-day delivery companies currently operating in San Francisco. Homebase for the TCB couriers in the Mission is a spot on the sidewalk at 21st and Valencia. This is where they wait, walkie-talkies and smartphones in hand, for their next assignment.
Some of them – like Jesse Rodarte, a 24-year-old from Fresno, who beams with enthusiasm about his new job – just started messengering a few weeks ago. Others, like 27-year-old Ricker, have been doing this for years.
“I love it,” says Rodarte. “So far it’s great. I love riding my bike all day, that’s great.”
Heather MacKinnon, who is sitting with us and worked as a messenger in both New York and Boston for over a year before coming to TCB a few months ago, chuckles and smiles in agreement as Rodarte goes on.
“Even when I wake up and I don’t feel like, super excited to go to work, once I get out there, you can’t be too mad riding a bike,” he says.
Rodarte says he also likes the challenge of navigating everywhere quickly. “It’s like a game,” he tells me. “Figuring out the quickest, easiest way to get anywhere all the time.”
He only started riding bikes seriously in 2011 when he moved from downtown to the Sunset and was working in food service in Fisherman’s Wharf.
“It was all because I hated taking the Muni,” he jokes.
Now, he rides at least 200 miles a week.
Jerry Kammerzell, who moved from Bakersfield, said the best part of the job for him is the freedom.
“It’s just different. I’ve been retail jobs before working in stores, and it’s just shitty, you just feel like a slave…out here, it’s worth it if you make it worth it. It’s not just sitting around trying to sell people stuff that they don’t want.”
“I wouldn’t take it back for anything,” he says.
Ricker, who went to the Art Institute of Seattle for photography before becoming a messenger there for six years, says that one draw was the ability to take photos.
“It’s a way to be outside, to people watch,” he adds, and shows me his Contax T3 35 millimeter camera, which he has owned since Christmas 2008.
MacKinnon likes staying active. “It kind of keeps my mental health up and my physical health up,” she says.
There is also an instant community of friends.
“The community aspect is really cool,” MacKinnon says. “It almost feels like a little family in that way.”
It’s a camaraderie that has an opportunity to gestate during slow times. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, about six messengers – including a large, bearded man they call Grandma – are hanging out on the corner, waiting for business to pick up.
They notice that Kammerzell rented some DVDs, and make fun of him for returning the last ones he rented late.
“You could throw it from here!” teases Ricker. “You don’t even have to lock your bike, you just throw it in the bin!”
They also have running jokes – like “Catch that Joey,” game that involves snapping a picture of one of the messengers, Joey, as he bikes by. A few have formed bands. Plus, every first Monday of the month, they have TCB night at El Rio.
Despite the love they have for their job, many messengers acknowledge that they won’t be able to stick with it forever.
“I figure I’m still pretty young. This is probably one of the only times in my life that I get to really be able to do this, so I’m going to try to take advantage of it. I’m sure I’ll miss it when I’m older and, you know, I have a different life going on,” says Rodarte, a little sheepishly.
“I don’t know,” says Rob, when I ask him if he has plans to do this for a long time. “I don’t really have any other prospects I guess, so, for now it’s a good job. I don’t think I could do it forever, I don’t think my body’s gonna hold up forever. So I’ll have to figure something out eventually.”
Tomorrow: The Work of a San Francisco Bike Messenger