The Immortal Class
Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power
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About the author
Travis Hugh Culley, a director and playwright, has worked as a bike messenger in Philadelphia and Chicago, where he currently lives.
Travis Hugh Culley came to Chicago to work and live as an artist. He knew he'd have to struggle, but he found that his struggle meant more than hard work and a taste for poverty. In becoming a bike messenger, he found a sense of community and fulfillment and a brotherhood of like-minded individualists. He rode like a postmodern cowboy across the city's landscape; he passed like a shadow through its soaring office towers; he soared like a falcon through the roaring chaos of the multilayered streets of Chicago. He became an invisible man in society, yet at the same time its most intimate observer. In one of the most dangerous jobs on dry land, he found freedom.
In The Immortal Class, Culley takes us in-side the heart and soul of an urban icon the bicycle messenger. In describing his own history and those of his peers, he evokes a classic American maverick, deeply woven into the fabric of society from the pits of squalor to the highest reaches of power and privilege yet always resolutely, exuberantly outside. And he celebrates a culture that eschews the motorized vehicle: the cult of human power.
The Immortal Class, Culley's vivid evocation of a bicycle messenger's experience and philosophy, sheds a compelling light on the way human beings relate to one another and to the cities we inhabit. Travis Hugh Culley's voice is at once earthy and soaringly poetic a Gen-X Tom Joad at hyperspeed. The Immortal Class is a unique personal and political narrative of a cyclist's life on the street.
From the Hardcover edition.
Random House Publishing Group
; July 2001
352 pages; ISBN 9780375506659
Download in secure PDF format
Title: The Immortal Class
Author: Travis Hugh Culley
there is no distinction between man and machine when I mount a bike like
this one. Trusting all of my weight to the right pedal of a simple pulley
system, I overcome the resistance of two thin tires bound by an aluminum
frame and a steel chain. A small disk at the axle of the back wheel, slowly
giving way to the force of my weight, holds the pressure taut against the
chain. As I lean forward, the weight of my body pulls the cog around the
rear axle, turning it one inch. The wheels, held tight by a matrix of metal
spokes fixed to a hub, are pulled around a set of ball bearings by the
torqued cog. Eighteen inches of rubber wheel crawls forward.
My weight shifts from pedal to pedal, reversing the side-to-side tilt of
the frame. Like a plucked guitar string, the sideways sway of the cycle is
narrowed. Lateral motion is exchanged for speed. Ten yards. One block. One
mile. This specific process repeats itself endlessly. The press and pull of
my legs draw the chain around a disk attached to a set of crank arms and
pedals. All the parts work as a single organism, absorbing the asphalt and
the cold wind while adding power to the spin of the wheels to build
momentum. My torso, held up by arms gripped to handlebars and toes clipped
into pedals, yanks the seat side to side. The bicycle and I shoot forward,
going south into the Loop as the Great Lake rolls eastbound and another day
begins in Chicago.
As I bolt headlong down from the Michigan Avenue Bridge to Madison Street,
each dark Bauhaus shape blurs into the cold stone facade of its Gothic
neighbor. I keep on, coasting in the pedals, taking a wide right turn
westbound on a vacant three-lane street through the center of downtown.
This first delivery of the day shakes off my morning lag, pumping warmth
through my veins, bringing the first bit of sweat to my brow. The air is
clean; my head is clear. I look for a left turn onto Wells.
This morning, before the computers are booted up, the banks unlocked, and
the stock market scrolls clicked on, I am running delivery routes under the
city's yellow streetlights. The elevator banks are empty and the traffic
lights, at what will soon be congested intersections, hold and change for
no one. Most deliveries I make at this hour are to locked offices, where
packages are slid beneath dim glass doors. I move as quickly and
efficiently as I can, preserving my energy. A day of messengering is like a
hard drug: you never know how rough it will be until you've slept it off.
Out here, while I'm coasting unobstructed through the shadows of morning,
the world seems at perfect peace. The whole city is still and relaxed. Even
buildings get their beauty sleep. Coming out of the spinning doors of the
Morton Salt Building, I keep a swift rhythm skipping down the cold steps,
heading to the Grinch, my yellow Cannondale road bike, locked to the bridge
railing overlooking the riverbank. While the sky changes with dawn, a
steady stream of people crowd the revolving doors over my left shoulder.
Their eyes are half open, their manner calm; they smile softly like babies
still tucked into bed.
I enjoy this quiet time when the city's rhythm is slow. I can empathize
with the early-morning modesty, and I share the reflective awe that I see
in the pious postures of people walking. This respect will fall away when
the colors in the sky turn blue and the city awakes. These same quiet faces
will struggle for a spare minute, a phone number, a positive response from
a supervisor or a client. Sincere people doing honest work will be driven
into shouting matches, compelled to insult each other, tempted to quit
right on the spot.
I'm with them every step of the way. I have seen the red faces and the
feelings of distrust as shoulders brush in crowded yet silent elevators. I
have seen the masklike smiles they wear through stressful meetings about
bottom lines. And yet I know none of these wandering souls. I talk to very
few of them; they are somehow another species. Their machinery, and their
mythology, move in one direction only. They stand packed into tight spaces,
they look up to the brass trim of elevators, and they rise like they are
spirits ascending to a gilded afterlife. Is it a floor number they are
after? A title that will follow their name? A certain number of digits in
their salary? Perhaps they just want a little safety? I don't know. But
they are on a path and they will kill to stay on that path.
Every day I see them, good people yelling at each other, running past each
other, and stepping over each other. I see them at their worst: in the
public space, on the street, where no one is looking and no one cares.
I don't have time to be caught up in the sorrow of this. As my eyes have
grown tired of fanning over as many as a million people in a single day, my
heart has grown weary of caring for them. My relationship to these people
of the city is reduced to suffering the silence of elevators with them, or
walking through the ritual pickup and drop-off of packages with them, or
muscling through traffic where "please" and "thank you" are lost to the
aggravating assault of car horns and uncalled-for profanities. I have found
that these good people, so engrossed by their own private struggles, are
often incapable of conversation or a courteous word. They are
concentrating, holding up the weight of their self-made worlds, trying to
find higher ground.
While these masses groan over the decisions they have made and the
responsibilities they have undertaken, I float above. I am free of their
ideas of good and bad, rich and poor, right and wrong. As an uncommon
laborer I may not amount to much in their eyes, but I am free of their
judgment. I am sometimes seen as a social misfit, a freeloader, a junkie,
but I am also envied for the color, the vigor, the picture of America I can
find while they push their way through the weekday treadmill routine.
I love my work and the people I work with. I admire the arrogant history of
these old buildings, the monuments to the free market, and the avenues they
are built upon. They tell epic stories of the city's forefathers, hinting
at codes of conduct that apply to some and not all. Street names give
credit to the elite like deep-rooted propaganda. Chicago remains a
contentious city where big politics are played out on local levels, where
lawmakers learn their craft from kingpins, where virtue and suffering are
the poor man's plight. From its long history I still hear shouts of civil
outrage that echo down these quiet streets, reflecting moments in history
like the riots of '68, the burden of Black Friday, and the shock that came
after the great fire of 1871.
There is always some heated debate going on in the public squares.
Protesters walk the streets and chant in the courtyards of government
buildings. Wanderers wear signs bearing political slogans. They are not
asking for money or running for office; they simply believe in something,
and they let you know it. I like being inside the arena, somewhere near the
fight. I achieve this every morning with a radio, a set of wheels, and a
team of dependable couriers out to make a living.
We wake the city along with freight trucks and the quiet tide of
pedestrians pouring out of suburban trains. We read about the latest
atrocity on the cover of the Tribune as the papers are cut from their
bundles and loaded into curbside metal boxes. We ride familiar paths around
the city's feet and palms, seeing the abuses of the night before on her
scarred back. We call out her landmarks, as we need to, keying in over the
airwaves the pet names we've christened.
"Thirty-nine to base."
"Number Thirty-nine go."
"I'm out of the Lockbox, with a bag full o' rags."
"Start rolling the Peat and call me on the Foote, Thirty-nine."
"And where is my Punk?"
"Thirty-three to base?"
"Hey, Punk, drop the coffee and call me out of the Litter Box. The Katz got
an Oil Can with your name on it."
"But I am not drinking coffee-it's a mochaccino."
"You're on route to the Kat, you rat, and Punk, make it snappy."
The banter is one of the joys of the job. Each courier company develops its
own special brand of street language. That talk is shared between us during
the day, after work, at home, making even the unseasoned courier feel
accepted-part of a larger group. Though we may treat each other harshly,
there is usually a great deal of respect among us.
Transcending age, sex, color, and all of that divisive sociopolitical
bullshit, the courier industry is supported by a very like-minded people.
Many of us are artists and musicians, usually in our twenties. Most of us
have been broke long enough to be masters of survival and have dreamt big
enough to avoid the constraints of a salaried existence. I came to this
city to succeed in the theater. I survive as a courier. Cadence for cash
and Money for miles-these are the mantras of many a struggling genius. We
work for materials and we herald our poverty for the liberties it grants
us. Every week or so on the street I meet another ambitious biker who has a
bag full of handbills for their next big show or their next exhibition or
their next club gig.
Beyond these surface similarities, there is a deep and unspoken bond
between couriers. When one is down, others carry the weight. When one is
hurt, others are there to help. Some days the work can be so intense that
bikers dehydrate, panic, end up confused or lost, or get messages scrambled
on the radio. We have to look out for one another. Bikers get hurt, and
when we do, we are often our only family.
Today, we talk about the gender of pigeons on the two-way radios, we watch
the world roll slowly before us, and we wait for pickups to be dispatched
over the airwaves.
in my rookie days, when I was still amazed and daunted by this rectangular
horizon, the job felt like some kind of sadistic punishment. I was clumsy,
accident-prone, inefficient. The city was huge and complicated. I had to
wonder if I could last out here more than a week or two. But I continued. I
continued because I had to, pushing through every day with ghoulish
resignation. In no time a few lessons about the city surfaced as tricks or
shortcuts. With them, I could more easily navigate and plan my maneuvers.
But these lessons grew deeper as time went on, more profound. Eventually
they took the shape of philosophical insights that helped me position
myself mentally for the work. It is true: how you see things determines how
you live among them.
The first major lesson came after only one week on the job. I was exhausted
from the miles I was putting on the bike. Mentally, I was fatigued by the
effort of being awake at every instant, organizing the excessive stimuli,
learning the streets, the daily shuttles, and, of course, the talk. Then
one morning, I was called in to base to pick up some packages that were
left undelivered from the night before.
I pulled into the Service First alleyway, which was clogged with illegally
parked cars belonging to drivers who handled oversized orders and suburban
runs. The office was a converted garden apartment with a propped-open back
door leading into a kitchen without cabinets or a sink. Only some tables
and chairs, littered with loose receipts, were scattered across the floor.
An old refrigerator stood in the corner, loose water bottles and half-empty
beer cans rimming its top. The messengers' smudge marks and bike parts had
long ago scraped out the domestic feel of the apartment. Bedrooms were made
into private offices, closets were used for file management, and the white
walls were tinted light brown from the support staff's afternoon sessions
of stressed-out chain-smoking.
When I arrived, the dispatchers talked to me through a Plexiglas window cut
into the drywall of the cramped radio room. Chris Coster, a.k.a. Zero,
handed me a few large envelopes. I'd sat down to organize them in my bag
when Pat, Number Thirty-four, lurched through the back door, bike in hand.
Pat had dreadlocks like short twigs pointing in every direction. He was
muscular and tight, with tattoos tarred beneath his glistening black skin.
His personality was part voodoo priest, part Wicker Park punk. "Man, fuck
this," he spat. Sweating and panicked, he rummaged through his plastic bin
for a T-shirt that didn't smell too bad and a new helmet. In broken
sentences he proceeded to vent through the sliding window that he had just
gotten into some shit with a cabbie.
Apparently, Pat was in the left lane trying to make a right turn when a
taxicab accelerated, blocking his way. Pat sped up and signaled that he'd
be cutting in front to make the turn onto Grand Avenue. Just when he felt
safe to proceed, the driver sped up again, nearly swiping Pat off his bike.
Pat swerved away and regained his balance. By this time the cab had driven
ahead. Pat sprinted forward. (I know how he rides. The man has the
dexterity of a mountain lion.) He pulled his U-lock out of his bag, came up
from behind the taxi on the driver's side, and smashed in the window only
inches from the cabbie's head. The driver hit the brakes and Pat was gone.
Now, with a different colored helmet and shirt, he was ready to vanish into
the early-morning streets again, free from any possible retaliation.
I was stunned into silence. I saw no point in relating to another human
being with violence. How did it help Pat to smash in the window of even the
most obnoxious driver? How would it alter that driver's behavior, even if
he was wrong or rude or pushy? Beyond this, I was astounded that he would
share this news with Chris and Dave Goldberg. These were the people who had
hired him. Maybe it's okay, I thought. Jesus, maybe it's normal!
"Are you okay?" Zero asked Pat, sharply looking for information, caring
nothing for his feelings.
"I'm good-just a little shaken," Pat came back easily.
Goldberg came to the window, asking if he thought the cabbie had seen the
"Nah, he was a little distracted, I think."
"Yeah, boyyyy!" Chris erupted in laughter.
"Take a few, Pat. Cool down."
"Nah, man. I'm ready now. I'll call ya out of the Can in ten."
"10-4. You go girl," Chris called out as the back door closed.
In the press
Advance praise for The Immortal Class:
"Fast-paced, danger-filled, and thoroughly spellbinding...so rich, so unusual, and so aggressively written that readers will leave the book gasping for breath. This is a truly stunning book, completely original, a mixture of autobiography and philosophical treatise. Culley is a genuinely gifted writer, able to turn a seemingly ordinary bike ride into poetry in motion... We see the world through the eyes of a man hurtling through it at breakneck speed, and nothing we see, nothing we hear, is the way we expect it to be. One of the very best nonfiction books of recent years, and a treat for anyone gutsy enough to climb aboard."
--Booklist (starred review)
"Powerful and poetic."
--Library Journal (starred review)
"[An] exciting memoir...offering a rare inside view of a maligned but ubiquitous urban subculture...kinetic."
From the Hardcover edition.