Travis Culley, a young artist in his twenties, arrives in Chicago, determined to do whatever it takes to make his mark in the theater. For his "day job," he becomes a bike messenger—arguably the most dangerous profession on dry land—and soon finds himself sucked into the Windy City's whirling vortex of speed, pain, indifference, and greed. Yet Chicago provides all the elements for staging the most spectacular theatrical presentation of his life, a drama too real to invent, too complex to cast, and too important to consign to the
stage: Car-mageddon, the last great battle for our cities and towns.
The Immortal Class is a powerful and inspiring tale of resistance and survival. It might become the guidebook on how to survive with dignity and grace in a mechanized monoculture by embracing the in-your-face vulnerability of the bike messenger.
The Immortal Class is super-fast reading and breathtaking in its vision and clarity. I have not read a more exciting nor a more convincing "soldier-in-the-field" account of how bike messengers and bike commuters are trying to end our bondage to a Car Culture that has both robbed us of the best features of our humanity and blighted our landscape with ceaseless anxiety, noise, pollution, ugliness, and destruction. As Culley writes: "Streets in Chicago are not open for public use and they do not allow people to freely find the resources they need to survive. To fund larger battles [for the oil and automobile industries] elsewhere, the streets must be open only to those who are driving."
Culley is a poet and philosopher and playwright all coiled within the tough, resilient, beat-up body of the bike messenger. "Life sucks," he muses early on in the book, "but I love my job."
This is a dangerous attitude, and as Culley writes on, it becomes an infectious one, too: "We cling to the dream of being untouchable, part of an immortal class of winged angels, hailed for speed and strength . . . . With resilience and determination we are able to survive stunts and endure stresses that seem impossible to the casual observer." After reading about Culley's daily exploits as a big city bike messenger who rides more than 2,000 miles a month, you will realize that there is no empty bravado or macho posturing in such statements. It's just too true to believe.
Once he clips his boots into his pedals and straps on his courier bag and two-way radio, Culley transcends the pain of his burning legs, parched lungs, and bleeding road rash. He is transformed from man to myth, from inner city Nobody to the god Mercury, the Winged Messenger. Culley does not merely ride his bike and see the city; rather, he and the bike and the city all meld into one fluid, euphoric experience in which the jagged extremes of speed and relaxation, success and failure, exhilaration and terror, and anarchic freedom and commercial necessity all become reconciled with each successful delivery—a Tao of Traffic that overturns the hierarchy dictated by trucks and automobiles:
In time, I too would learn that an experienced messenger can see anywhere from five to thirty seconds into the future. The traffic can be read so closely that he is rarely caught off guard. Most people think that this comes with having good reflexes, but who needs reflexes when you can actually see the future? The truth is that reflexes are put to the test when knowledge is inadequate . . . . Riding in this manic plateau requires just the opposite: a sense of cool intelligence, a knowing before knowing is even necessary, a foretelling. . . .
This is where Culley's philosophizing meets up with Robert Pirsig's Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. And believe me, Culley needs all the Zen he can muster, what with the formidable array of obstacles he must overcome: icy roads; lake effect snow and wind and rain; erratic and vindictive cabbies; indifferent delivery drivers; gaping potholes and open manholes; traffic cops; bike thieves; bike breakdowns; over-zealous security guards; clueless temp workers; arrogant receptionists. They have one thing in common: they frustrate the bike messenger at every turn. But the most serious threat to these messengers is the over-caffeinated white male suburbanite who roars through traffic lights in his SUV while talking on a cell phone and believing all the while in his vicious little heart that the only two acceptable positions for a bike are either 1) on top of an SUV or 2) underneath one.
Undoubtedly, the most disturbing passages in The Immortal Class involve Culley's detailed description of the deliberate assaults made by SUV drivers on bike messengers and bike commuters. Particularly repulsive are those collisions after which the driver of the SUV emerged to throw coffee or kick at the downed and seriously injured biker-and then drove away. For Culley, these incidents suggest a demon darker than the reddened temperamental beast we have named "road rage:"
It is said that the only time a person feels more important than the whole of his community is when he is insane—or when he is driving. This is the basis of car culture, the idea that the world and all of the world's people are merely in its way.
The Immortal Class offers both an analysis of and a lament for how our cities have evolved in order to support a Pit-Stop Way of Life that has little room and even less time for the uncaged individual. Yet the book is predominantly a love song dedicated to The Bicycle, Itself, as well as to all of those who believe that our cities can be reclaimed two wheels at a time. As Culley points out, the bicycle is perhaps the only machine that needs and rewards honest human effort, rather than degrading or replacing it. Bicycling offers an immediate joy and deep satisfaction, rewarding us for our efforts on the very first time we rode without training wheels. Bicycling would continue to do so into our later years, if only given half the chance.
Culley's historical research into how the bicycle played a role in city planning during the late 19th and early 20th century is thought-provoking, but I think it is over-emphasized (that wonderful contraption The Horse played a bigger role). But it is hard to overstate the incredible efficiency, utility, and outright fun delivered by The Bike. Likewise, it is hard to exaggerate the exploits of those exotic creatures of outraged (and at times outrageous) individuality, the bike messenger.
So get on your bikes and ride!
(c) Copyright 2001 by KNS Mare'