Interesting times: A fond farewell to Ms Nhatt Attack
4.06.13 by Emily Chappell
A couple of days ago Nhatt and I sat in the departures lounge at Heathrow, one of us savouring her final pint on British soil, and the other contemplating what felt very much like the end of an era.
When I limped back to the UK a few months ago after spending 18 months cycling across Asia, Nhatt was the one who met me at the airport and (with typical good humour) helped me haul two heavy bags and a bike box the size of a mattress back to Peckham, via public transport, during rush hour – so a few months later, when she packed up nine years of London life into a Pac, a Brompton bag and a Carradice, and discovered she’d need help carrying it all to the airport, it was obvious and inevitable that she’d turn to me, and, as we realized (her gleefully; me ruefully), impossible for me to refuse.
I’d heard of Nhatt long before I actually met her. Back in the summer of 2008, when I was procrastinating my MA thesis and wishing I was a cycle courier, I listened to her effervescent contribution to BBC Radio 4’s City Messengers, where she managed to distil her job’s peculiar mix of romance, suffering and humour, and started daydreaming even more frantically. A couple of months later I was on the road myself.
It still took me a long time to run into Nhatt in person, and by then I’d built up a formidable picture of her as the de facto princess of the courier scene, organizer of highly creative alleycats, up-and-coming cartoonist, contributor of witty articles to Moving Target, sought-after bike mechanic, and subject of the admiration and adulation of countless couriers, wannabes and civilians. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to meet her. She seemed a little intimidating.
Nevertheless, whenever I spotted a female courier, I wondered whether it might be her. Finally, after several months, I passed an unusually pretty girl on a cargo bike on Goodge Street, and she gave me a massive grin and said hello, and that was Nhatt, and that was that. She was nothing like the standoffish and superior queen bee I’d imagined. And this, I’ve realized, is the root of her charm. Despite her good looks and manifold talents and achievements, she’s never less than entirely approachable, and balances out her brilliance with a disarming air of goofiness. She seems genuinely not to have expected all the wonderful things that her hard work and talent have brought into her life, and retains a pervasive clumsiness – most recently witnessed when, on her last morning in London, in the throes of a wicked hangover, she first locked herself out of her flat (with all her bags still inside and only a few hours to get to the airport), and then realized she’d accidentally cut up her brand new bank card instead of the old one, meaning she’d spend her first few days in New York with no money at all.
I wished she’d just give up on this silly emigration plan and stay, but she sent a quick message to her friends in New York (in true Nhatt style, she spent three months couriering there back in 2007, and still counts many NYC messengers among her closest friends), and they assured her she’d be picked up from the airport and looked after when she arrived, so she downed the last inch of Doom Bar, picked up her dog-earred passport, gave me a quick hug and disappeared through the departure gate without a backward glance. The era ended.
It may seem indulgent, and even cliquey to devote an entire (and, knowing me, lengthy) Moving Target article to bemoaning the departure of a close friend (and perhaps it is), but Nhatt, for me, exemplifies many of the things that are wonderful about cycle couriers. She got a lot out of the courier community, and she put a lot back in. Talk to her – even after you’ve been friends for a few years – and you’ll be perpetually surprised by the amount she’d managed to cram into just three decades of life. She was homeschooled on top of a mountain in the Pacific North-West, went to university at 16, dropped out, ended up in London via Morocco and Spain, worked as a vegan chef, became a minor celebrity on the courier circuit, spannered in half the city’s bike shops, taught herself to draw on a whim and ended up with a postgraduate degree in illustration from the Prince’s Drawing School. I’m probably missing a few things out, and there are probably a few things she hasn’t even told me yet.
Nhatt’s an endearingly scatty interviewee. You sense that at least some of the time she’s making it up as she goes along, and several times during our conversation she says things like “the trio of my life has always been writing and art and food and bikes” (er, that’s four things, Nhatt). Speaking of her feelings about starting from scratch in Austin, Texas in a few months’ time, she admits “I’ve got this seesaw in my heart that’s 50% fear and 50% trepidation, and the other half is excitement and joy at just finally making the commitment to do what I want to do.” However broad her talents, maths certainly isn’t one of them.
She came to London “because, like everything in my life, I think I just want to be taken seriously.” And then she bursts into laughter. “I still haven’t been taken seriously by anybody yet, but I’m still hoping that, some day, somebody somewhere will take me seriously!” She continues: “There’s this big movement in the Pacific Northwest – in fact, everywhere in the States – where people are really DIY, which is great, except for – I didn’t want to just do it myself, I wanted to be part of something that was bigger, like I wanted to do …oh god … well, I don’t remember what I wanted to do at that point, but whatever it was I wanted to do it and have it be more …accepted? And less just taken as somebody’s little project. I wanted to make whatever it was a real living thing. … I wanted to come and work with bike recycling projects because there was more government funding and more actual bike shops and things that would take me on seriously, instead of a load of people who would build bikes in their basement and have a bicycle kitchen, you know. I felt like I wanted to do something that was proper.”
Does the courier scene take people seriously? I don’t know. We discussed how surprisingly welcoming it is, and how, despite both being quite far from the courier archetype in various ways, we’ve both found a sense of family and community among our workmates. “I don’t have a lot of family”, notes Nhatt, “I’ve always felt like I need to be somewhere where I was surrounded by people who just accepted me and were welcoming, and that’s one of the things that the courier scene does really well, is that it picks up waifs and strays like me and makes them feel less waifey or strayey.”
I agree. I’ve always been surprised that I was so easily accepted by couriers, because there’s so many boxes I don’t tick – I don’t do alleycats, I don’t live in a squat, I don’t have tattoos, I sound like I went to fucking Eton.
“But that’s the thing!” Nhatt interjects. “There’s so many couriers that are like you as well – they came from very good backgrounds –” I raise an eyebrow. “– well, you know, who are extremely well educated…” I do the eyebrow thing again, but she’s in full flow. “I think I’m more typical of what you think of as ‘a courier’, but I’ve never found a typical courier really. Maybe in the summer, eighteen-year-old boys, but that’s only in the summer – they never last. Or when they do last, then they become more interesting.”
And the job does have a way of making people more interesting, whether or not they were to start with. I’ve had similar conversations with a variety of couriers and exengers lately, many of whom have a significant hobby or skill or career outside of the circuit, and most of whom credit the job with giving them time and space to develop this (post-work exhaustion notwithstanding). Nhatt is definitely one of them.
“It gave me the time to think about what I wanted to do. When I was doing food, which is what I was doing before that, and even working in bike shops, you’re concentrating too much on what you’re doing. But because of the economic crash, and because riding is much more of a feeling and much less of a headspace, it gave me a chance to really figure out what it is I want to do.”
And what she wants to do, it turns out, is illustration.
“The art is completely my focus, and I don’t make any art with bicycles at all. Bikes are more just a part of who I am, and art is something I make, and maybe that whole sense of self-awareness that you have when you’re on a bike, and that whole feeling that you have for how you relate to the world when you’re cycling has something to do with how I create the work that I make, but I don’t draw bicycles. I don’t have any interest in them aesthetically in that kind of way.”
Bicycles, it turns out, are not so much an objective interest, as quite literally (and figuratively), what gave Nhatt her phenomenal mobility, and informed the way she looked at the world. She didn’t even learn to cycle until she was in her late teens (“I rode horses on the mountain”), and then a Seattle friend armtwisted her into taking a mechanics course, wanting women to outnumber the men in her classes.
“And I fell in love with the fact that it enabled me to really truly understand something, for the first time. To be able to really get that when you pull on this lever, this cable does this, and to be able to fix something that you could do just with thought process, just by taking time out and looking and observing. And all of my artwork – and most of my food work, and everything – is based on tasting and thinking and observation, and for that they’re very similar to how I work with bicycles. … I don’t know how that fits into courier work at all, besides the fact that it gave me something to be part of.”
“I think it feeds a lot of different parts of us though,” I respond, “I mean, for me it’s the physical aspect, the social aspect, the capability that you feel, and so many things, and maybe it’s not just that it fulfils one part of what you need, but many?”
“Yeah,” muses Nhatt, “and all this kind of feeds into that whole desperate need to be taken seriously, you know, how you have to take a female bike messenger seriously, right? You know anybody who is happy to put nine hours a day on a bike you take seriously, right?”
We’ve talked about this before. Nhatt was the one who picked me up and put me back together (over pints of cider in Wapping) when I lost my nerve after being threatened and stalked by two drivers in as many days, and realized just how unavoidably visible one is as a female courier. And she was the one who pointed out to me that, although we have to put up with a great deal of sexism from postroom guys and bikeshop guys and cabbies and people on the internet, and sometimes even our own controllers, there’s remarkably little of it among couriers themselves.
“They treat you like a courier” she emphasizes. “I mean obviously (this is not going to make me very popular, but) with any of the male couriers, it doesn’t apply to any woman who isn’t a courier – you know, it’s not that people don’t still occasionally have sexist views, but at some point you transcend gender to be just a courier.”
She’s right. I’ve often felt uncomfortable sitting around with gangs of male couriers and listening to their appraisals of passing buttocks and bosoms, but I’ve never felt any fear that that gaze might be turned on me. (Please don’t tell me if I’m wrong.) Sometimes I miss my femininity a bit, but most of the time it’s a relief to be able to put it aside for once, and be recognized for one’s talent on a bicycle (or with a spanner or a pen), rather than how sexy one is or isn’t.
That said, there’s a lot to be said for the encouragement and support we female couriers have given each other down the years. Nhatt’s chirpy American tones on the radio partially inspired me to become a courier myself – as did Chandra, who flagged me down on Euston Road that summer and handed me a flyer for an alleycat I’d be too shy to attend. Chandra, I’ve since discovered, joined the gang in a similar way to me, after watching couriers (including Nhatt) enviously from the wrong side of a reception. Somehow, now we’re all part of each other’s heritage. Nhatt is gratified by this.
“And now you’ve inspired me to leave the country and leave everything I care about and go and be an artist in the desert…”
I apologize and we laugh, and remember our pact to meet up and do the Race Across America together, as a two-woman team, when we’re in our sixties. Who knows what we’ll each have done by then? I recall an evening we spent drinking cocktails on Goodge Street two years ago, shortly before I set off to try and cycle round the world, and at a point when Nhatt was between jobs, and wondering whether she should just give up on it all and go and do something else entirely, and actually rather enjoying the uncertainty of it all – and I’m reminded of the famous curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’. Is that what it’s all about, I wonder? Nhatt considers this carefully.
“I don’t believe in down time, or as I was saying earlier, I don’t believe in happiness either – well, I don’t believe in the importance of happiness – I definitely believe in being happy as an emotion. If I could make every minute count for something then I would. Like you said, I’ve done so many different things and I’ve been to so many different places and so many wonderful people have passed through my life and I just want to keep that going because I think I really thrive on that.”
As I type this it’s Saturday and, two days into her new life in the US, Nhatt is fighting jetlag (and possibly another hangover) and working on a seitan stall in a New York food market. After that she’ll be joining RAAM as an onboard mechanic, and then moving to Austin, where she doesn’t really know what’ll become of her (or whether she’ll be able to find the Turkish coffee that she became addicted to living on Green Lanes).
“I’ve made all these rules and these plans and you know, I want to go and I want to be single and I want to do my thing and I want to work really hard on my art and I want to meet lots of other people who are going to take me seriously as an artist. But I could show up and who-knows-what will happen.”
Interesting times indeed. And I’m sure we’ll all wish Nhatt well in her quest to find someone who’ll take her seriously. (Let’s not tell her that everyone already does.)
Nhatt wrote & drew the following for Moving Target: