"That's what you don't want to be when you grow up," the man said, not even bothering to whisper. "That's what happens when you drop out of school. You'll have to use your back and not your brain."
Fehr was stunned. "He was talking like I wasn't even there," he relates months later during lunch at a downtown diner. "He had no idea who I was or what I had been through that morning. What he said really broke my heart. I felt like taking my daughter to his office and telling her, "This is what you don't want to be when you grow up. You want to be able to see the beauty in everyday life and not go out of your way to hurt people.'"
Fehr says the incident was unusual in that it was so blatantly overt and rude, but having to deal with the occasional clueless jerk or disapproving glance, he says, is all part of being a bike courier. As is having to contend with lumbering buses and barreling trucks, angry and oblivious motorists, and an obstacle course of pedestrians, most of whom are in a hurry and preoccupied. Then there's the weather. Boiling hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter -- as witnessed during last week's big storm, during which many an intrepid courier pedaled right on through.
Some might say, well, that's their problem. If these people want to ride around on bikes all day and deliver packages, then let them have it. And they will, thank you very much. In fact most of them wouldn't have it any other way. No gray cubicles, dress codes or boring meetings for these guys. Their desk is their bike, and their offices are the streets and sidewalks of downtown Charlotte, where they can see, smell and hear the world instead of watching it from a window. Jammed printers or malfunctioning email seem particularly trivial when you're trying to avoid getting squashed by a bus or broadsided by some woman chatting on her cell phone and putting on make-up as she pulls out of a parking garage.
The profession of bike courier isn't your usual job, and it tends to attract unique individuals, many of whom aren't what you'd expect. Sure, they're not getting rich, and benefits are pretty much nonexistent, but there's something to be said for the exhilaration and freedom of being out in the world as opposed to, oh, I don't know, sitting down in front of a computer and writing about it.
It's A Beautiful ThingFehr, 33, is one of about a dozen bike couriers who work downtown. You've probably seen them -- at least they hope you do, especially if you're behind the wheel -- zipping their two-wheelers through traffic or hustling through lobbies with a big bag slung over their shoulders. They deliver and pick up everything from crucial legal papers and banking documents to office supplies. Compared to big cities like New York or Chicago, where couriers are often viewed as fair game, Charlotte's bike couriers have it a little easier. But then again, at least in cities like New York, motorists are used to sharing the road with cyclists. It's still a foreign concept in Charlotte.
If you've spent any time downtown, you know it can be a disorienting and dangerous maze if you're not paying attention. Fehr, who, at five-feet-six and 200 pounds, is a stout bundle of energy with impossibly developed calves, has been navigating that maze for over five years. When he's not cycling through downtown traffic, he likes to relax by mountain biking, rock climbing, and competing in grueling, 24-hour endurance races.
Fehr moved to Charlotte from Pennsylvania in 1998, leaving behind a six-year career as a logistics manager for a Sears & Roebuck tire department. "I was making $65,000 a year and managing about 60 people," he says. "But after six years I was wasted."
While en route to see an old Marine buddy in Wisconsin, Fehr was struck by the rugged beauty of Wisconsin's Boundary Waters, during which time he had an epiphany -- for the sake of his spirit and peace of mind, he had to quit his job and start over.
"I was wrestling with ethical and moral issues, and losing faith with corporate America," he says. "I felt in my core that it (the job) was wrong for me. I just didn't want to be there anymore. I pulled over to a pay phone in the freezing cold and called my wife. I said, "Baby, I want to quit my job and try something new. What do you think? She said, "I can be packed in two days.'"
Considering that the young couple was thinking of starting a family (they now have a three-year-old daughter), Fehr's decision wasn't an easy one. "(My wife) was concerned with the unknown," Fehr says. "Especially when I started talking about being a bike courier. But I had been riding bikes all my life. I was already commuting to work on my bike in Pennsylvania, and lots of days I would sit in the office and just stare at it. I always dreamed of getting paid to ride my bike, and being a courier seemed like the perfect solution."
When Fehr first arrived in Charlotte, he worked for a courier company for about a year, then partnered with a friend and together they started their own bike courier service. But after a few years of running a business, Fehr realized he was getting caught back up in the same corporate rat race as before. He sold his share of the company, and started exploring his options again. A few months later, he got a call from friend Jason Ryan, who owns Nova Office Strategies. Ryan was looking to expand his company's courier services, and thought Fehr was the right guy for the job. Fehr started last October, and says he's never been happier.
"I can't tell you how much fun I'm having," he says. "It's like there's a symphony of people, buildings, cars and vendors going on around you all the time. You just pick your line and go with it. It's honest. It's brilliant. It's moving. It's a beautiful way to make a living."
Well, some days are more beautiful than others. Fehr says that since "98, he's had three serious accidents. One was his fault; the other two were because of impatient motorists.
"As a general rule, most people treat you OK," he says. "But there are those rare occasions when you come across someone who is downright angry, and that can be dangerous. I've had people pull up beside me and scream obscenities or throw something at me for no reason. But I think that most people respect what I do. It may be raining, freezing cold or burning hot, but I'm out there everyday. They see we're not just a bunch of reckless punks. We're out there earning a living, and many of us are supporting families."
It's Not Just A Job, It's An AdventureThe sun sets on the distant horizon as a trio of men approach. They dismount their two-wheeled steeds, secure them to the fence, and head inside, looking for a little cool relief after a long hard day. OK, it's really just three guys grabbing a beer after a day of delivering packages. But it's hard not to make the Old West association watching them cruise into the parking lot and chain up their bikes in front of a downtown watering hole. Present are Rich Dillon, 33, animated, excitable, and the father of a 10-year-old boy; Nathan Sprinkle, 25, whose tall stature and blond good looks would look right at home on an Oxford recruitment poster; and Josh Neeley, 23, the happy-go-lucky youngster of the group with a smile that makes him look a little like Elvis. Both Sprinkle and Dillon started working as Charlotte bike couriers nearly eight years ago, although Sprinkle has dabbled in other things, including backpacking around Europe for awhile, during which time he worked as a bike courier in London. Neeley is somewhat of a newcomer to the business, having been at it for about a year.
Over beer and nachos, Dillon gets the discussion going with one of his more memorable crash and burn stories. A few years ago he was pedaling down College St. when he was rear-ended by a car and thrown face-first into a car in front of him. It broke two front teeth and punctured his bottom lip. His wife worked as a nurse a few blocks away, so he rode over to get checked out.
"She said I needed stitches, but I just didn't have time," Dillon says. "My boss was out, and there was nobody that could cover for me." Instead of stitches, Dillon had his wife tape up his lip with butterfly bandages, and went back to work, missing teeth and all. "People think it's hardcore, but it's more about what else am I going to do? If I don't work, I don't get paid."
Neeley stepped up to match Dillon with his own wince-inducing wipeout story. He was pedaling down the street at a pretty good clip and, just as he was about to pass a dump truck, the door suddenly swung open. He didn't even have time to hit the breaks. "I just slammed into it," Neeley says. "I was unconscious until the ambulance arrived. I was banged up pretty good; I broke my collarbone. But it was my fault. I was going way too fast. It was a stupid wreck."
"I think it's actually good to hit the pavement once in a while to realize it doesn't hurt as much as you think," Dillon adds. "The last time I went down and busted my knee up, it was like, hey, that wasn't so bad."
Dillon moved to Charlotte from Ohio in 1996, and after a month of unsuccessfully searching for a job, spotted an ad for a bike courier. "It only paid like $6 an hour, but I figured it was better than nothing," he says. Dillon, who has a Bachelor's degree in education, says he now makes about the same as a teacher's beginning salary. He points out that money, material possessions and image aren't high on his priority list. He briefly tried to pursue a more conventional career, but soon learned it wasn't for him.
"I don't see how people can go to the same little cubbyhole every day. Some of my favorite times are during rush hour around the bus station. All these mammoth buses are moving around, and I'm flying and weaving between them. It's like yeaah! That was so close, I almost got squished! It makes me feel fantastic. It makes me feel alive."
Sprinkle and Neeley also thrive on the excitement and vitality.
"It's a job you can be, rather than just a job you have," says Sprinkle. "I love the challenge of it, even though I'm dead at the end of the day and don't have the energy to make a phone call. But if I didn't do it, I would feel weaker somehow."
"I've worked behind the bar and at restaurants and just hated it," adds Neeley. "I hated being stuck in some hot kitchen in the middle of summer. Now I'm outside. I can hear the birds, I can feel the air. I can take naps in the park if I want. It's great."
The Tao of CourieringBike couriers were celebrated recently in Travis Hugh Culley's 2001 best-selling book The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. Culley, who works as a bike courier in Chicago, wrote about the day-to-day life and dangers of bike couriers, as well as the experience of living outside the glass and steel cage of the automobile.
"Messengering," writes Culley, "is not an easy job. It can be filled with anguish and humiliation, it can offer hardship so much deeper than the minor frustrations of traffic and rude doormen. Somehow, through the unique difficulties that the journey of every single day brings, the job gets done, and the board gets cleared, bringing a feeling of victory that never tires. The pride taken. . .makes us part of a unique world of young, colorful, soldiers who look death in the face and make a living evading her."
A bit bombastic perhaps, but most of the bike couriers interviewed for this story can relate at least in part to Culley's words and experiences.
"Some people have this attitude that we're nothing more than impediments to them getting to where they want to go as fast as they can," says Dillon. "Americans have no patience. People feel like we deserve their wrath."
"It's that pane of glass between them and the world," says Sprinkle. "People have watched so much TV and played so many video games, they feel like the steering wheel is the controller, and what's going on outside isn't real. That's what I love about cycling. You're part of the situation. You're involved. It's very real."
But the guys also say that after countless close calls, run-ins and wipeouts, they've mellowed and learned to take those pesky motorists in stride. They've even gotten philosophical about it.
"The Dalai Lama talked about how when you get angry, it affects no one but you," Dillon says. "If you're an angry person, you won't last as a bike courier. You can't take the actions of others personally. You just have to look out for yourself, and accept the fact that most motorists aren't paying attention."
Sprinkle says he's developed an attitude that's he's found useful when he's on the job. "I sort of treat motorists like obstacles, as if there were no people inside the car -- just mobile buildings -- sort of mindless automatons moving around, which I guess many of them are."
"They're kind of like cows," adds Dillon. "They're slow, and not very agile, and as long as you give them a little room, you can get around them."
"A lot of people think we're inconsiderate punks," says Neeley. "I get a lot of jealous glances too, though," adds Sprinkle. "I think for every person who might dislike us, there's someone who's a little envious."
"It's funny, every bike courier I know goes out of their way to help people, whether it's holding the door open or giving directions," says Dillon. "Yet sometimes I'll be in the elevator and happen to look over and see this banker type in an expensive suit with a really disgusted look on his face."
So what about the future? Sprinkle is currently taking night classes at CPCC where he's studying political science and international studies. "I definitely don't see myself doing this 10 years from now," he says. "But for right now, I'm enjoying it."
Neeley says he's taking it day by day, and frankly, isn't that concerned about the future at this stage in his life. "He doesn't think about tomorrow," Dillon jokes. "This man has no stress. He's not thinking about 20 years down the road or retirement. He's thinking about how long this beer will last."
As for Dillon, he says he can't imagine doing anything else. "I plan on being a courier until I can't do it anymore. Of course there are days when I wake up feeling miserable and don't want to work. But then I remind myself that I'm getting paid to ride my bike. . .I don't think I'd be happy doing anything else. Maybe there's another job out there for me, but I doubt it."
Contact Sam Boykin at email@example.com.
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