The Wheels Keep Spinning for the Last of Dallas' Bike Messengers
Bike courier Christina Jones
In the elevator of a sleek Dallas office building indistinguishable from any other downtown or uptown, an elderly businesswoman with a head of teased blond hair stares at Christina Jones. Dressed in jeans, with her hair pulled back in a no-frills ponytail and a bicycle helmet in hand, Jones looks like an athlete who took a wrong turn into the stuffy corporate building. "Are y'all on bikes?" the woman asks. Jones has been riding around in the misty cold since 8 a.m., first commuting to get her morning coffee and then making 13 stops in a three-hour stretch. The rides started relatively short, a mile or less, but long elevator trips, searches for the right employee for delivery or pickup, and even locking and unlocking her bike, soak up time. By 1 p.m. she still hasn't eaten lunch.
"You're crazy," the woman in the elevator says, before paying Jones what sounds like a compliment: At least the cycling is keeping her fit. Jones thanks her and says that she looks trim, too. The woman says nothing, so Jones repeats herself. The woman still says nothing.
"I have a health issue," the businesswoman finally responds, coldly, breaking an awkward silence as the elevator doors open.
Dallas' bike couriers in their heyday
Most people are more friendly. A suited-up security officer at another building lets Jones use the plug in the lobby to charge the bulky smartphone that links her to her company's dispatch system. Secretaries and mail room workers warmly greet her and make small talk. At the post office she runs into Mike Frazier, another bike courier who stands out in the overdressed office crowd, with his cycling cap and arms covered in tattoos.
Seeing a professional bike messenger in 2015 is a rare occurrence, especially in Dallas; it's like seeing someone deliver a telegram or pay for a newspaper. Not counting food delivery cyclists or the delivery drivers who mainly ride motorcycles and only occasionally a bike, there are four full-time, professional bike couriers who still pedal the city's streets. In addition to Jones and Frazier are Bill Stanley, who moonlights as a DJ at The Church, and Buster Fortenberry, who at 61 is the oldest courier in Dallas. They work as contractors for established companies that otherwise give most of the work to drivers. A fifth cyclist named Shaun Sheppard is trying to launch his own bike courier company in downtown Dallas, but he says business has been slow.
Female bike couriers are rare in any city, and Jones is the only one out of the four couriers in Dallas.
At 40, Jones has spent most of her adult life working and commuting on a bike — she doesn't drive — building her livelihood on her ability to navigate Dallas' treacherous streets. On the bike she constantly darts her head around, always takes the lane and militantly uses her hand signals. She keeps her temper when cars cut her off and yields well in advance whenever she sees a pedestrian who may cross her path. In other words, she works to be a model urban cyclist. She's a respectful but intense rider, one who worries about the many complaints drivers have about road cyclists, easily found on message boards and comment sections all over the Internet. Her field of work might be dying, but she takes it seriously. "I do still see the opportunity for the courier business to expand yet again for bikes," she says optimistically, "especially now, thankfully, with Jimmy John's and other restaurants starting to use bike delivery."
Inside office buildings, she helps herself to tap water but never the free coffee, careful not to overstep her boundaries. She makes small talk with the endless stream of secretaries, guards and other employees. "I'm known to be reliable," she says, "and also, I do have a rapport with people that I work with."
In her off-hours, she sometimes rides around town with fliers, posting advertisements on behalf of the Texas Theatre and the club Three Links. She lived away from Dallas briefly in her early 20s but came back because her childhood friends and her mother are still here. Besides, she likes the challenge of riding in Dallas.
While other couriers left the job when work dried up years ago or simply moved to other cities, Jones stayed put, just like the other three remaining couriers. Now the pay is a little less, the benefits are nonexistent and the bike rides are longer. Still, between traffic and downtown's terrible parking options, bike riders can be faster on the streets than drivers. "There are still clients who require things to be completed in less than 30 minutes and that's why we're still around," Jones says.
Bill Stanley, also known as DJ Wild Bill Stanley
Between its heat and car culture, Dallas isn't a place many bike messengers would choose to work, although there was a time at the turn of Y2K — just as Gen X was in its early 20s and before everything went digital — that a modest scene of bike couriers flourished in Dallas.
"It's almost lonely down here now because there used to be so many of us," Frazier says. He became a courier in 1999, left it as the work shrunk and became a stay-at-home dad while his wife paid the bills. He returned to downtown on his bike one year ago when his kids were old enough for school. He persuaded a company he once worked for to bring him back in place of one of its drivers. Now he drives to work with his bike on the back of the car (after dropping the kids off at school), does the bike deliveries for a $350 weekly guarantee and races with a mountain biking team on weekends. He loves the work, but it's not the same as it was in the beginning. "If you were going from point A to point B, you might see five or six guys. ... Now I'll go a couple days, I won't see Christina, I won't see Buster, I won't see anybody."
Before cell phones, the couriers talked to each other on walkie-talkies provided by courier companies and hung out at the "courier corner," a downtown plaza on Harwood Street popular with the cyclists for its outdoor patio and cheap restaurant. Most of the couriers, including Frazier, lived in a pair of brownstone buildings, formerly a brothel, that once stood near Woodall Rodgers Freeway and St. Paul Street. For $400 a month, tenants could lease a spacious all-bills-paid loft in what became known as the "courier apartments," thanks to Dee Branham, a courier who discovered it.
Branham grew up in Dallas, and as a high school student he was inspired to become a bike messenger during a trip to Washington, D.C., where he saw tattooed couriers "shoot the shit" in an elevator. They seemed cool, Branham remembers, and he wondered if he could be a courier back home. His first job wasn't the gig he pictured. The company uniform policy required couriers to dress like missionaries, in khaki pants and button-down shirts.
Ironically, his first big break happened when he got hit on his bike by a pickup truck. The truck driver was the general manager of another, more laid-back courier company that was going bankrupt. The driver offered Branham a job on the spot. "I think to keep me from suing him," he recalls. At the headquarters near Fair Park, two dispatchers who wore sunglasses in a dark room sent Branham on runs to the liquor store.
At the time, Branham recalls a small messenger scene in Dallas. The oldest courier, Buster Fortenberry, was a reclusive former paratrooper who Branham says used to hunt pigeons with boomerangs in some of downtown's then-deserted parking lots. (Fortenberry says that he liked to carry around a boomerang, but if he ever killed a pigeon it was by accident.)
Branham organized alley cat races — scavenger hunts for people on bikes — for the riders, something he'd learned about from cyclists in San Francisco. In one race, Branham first saw the two brownstones that would become the courier apartments. They were next to the Velvet Elvis club and were "completely out of place in Dallas" with their East Coast look. He wanted to live there, of course, but you could only get in by knowing a tenant. So Branham, who was in charge of the bike couriers for a better company at the time, hired an overweight cyclist who happened to live in the building and moonlighted as a clown and Batman at children's birthday parties. "I hired him for no other reason than he lived in those apartments," Branham says.
From there, Branham introduced courier friends to the apartments. Soon, friends and friends of friends looking for work and a cheap place to live were introduced to the lofts and any job openings in the small bike courier world. At the peak of the bike courier scene in Dallas about 15 years ago, somewhere between 25 to 30 riders worked full time.
By the time Christina Jones realized she wanted to be a bike courier, there was already a healthy community there to welcome her.
Jones grew up in Dallas with her mother. At age 12 she began biking to her friends' houses. "There were some times when a police officer pulled me over and said, 'Why are you riding on Inwood Road?'" she says.
Bike courier work wasn't on Jones' radar until 1999, when, at age 25, she found herself bored with her job as an agent at Ticketmaster. Walking around Deep Ellum one afternoon looking for some kind of work, she noticed a flier taped to a gas station at the corner of Swiss Avenue and Good Latimer Expressway, featuring a graphic of a man riding a bicycle. It was an advertisement for Uptown Express, a courier company that ran its operations in the back of the station. A worker told Jones that they were only hiring car couriers, which wasn't possible for her, as she never bothered to get a driver's license. (She lived close enough to downtown that she never felt she needed one and says she couldn't afford a car anyway.)
Jones persisted, calling over and over again to ask for a job. Finally, owner Kelly Reed agreed to ride with her.
Jones, a fast and strong rider by most standards, considers herself a "wuss" for not doing adventurous stunts like "bunny hops," a challenging trick in which riders jump their front and back wheels off the ground at the same time, perfect for clearing curbs. On her ride with Reed that day, he did just that, hopping both of his wheels over an oncoming curb by Reunion Tower. Following him, Jones faced her first big courier test. "I knew if I didn't do it, he probably wouldn't let me work with him," Jones says, laughing at the memory. "So I went and bunny-hopped it and actually cleared it."
She got the job, but the work wasn't steady. Later that year she was introduced to Branham, a "very social" courier with green hair. When she ran into him a second time that day, he surprised her with good news. "You have a new job," he told her. The job was at DMS, a conglomerate service that worked with multiple courier companies. From there, Jones went to Wingtip Couriers, which had more bike messengers than any other company in Dallas. Wingtip was the only company that considered the bike messengers full-fledged employees and provided health insurance plus a 75 percent commission on all orders.
Relatively speaking, it was a flush time to be a bike messenger in Dallas. "If you weren't making $100 dollars a day, you were doing something wrong," Branham says. The hours were unpredictable, but that was part of the appeal. People attracted to the work included musicians, such as a few members of Pleasant Grove, a popular local band that has since moved to Austin. Also part of the group (and one of the four left) was a roller skater named Bill Stanley, who still DJs under the moniker "Wild Bill." Stanley was a competitive speed skater who often skated his deliveries instead of cycling. In between calls, he waited in his downtown apartment, still wearing his skates, with his feet dangling off the bed. In lobbies where he made deliveries, "I'd have one skate off while I was still rolling on the other one," Stanley says.
At the courier apartments, the cyclists lived surrounded by much wealthier neighbors. A neighborhood newsletter Branham remembers receiving listed the area's "median income" as somewhere around $90,000. For fun, Branham says, the group sometimes scaled Mark Cuban-owned property across the street and set up alley cats around the buildings. "Keep in mind that we were all 20 and drunk all the time," Branham says.
Eventually, Branham burned out of his role as leader of what still felt like a very small bike scene. And he remembers the brutal summers with seemingly endless stretches of consecutive 100-degree days. He fled to Portland, a biker's paradise, in 2002.
Then companies started losing business to Special Delivery, a high-end courier company that became and has remained more appealing to the legal and corporate clients so central to the bike courier business. The Special Delivery couriers drove cars and showed up to offices in dressy slacks. "They were just trying to project a very clean-cut image," Jones says.
The old "courier apartments" were demolished by the city in 2003 with few people outside the courier world caring. The site is a block away from Klyde Warren Park and it's home to new office buildings.
A few years after the buildings went down, the courts started going electronic, putting a dent in all types of courier work in every major American city. Still, other cities are faring better than Dallas. Branham has been able to continue working as a courier in Portland and guesses he's one of 25 full-time bike couriers in the Oregon city. "It's like being retired," Branham says of working as a bike courier in Portland compared with working in Dallas. "It's like nobody's actively trying to kill me. Mostly they're only accidentally trying to kill me by trying to help me."
Photo by Can Turkyilmaz
Throughout the ups and downs of the courier business, the relationship between bike couriers and police has been odd at its best and strained at its worst. In the early 2000s, many couriers didn't like to wear helmets because of the heat or out of mere defiance, and the police who patrolled on bikes were eager to threaten the cyclists with helmet tickets. Those who got caught wrote the tickets off as the cost of doing business and still didn't wear helmets. "The only people downtown on bikes were bike messengers and the bike cops, and so that was just like a weird cat and mouse thing as I remember it," Branham says.
Another source of tension was the ban on riding on sidewalks in the central business district. On downtown's one-way streets, cyclists often have to jump on sidewalks for the last leg of deliveries. Jones, who is meticulous about safety and always wears a helmet, nonetheless pulled up on the sidewalk next to the Old Red Courthouse for a delivery in 2003 when she met him: Ceaphus Gordon, the Dallas Police Department officer who would become infamous among cyclists and skaters. He pulled Jones over for riding on the sidewalk and told her she wasn't supposed to do that.
"OK, sir," she recalls telling him. She had an order on her and said she needed to leave. She says she asked him if he was writing her a ticket. He wouldn't answer the question, she says, and continued to lecture her about not riding on sidewalks. Then he took out a list of names of other bike couriers. "He basically interrogated me about, 'Well, do you know this person? Do you know this person?" Jones recalls. She denied knowing anyone on the list. Gordon wasn't happy. "I'm keeping a list of y'all in here, and I'm keeping my eye on you," she remembers Gordon telling her. He let her go without a ticket.
"He's like my arch enemy," says Wild Bill Stanley. When Stanley used to deliver on skates, he skated in the street, which he acknowledges is illegal. Even on bicycle deliveries, though, Stanley says Gordon often stopped him to threaten him with helmet tickets or worse.
"Next time, I'll take you to jail," Stanley remembers Gordon threatening him once. They seemed like empty threats, and the helmet ticket never cost much anyway. But on a late night in 2006, Stanley's relationship with Gordon took a turn for the worse.
It was a Friday the 13th in Deep Ellum, so Elm Street Tattoo was running its traditional "13" tattoos for $13. A roller derby girl who Stanley had coached — another gig of his — was outside the tattoo parlor on her skates, passing out fliers for an upcoming competition. Stanley stepped outside the parlor that night and saw her hands on a police car. Gordon was arresting her.
The arrest suddenly turned violent, witnesses told the Observer and other publications in 2006, when the story was fairly big news. The woman stood up, and Gordon pushed her back down so hard that she bounced and crashed on the concrete, witnesses said. Stanley says he remembers seeing blood everywhere. Pictures that surfaced online showed Gordon kneeling on the woman's back as she lay on the ground. The arrest would later turn into a long, drawn-out court battle, first with a criminal case against the woman and then with a civil lawsuit that she filed against Gordon and Dallas. Gordon originally claimed that the woman had been skating recklessly and that she assaulted him when he tried to stop her. But two years later, a Dallas County judge found the woman not guilty of the charges. She sued Gordon in federal court for violating her civil rights. Stanley was called as a witness in both cases.
Somehow, the litigation didn't dampen Gordon's zeal for helmet tickets. A Dallas Morning News investigation in June about the helmet law revealed that Gordon alone was responsible for issuing 25 percent of all helmet-law tickets in Dallas the previous year, cementing his reputation as the helmet cop. The last time Stanley recalls being stopped by Gordon was last June, despite the fact that Dallas had just repealed the helmet law. He says the officer doubled back when he saw Stanley riding without a helmet. "I know they passed that law, but it doesn't go into effect until September," Stanley says Gordon told him before letting him off with a warning.
Since then, Gordon has seemed to calm down, the couriers say. "He's sort of like mollified, since the helmet thing is over," Fortenberry says. "There's no way he can fuck with us anymore." (A DPD spokesman said Gordon was not available to comment for this article.)
The Dallas City Council's June repeal of the helmet law was a welcome change for Stanley. "I have more danger of getting overheated than being saved by a piece of Styrofoam," he says.
Gordon wasn't the only officer who seemed eager to ticket cyclists for leaving their helmets at home. Frazier remembers a female officer who years ago tried to confiscate his bike after she caught him without a helmet. Frazier says he convinced her that it wouldn't make any sense for her to do that. But now he wears a helmet anyway. "I'm older and smarter now," he says. "I've got a family to go home to. If I get hit I don't want to be killed."
Buster Fortenberry, the boomerang-toting pigeon-hunter, showed up to an interview on a late Saturday afternoon with bloody wounds on both of his knees that he didn't remember getting. At the bar, a much younger man in hospital scrubs interrupted Fortenberry to ask if he wanted a wet rag.
"Don't worry about it, brother," Fortenberry replied. "I'm a paratrooper. I'm going to let that run."
At 61, Fortenberry is the oldest working bike courier in Dallas and the most enigmatic. He began working here in the mid-'80s, and sometime before that he was a paratrooper. After Vietnam, he went to Alaska. "I have been like all over the world doing crazy shit," he says, summing up his life. When he was young he was "rambling around," as he calls it, with adventures that included hiking the Appalachians and visiting the Grand Canyon. He lived as a transient and ended up in Dallas, far from his Missouri hometown, to find work. He decided to become a bike courier, he says, simply because he saw one.
The work was laid-back at first, though as time went on, building security at the clients' offices became more strict. Couriers couldn't always enter through the front door as they once did. The rugged Fortenberry resented the restrictions. "The bike messenger business is sort of falling behind because of perceptions," he says, "because the people who drive, they don't get sweaty in the summertime. They don't get wet when it rains."
The money has never allowed Fortenberry to fully support himself — "that's a wicked thought," he says. And he was out of work a few years ago after getting hit by a car. But more recently, he got a new gig for On Time Courier, a company run by the Gumm family, who have been running courier companies in Dallas since the 1950s.
Fortenberry now stays at his girlfriend's house in Garland and continues to commute to downtown on his bicycle. Like Frazier, Jones and Stanley, Fortenberry receives no health insurance from the courier work. In fact, Fortenberry and Stanley say they have no health insurance at all. "If you work hard, if you struggle, if you go out there and you go and you go, and you do all you can, that is your health insurance," Fortenberry says.
Miraculously, the four have avoided the kind of catastrophic accidents so common with cyclists. "My head, as I say sometimes, is on a swivel," Jones says. She's constantly looking around, using her hand signals and giving herself enough time to suddenly brake. Her scariest rides are up the Turtle Creek hill, where drivers tend to become more aggressive and visibility gets worse.
Even without bike lanes in Dallas and amenities enjoyed by couriers in other cities, the work "doesn't take a lot of brainpower," Stanley says. He thinks about his music on his bike rides and avoids getting run over almost as an afterthought. The one terrible accident Stanley witnessed happened to a cyclist for Jimmy John's who was struck and killed. The downtown sandwich restaurant began sending its delivery workers on bikes a few years ago. It's the type of work that's beneath the four white-collar bike couriers left.
In downtown, at least, motorists tend to be more accommodating and accustomed to cyclists. It's when the couriers are off their bikes that the work is more isolating. "I'll tell you what is annoying," Stanley says, "people's elevator comments."
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