The bike messenger is an anomaly in contemporary society. The messenger thrives in congested urban traffic by rejecting the root of the problem, the car, choosing instead the simplest, most energy-efficient form of transport known to man—the bicycle. Sharing attitudes and fashion forms with punk rockers, messengers hold their own with high-priced lawyers in expensive suits who depend on the messengers every day. While their clients are stuck in tall buildings working 50-hour weeks to buy a few hours of freedom, the messenger is already free.
The job is simplicity at its finest: deliver the package on time and you have a job the next day. I worked as a messenger for three years and I look back at it as the best job I’ve ever held. And that’s coming from someone who’s been paid to snowboard in France and skateboard through Spain.
In The Immortal Class, Chicago messenger Travis Hugh Culley perfectly captures everything that is glorious and not so glorious about being a bike messenger. He also emerges as a truly gifted writer whose poetic prose makes the book more than a memoir, elevating it to a philosophical treatise.
The messenger learns to surf the traffic and congestion of the city as Culley explains: “The effort is intuitive. When riding, I do not concentrate on what my hands and feet are doing. I focus on the space at hand, what is there, what is not there, and what is coming into being. I rarely dodge. It’s more like I swim towards emptiness … I am not moving through space as much as I am expanding space where, in speed, it seems to fall away.”
He continues: “On a bicycle, I pose little danger to the flow of traffic. I see the slowly choreographed processions, but I float right through their rules every chance I get. I am free to move as I wish, piercing gridlocked intersections, snaking between cars, and running the wrong way up one-way streets. I get juiced by this. I feel like I’m flying—I can be anywhere all at once, like I can fucking evaporate!”
Messengers have their own sub-society, codes and rules and Culley understands this. “To the world, these messengers were like rats, too low to concern the average man; thus they ducked his conventional rules. … Then there are messengers on another level entirely. Kim holds her master’s degree in English. Otis was a stockbroker. [And they were both bike messengers.] To the mainstream, we were rats, all of us, and we felt like rats. That is why we’d scrape each other up when we fell. That is why we would stand together.”
Later in the book, a messenger is killed by a motorist and messengers come from all over the East Coast to attend the funeral. “The parents seemed surprised by how many messengers were there. It seemed clear to them now that Tommy was not just a rebellious kid. He was part of something. He’d shown that he could work hard and that he could make challenging experiences work for him. He’d developed strong bonds with many people here, regardless of race or color or background. Tommy was a fighter. Like the best of us in that room, he was a man who would not quit.”
After the funeral, a Critical Mass ride is held in Chicago that is both somber and celebratory. Of the many different riders, Culley observes, “They had found a way to change the world with a simple pulley system, a frame, a set of wheels, and a smile. I was proud to follow in their wake.”
The Immortal Class is a beautiful testament to a unique group of people.