By Riley Cardoza
Two weeks after taking the Megabus from Maine to Manhattan, Alex James pedals through the Upper West Side with fifty tacos and two liters of Coke on his back. A taxi rolled over his cell phone this afternoon, an ambulance drove his co-worker to the hospital with a head injury last week, and a car threw him over his handlebars in December. But that’s reality for this 24-year-old bicycle courier, risking his life six days a week for a paycheck that will keep him in Manhattan.
You moved to New York in August and started looking for a job. Why biking?
I didn’t want to work in a restaurant. Being a bicycle messenger seemed like an appealing option. I’d never done it in New York before, but it didn’t seem that challenging. I didn’t have a smart phone or a bicycle, but when I found my company on Craigslist, they offered everything that I would need to work for them. Now I like the physical aspect of it and the thrill of riding through crazy ass traffic.
How was your first week on the job?
My one day of training was super overwhelming because my trainer was just like, “You’ll figure it out. Get us here.” I had no idea about the streets or anything like that. I lost her somehow and my partner. The first time I went out alone, it was difficult and I wanted to cry at times, but then by day three, I realized it wasn’t awful at all, far from it.
What’s an average day like now?
An average day, I’ll show up to the work truck around 11:00 with some of my gear and then I have to get some gear from the truck, log into the phones they provide for us, and then head out. We all hang out in Worldwide Plaza on 49th until we get a delivery, but usually before I even get there I have one. I’ll go to the restaurant to pick up the food and then I’ll take it wherever it’s going in my zone, the Upper West Side. The company averages three orders an hour and I’m in that average, probably three and a half per hour. On a good day, I can do four, sometimes five, but it depends on how I’m feeling. Speed or stamina or whatever could make that increase or decrease.
How often do you work?
I work eight shifts a week for 30 to 35 hours total. Each one is anywhere between three and a half to five and a half hours.
You must know the ins and outs by now. Care to share the secrets of the trade?
Don’t go on 42nd Street, it’s a freaking zoo. Going north on 8th Avenue during rush hour is crazy, too, because you’re just biking through so many people. It’s a potential bloodbath.
Everyone thinks rain and snow is bad. It does suck, don’t get me wrong, but the wind is the worst. It’s crippling. You can’t even move sometimes. It’s hard to stand up and steer.
Working between 11:30 to 2:30 and 5:30 to 8:30 is good for making the most money. Those brackets are really busy because of the lunch and dinner rush.
You worked in a home as an aide for disabled adults in Maine for four years. Have any of those caretaking skills helped you as a courier?
Patience from caretaking has been so helpful in the biking realm. I felt like I was already prepared for people who may be in varying mental states. I always assess the situation first. At my old job, I needed to be gentle and assertive. It’s like steering a really big ship you’ve got to keep on course.
What kind of people do you encounter on the street?
For most drivers, it seems like they’ve had it with cyclists. They just will almost fake you out and get really close to you or zoom by really quickly way too close and they know it. If someone does that, I’ll go really fast to try to catch up with them and be like, “What’s your deal? Why would you do that? You can’t do that to people.” Often in those confrontational moments, they’ll just be like, pretty much like, “Fuck you,” because they don’t care.
Pedestrians will see you coming and then just be like, “I’m walking anyway,” like you’re just going to stop for them and you’re not a vehicle. It seems like everyone expects cyclists to stop for everything all the time and stay in line with traffic. People are generally inconsiderate.
What about the people off the street?
There are the people who order food and have to come downstairs to get it, then act like that’s your fault for some reason and take their time. But time is money. You want to complete as many deliveries as possible to get more money.
Security guards, some of them are really nice. Some of them are not as nice. I try and start out nice to most of them, but then it’s clear that they just hate you or don’t care about you or something. They’ll take their time and just ignore you sometimes or be really sassy and rude.
How long do you plan to stay?
Until I get my share in the company, which happens a year after full time. You have to work 40 hours a week for a year and I’ve been in the 30-range since August, so it’s probably going to take me another six months. It’s a start up, so if they ever go public, the share would be worth a lot of money. It’s a good investment and all I have to do is go to work for it. I’m eager to change jobs, but it’s too good to pass up because I think they’re doing something right.
So you plan on returning to caretaking?
Yeah. I didn’t start that immediately because I wasn’t in a good headspace for it. I knew I couldn’t do it well. Plus, I had to get my New York state license and they also have to train you. That process takes time, and I couldn’t just be in a phase of training for a month to two months and not make enough money to save and survive.
What do you miss about that field?
As a caretaker, you get paid to hang out with somebody. You wipe a butt here, you wipe a nose there, you clean up stuff. They’re not as able, but they’re far from disabled. They aren’t shut down, they have a handicap, which means they are still functioning, but in a lesser capacity in some ways. But if you ask me, they’re functioning in a higher capacity than most people are because they’re decent most of the time and a lot of people aren’t.