Being a bike messenger in San Francisco during the Nineteen Eighties was
magical time. The city streets were teeming with its own scruffy underclass, an
otherwise unemployable bunch of artists, musicians, and drug addicts who all
thought their bicycle jobs were temporary stepping stones to greater things. The
city was still undiscovered to me, filled with the noise and the stink of excitement.
Everyday my small world, my tiny grid of one way streets in the financial district,
would expand block by block.
Alone on my bicycle, every delivery brought a new sense of discovery. The physicality of the job challenged my stamina. The unending slow and steady pump of the pedals drained my body of calories. As often as possible, I found myself off the bicycle, gobbling candy, smoking, and letting my sweat be cooled by the breeze. I’d already mastered the monotony of riding elevators up and down the skyscrapers of the financial district and treasured getting out into the neighborhoods, away from the suits and the perfume.
There, I could try to glean some of the history that made San Francisco; names of streets that sounded oddly familiar, like déjà vu, nightclubs and bars I had only read about in books. The Haight Ashbury was still reeling from the fallout of the sixties, hordes of punk rock runaways had migrated to the city. There had been The Peoples Church, Harvey Milk, Charles Manson. Reganomics were raining down. There was aids, crack. The streets were full of freaks. Freaks could still afford to live there.
Up on Sutter Street, between Larkin and Polk, I found myself searching for an address to a tiny advertising firm. I stood straddling my Schwinn one-speed, off the sidewalk and between two parked cars, gazing up at a large residential building.
“Hi.” I heard a friendly voice say. I was focused on the building, comparing the address to the numbers scrawled on the paper clutched in my hand.
“Hi,” the voice repeated. “How’re you doing today?”
A young man stepped off the sidewalk, holding his hand up for me to wait. I hadn’t realized his greeting was meant for me.
“Hell of a day. Beautiful, isn’t it?” He stood in front of me with a tight little grin stuck on his face. I didn’t know what the man wanted. I hoped he had recognized my uniform, shorts and a black t-shirt with Quicksilver screened on the back, and come out of his office to receive the package.
“Is this for you?” I asked.
He glanced at the manila envelope without looking and gently shook his head. He looked a little apologetic for not being the one the package was addressed to. I put my foot onto the peddle and began to push off when he said,
“I want to ask you about your tattoo …”
We both looked down at my calf at the same time. I was fiercely proud of my new tattoo. I given it to myself, spending painful hours poking myself with a pin wrapped in thread and dipped in Indian ink. I had eventually marked out the outline of a bird, a primitive cave drawing of a bird, but clearly a bird. It was placed squarely in the middle of my calf for maximum exposure during work hours. Like any young man with a new tattoo, I thought it made me look tough and grown up, confident of my place in the world. I was flattered that someone else had noticed.
“That’s nice, I like it,” he nodded with a fraternal sense of approval. He continued, “Listen, the reason I stopped you is, I wanted to ask you a couple of questions.”
Here it comes, I thought. I’d already been accosted by Scientologists during my first week in the city. Their agent zealots had staked out the civic center looking for potential converts. They spotted me staring up at a building I was about to enter for my first ever job interview. My hesitation was interpreted as naïveté. I was quickly propositioned like a runaway fresh off the greyhound bus. Now, I was determined to keep my guard up.
“Have you ever done any modeling?”
I may have blushed a little before shaking my head.
“Really?” He sounded astonished. “Would you be willing to consider some modeling, maybe?”
“Look, the reason I ask is because I work for a large shoe company, one of the biggest.” When he said this he raised his eyebrows up like it should carry some extra weight.
“We’re doing a new advertising campaign. I think you have a great look. It’s exactly the kind of thing we’re looking for.”
He sensed my hesitation.
“Look, this is professional stuff, for shoes only. We’d focus mostly the calf and foot. You’ll be paid well, maybe sign on for more work.” He said it casually, but the implication was there. I could be discovered. This could be the happy accident that sent me on my way. Suddenly my common sense kicked in, my cautious skepticism,
“You guys don’t want me, I’m marked up, I’ve got this tattoo right in the middle of leg.” I felt like tainted milk, damaged goods.
“That’s exactly why we would use someone like you. It’s new, edgy, different from the campaigns they’ve been using. You’ve seen that crap. They wanna go in a whole new direction. You’re perfect.”
A large truck flew by behind me and the compliment was lost to the noise. The stranger went on,
“You’ve got the right proportions between your knee and ankle,” he said, pointing to my legs. “You’re tanned from working out here in the sun; you’ve got just the right amount of muscle from riding this bike. The pay is good and it won’t take too long. We could make an appointment or we could do it right now. Whaddya say? You interested?”
I gave him a small smile. I thought about the delivery I was still supposed to make, the address I still needed to find. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be a bike messenger. Maybe the world had better things in store for me.
He stood there waiting for me to make up my mind. It was as though I was the only one in San Francisco who had calves with feet attached to them. He wanted me to know I was his best option, his top priority.
“Yeah, I’ll think about it.”
Immediately he produced a business card between his two fingers and said, “Oh, one last thing. How’s your basket?”
I didn’t understand the question. I thought he was only interested in my calves and feet, not my bicycle. I looked at the package strapped into the wire basket that was bolted to the handlebars of my bike. I looked back at him, confused.
“Your basket,” he repeated, “do you have a nice basket?”
My basket was the same as every other bike messenger in town, dented and beat up from too many days on the job. I pointed to it and shrugged.
“No, not your basket, your basket,” he said. He cupped his balls to let me know that he didn’t mean the basket on my bike at all.
I had never heard this term before. I felt all at once stupid, naïve, and cheated. I was on my way to fame and fortune and now I was back on my way to just another delivery. I knew at once that my basket was not part of the geography of my lower leg, that there was no shoe ad, that I was not perfect.
I looked at my stranger’s feet and thought that a man working for a shoe company would probably be wearing nicer shoes. I stepped on my pedal and rolled up Sutter Street, letting the business card flutter to the ground.