The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers
and the Cult of Human Power
By Travis Hugh Culley
324 pages, $19.95
Bike messengers seem out of place in the streets of our downtowns.
Despised and envied by the "suits" they serve all day, messengers
are simultaneously outside commerce and nothing more than commerce.
They thumb their noses at workaday propriety while turning their
very bodies into mere shuttles for the push and pull of business
transaction. Their sweaty labor seems almost anachronistic in our
supposed new clean keyboard utopia, some relic from a decidedly
archaic world where information has to assume material form to move.
And yet they're the communications system of the real-world network,
transmitters endlessly coursing across the spaces between nodes
on the grid. They are both isolate flecks in the data stream and
potential connection points between labor and the information economy,
bearers of new public visions and a possible politics.
Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power,
Culley delivers a powerful articulation of the politics drawn from
his labor. Careening back and forth between anti-car polemic, road-warrior
tall tales and two-wheeling prose poetry, Culley's memoir does threaten
to fly apart from the force of his own enthusiasm. Nevertheless, he
fits together the strands of these expressive worlds like he might
an intertwined series of pickups and dropoffs across the Chicago Loop.
They coalesce into a story about a political awakening that begins
in work and the hard lessons of exertion, pain and exhilaration.
Bike messengering begins for Culley as nothing more than a job,
a way to support his ambitions in the theater. But by the end of
the book, it's a way of life, galvanizing his participation in Critical
Mass--the monthly bike-ride-cum-protest held in cities around
the world--and other bike activism of the mid-to-late '90s. Culley
matures as a messenger while the Chicago bike insurgency comes into
its own, earning the ire and retribution of Mayor Daley's police.
The narrative here covers both stories; perhaps Culley's most subtle
and important achievement is bringing day-to-day toil and transportation
politics into close conversation. "The bicycle," he writes, "is
a revolution, an assault on civilian territory, intent on taking,
from the ground up, responsibility for the shape of our cities.
It is a mutiny, challenging the ever-one-way street. The bicycle
is a philosophy, a way of life, and I am using it like a hammer
to change the world and to redeem our war-torn cities."
This kind of manifesto-speak, smashing along with its "assaults"
and "mutinies," seems ill-fitted for any lasting sense of "responsibility
for the shape of our cities." Still, Culley's brief, impressionistic
forays into urban history--he makes a detour into the long-term
failure of Daniel Burnham's 1909 City Beautiful plan for Chicago--make
it plain that generations of "accredited" planners have bungled
the job already, giving American cities over not to people, but
to cars. And, in stumping for the human-powered transportation revolution,
Culley demands a hearing for new kinds of urban knowledge, for the
street-level experiences around which cities might be shaped, and
for humility before city overload. "You may say my perspective is
unaccredited," he writes, "but in the face of clouds reflecting
across a sea of steel surfaces, concerning the meaning of street
signs and the way the heart sinks at the sight of a tide of fuming
freight trucks, who can claim to be anything other than an amateur?
Can anyone really be authorized to cast a net over all this?"
Sometimes such passages seem to overreach. Still, Culley's editor
had the sense to let him write; without his voice, without
these flights of fancy we might never believe that any of this matters,
that one might find anything other than drudgery in running errands
for businessmen. Luckily for the reader, his undisciplined, rangy
account gives grit to his more removed meditations. The political
and ethical visions that undergird Culley's polemic begin in his
personal immersion in the details of work, in the imaginative resources
brought to bear on labor that give purpose to routine.
A friend of mine once observed that there is a certain soul to
the job of messengering. It's in making a steady, motionless track
stand at a busy intersection or a graceful, soundless curb hop paired
with a fluid dismount and lock-up. It's in the sight of a rider,
up out of the saddle, weaving and ducking through a rush-hour traffic
morass in the last of the day's light. Culley, too, contributes
his own aesthetic indulgences. For instance, he attempts to reveal
in prose the "kinetic intelligence" of riding in traffic: "When
riding I do not concentrate on what my hands and feet are doing.
I focus on the space at hand, what is there, what is not there,
and what is coming into being. I rarely dodge. It's more like I
swim toward emptiness, analyzing what is in front of me by the speed
with which it comes at me. I am not moving through space as much
as I am expanding space where, in speed, it seems to fall away."
Even more, he reveals what it feels like to spend all day, every
day on a bike, how he takes account of the city beneath the wheels
and makes his own mental geography. Every straightaway, descent
and climb; every pothole and bump course up through the wheels,
fork and frame and into his legs, measuring distance in fatigue
and endurance. He gradually comes to understand how messengers measure
the landscape with a cartographic eye, learning to navigate the
city streets by a subtle meld of experience and intuition. They
feel their way over the raw geography undergirding the pavement,
steadily collecting the lore of two-wheeled transit: which streets
have the most treacherous streetcar tracks or subway grates, which
have cratered pavement or daunting climbs, which combination of
streets delivers the most satisfying ride. He discovers an underground
Chicago, a series of roadways and garages beneath the surface streets
amongst the skyscraper foundations, "a hidden zone for taxis, freight
trucks, suburbanites, and wild-eyed messengers on scratched-up racing
These urban discoveries ensure that Culley won't accept a cubicle-bred
myopia about the city and the variousness of its streets. Instead,
the book gives a strong sense of the pragmatic interconnection,
both geographic and imaginative, fostered by bike messengering.
This connection--whether to fellow riders, the city or even drivers--becomes
the basis of a politics of redemption, a blueprint for bringing
those many worlds into a kind of rough conversation.
Even if cities are now made for cars instead of people, it seems
to bother most people
only inasmuch as it makes it harder for them to get places in their
cars. There seems little way to break the emotional bond between Americans
and the four-wheeled steel boxes. Courts even have written cars into
the law and bikes out. Galvanized by an Illinois Supreme Court ruling
that bicyclists were not "intended and permitted" users of public
roadways--and thus did not have the same rights as motorists--the
Critical Mass movement mobilizes, putting more people in the streets
But after months of random harassment, the police decide to drive
the monthly bike cavalcade from the streets, setting an ambush for
the September 1998 ride. They arrest almost 15 riders, precipitating
an angry protest in front of a station house. The cops attack there
too, making more arrests, trying to disperse the protest with batons
and fists. The police clampdown leaves Culley demoralized, and not
long after he gets off the road, taking a job at a museum.
Then, the next spring, a driver runs down and kills a messenger
in a fit of road rage. Culley joins an anguished memorial Critical
Mass for the downed rider, a guy he had known. The event is somber
and tense, and at the scene of the crime the riders are confronted
by the jailed killer's family. They seem to believe the messenger
had no right to the road, and thus his life. Still, there's something
cathartic for Culley in the ride, and as it makes its way back to
the Loop, he brings the narrative together from the middle of the
rolling crowd. That day and in the days afterward, as the messenger
community grieves, he begins to catch sight of a way out of the
madness, a vision of "a sustainable Chicago covered with
bikes-only streets, quiet trains, and a patient, car-free, delivery
based roadway. ... For the bicycle and the culture that supports
it, we are helping to give the city a resurrection, a second coming
of the City Beautiful, a second chance at really working."
Culley's book has aroused some ire in the insular and self-protective
messenger scene. Initially conceived as an anthology of writings
by messengers and bike activists, the project was deemed unsaleable
by all the publishers who looked at the proposal. However, a few
asked to see a memoir from Culley instead. Giving in to the demands
of marketing, Culley went to work on the memoir, meanwhile forgetting
to tell some of his former contributors that plans for the anthology
were off. Despite his successful efforts to honor the messenger
community, the result certainly reads, not surprisingly, more like
Culley's own imaginative take on messengering than an insider's
But The Immortal Class is more than than a communique from
a quirky subculture. Culley makes the details of everyday work and
the dignities of a considered way of life resonate with a political
vision for a sustainable city. His exuberance pushes The Immortal
Class beyond the solipsistic realm of memoir into the haphazard
but ultimately more rewarding terrain of poetic testimony for an
emerging social movement.
Sandy Zipp wrote "The
Battle of San Francisco" in the April 2 issue.