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Common Tread

Motorcycle messengers: Endangered species

Mar 18, 2014

Think you want to get paid to ride your motorcycle every day?

Think carefully before you answer.

You're going to be riding not on the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur, but on chaotic, gritty, pot-holed urban streets where the "rules" of the road are mere suggestions, where size rules, and you're the smallest fish in the current. Temperatures will be in the 80s, except when they top 90, with blazing sun and occasional downpours. Put on a rainsuit? In this humidity, you'll get just as wet from your own sweat. Just ride through the downpour.

This is the life for the dwindling number of motorcycle messengers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of the places around the world where the job still exists. It's not glamorous. But they do get paid to ride their motorcycles every day.

Motorcycle messengers: Endangered species

E-mail, Drop Box, Google Docs and a hundred other ways to move information around have reduced their numbers, but a shrunken corps still survives in some corners of the world. One of those is San Juan, where the combination of narrow, traffic-clogged streets, dense population and hurry-up business keep the motorcycle mensajeros running. They cluster on corners in the Hato Rey banking district, awaiting their next sortie. Twenty years ago, there were dozens of them on several corners, taking orders via squawking two-way radios. Today, a handful here and there get their orders via cell phones. Then they take off to deliver a bank deposit, some papers that have to be personally signed, or some other delivery. Splitting lanes and filtering to the front of the row at every stop light, they can easily reach a city destination in less than half the time a car would take and waste no time finding parking. Any unused scrap of sidewalk will do.

Most of the messenger motorcycles in San Juan are 750cc Honda Nighthawks from the 1990s. Why? They're cheap to buy, cheap to keep in tires and gas, have enough power to blow past other city traffic, and their hydraulic valves minimize maintenance.

Leonel Perez has been a motorcycle messenger for 15 years. Photo by Lance Oliver.

The explanation is less ominous than the damage implies. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Leonel Pérez is one of the Nighthawk-riding messengers. He's been working the streets of San Juan for 15 years. Whenever I pass by one of these Nighthawks parked on the sidewalk, I check the odometer. I can't remember seeing one with less than 80,000 miles on the clock in a long time. I can't do this check with Pérez's Nighthawk because, ominously, both gauges are shattered. The bike also has the dent in the tank that seems like standard equipment for messengers.

Looking at the shattered gauges, I ask the obvious: How many times in 15 years has a car punted him down the road? His surprising answer: "Never."

So the gauges?

"A limb fell off a palm tree as I was riding by and hit me," he says with a grin.

No matter. Things like speedometers are unnecessary luxuries for messengers. They have one speed: As quickly as possible. Pérez estimates he has 200,000 miles on the Nighthawk. That's 200,000 urban miles in a hot, tropical climate on an air-cooled four-cylinder engine. It's still on the job. Think about that the next time someone tells you a liquid-cooled motorcycle with 20,000 miles on it has "high mileage."

Not all messengers are as lucky (or maybe as good) as Pérez. San Juan traffic is often a snarled mess, and the daily tapones, as locals call the infamous traffic jams, are a common topic of conversation and cursing. Years ago, I came upon a knot of people in the middle of a busy avenue, traffic stacked up behind. A car and motorcycle messenger had tangled. The rider was lying on the asphalt, alive but battered. All I could do for him was convince the well-meaning but clueless Good Samaritans who stopped not to remove his helmet until EMTs arrived. Then I pushed his twisted motorcycle out of the roadway, because nobody else could figure out how to move a motorcycle jammed in gear.

Motorcycle messengers are in danger of extinction. Both individually and as a species.

Lane-splitting and filtering to the front of the line at stop lights dramatically cuts travel times in the congested streets of San Juan. Photo by Lance Oliver.

The key to survival

I've never seen a motorcycle messenger in a fit of road rage. The job quickly weeds out anyone who cannot adopt the attitude that nothing is worth the time and energy wasted on anger. Cell-phone yakking driver swerves into your lane without looking? Spot your exit, twist the throttle and use your superior power to escape. Bully truck driver in a hurry to get home to his cerveza threatens to run over you just because he can? Back off and find another way around. The worst insult or threat to a messenger's continued existence is forgotten as soon as it's in the rear-view mirror (if there is a rear-view mirror). It's not an attitude everyone can adopt, but it's the only way to survive year after year in an environent where it feels like everyone is trying to kill you.

"Always on defense," says Pérez. "You never know what will happen out here. Who would have thought a tree limb would fall on me as I'm riding down the street?"

Proper use of safety gear is not a strong point among messengers. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Apart from the attitude, messengers do surprisingly little to enhance their odds for survival. Most wear no safety gear except a full-face helmet perched on top of their heads with the chinbar in front of their foreheads. They say it is to stay cool in the heat. I suspect it's to stay cool in the eyes of fellow messengers. I've seen a messenger smoking a cigarette, talking on a hand-held cell phone and weaving onto the sidewalk to cut around a hopeless tangle of traffic, all at the same time. Consider them stunters of a more practical kind, with no cheers from the crowd.

Pérez doesn't know how much longer he'll be a messenger. Like the Pony Express, it's a job for young, wiry men. Nobody retires at 65 as a messenger. And remember, the Pony Express only existed for 18 months before it was replaced by the telegraph. Technology is repeating that forced obsolescence.

"There will always be some work, but not like it used to be," Pérez admits.

The pay is low, disaster is always inches away. So, I ask again: Think you want to get paid to ride your motorcycle every day?