Wheels Within Wheels
A book review
By Howard Williams
"Nerves of Steel: Bike Messengers in the United States" by
Reilly. Spoke & Word Press. $39.95. 342 pages with
REVIEWER'S DISCLAIMER: I am a friend of author
Rebecca Reilly, and she favorably mentions me in her book. I believe
I've made a sincere effort to be objective; nevertheless it is my
responsibility to inform you readers of these facts.
In recent years there have been several books by and
about bike messengers, including the photo collection "Messenger Style"
by Philippe Bialobos and the novel "Godspeed" by Lynn Breedlove. "Nerves
of Steel: Bike Messengers in the United States" is the first
comprehensive look at what is at once both an ancient and modern
of Steel" was written by Rebecca Reilly, whose three-part article
"Bike Messengers at the World Trade Center" appeared
recently in the SF Call. As Reilly observes, the courier vocation goes
back at least 4,600 years to ancient Egypt. Yet messenger work with a
bicycle is barely more than a century old. Reilly examines nearly all
facets of the bicycle messenger profession, including economics,
culture, and geography as well as history and working conditions. Her
personal experience of ten years "messing" (her word) in San Francisco
and eight other U.S. cities is supplemented by resources as varied as
nineteenth- and twentieth-century Congressional documents, novels,
university studies and periodicals as well as nonfiction books.
In this her first book, Reilly uses these resources to
undertake a heavy challenge. The messenger experience is as obscure as
it is panoramic. To write about any part of our way of life is
difficult; to present a comprehensive overview is virtually impossible.
Needless to say it will be easy to find faults with such an effort no
matter who the author. Reilly does make errors but her total effort
stands as a valuable contribution to and for a very public yet
little-known group of workers.
In the introduction, she announces that her theme is "to
show the diversity of the messenger community and cover, at least in
general terms, all of the factors that are in the bike messenger
environment." To meet this challenge to present a comprehensive view of
such a vast and previously unexplored topic, she has composed "Nerves of
Steel" of two different sections.
The book's first section (Parts 1 through 3) analyzes
messenger history, economics and culture. Her look at our history
remarks on the many contributions made first by foot couriers and then
by horseback messengers. For example, messengers helped develop
agriculture by building wells at their way stations. In U.S. history she
cites Paul Revere and the Pony Express, as well the heroics of
lesser-known messengers. For those interested in the
messenger-unionizing effort, the second chapter on economics and working
conditions is vital. Here Reilly clearly and concisely exposes the scam
of “independent contracting” that still plagues our profession
throughout the country. Among other things it means that
"independent-contractor” messengers end up paying more taxes. This con
job has been brought back as an anti-union tool in San Francisco and
other cities, and her analysis should give any messenger pause before
being hustled by it. The chapter also describes the emerging messenger
movement to attain a respectable level of working conditions and income
in the face of an ongoing assault on the American working class.
the first section is creditable and often valuable, Reilly really shines
in Part 4: "Coast to Coast." Covering 270 pages, this book-within-a-book
examines messenger life in nine cities during the 1990s. New York has
the largest section with 54 pages, while San Francisco is next with 44.
Some books have hidden themes that are presented by an
author but in a way so subtle that even the author is unaware of it.
"Nerves of Steel" is such a book. In addition to her stated themes of
showing the diversity of messenger culture and a comprehensive overview,
I believe that Reilly has inserted something else in this part of the
Here she shows that America is still a place where
people go onto the road to discover their land and themselves. Finding
America and one's self through cross-country travel is a custom as old
as the nation. Reilly, though, is the first to do so as a coast-to-coast
While the earlier chapters read like a reference book,
this section is a narrative. Here the author weaves her own experiences
into the tapestry of a culture that shows that regional flavors are
still distinct in America. Long-forgotten anecdotes from our own
experiences are set down in print – most for the first time.
Some messengers have criticized her accounts of several
events as being different from their own recollections. In one story
about me on page 144, her description is different from what I remember.
In her account I met two little girls one day, and they
wanted to sell me a balloon. But I was hungry and wanted to buy a donut.
After getting the donut, I saw a man talking to them. When I walked by
them, the man said to me "This girl says she is your sister." The girl
seemed scared of the man so I said, "Yeah, I'm her brother. So what of
it!" Reilly concludes by writing that the man left quickly and I was
rewarded with a balloon.
My memory of the incident is that the girls asked me for
a quarter. When I hesitated, they offered to sell me their balloon.
Needing change, I went to buy a donut in a place nearby. After that, my
recollection of the rest of the story is similar to the book's account
except that I bought the balloon as they needed a quarter to make bus
Both my recollection and the book's account are
basically similar but with some clear differences in details. Messenger
oral histories are like most folklore: subject to variations with each
retelling. By putting them in print Reilly certainly hasn't barred us
from telling them again in our own versions. She's simply recorded these
stories in print.
These anecdotes provide insights into messenger – and
American – society. Some accounts describe the gulf of perception that
separates messengers and other physical laborers from those who work at
desks. Reilly describes an incident in a Seattle elevator where a woman
states that messengers don't look at traffic because we allegedly don't
turn our heads. Using only her peripheral vision, Reilly describes the
woman and everything she is wearing to show that couriers "don't have to
look right at you to know you're there." Later, delivering to New York
fashion houses makes her wonder if the concept of spending $10,000 on a
dress is because "offices are an alternate universe."
This gap between messengers and indoor workers extends
into courier offices. She describes a Seattle incident where a driver
threatens and grabs a woman messenger, finds out where she works, and
contacts her boss who then makes her apologize to the driver.
This and her other accounts of cowardice by courier company CEOs will
not surprise messenger readers but will hopefully enlighten
non-messengers about a class-based job difficulty that is not as obvious
as the dangers of cycling but is just as real and probably more common.
Her anecdotes illustrate the existential and even
spiritual elements of messenger life. Here are vignettes of love, anger,
death, community, sacrifice, and respect. Reilly is in some as
participant, in others as observer. Her portrayals of many minority
messengers are welcome, considering that they continue to be
underrepresented in the industry. In San Francisco there are probably
fewer African-American and La Raza dispatchers today than there were
ten years ago.
Her final chapter is devoted to women messengers. As greatly perilous as
"messing" is for men, it is fundamentally more dangerous for women.
While all messengers must expect some bigotry on the job, women
encounter more. Road-raging drivers usually confine their anger against
male couriers to loud-mouthed profanity, yet they somehow muster the
"courage" to physically assault women messengers. While not ignoring
these matters, Reilly also shows the great joy that female couriers feel
as well as the liberty they experience on the job. The heritage of
American suffragettes – many of whom rode bicycles – is related to her
own life and the lives of her peers.
Grammatical errors and some typos appear sporadically in
the book. A few historical items are incorrect. Occasionally her style
is choppy when she strings together simple sentences. One glaring
problem is the lack of captions and accreditation to photos and other
illustrations. In addition, flyers and insignias are reproduced without
citing the artist. This is the book's only major flaw and is a
detraction that should be corrected in any future editions. An index
would also be an asset.
In a paragraph near the end of the book, Reilly's
portrays a reclusive yet determined transgender courier with sensitivity
and insight. Her befriending of this veteran messenger shows that not
only is Michelle not afraid to be who she is; it also shows that Rebecca
Reilly – like many of her subjects – is not afraid to be who she is.
This is the ultimate strength of "Nerves of Steel," and
it is this strength that is illuminated most vividly in the parts that
deal with women couriers and with messengers in each city. Along with
other attributes, it overshadows the many yet mostly minor faults of the
book and makes "Nerves of Steel" a very worthwhile read.
"Nerves of Steel" is a diamond in the rough. It needs
some polishing and cutting, but it stands as a solid contribution – as
reference and as narrative – to the growing genre of messenger
Howard Williams has been a messenger since 1982 and is a
member of ILWU Local 6.
The portrait of Rebecca Reilly was taken by Nancy
Donnelly. The cycling photo was taken by Baijo at the 1995 CMWC in