Coming into the Plaza on a diagonal line, Brian shoots up and dismounts. I go for broke and introduce myself:
“Hey, I’m Eric from COG. I was kind of hoping to shadow you for a bit today, for the magazine.”
Brian looks at me, his actual expression hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. Barely audible, he replies: “Yeah, you can follow me mate, but I’m not gonna be in your magazine.”
Oh, hell. He thinks I’m some writer playing posenger. “Hey, its cool. I mean if you’re busy and don’t want to feel like I’m holding you back, I totally understand. I’m a courier, with fourteen years under my wheels…”
Brian chuckles a bit at that. His PDA chimes, Brian pulls out his brick of information and looks at the text. “Ey, we’re off.”
And that’s it. I’m following Brian off of the Sun Trust Plaza curb and into Collins Street’s traffic. Immediately crossing to the middle of the street we follow Melbourne’s tram tracks. Totally illegal. This is my first lesson in threading Melbourne’s traffic courier-style. Up to now, I was tourist. Brian is fast, but not stupid. Yes, lights were run through, but certainly not recklessly. I am able to keep his lines. As we begin picking up packages, Brian loosens up a bit. Stories are swapped while riding the other steed of the messenger trade, the elevator. Melbourne has the quickest elevators I have ever been on. Like the elevator guys were trying to outdo each other...”Ey mate, my 333 Collins car #2 does four flights a second!”
Melbourne’s office buildings have the easy feel of pre-terror America. Brian and I stride into offices, right along with everyone else (gasp!) and ride the same elevators. Amazing. I’m taking a walk down memory lane, here! Even if the building has security, they just nod at Brian and I. Melbourne has some serious office towers: the Eureka Tower (Melbourne’s tallest) is 88 stories, separated from the CBD by the Yarra River. Melbourne’s Central Business District is compact and orderly. Classic deco buildings shoulder up with modern glass and steel skyscrapers. Tiny lanes cut through the larger main blocks, all with their own street name although some are not much wider than a single lane. Most of the time they are lined with shops and pedestrians. One of these streets being Hoiser Lane, world famous for the street art slathered on it. Brian uses these to their utmost advantage, cutting through the larger footprint of a block, and popping out to the next main street. This is most decidedly Brian’s CBD.
Although Brian carries a two-way brick radio on his shoulder, his deliveries come through a hand held device that I had only seen in Australia. The thing was not very large, thicker than a personal video game unit but about the same size containing a screen that displays all of your deliveries. The closest thing I have seen in America was on Fed Ex and UPS drivers. Brian would call out drops on the radio, and scan his PDA for the next target. He also tracked everything on a paper manifest as well, to guarantee that he would be paid for work performed that day. He thinks the PDA dispatch takes the mental game out of messenger work–now that the deliveries just come through on the screen, you don’t need to think through your hangover! Back in Milwaukee, our couriers are two-way radio dispatched with paper tags. I could see the advantage of the PDA-beep-there’s all of your info.
Brian still retained the radio, and it was some quality banter. Flava Flav is brought up, and one of the TollFast Couriers tells the tale of how he was drunkenly kissed by Flava Flav’s blonde-of-the-moment for providing directions...I was lucky to catch that one squaking from Brian’s brick before entering a building.
Melbourne has a population of four million, and only thirty couriers. Of those thirty, two are women. Indigo was one of the two that we continually crossed paths with. Her Bianchi Pista was seemingly everywhere Brian and I went. She rides for Zed Couriers with the call sign of 305, and gets to do Fed Ex overflow work in the CBD. At this writing, Indigo has just crossed her one year mark. She picked up the courier gig because she likes riding–I think we all can relate to that! Indigo holds a Masters Degree in Fine Art, and has a tough time swallowing the “Oh, you’re just the messsenger...” attitude that is exuded from many of the white collars couriers deal with daily. Curious about how she felt surrounded by a sausage party of bike messengers, I asked how she got along with them. Indigo confided that even though it was intimidating at first, everyone looks out for each other. She thinks that Melbourne has something pretty special going on. COG would agree.
Being led around Melbourne by Brian also treated me to a version of the city that I would have never known by blindly cycling around. Like where to find inexpensive food. Messengers know where to get the most calories for the least amount of cash, having a job that requires more of one, and pays less of the other. Brian taking me to the Queen Victoria Market was one awesome find. The market is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Peter and I would discover that by attempting to hit it up on a Wednesday. The Queen Victoria Market combines an outdoor fruit and vegetable market with rows upon rows of vendors selling everything from safety vests to tourist koala bear t-shirts. It was kind of a surreal consumption circus packed with people milling about. Vendors spilled out onto the sidewalk hawking leather purses by megaphone. “If you need cheap gloves, get ’em ’ere.” Brian came in for some light gloves and an affordable hot breakfast. I hungrily wolfed down a flaky pastry with a spinach and mild white cheese filling. Delicious. Only two Aussie Dollars!
Later on in the afternoon Brian guided me to an equally affordable late lunch tucked into an unassuming pub. At this point in the day, we had been ripping through the CBD. Now that the workday was coming to a close, Melbourne’s Police bring all of their trainees out to the major intersections directing traffic. The couriers call it “The Blitz.” Running a traffic light is now impossible, because there are literally dozens of Police stretched out over blocks. I am told the tale of one hapless courier that thought he had escaped the law by cutting through a park, only to get pounced on by the cops waiting on the other side. Radio transmissions beat bikes.
Sitting outside in the afternoon sun with a lull in the action, Brian and I have a chance to really talk a bit. Safa is his nickname, with 709 his call sign. He honed his razor sharp skills working for five years in Sydney. Brian spent a few months working in both London and Glasgow. Even though he appeared to know Melbourne quite well, Brian had only worked here for a year and a half. He traveled to Tokyo for the CMWC, but broke his collarbone in an opening event crash. He and I had both busted track bikes in Berlin. The bike he was currently riding, a Zumbi Quilombo–seemingly a cross between a KHS Flight with a Geekhouse S-shaped seattube–has a Polish pedigree, Brian won it by getting the fastest lap around a velodrome a few days after his track bike died in Berlin. That’s when being a quick messenger can really pay off!
Discussing the state of messenger work, Brian informs me of a company called Mail Call, a company based in Sydney, had recently branched into Melbourne. Their Standard CBD rate was a paltry 2.90 AUD. Once a fair company to work for (Brian had worked for them for a bit in Sydney). Here in Melbourne, Mail Call has been enticing everyone else’s clients with stunningly cheap rates. Mail Call only hires prospective couriers if they have no experience, because the pay is so poor that anyone with previous messenger experience would call them out on it. Grumblings around the Plaza on Collins have some wanting to don a Mail Call jersey and just mess up their deliveries for a bit. Ruthless, but I can’t say that hasn’t crossed my messenger mind when faced with a kneecapping competition.
Lunch is over. Brian’s PDA chimes, and we go back into the CBD to shag the remainder of Melbourne’s packaged business day. At one point, Brian shows off by riding a wheelie for a few blocks. We both got a decent skitch up one side of Collins by grabbing on to a tram-Brian getting the accordian gap to hold onto, while I made do with barely a fingerhold. The looks offered us by the commuters on board were priceless. Another attempt to skitch was tried on a box truck that nearly yanked Brian’s arm off. “That thing took off like a dragster!” It sure did, Safa…
The workday ends with all of the usual last minute delivery chaos that messengers excel at. Now back at the Plaza, Melbourne’s messengers take COG into their fold. I am elated. Beer and cider goes around. This was the hardest crew for COG to crack into. Indigo was totally correct, they ARE intimidating as hell, but an amazingly solid group of couriers. They can play practical jokes on each other for days on end, but if one of them gets injured they’ll put on a benefit race. Piss ’em off and they’ll fill your downtube with pennies, or stick a streetfind sex toy in your waterbottle. Hope you have gloves…
Friday nights are Melbourne’s (worldwide, really) Messenger Night. COG is invited, and we jump at the chance to go haa’d with these crazies. The Twins are finally together, Lane finally back on the street from his extended holiday. We connect like brothers. What begins with cider consumed while tucked in an alley’s blind spot travels to The Public Bar across from the Victoria Market.
This is Melbourne’s messenger bar and we mob the joint. I make the rounds talking to the different riders, and my notes get sloppier as the drinks go down. Lane is in full effect, ordering the Melbourne messengers’ signature shot: “MDMA” again and again. Peter and I consume them, again and again. They are quite good. Wicked, in fact. A Melbourne District Messenger Association T-shirt gets offered to COG but only decided by an arm wrestling match. Peter nearly snaps my wrist going “over the top”, and I try to hold out with drunken valor. I had no idea Peter had that in him! I lost the match and the shirt, but ended up with Lane’s MDMA hoodie. Score! Lane gets Stu’s coveted RICHMOND (VA) “Fuck Y’All”cycling cap in return. Melbourne has a section called Richmond, and that cap needed to stay in town.