Anyone who has ever been to New York City has likely seen and even encountered these people on their bikes, speeding down the streets and avenues with their backpacks, weaving in out of traffic, sometimes even attaching themselves to the door handles of driving cars and busses in order to gain even more momentum. Some have likely been yelled at or had near-misses with them. They are bike messengers at work, delivering everything imaginable from wedding shoes to pizza to top secret documents, in the fastest way possible to their customers.
I came across Tom’s profile as @NYRush, his handle on Instagram about a year ago.
I was immediately fascinated by his posts that depict intense and often raw photos of his daily life as a bike courier in New York City, as well as his style which is spontaneous and straight from the heart, swear words and all...Hardcore, subculture, insane, dangerous, hazardous, road rage (from car drivers), those were all adjectives and descriptions used in conjunction with this job.
Hustling for tips in heat, rain, snow and cold, looked down upon by doormen, despised by pedestrians and car drivers alike seems to be the daily life for these types. So while researching the subject, one headline caught my eye, not surprisingly. Experienced messengers say: It’s not worth it, unless you love it! Wait a minute... So does that mean that these people would put their lives in danger on a daily basis, riding in extreme temperatures and conditions, for little money, simply because they love it? Apparently yes, and that is what Tom’s stories are about.
"One hell of a story"
Tom is 30 years old and from New Jersey, right across the river from NYC. He started this job 3 years ago, but he always had a love for riding a bike. And New York. His physical appearance would certainly match the aforementioned cliches, dressing and looking like the Metal Head he is, and riding his bike like a renegade with the speed and apparent recklessness to match. But I’ve gotten to know Tom as a sweet, shy, introverted person with a gentle soul. In this story, you will not only get a glimpse of his life, but also the message he wants to convey about the City, the community, friendship and supporting each other in a strange and sometimes unfriendly world. Besides, Tom has one hell of a story to tell. So I first want to introduce you to Tom, the person, including some tough facts about his life.
Tom grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in New Jersey, as an only child of a typical middle-class American family. As a kid and later as a teenager he found it difficult to adapt to his environment, having been singled out by his mates and fellow students in school as well as dealing with some learning difficulties, which turned him into an outsider. On a bike, however, roaming the streets and wide avenues of nearby New York, he felt free and could be himself. He started this new phase in his life when he started working for a restaurant delivery service and it was a whole new riding experience he never had before. He also discovered photography and his knack for taking shots from unusual perspectives, objects, buildings and people, as opposed to well thought-out and staged photographs of typical tourist landmarks.
"The lovers and the haters have something in common"
He started to showcase his pictures on various social media platforms, where he could share these documents of real-life with like-minded people. Life took a turn for the worse in 2015, when due to tight economic circumstances and job loss, his parents lost their house and the whole family almost ended up on the streets. Sadly not an unusual situation in America, one of the richest countries in the world. But that doesn’t make it any easier for people affected by it.
For Tom, it represented a turning point in his life. He hired on with UberRush as a bike courier and joined a community where the opinions about bike messengers range from distant admiration to outright contempt. To some, couriers are pedestrian-terrorizing scofflaws. Others are jealous that messengers get to roam the city on what seems like an endless scavenger hunt, and getting paid for it. Despite the variety of opinions, the lovers and the haters have something in common as they don’t have any clue how the business works and what it’s like to be a bike courier.
"Unique and spontaneous language"
Few jobs in the world can claim to have their very own subculture the way bike couriers do. With their unsanctioned alleycat races across towns, these gals and guys have not only some serious power in their legs, but an interesting story to tell as well. And no one tells these stories better than Tom with his raw and intense shots of the city, taken during his working hours on delivery trips all across town, and captioned with his own unique language that is spontaneous, fresh and comes straight from the heart. Swear words and slang and all that included.
Being a messenger is a job that almost anyone can do, but only a small percentage of people can do well. A couple of things that stand out are for one their ability to calculate and react to and prevent risky situations very quickly and very well. It involves lightning visual capabilities and to judge a risk long time before the person does whom they might potentially involve in a crash, by adjusting their speed and to instantly know whether they should go behind them or in front of them, or slam on the brakes altogether.
That goes especially for those pedestrians who themselves don’t pay the attention needed on the streets, like jaywalkers, and those who are glued to the screen of their cell phones. Another thing that makes a good messenger is their ability to multi-task, such as riding their bike at high speed, while taking an order on the phone, adjust their music, drink from their water bottle, all the while avoiding cars and people. And lastly it’s their ability to maximize their productivity to know and follow the process, such as finding the most well-hidden messenger centers.
"The best messengers know the security protocol of every building"
The best messengers know the security protocol of every building, so that they can save time by calling ahead to pick up a package and how to communicate with their dispatchers to maximize each trip across town, and finding their way in the confusing maze of mail rooms, freight-elevators and back alleys that become a courier’s true work environment. Financially, it’s in their best interest to go fast – very fast in the interest of getting as many deliveries done as possible, because each trip means money. Safety wise, not so much. Hustling for tips in heat, rain, snow and cold, looked down upon by doormen, despised by pedestrians seems to be the daily life for these types, that must also include a high tolerance for pain, given the frequent crashes and accidents that Tom tells about. As well as an unlimited supply of cell phones.
"Riding around Manhattan at 3am in the morning, just you and your bike - that's freedom"
But true couriers don’t do it only as a job, to earn a living, but also for the love of riding. In a city as crowded with traffic, both from cars and pedestrians as New York is, it requires real skills to negotiate the streets and avenues to get fast from point A to point B, but there is nothing like riding around Manhattan at 3am in the morning, when the roads are empty and it is just you and your bike. You are free. In New York, you can just ride straight for an hour, shifting gears and weaving around vehicles, in and out of traffic just for fun. So I hope you enjoyed this story and got a glimpse of Tom’s life on 2 wheels and behind the lens. He plans to take his photography to a professional level and to sell his photographs as prints. Our website and book project are realized as a collaboration in support of these ambitions and dreams.
Juliette Emonts, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Juliette Emonts is a brand designer and content creator. You can find more of her work at www.juliette-emonts.com