Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Back in the courier game.

29 September

A last Friday of the month completed. In the courier business, this day is always going to be a biggie, because a lot of bills are getting paid, and other business being concluded. In the mythology of the game, its a big payday with a good hammering pile of work to be done.

It was a classic fall day in Toronto with the sun shining and the air cool and gusty. What's considered great riding weather in these parts. For me, it was like one of those baseball games that goes to extra innings, becomes a kind of epic affair even though nothing spectacular is happening. In my case it was just that I had no money and no food or drink to push me onwards.

It's the classic bike courier scenario: so broke you need an advance to keep working, so i asked for one two days ago and got it yesterday, but it took all day to arrive so I couldn't bank it, then when I had the chance today I realized I had nothing to cover it, meaning it wouldn't clear till Tuesday and of course I'd run out of money last night. As I muddled through the situation while fully absorbed in the war of packages, pages, and waybills, I finally realized a plan: my old trick of taking the cheque to the very branch where it was drawn and cashing it there. In this case it was 20 King W., so I had the whole business coming together as I rolled into the core with a few Same Day calls in my bag.

Part of the fun of being a courier is trying to work your own errands in on company time, time that never belongs to you and is nearly always in short supply, so it takes all this logistical strategizing just to do something like go to the bank. In this case there was the added hurdle of getting the Royal Bank to hand over my miserable two hundred dollars; it was two o'clock and several trips to Eglinton and back later, quite badly needed. But desperation is rarely your friend in matters of banking or beaurocracy, and the tellers sent me away after I could only provide a driver's licence and health card as identification.

So having scrimped till the bitter end of the week (and for three weeks since returning from Mexico), I threw down my usual biking breakfast of hot muesli and a bowl of coffee, and tore off to my first call of the day. Eight or nine hours later I was walking to Money Mart to cash my advance, and saw nothing but veteran bike couriers, including the legendary Dogboy, or Stefano by his real name.

I've known him for years, as everyone does, an absolute hard man who rides with the most insane, kamikaze style ever seen - left turns into the oncoming lane at full speed - and never backs off for anything. Helmetless, headset blasting music, Stefano is a true soldier of the road wars since fifteen years, I think. He showed me a cheque for two hundred dollars or so, an advance off a two week commission of $689 he made at my old company, Turtle Express. He had already quit and joined the same outfit as me two or three days previously.

Stefano showed me his manifest of calls, pointing out the more valuable ones. I was stunned by the sheer tininess of his pay for such and absolute legend amongst couriers. In all my time back when I was first a courier, on and off for three years or so, I had never once seen him on standby. i had watched him make an brilliant comeback at the Courier Classic, an Alleycat race through Trinity-Bellwoods park, to win his leg of the team relay only to be hit full on by the second place finisher on a track bike, who couldn't avoid him as Stefano had stopped and dropped his bike immediately after crossing the line. Undaunted, Stefano picked himself up and raced the next round.

Legends of the man's behaviour have circulated for years. One time Stefano lost his temper and punched a guy in TD Centre, one of the bank skyscrapers. The police just monitered his wherabouts through his company radio and then sent about 8-10 cops to arrest him. The story perfectly captures all the elements of the man: the explosive temper at work, the fact that he's built thick as a brick shithouse so that you need eight times the manpower to bring him down.

One time Stefano was roaring down Yonge street at full clip and went into his lefthander on Wellesley in his usual mode, i.e., straight into oncoming westbound traffic, except that a car had stopped completely while turning and Stefano went through the windshield helmetless headfirst. He was working the next day.

What astounded me about seeing him today was his absolute lack of ego, no sense of his fame in the courier world. He jabbered on about busting through the next two weeks on $180, even showing me some of those peanut butter and jam packets you find at the Golden Griddle as a survival tip. He was all smiles about it, while saying things like, "At least I have a roof over my head", and "We're just like prostitutes, drug dealers, and those guys in Guantanemo Bay, we're nothing, nothing at all. Just call them something else and they don't have no fucking rights at all. Well, that's life man." He said it with a smile.

There it was, the awareness of the relentless exploitation of it all, driven home as a brutal truth, but Stefan didn't seem angry or even particularly disgusted by it. He was past all that. Now it was just an observation, a simple fact of life, unchangable. He stood there in the fading sunlight of a fall day, sunburnt in his crew cut, smiling away. He was the picture of blue collar addiction to work no matter how bad the deal, with his beat-up looking street-ified mountain bike seemingly all he had after years and years as a professional cyclist. It all shocked me a little, but only out of a naive assumption that things could somehow be better for a guy who rides so hard.

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