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STYLE & CULTURE
L.A.'s traffic-dodging bike messengers gear up to prove their mettle.
By Duane Noriyuki
Times Staff Writer
August 20 2003
IT'S a recent Friday, the busiest day of the week for bicycle messengers in downtown Los Angeles. Psycho John, making a brief appearance, drives an orange Ford Fiesta up over the curb and parks behind a concrete piling, where he is welcomed with assorted hoots and animated profanity. Among the area's 100 or so messengers, Psycho John is a legend.
He has been known to grab hold of trucks on harrowing rides down the Hollywood Freeway or to cover his eyes and blast through busy downtown intersections. The closer he comes to death, it seems, the more alive he feels.
Psycho John has come to the Bridge, where messengers gather between deliveries and after work — either as employees of various law offices or for messenger services, taking their assignments from dispatchers. Tucked away to the side of Flower Street in the shadows between 4th and 5th streets, the Bridge is the hub of the L.A. messenger world, a world similar to that of rock 'n' roll, except without the music.
Instead, there is sheer speed and the execution of deft slalom maneuvers that require precision and varying degrees of abandon and good fortune. Rather than a screaming guitar or thundering drums, there is the bicycle, which represents ultimate freedom, riffs of power and joy.
Upon them, messengers can perform acrobatics, moving backward in small circles on fixed-gear track bikes to avoid touching a foot down on those rare occasions when they stop at intersections. They can hold their balance at a standstill or bunny hop as if bouncing on two-wheeled pogo sticks for minutes at a time.
From Thursday through Sunday, messengers will gather in Los Angeles for an event known as City on Lockdown: four days of testing their skills, their art and their ability to consume vast amounts of intoxicants. The public is invited. The name of the event, sponsored by the Los Angeles Bicycle Messenger Assn., is something of a warning to the unsuspecting.
Among the events are an uphill climb, an "obstacle brawl" in which riders must avoid broken glass and 2-by-4s with nails in them, and then carry their bikes over a chain-link fence. Riders will work their way through the city based on clues related to the Black Dahlia murder mystery, and compete in a bunny-hop contest and sprints at the Encino Velodrome.
The competition is a tuneup for the September world championships in Seattle, which differ from City on Lockdown in that events are more controlled. Police will maintain order and streets will be closed for competition.
That contest, known as the Cycle Messenger World Championships, takes place in a different city each year and is organized by local messenger associations, which find private sponsors. The contest brings together messengers of different cultures and languages who share a passion for the bicycle and a rejection of conventionality.
Here at the Bridge, it doesn't matter what you wear or what you ride. Nor is ethnicity a factor. What matters is whether you can ride. There are artists and musicians, former gang members and college graduates.
Todd Cole, 30, is a writer-filmmaker whose documentary "Blue Collar" was shown at Maryland Film Festival 2000. Megan Gigney, 23, has a degree in literature from Towson University in Maryland.
At the Bridge, there may be a game of dominoes being played on a concrete bench in the center of the area. A guy known as Gonzo sets up shop at the side, repairing bicycles. He used to be a messenger but found it too difficult to deal with people on both ends of deliveries, so he now earns a living fixing bikes for his cohorts. He arrives with tools and parts in a backpack and plastic crate that he attaches to his bicycle. It's not an option to drive.
"I feel dead in cars," he says.
Like Gonzo and Psycho John, many messengers go by nicknames or first names only. There's Val and Designine D'Madreama, the Problem Child, Boo Boo.
About 3:30 p.m., cellphones begin singing as law offices call for papers to be picked up and delivered to the courts before they close for the weekend. One by one, messengers head out onto Flower, speeding through traffic lights and rush-hour traffic. They know every bump and pothole, every alley and, over time, absorb the pulse of the traffic.
Soon after 5 p.m., their final deliveries made, they return to the Bridge, demonstrating how many ways there are to dismount a bicycle. It's time to party and await the start of an impromptu "alley-cat race," which will take them about 26 miles from the Bridge to Hollywood, down Wilshire Boulevard then to the Venice Pier.
Pretty much anything goes so long as racers reach six checkpoints, where they are required to perform such tasks as dropping their bikes and going down a slide at MacArthur Park, stopping at a driving range, climbing six flights of stairs and taking two whacks with a club, with points given for distance. They must stop somewhere along the route to buy a can of Coke, and if they can find one for less than 50 cents, they receive extra points. Receipts are required.
At the finish, they must lock their bikes at the foot of Venice Pier, then sprint to the end, where points are compiled, and the party resumes.
Psycho John, a 33-year-old with long blond hair flowing from beneath a baseball cap, says that when he first started out 17 years ago, he and a couple other messengers began hanging out at the Bridge. Others followed, and over time it became a street institution. Inhabitants, he says, feel great love for this place, a sense of belonging.
Some messengers hang out on the corner of 5th and Flower, but security guards have been chasing them away, suggesting that their presence is unsettling to passers-by. Others chill nearby at the Wall, next to a parking structure at Hope Street and Kosciuszko Way. It is the Bridge, however, that serves as the heart.
There are a few favorites to win this alley-cat race, and bets are being taken. Scott Free, 32, is usually among the top finishers. About five years ago, he sold his last car, a 1963 Dodge Dart, to pay for a trip to Spain to compete in the Cycle Messenger Championships.
He rides in each day from Santa Monica, which is closer than his previous commute from Tujunga, about 25 miles from downtown. The bicycle is a stabilizing force, says Free, and he can't go more than a day without riding or he's on edge. On a bicycle, he feels free and alive. Symphonies, screenplays and poetry come to him like the coolness of the wind.
"It's an elevated mind-set," he says. "It escalates your heart rate so it gets your blood pumping to your brain better. You have absolute freedom, and your thinking becomes clear." He married this year and has a daughter. Financial pressures may force him to seek more income — messengers typically earn $80 to $150 a day.
To most riders, winning the alley cat is not very important, but it is to Free. The winner, he says, wins $100 — collected from the $5 entry fees — and right now, during the slow summer months, he could use the cash.
It's less important to Jonas, 34, who rides a fixed-gear track bike because he got drunk, he says, and left his road bike unlocked in front of a bar last New Year's Eve, where it was stolen. Jonas wears the scars from one world championship on his forearms. That was the year he and some of the other racers decided to mark their camaraderie by branding themselves with a bicycle cog heated in a barbecue. It probably wasn't his finest moment, he says, "but that's what happens when you're sober."
The bicycle is much like his life, Jonas says. "No brakes." The only way to stop is by controlling the pedals. His bike was designed for track racing, not for the streets, yet that style is gaining popularity among messengers.
Jonas has amassed nearly $2,000 in unpaid traffic tickets for, predictably, failing to stop at red traffic lights. He says he has been involved in a number of crashes, one of which ended with him beneath an MTA bus.
The potential danger to themselves and others is an important part of the messenger equation. The same danger that elevates the level of thrill can prove tragic. Free is one of the few downtown messengers who wears a helmet.
"I can honestly say I've never hurt anyone," he says, "and I've never been seriously injured." Messengers say they are especially aware of pedestrians, who are more vulnerable and more likely than drivers to be unaware of them. "I try to watch people's eyes," Jonas says. "You can tell what they're going to do by watching their eyes."
Beyond the clash of moving forces — bicycle versus car, bicycle versus pedestrian, bicycle versus bus — there are other ways of being injured. One of them involves grabbing onto moving vehicles for a tow.
"A lot of people freak out, though," Jonas says. "You can't grab hold of ladies' cars, older ladies or older men. They have a tendency to think you're going to rob them. I grabbed hold of an old man's Cadillac one time at a stoplight and all these girls were watching me and I was like, 'Yeah, yeah' The old man saw me and gunned it. It ripped me off the bike and threw me into the middle of the intersection."
As the start of the alley cat nears, Free says he expects his primary competition to come from Damien Torres, 26. Jonas, he says, isn't in good condition today.
The race begins with about 50 messengers moving out en masse, cutting off a bus as they roll down Flower like a swarm of bees. The streets are mostly empty and the messengers gain speed quickly and, soon, disappear from sight.
Biking, and good deeds
Free was right. Jonas crashes on the first turn, before a brief stretch on the freeway. He recovers quickly, however, and is soon in the lead, which poses a problem. After the first stop, he realizes he doesn't know where, exactly, the next stop is, having set out without a manifest. He calls in on his radio for direction and is told the second stop is on Santa Monica Boulevard. By that time, he is at Melrose Avenue and must backtrack.
By the midway point, Free and Torres are in the lead. They overtake two other racers who missed one of the stops and, therefore, lose points. Melissa Carr, 26, and Douglas Forrest, 32, are behind the leaders.
The two are founders of the L.A. messenger association and the L.A. Bike Messenger Co-op, which farms out jobs to messengers, as well as organizers of the City on Lockdown. Two years ago, they initiated an annual Thanksgiving fund-raiser for downtown missions.
Included in the activities the first year was a piñata dressed to look like a lawyer. About 90% of the deliveries downtown are for law firms, says Forrest. Unlike in some cities, L.A. messengers do more than just drop off deliveries. They are often asked to search for legal files, requiring much time spent standing in lines, and more interaction with lawyers. For many messengers, lawyers represent the status quo, the conventional lifestyle that they scorn.
"We're seen as shabby people," says Forrest, who has been a messenger since 1984. "We're not very well respected. We're on the lower rung." The association and co-op are attempts to improve their status and to bring respect. At the same time, says Forrest, there is a sense of pride in the subculture's outlaw image. "We want to retain some of that image, but we don't want people to think we're bad people," he says.
Robert Byrnes, 39, is a lawyer with the downtown firm of Quinn Emanuel Urquhart Oliver & Hedges. He used to be a messenger, and for a while he worked for the firm as both a messenger and a lawyer.
"You find out how it is to be treated differently," Byrnes says of his experiences straddling two disparate worlds. "You're treated one way when people know you're a lawyer and went to good schools, something like that as opposed to when they think you're working class, and yet you're the same person in both roles."
About an hour and a half after leaving downtown, the leaders of the alley-cat race are speeding down Washington Boulevard, closing in on the finish. Torres and Free have exchanged the lead throughout the final portion. At one point, Free went down on a curve, and Torres and another racer stopped and waited for him as a courtesy.
Free caught up to them but then grabbed hold of a truck on an uphill stretch of Venice Boulevard and passed them. The other racer deviated from the course in an attempt to perform tasks that would earn him more points. Not a good idea.
It turns into a two-man race. A few miles from the finish, Torres catches up to Free and beats him to the pier. Free, however, locks his bike quickly and is first to set out on foot to the end of the pier. Torres can't catch him. Carr finishes third and Forrest is fourth. When the points are totaled, however, Carr ends up the overall winner due primarily to her unsuspected prowess at the driving range. Torres is second, Free is third, Forrest fourth.
An award is given to the person who finishes last, and it goes to a guy named Plug, who went to the wrong pier. Carr splits the $100 prize with Torres, who splits it further among some of the other racers.
About 30 of the 50 messengers who started the race finished. As they gather at the end of the pier, there are stories to tell of near misses, missed turns, close calls, vomiting, of people at the driving range yelling at them. Jonas is bleeding from the elbow as a result of his crash at the start of the race.
It is nearly 9 p.m. when the final finishers arrive, and the messengers leave the pier en masse. Jonas lives a few blocks away, and everyone's invited to his place. There will be festive camaraderie surrounding a keg of beer. The weekend is just beginning.
'City on Lockdown'
Contact: L.A. Bike Messenger Co-op at (323) 855-6321 , or www.ulockmob.com