Copyright © 1998 Joe Quirk.All rights reserved.
Bomb deactivator. Crack dealer. SWAT rifleman. My job will kill youfaster than any of these. And it won't just kill you; it'll crush you to apulpy clot on the streets of San Francisco. It pays fifteen bucks a pop andgets you a rush like no drug ever made.
I am a bike messenger.
All my mohawked coworkers snicker at me, but the boss, Mel, sayshe don't give a damn what I ride, as long as I make the deliveries on time.Which I do. So he keeps me on.
I'm the only rollerblade courier in the city. On any other courier job,rollerblades would be about as practical as snowshoes. But, working offNob Hill, I got two advantages over those bike dweezels. One, I can thrashwhere no bicyclist would dare to wheel: up stairs, through backyards, overfences. And two, when the delivery is complete, I can hop the cable carback to the summit, then sit back and wave toodle-oo to my sewer-mouthedcolleagues grinding a slow zigzag up the side of Nob Hill.
All of us tattoo punks get an excess of exercise, yet severe ulcers areas common as crushed hips, because we thrash it out paycheck to paycheckon the edge of starvation. Mel Corlini moves through fresh couriermeat like a pimp through hoes. Mel creates the hostile environment, thenlets a brutal natural selection run its course. Certain personality traitssurvive.
I work with the type of psychopaths who cut their own brake cables.They hurtle through crowded streets, screaming, "No brakes! No brakes!"Yuppiefolk soon learn to get the hell out of the way. There's nothingscarier than a creature who has no regard for himself and wants the squarefoot of ground you're standing on. Bike messengers are a despised species,but we Corlini scrubs are particularly vile.
The reason for this is simple. Other bike messengers must carry thefury of the entire city. The eight of us have to carry the fury of MelCorlini.
Mel Corlini is a coked-up stock market player with rabies. He hasthree Charlie Brown hairs combed across his bald spot. He is pear-shapedand sweats a lot. A self-proclaimed asshole, so rich he shits chocolatemousse, he is the free market's evolutionary pinnacle, capitalism's IdealMan made flesh.
I've just completed my fifth delivery of the day, and I'm hungry tomake my sixth. I hop off the cable car in front of Mel's office buildingand skate past four or five stormtroopers who got there ahead of me butare securing their livelihoods, bent over the bike rack like prison freshmen.They scowl at me as I pass. Another advantage to rollerblades is that Idon't have to lock them to some rottweiler's urinal. I clash up the stairsand stalk like Frankenstein down the hallway on my platform shoes. Ifollow the trail of black skid marks along the expensive hallway carpetingto Mel's office and get in line.
Mel, a heart attack waiting to happen, is barking into an innocentphone and chawing a stogie to mulch. Mel always keeps the blue stockmarket screen turned carefully away from us. He puts meticulous considerationinto not remembering our names.
There's only one guy in front of me: blond, tanned, California boy,standing at full attention. His name is either Snake or Spider--I can'tremember which. He doesn't look at me. I, a blader ninja in his ranks,am a walking sacrilege.
Even as I try to stand still, my butt cheeks are dancing an impatientmambo. A neon sign is blinking in my brain. It says: MUST MAKE RENT.I'm already two weeks late. Every passing second ticks me closer to thesixteenth and eviction time.
Mel slams down the phone, jabs the disk-eject with his thumb, yanksout a computer disk, and shoves it in a stiff eight-by-eleven. He slaps aseal over the opening, looks up at the bicycle courier waiting for instructions,and makes an outrageous offer.
"If you make this delivery in eight minutes, I'll give you four hundreddollars."
My ears perk up like Lassie spotting a steak frisbee. Four hundreddollars?!!
The courier isn't impressed. "Where's it going?"
"Mission and Fifth."
"C'mon, dammit! It's all downhill."
My colleague laughs. "Yeah, but you can't take it straight down!"
The courier snorts and shakes his head.
My tail is wagging, I'm licking my lips, my eyes are darting back andforth between these two bargainers. I know you could conceivably makethis twenty-minute run in about a minute-twenty. If you go straightdown.
Of course, only a fucking maniac would go straight down.
I step up next to Surfer Dude. "I'll do it."
Mel looks stunned, almost disappointed. "You will?"
Surfer Twerp shouts at the side of my face. "You can't get down toflatville in eight minutes! It's a twenty-minute trip, at top speed! Andonce you get down there, you have to hoof it all the way up Mission toFifth Street, which is like eight minutes in itself--on a bike." He looksdown at my skates, then back up at me. "How are you gonna do it?"
He squints at me, confused for a moment. I watch the equation workits way though his face, then he goes white. "Oh, fuck. No way."
I turn to Mel. "Five hundred bucks, right?"
One corner of Mel's mouth is scrunched up in a curlicue. Looks likeGenghis Mel wanted one of his peons to tell him it can't be done, so hecan have somebody to blame. His face, once incredulous at this courier'srefusal, is now suspicious of my acceptance. His eyes scan my surfaces,searching for those telltale tattoo markings that an urban rancher uses todistinguish one courier from the rest of the chattel. He looks at my feetand recognizes me as that what's-his-name on rollerskates all the otherpunks complain about, and he leans forward on his desk.
"Yeah, five hundred bucks. A guy will be waiting at the front door.But you gotta get it there in six minutes now, asshole."
Mel tosses the package at my chest. He points up above my head."See that clock? Eleven minutes to one. You got to deliver that before12:55."
My back is already to him. I stilt-walk out the door and clatter downthe steps, sticking the package in my backpack. Peroxide Man receiveshis fifteen-dollar assignment and catches up to me as I'm hobbling outthe front door.
"Hey, Rollerboy!" he titters, grabbing his bike and running alongsideme. "Guess what? If you don't make it, he'll fire you."
"No duh," I say, churning up speed.
"No way," he repeats. "I gotta see this."
I hear his bike pedals clash, his chains lock and grind behind me.
"Hey!" he calls to his comrades. "Rollerskate Boy is gonna take theCliff! He's gotta be on Mission and Fifth in like five minutes!"
Followed by an annoying chorus of no ways, I skate down the shortdriveway and swing to the left towards the legendary position at the topof Jones Street. Behind me is a small wake of bicycle couriers, snivelinglike rats. They pelt me with caterwauls.
"You gonna go straight through the lights? It can't be done, man."
"The streets are too narrow, herpie-head. Swerve to miss a truck, andyou're a wall mural."
I skate up to the edge of the precipice and stop dead. I have to catchmy breath.
"Whatsamatter, Rollerfag? Chicken?"
Watermelon Hill. So named when some hurtling skateboarder burst hishead spectacularly against the curb in front of a hundred witnesses lastyear. Since then, the spot has inexplicably drawn me. I've taken this hillbefore, but always from about five blocks down. I've never gone from theoffice way up on Sacramento Street before.
I have about four minutes. Once I step off this edge, I'll be at mydestination in a minute and a half, dead or alive.
Knee pads, check. Shades, check. Helmet, check. Attitude, check.
My eyes reject the view of San Francisco Bay. They are trained likelasers on the five streetlights that curve down the concrete ski ramp belowme. I can't budge until the first three streetlights are green, and the lasttwo red. Then I'll push off, and instantly I'll be in my favorite zone, thedo-or-die zone, the place where it's too late to turn back.
For dramatic effect, I remove my shades, fog them with breath, andsqueak them on my shirt.
My streetwise audience quiets to murmuring when they clue in thatI'm serious. One guy finally speaks up with a milliliter of compassionsloshing around in the bottom of his voice. "Hey, dickweed. Don't doit, man. You'll kill yourself."
He's right. If I wipe out on the hot macadam, my knee and elbowpads will protect my tattooed flesh like the candy wrapper in my asspocket will protect the milk chocolate inside. Be like scraping a strawberryover a cheese grater. I will become a smoking gumbo of bones, gristle,entrails, and blood, slopped and splattered down ten blocks of hand-brakedcars clutching to the side of Nob Hill. An entire fire departmentand a small legion of car insurance bureaucrats to clean me up.
Just the thought gives me a hard-on.
I have to take deep breaths to hold down my Honey Nut Cheerios.The diesel engine in my chest is doing triple flips. My quivering kneeshug together to keep me from wetting myself.
I love it.
This is doable once a month, the second Monday of each month.Street cleaning day. On street cleaning day, no vehicles are allowed topark along the right side of Mission Street, so I can hit top speed downJones and cut the left turn onto Mission without splattering my gibletsall over somebody's paint job, and have my oversight immortalized insome new nickname for this hill.
Now they sound like they're talking to a jumper poised on the edgeof a building. "Bail out, dude. If this hill got any steeper, you'd be goingit upside down. Just come back and let us laugh at you."
"Yeah. So you lose your job! Bladers don't belong on this detail anyways."
I don the headphones. My skull becomes an angry hornet's nest ofspeed metal riffs. They are shut out.
The first two traffic lights go green. The last two go red. C'mon,c'mon. Then, the third and middle traffic light--green! I'm off!
I'm in my zone now: rubber cheeks pulled back and flapping, shinsvibrating like jackhammers, eyeballs shaking like ice cubes in a martinishaker. I swear I can hear the rattling of my vertebrae clacking together.My femur and shin bones are pulling apart and snapping together onehundred times per second, playing tug-of-war with my cartilage. All myfavorite kinds of pain are humming together in a perfect chord. My bodyis a harp string vibrating.
I am a comet, leaving two hot parallel streaks in the sizzling tar behindme. My skates are smoking. My fiberglass wheels are starting to get sticky.A couple bugs splatter on my sunglasses, one splats between the teeth ofmy shit-eating grin.
I rocket past a long line of briefcase trudgers.
"Shwayyyyyt!" I scream--meaning "sweet"--as I reach the most exaltedlevel of adrenaline overdrive.
"Shwaaayyyt! Shwaaayyyt! Shway-yay-yay-yaayyyt!"
I can imagine my voice Dopplering off behind me, the heads of thedrones swiveling to gape.
The music is inside me. Bass drums are thudding in my rib cage,electric guitars shredding blood from my eardrums, bass guitars crackingmy skull with each pluck. I am experiencing ultra-face-tuck now. Thecorners of my mouth can taste my ear wax.
The air friction gradually pulls my headphones off my helmet untilthey snap away. Now they are flying behind me like a cape. Captain Bladeris being garrotted by his own Walkman.
A flock of businesswomen presume to cross my street. I jettison a warcry: standard courier procedure when some ped maggot is about to stepin your way. The suits freeze like sheep before the charge of the rabidlion. I tear past and my back gets darted with screechy epithets.
The first three lights, each in succession, turn yellow. I scorch beneaththem as each flares red at the top of my vision and bores between myeyebrows like some Hindu implant. The light in front of me flashes green,and the last one beyond that is still red. So far, so good.
O'Farrell Street bump is coming up--not actually a bump but a placewhere the sixty-degree plummet momentarily levels off for a perpendicularstreet, then dips down again. My knees take the split-second upwardsurge like springs. Then--air!
Getting air is like snatching a little piece of eternity. The raucouswheel rattling ceases, the earth melts away, and I am floating. I don'tbreathe. The only sound is the hum of the tiny rollerblade wheels stillspinning on their axes. I am weightless as an angel, free from guilt andshame, a tiny breeze soft as a negligee on my face.
Then I hit street, a hard jolt back to mortality. Knee bones splinterin collision, and I am going faster than when I left the ground. Bladerlegend says that one second of lost friction increases your speed by tenpercent.
The last vibrating red traffic light never turns green as it rockets overmy head. Damn, this is too fast.
Still got the Mission Street turn to make. Barreling down in thisraging fury, I have to bank it right up against the parking meters on theright side of the street. Coming around the buildings, I glance up Mission,and--
Monday! Today is Monday! The second Monday of the month!Right? Street cleaning day!
So then why is there a long line of snugly parked yuppiemobiles sittingsmack in the middle of my safety zone?
Waitaminute! The first was a Monday! So this is the third Mondayof the month!
I'm street spam. Make this turn tighter? At this speed? Impossible!
Then again, the threat of death has a way of inspiring me.
My right skate is directly behind my left. I snap my right skate aroundbackwards, so I'm skating sideways and my knees are spread-eagled. Iraise my elbows up like a figure from an Egyptian hieroglyphic.
I lean, and lean hard. I arch backwards until my spine is retroflexedto the max. I'm trying to bring the back of my skull to my heels, and Ican feel sciatic nerves pinching painfully. My thigh muscles twist like steelcables as I bend my femurs to the snapping point. I growl in strain, feelmy puckered face go red hot. Sweat peels off my forehead to the hairabove my ears.
I make the turn. The mile-long battering ram of steel passes to myright with a whoosh of air displacement, and I am hurtling along its sideat a squillion miles per second, hearing the steady hum of the parked carsas I pass, an eerie acoustic phenomenon caused by the echo of my wheels.I snap my right leg back around frontwards, get down in a squat like atubing surfer, and careen along two feet from the car doors like a littlecannonball.
I'm in a fetal position, for good speed and in preparation for death,to leave this world in the position I entered it. I'm down below thewindows, so a meter feeder couldn't see me even if he glanced over hisshoulder.
I zoom up behind a snorting bus lugging its ass up Mission like acrippled hippo. I can't lose the momentum that will carry me to FifthStreet, so I hold my breath as I pass through its black flatulence andwriggle into the narrow steel alley between the leviathan and the parkedvehicles. Standard courier maneuver. We call it "chrome sandwich." Keepyour elbows tucked close. It looks suicidal, but it's actually pretty safe.Nothing is going to kill me in here, unless--
A car door opens, seventy feet in front of me. It splays its wing like a steel beetle, and out from its armpit steps an Armani shoe. I will coverthat distance in one second, with no room to brake or swerve. The car isan open-air convertible with the door window rolled all the way down.
I stand up straight, put one skate in front of the other, and headstraight for that door.
The opened door hurtles towards my balls at forty-five MPH. In thehalf-second I have to act, I see the leathered toe turn outwards, the kneebend for leverage. He is a millisecond from stepping out into my path.
I prance like Baryshnikov, pull my heels into the small of my back,grab my toes with one hand, and--groin muscles be damned--bendthem up towards my ear.
Door flashes beneath me. Release toes. Skates clash with perfect precisionon the pavement. Bus slips away and shrinks to bunny size. Deathis behind me.
As my skates lose momentum and noise at sea level, I hear the cheersof onlookers, who would have been just as thrilled to see me bite it. Mychest pistons are thudding out my elation. I want to gasp the whole skyinto my lungs. This is the only time I really feel alive.
Twirling around and skating backwards, I can just barely see myinnocent motorist sitting frozen in his car with one Armani shoe on thepavement and mouth agape. As I sailed over his leg, I felt the businessman'snose pass within inches of my right buttock.
I cannot tell you how much this immature yet sublime little notionmeans to me.
I spin, hop the curb, leap a snoozing drunk getting a suntan in themiddle of the sidewalk, pull the package out of my backpack, and skidto a halt beneath a street sign. Mission and Fifth. Ten feet from my toesis the delivery site: a Chinese restaurant built into the first floor of anabandoned hotel. A well-dressed Asian man launches out the front door,snatches my package, and skitters back inside.
"Yo! Where's my receipt?"
He's gone. I look at my watch.
Fuck if I'm gonna let this weasel gyp me out of my five hundredbucks. I gun after him, barge into the dimly lit restaurant under the prissygaze of the bourgeois gaping at this sweaty tattoo punk desecrating theirsnobatorium. My eyes catch the package-snatcher heading through theback kitchen.
"Yo, motherfucker! Hold up!"
The maitre d' steps forward. "Can I help you?" he whimpers.
I body-check him aside and skate across the carpet into the brightshrine of the greasy kitchen, dart in and out of shuffling cooks, and justbarely notice the gofer scampering through a small green door in the backlike Alice's white rabbit.
I got him now. Spitting venom and vitriol, I charge after him.
Just before I reach the small green door, it swings wide, and out stepsa gargantuan olive-skinned brute who has to duck to fit through the door.He steps at me and battering-rams my chest with one lead forearm.
My neck snaps forward as the bright tile room crishes to scatteringdiamonds behind my eyes. Tender lumps instantly sprout on either sideof my bitten tongue. It feels like somebody just fired a howitzer off mysternum. I blink and look up into his face, pretending I can still breathe.
I wait for him to tell me I ain't getting in. He doesn't. He's Caucasian,and he's wearing a perfectly tailored suit, with a striped green, white, andred tie, looking about as incongruous in this environment as I do. Hisslit eyes glow a reptilian green, and he smiles at me. He looks deep intomy pupils and espies my innermost animal nature, the ancient part of methat remembers being prey.
Here's a guy who enjoys his job.
Usually in a situation like this, I would be worrying about preservingmy dumbass phallocentric ego. But this motherfucker is huge. I'll betough some other day--when a smaller guy bullies me, maybe.
Besides, I can't fight on blades. Believe me, I've tried it. Rollerbladesare as crippling as they are empowering. On the move, I am invincible.Standing still, I'm a sheep limping through a lion's famine.
I yank my eyes away from his hypnotic talent and race back throughthe gawking restaurant, feeling like an Arab who just farted in a synagogue,and hurtle out into daylight. I spy a phone booth across the streetand attract a few tire squeals and horn honks getting to it. I pounce upthe curb and snatch the receiver from a businessman who is fingeringthrough his wallet in search of his phone card. I look at my watch. Thirtyseconds to 12:55.
I fumble through my pockets for a quarter and feverishly stab out thenumber to Mel's courier line.
"Make your report."
"Yo Mel, man, it's me, Chet Griffin."
"Yeah, that's me. Hey, the delivery was made, man. Homeboy didn'teven give me a--"
"Go on home. You did good. Now just go home."
"I just want to confirm that I get five hundred--"
I slam the phone into its stirrup and glare at my watch.
I made it.
I breathe deeply, snaking my trailing headphones around my neck. Ithumb off the Walkman tape, snipping the clashy whispering of whitenoise.
The adrenaline high simmers and passes. My heart cools just beforeits meltdown. The drudgery of safety returns.
I am no longer alive.
Slowly reclaiming possession of me is the incessant agitation of mylife, the twitching sinews knotted into muscles, the frustration in themarrow of my bones. Damn it all! It always fades! I want one pure experienceto wipe the boiling hunger from my blood. I want to catch onecrystal piece of timelessness and carry it with me in my pocket. I need toescape this utterly damned existence of mine. I lust for the ultimate rush.
Sound shallow? Fuck you.
New Age bliss ninnies say that life is filled with choices. That'sbullshit. There is only one choice: Will you live for comfort or adventure?
The price of stability is drudgery. The price of ecstasy is agony. Idon't want the meaning of life. I want the experience of being alive.
Hell, I don't even want the meaning of my job. What is Mel delivering?Is it legal? Who cares. I got no business pondering the upper echelonsof the economic structure of which I am a single disposable andsemiloose basement screw. On the list of Seven Deadly Courier Sins,ranked right up there with Sloth and Flaccidity, is Curiosity. Succumbingto Curiosity might lead me to break the psychic stone tablets on whichare written the Two Courier Commandments:
Commandment I: Ask no questions
Commandment II: Never look inside the package