Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.
You’ve seen bike couriers before, though you might not have known it. Clad in bicycling gear in a health-conscious city where such attire is ubiquitous, they blend in, embodying the notion of ‘hiding in full view.’ And that’s the way they want it.
This summer, I spent two days watching, interviewing and photographing professional couriers (or messengers) in DC for a school project. I came away with an appreciation for their profession and an understanding of why, early on, I was told they don’t make for the best interview subjects.
The courier business is changing. For many decades, professional couriers made a good living. Most received “guarantees” from a large courier company, a weekly stipend which ensured they’d make a decent catch. No more.
"It’s not fun like it used to be,” said one courier I spoke with in front of the former Border’s Bookstore on L Street NW. “I’m not making the money I was making back in the ‘80s. I used to go up on Capitol Hill and drop like 5, 600 envelopes and make like $1000. Them days are gone; you ain’t never gonna see them days again.”
The fax machine. Email. Both were absolute killers to the courier business, and every person I talked to told me so. They also mentioned the anthrax scare of 2001 and the 9/11 attacks, both of which lead to beefed up security at buildings and made delivery-making more difficult. The economy has also slowed, cutting demand for deliveries and forcing some couriers out of the business.
Now, many couriers are paid per delivery, upping the amount of trips they need to make on an average day and generally making their lives a little less secure. Even couriers who have guarantees generally do not receive health insurance, putting a strain on those with families.
Still, their day-to-day hasn’t changed. In the morning, couriers head downtown and wait for delivery requests to come in. Law firms are still some of their biggest clients, making K Street NW a courier hotspot. When they get the call, off they go, on a bike, on a scooter, or in a car, often with an oversized, waterproof sealable backpack in tow. The hope, I was told, is to get a delivery request on the opposite end of town, allowing for several, smaller deliveries on the way.
Throughout it all, couriers remain a tight-knit, if prickly, bunch. Between deliveries, they congregate in parks, squares, and, coincidentally, in front of both Potbelly sandwich shops on L Street. They are are bound together by a sort of underdog mentality which came through in my interviews.
"Being a courier, you don’t really fit in very well to the DC atmosphere,” said a 20-something courier I spoke with in Dupont Circle. “The brotherhood comes in when you know that the other person’s living their life as a courier. You don’t make any money, you’re outside 24/7, you’re busting your ass, and you’re not impressing anyone. The only thing we really have is each other.”
He also spoke of a stigma associated with the profession. “I was kind of ashamed of it when I first started courying. Just f**king stunk, sweat everywhere. You just reek. Going into offices all the time with everybody dressed up really nicely. Pretty women everywhere. And you’re just like ‘Ah, Jesus Christ, I look like shit, I smell like shit.”
But this sense of camaraderie and unity is also changing. “People now… are just more so involved with making money and not so much the socializing with everybody part,” said a 10-year veteran of the business I spoke with as he awaited a delivery request in front of, you guessed it, Potbelly. “There’s a lot of downfalls with it. You can get in the wrong crowd and end up doing a lot of bad drugs or drinking all day. Things that don’t get you to make money.”
But despite the tough economy, the dirt, the grime, the stares, and the occasional car accident, couriers stick with it. After all, they say, how many people can call the outdoors their office?