Rebel Without Applause
9.02.11 by Emily Chappell
It’s hard to find a bike messenger with a good word to say about Travis Culley. One or two will take their hat off to his masterful descriptions of bombing through rush hour traffic – but then cringe at his arrogance in devoting a whole chapter to his own victory in an alleycat. Many of the Chicago messengers who appear in the pages of The Immortal Class resent the profit he made from their experiences, and claim that the encounters he described never actually took place.
But this was bound to happen.
The Immortal Class started life as an anthology, with Culley recruiting contributors from among his fellow messengers and sending proposals to various literary agents. But not one publisher was interested in the idea. Anthologies, they reasoned, don’t sell. What about a memoir?
So Culley shelved the anthology idea, ditched his contributors, and eventually produced The Immortal Class, a personal account of his year on the Chicago circuit, intermingled with stories of the larger courier scene (such as the infamous alleycat chapter), and a scathing condemnation of car culture. He got a $30,000 advance, an eight-city book tour, and reviews that marked him as “a talent to watch”.
Is it any wonder other couriers were pissed off? Could it just be a straightforward case of sour grapes? Well, perhaps. I’m sure we’d all be a bit put out if one of our number went and made his or her fortune based on the experiences we all know and share. Not to mention the fact that Culley, along with the rest of us, benefits from an amazingly supportive community that certain members have put a lot of time, effort and energy into creating and maintaining. Life as a courier would be very different without Moving Target, the LCEF, Fullcity, and that old-timer who tuttingly puts you straight when you come in wearing shorts in December.
We look after each other, and we learn from each other. And most of us try to give back to the courier family a little of what we get out of it. Plundering this unique camaraderie and selling it in Waterstones for a profit is just plain bad manners.
But, Culley might argue, isn’t it important for the wider public to know a bit more about what life’s like as a bike messenger? The Philadelphia Enquirer described his book as a “fascinating look at a landscape few office workers ever glimpse”. And true, a sensitive, judicious and well-balanced account of the profession might have gone a long way to convince the rest of the world that bike messengers aren’t just ruthless hooligans with no regard for traffic signals.
Unfortunately, The Immortal Class is none of these things. Culley‘s account of the profession is pacy, energetic and at times exhilarating – but it doesn’t tell our deskbound counterparts anything they didn’t already know, or suspect, about cycle couriers. Rather than portraying the world we all know, with all its diversity, vulnerability, power, frustration, hilarity, incompetence, tedium, creativity, irreverence and respect, he tells the tale of one aggressive young man, drunk on his own speed, scattering pedestrians and terrifying drivers as he barrels through the city.
Culley writes with the youthful arrogance of someone who’s been told he’s a good writer one too many times, and hasn’t yet grasped the power of understatement. He is either bombing through traffic at dizzying speeds, slipstreaming trucks at 42mph and missing pedestrians by millimetres – or he is “exploring whole new dimensions in pain” thanks to an injured knee that eventually freezes altogether – whereupon he is picked up by one of his company’s drivers, and brought back to base to finish the day in the dispatcher’s chair, and then summoned to the boss’s office, to be informed that he is the highest earner in the history of the company. As Culley modestly puts it, “That’s not called doing a job, that’s called being a rock star.”
His every action is pervaded by a tone of perpetual self-congratulation. His pen accidentally flies out of his radio holster as he goes to mark the time of a drop:
I kept walking … When the time was right – I was in no hurry – I reached out and plucked the falling pen from the sky. It seemed to hang there in space like a coquettish invitation.
And let’s not pretend we don’t know how that feels. There are some exhilarating days where the whole universe is on your side – you have a tailwind both ways, gaps open in the traffic just where you need them, your controller keeps giving you extra pick-ups that fall into place along the route you’d already planned, and even if you misjudge a corner you manage to jump off the bike and land deftly on your feet, as though you meant to all along. It’s one of the best parts of the job. But this occasional mastery is a private pleasure – try to describe it to anyone else, and you’ll just sound like you’re boasting.
And it’s not always like this. For each of those days, there’s another day where it all goes wrong. And I’m not talking about “exploring whole new dimensions in pain”, or riding till your legs literally stop working. I’m talking about those dragging days where you have a cold, and your back injury’s playing up, but not enough to keep you off the road – just enough to make you really uncomfortable. It’s drizzling, and work’s slow, so you spend several half-hour slots sitting around letting the damp sink into your bones through your sodden clothes. Your chain’s on its way out. You get two punctures. You had a late night, and your legs are slow and achy. You’re in a bad mood, your controller’s irritating you, and you have saddle sore.
You know those days? Culley apparently never had them. He was either the fastest rider in town, or suffering worlds of pain few of us could imagine. He misses the grey areas, the tedium, and the mild, nagging discomfort that makes up a large unacknowledged portion of the courier experience. Not to mention the funny bits. And he thus fails to evoke any of the pathos that might make the pinstriped world view us more sympathetically. If they start off thinking that all couriers are dangerous nutters, Culley’s book won’t do anything to change their minds.
What the driving public needs to understand is that speed is what we are paid for and floating is the skill that makes our work competitive. We can twist Madison Avenue into a runway and penetrate a crowd like it was a puff of smoke. There is no fear.
Well what does he want – a round of applause?
An intersection burnt by a courier should herald cheers from cops, motorcyclists, and pedestrians alike. It is the clearest expression of a messenger’s technique.
Turns out that’s exactly what he wants.
Culley fails not only to sympathize with the fellow road users he regularly terrifies, but also with the rest of the community he plundered for his own profit, after only nine months on the road.
One of the most telling episodes is when he first hears of the murder of fellow courier Thomas McBride, and admits: “The news was a little distant at first. I assumed the victim was one of the bikers we tend to forget about, the empty-bucket riders who run ten packages a day on beat-up Huffys.” In Culley’s world, the only ‘real’ bike messenger is the maverick young man, tall and muscular, bristling with attitude, and he considers messengering “a transient job for transient minds”, populated by aspiring artists and musicians – the only ones for whom he demonstrates any sympathy. This is a narrow-minded view of messengers, and does a huge disservice to the circuit’s women, parents, old-timers, professionals, mountain bikers – almost everyone except Travis Culley, in fact.
What’s really sad is that Culley didn’t mean to write this sort of book. He felt – and I agree with him – that an anthology would have best captured the “collective experience” and “many voices” of Chicago’s couriers, and hoped that his memoir would convey “that there are other stories out there, hundreds if not thousands”. Unfortunately it fails to do this.
It could have been a much more interesting book. One is inclined to think that Travis Culley missed an opportunity.