Messenger heroes, number 3 - Rebecca 'Lambchop' Reilly
6.08.06 by Buffalo Bill
I first heard about Rebecca Reilly sometime in 1995. I can’t remember where or from whom I heard the story. Perhaps it was Markus Cook, unofficial leader of the San Francisco Bicycle Messenger Association, who first told me of her. The tale was that there was a female messenger who was making a journey across the United States, visiting cities where there were messengers, living and working in each city in turn. And that she was writing a book, a collection of messenger experiences. She was reputed to be hard and fast. I was told that she was going to come to the 1995 Cycle Messenger World Championships in Toronto and win.
I didn’t get to meet her in Toronto. There were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of messengers in town that weekend for the 1995 CMWC. It was a chaotic event, and had a weird, out of control energy. It was a roller-coaster experience, turning from beauty to rage to utter confusion to exhilaration to pure panic from minute to minute. At the end of the event, I was exhausted, emotionally drained, angry, desperate and totally obsessed by the event, and my role in it. I couldn’t see a future for CMWC and was convinced that there should be no event in 1996. Markus Cook had stood on a table and invited the world to San Francisco for CMWC. Achim Beier had counter-proposed New York after the fact. The SF crew felt betrayed and bitter. A 4 month wrangle ensued which only ended when Achim went to SF and banged his head on the Golden Gate bridge.
And so it was agreed that CMWC 96 would be in San Francisco. Andy Capp moved to SF in late 95, and I visited him there, not least to see his baby son, my godson Spencer. I also hung out with the SF messengers. By now Rebecca was working in SF. She had also pitched in to help organize the CMWC.
I was near Market Street, uptown somewhere near the Wall, when I saw this bare-armed messenger careering down a hill, fixed, no-brakes. As she got closer, I could see that she was female, and that she was missing front teeth. I knew, somehow, that she must be Rebecca. It was one of the meetings that Erik Zo, SF messenger bag maker, describes as the Great Dispatcher doing a good job. I hailed her, and she skidded to a stop. She knew who I was, too, somehow.
She was a little younger than me, and full of enthusiasm, open, big smile, loud voice, sentences tumbling out of her like water over a fall. You couldn’t describe Rebecca as physically beautiful, but, like all girl messengers, she had the muscular, lean build and ease on a bike that we boy messengers find irresistible.
She was, is still, I guess, a mixture of vulnerability and bravado. She claims not be frightened of anything or anyone, but I have known her weep with anger and humiliation caused by her colleagues within the messenger community. At CMWC 98, she won a competition, but because of an organisational screw-up, she was over-looked at the awards ceremony. She was already resentful of what she felt to be condescending and demeaning treatment by other male members of the organising committee (in which she had played a huge part), and she saw this over-sight as a deliberate slight, calculated to wound. I was very upset by the sight of this proud, strong female crying, and I did what I could to comfort her.
She was an inspiration to many female messengers, because she stood up to the men, and never asked for special treatment, only to be given the same chance as a man. At one time, she even argued that there should not be separate awards for females in Messenger Championships. She was quixotic, forever tilting at wind-mills, real or imagined.
She was always active within the messenger community, and probably did more than any other person to inform the US messenger community about messenger culture. At the time she was on her travels, in the mid to late 90s, the internet was in its infancy. Hardly any messengers sent or received email regularly. There were not any on-line forums, apart from the electronic mailing list, firstname.lastname@example.org (now email@example.com), and that had less than 50 subscribers before 98. Now even useless on-line courier zines like this one have on-line forums, and most big messenger cities have something resembling an ‘official’ web-site representing the cycle couriers of the city.
Only New York, SF and DC had regular alleycats, and that only started to happen after 1996. There was little communication between cities, and very few messengers outside of DC or SF had even heard of the Cycle Messenger World Championships, never mind participated. Until Rebecca arrived. She brought the international messenger community onto the streets of every city, large or small, she visited. She embodied the messenger community, she was its messenger.
She finished her book, ‘Nerves of Steel’, in 2000. I guess that will be her legacy to the messenger community. And like the community it is a record of, it is flawed. She had rushed to finish it, panicked by the news that another messenger was also working on a book on the community. It was typical of Rebecca’s experiences with the messenger community that after both books had been published, the other guy went out his way to denigrate hers during promotional interviews. I found ‘Nerves of Steel’ fascinating, and as a piece of social history, it is invaluable.
After 9-11, she joined the Marine Corps. I understand her reasons for doing so, and respect her choice, even if I profoundly disagree with it. And she is still one of my heroes.