Rebecca Reilly: Nerves of Steel, Heart of Gold
2.03.14 by Emily Chappell
The legend of Rebecca Reilly has loomed large over my years as a courier. I’m perhaps more readily disposed than most to appoint heroes and role models – if I count up all the people who’ve inspired me over the years, it would stretch into the dozens, or perhaps even hundreds – but there’s always been something particularly compelling about Reilly. Perhaps it was her undisputed status as one of the pioneers of the courier scene. Perhaps it was her prominence as a woman in an industry still heavily dominated by men. Perhaps it was simply her elusiveness.
I discovered Rebecca through Bill’s admiring portrait of her on Moving Target, which perpetuates this sense of mystery: back in the hazy days of pre-internet rumour and hearsay, Bill hears of “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 sets out to find her, finally crossing paths at the San Francisco CMWC in 1996:
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.
Rebecca comes across as a compelling personality (a mixture of vulnerability and bravado – quixotic, forever tilting at windmills, real or imagined), but what really captured my imagination was her role as a modern-day Columbus, voyaging out from the familiar world of Washington D.C., where she did her rookie year, to the unknown horizons of Chicago and San Francisco, never entirely sure whether she’d find messengers there, or how different they’d be from those she already knew.
She brought the international messenger community onto the streets of every city, large and small, she visited. She embodied the messenger community, she was its messenger.
Rebecca’s crowning achievement was her book Nerves Of Steel, probably the most complete account of the messenger world that will ever exist. Shortly after it was published, Bill’s article told me, 9/11 happened, and she joined the US Marine Corps, a decision he respected, but profoundly disagreed with.
And somehow, this added to the enigma of Rebecca Reilly. Most other long-time messengers stay close to the industry, even after they’ve escaped the clutches of the road. Some, like Bill, become controllers, or start their own courier companies. Others become mechanics, framebuilders or cycle trainers. But Rebecca, stepping from one close-knit world into another, very different one, seemed to have disappeared altogether. I googled her several times over the years, and found almost nothing beyond 2001. She seemed to have emerged from nowhere, burned brightly for a decade, and then faded back into obscurity, leaving only her book as legacy.
Only once did I strike gold – a short video of Rebecca in 1995, three years into her messenger career, talking us through the contents of her courier bag on a sunny San Francisco street corner. She’s young-looking, lithe and tanned, with a long sun-bleached braid and a bare midriff, and seems impossibly distant – two decades ago and thousands of miles away. And yet, somehow she’s also beguilingly familiar; instantly recognizable as one of us – the scruffy messenger bag with its faded badges; the earthy chuckle; the homemade bike-chain bracelet; the crumpled cycling cap; the lock tucked into her belt. If she turned up on The Corner next week, she’d fit right in. Her radio is bulkier than the ones we use today, but the banter over the airwaves is just the same.
And now I’m planning to write a book of my own. A few months ago, out of a mixture of deference and curiosity, I asked Bill if he knew where Rebecca was these days, and whether she’d mind me getting in touch. Not long after that, I found myself loitering anxiously outside a curry house on New York’s 1st Avenue, wondering how I’d recognize her when she turned up and whether she’d be the spiky, impetuous young messenger I knew from Nerves Of Steel, or the militant, muscle-bound patriot I feared the Marine Corps might have turned her into.
She was neither, as I quickly discovered. Someone yelled my name from across the street, and I looked up to see a large car heading straight for me, with a telltale bicycle strapped to the back, and an energetic blonde woman beaming at me from the driver’s seat.
“I’m going to go park – I’ll be right back!” she hollered, and disappeared round the corner onto 4th Street. Two minutes later she was back, weaving expertly and brakelessly through the traffic on her bike, and pulling up in front of me with a grin. “This is on me”, she announced, as she led me into the restaurant, sat down, and proceeded to spend the next three hours regaling me with gossip and legends from her courier years, tales from her time in the military, and everything she’d been up to since. Far from the superior, standoffish hero figure I’d somehow envisaged, she was friendly, frank, effervescently talkative, frequently obscene, and often laugh-out-loud funny.
“Ah, it’s like herpes – it keeps coming back”, she said of couriers’ tendency to ‘quit’ the job many times before they actually give up. I choked on a bit of papadam.
We found a lot of common ground, as women who had spent a certain number of years on the road, but it was hard for me to imagine just how different the courier world had looked for someone joining the industry twenty years ago, compared to the rambling international family I know today. In fact, back then, there was no courier world.
“Before I was travelling,” says Rebecca, “I only knew of two guys that travelled somewhere, in a year of messing in D.C. … and you know, they weren’t even real to us – they were like gods. So one guy, I actually talked to, and he had gone to Chicago … and said there were messengers there – and it was like: the world was flat until he got back from Chicago.”
But it wasn’t simply a compulsion to map uncharted territories that set Rebecca off on her decade-long odyssey across a continent. She was driven in part by an urge to honour the black Americans who had welcomed her wholeheartedly into their community, despite the endemic racism that meant they would never be welcomed by hers, and also spurred on by the nagging of her mother, who worried that she was jeopardizing any future career.
“I had a business bachelors, business administration, I was working on my French, and she was like ‘you could do marketing, and you’re chucking it all away, to go and gallivant…’ And I was like – I’m not being that knucklehead that, you know, bumps around in the fifties – Jack Kerouac – I’m not Jack Kerouac, I’m not just going around getting high and hanging out, OK, I’m gonna write a book. She’s like – what-ever.”
And Rebecca bursts into laughter, clearly harbouring not an ounce of bitterness about this maternal scepticism. (Her mother eventually wrote an Introduction to Nerves Of Steel.) It becomes more and more clear, during the course of our evening together, that her emotions are strong, but refreshingly simple. She speaks of her former courier colleagues with warmth and admiration; she is frank about her dislike of Travis Culley, a rival who won her enmity when he emailed her while they were writing their respective books, claimed to be a leader of the community she had helped to create, and demanded that she share her material with him. Rebecca doesn’t have time for hypocrisy or jealousy, and nor does she bother to hide or contain her anger at the way couriers were – and still are – treated by drivers, the police, and the very cities they work in.
We speak at length about the constant frustration of other people’s road rage and dangerous driving – I’ve been a courier for five years now, and it still gets to me, no matter how firmly I tell myself to move on and leave it behind, because there are some battles you can never win, and there’s no sense in getting upset over something you can’t change. I half-hope that Rebecca, who has a decade or so on me, will be able to reassure me that it gets easier with time, but she is still palpably furious when recalling some of the aggression she faced on the road, and visibly proud of the times she stood up for herself.
When she joined the Marine Corps after 9/11, she was an instant hit at the recruiting office, having arrived on a bicycle, in a blizzard.
“They asked me if I’d ever been arrested for something and I said ‘yeah.’
And I was like ‘no, I don’t smoke pot at all.’
‘Assault and battery.’
‘Tony! Wilbur! Come over here, you gotta hear this story!’
So they all came up, I told them my story about the fight with the cabbie, how I put him in hospital, and they just thought that was the most wonderful thing. They’re like, ‘oh my god, you’re gonna make a great marine!’ And I thought, oh finally! Someone comes to kill me and I can kill ‘em back! That’s awesome!”
And she grins, with a childish delight that belies the violence she’s describing.
But the respect Rebecca had earned as one of the hardest and fastest couriers of her day – female or male – didn’t follow her into the military.
“Marines are like the last bastion of masculinity. A lot of guys get in because – well, they want to be a man. To have a woman do stuff as well as they do was like the biggest insult. They hated us.”
As a courier, Rebecca had argued that there shouldn’t be separate awards for females at messenger championships. As a marine, ever the idealist, she campaigned for women to be held to the same standards as men, arguing that as long as the bar was set lower for women, men would feel like they were being cheated. This didn’t make her many friends, and she ended up as unpopular with the female marines as she was with the men. Although military life gave her the chance to see the world, and to utilize her talent for languages (she has taught herself Chinese, and also speaks French, Korean and some Pashto), she was glad to get out in 2010.
“After a while, in the corps, I just put my personality in a box – ‘I’ll take this out when I get out’. And then I got out. It took a while for my personality to come out. It was so buried. You have to just live it.”
Her non-conformity surprises me – I’d assumed, since Rebecca joined the Corps immediately after 9/11, that she did so for patriotic reasons, wanting to defend the ‘American way of life’, and avenge the attacks. As it turns out, she signed up in 2002 because she had absolutely no other options.
The US courier industry shrank abruptly and alarmingly after the 9/11 attacks – first there was the anthrax scare, and then, possibly as a result, more and more communications went online. Rebecca was working in D.C. at the time, and her wages suddenly dropped from $600 a week (“which for then was pretty good”) to $120. She could no longer cover her basic living expenses, her book wasn’t selling, and she was sliding further and further into debt.
Rebecca’s characteristic brightness falters as she recalls her struggle to stay afloat.
“I actually became – uh – pretty, uh – honestly, I was pretty low. I was drinking all the time, getting in really violent arguments, and after a while I just stopped going out, would just sit home and drink until I fell asleep. I thought about killing myself … And here I was with a college education – I’d look at it, like, yeah, I have a college education, but I don’t have a wardrobe, I can’t even go for an interview. None of my skills are current. I’m kinda stuck! … So in a fit of desperation, whining about my life to my sister, who’d been in the air force, she said – well shit, just join the military! You know, because they’ll pay for your clothes, they’ll give you an education – you get the GI bill, you get out, you go back to school. I thought – that sounds pretty good. I could get food, get my teeth fixed. I hadn’t been to a dentist in more than fifteen years, I had no health insurance.”
And, for all its faults, the Marine Corps did sort her out.
“They saved me. As hard as it was – and I do have some pretty bad feelings about the whole experience – I’m not bitter about joining, it was my choice. I got a lot of really good training, I paid back all of my debt, I got to see the world, I got to do some incredible stuff. But they’re a bunch of assholes.”
Despite the hotheadedness and occasional violent outbursts of her youth, Rebecca is a committed Buddhist, and a strong believer in peace and justice. She lights up when she describes the humanitarian work the marines did in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
“I firmly believe, if you give people the mission to help, especially if it’s hard, and hardcore like that, they’ll be all over it. And that’s what the Marine Corps could do. Instead of killing people, they could be going in and shielding people. Because that’s dangerous too.”
Towards the end of the evening, having listened to her stories for hours, I ask Rebecca if she has any regrets. This stops her in her tracks. “Wow. Huh. That’s a really good question.” And there’s a long pause while she wracks her brains, finally admitting that she perhaps could have messengered in more countries, especially France.
But in truth, regret doesn’t seem to be part of Rebecca’s emotional vocabulary. What comes across much more strongly is a sense of unapologetic pride – pride in the community she nurtured; pride in the book that took her a decade to write, and stands as the definitive record of the courier scene; pride in being one of the few women who thrived in a male-dominated industry, and who, in their visibility, showed the world that a strong woman could be a creature of beauty, rather than an object of revulsion.
“We were little specks in the universe, but we were noticeable. We had sex appeal. We were fast, we were bitchy, we raised hell. We got in fights – well, not all of us. Mostly me. But you know, we didn’t back down.”
I feel I have a lot to thank her for – but it would take too long to express my gratitude for the international courier scene, for changing the image of womankind, and for the way her life has directly inspired my own, so instead I thank her for the meal (for which she insists on paying), and for driving hundreds of miles to New York especially to meet me, and watch her as she rides off into the traffic, still smiling.
Rebecca will be speaking about her experiences at Look Mum No Hands, 125–127 Mare St, London E8 3RH on
28th March Saturday 29th March.