When I’m not outdoors I’m reading about the outdoors. I’ll be posting book reviews from time to time. The following review was published on my old blog seven years ago, and on rereading it there’s not a word I’d change. While the subject of bike messengers isn’t a usual topic for A Taste For The Woods, its still an interesting book and review.
The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power by Travis Hugh Culley
What do you do if you are young, have a degree in theater but no job, and have ambition but no money? Become a bike messenger. And what if you have a large, bordering on the overdeveloped, sense of self-esteem? Write about being a bike messenger.
That’s just what Travis Hugh Culley, a twenty-seven year old BFA holder from Miami, Florida, has done in The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power. And the book shows all the positives and negatives that a twenty-seven year old theater major can bring to the page.
Let’s start with the prose. In the beginning was the word, and Culley uses them well. His voice is lyrical and Whitmanesque. Culley has an eye for the dramatic incident, such as a rider breaking a cab window with a U lock, and he knows how to build drama out of it. He brings a young man’s fervor and passion to his writing, but it’s a controlled passion, just like in the theater. And he clearly loves being a messenger. Culley makes a comparison between the wheeled couriers of the Windy City to Mercury, the winged messenger of the Olympian gods, both explicitly and indirectly. “You become'” Culley writes, “part of a class who, in order to continue, must believe itself unstoppable. This heightened feeling gives the messenger a confidence, a speed and agility of almost metaphysical proportions. We cling to the dream of being untouchable, part of an immortal class of winged angels, hailed for speed and strength.”
Very nice. However, like many a young man who struts the stage, Culley gets so caught up in what he is saying he stops thinking. Witness the following credo early in the book: “The bicycle is a revolution, an assault on civilian territory, intent upon taking, from the ground, responsibility for the shape of our cities. It is a mutiny, challenging the ever-one-way street. The bicycle is a philosophy, a way of life, and I am using it like a hammer to change the world and to redeem our war-torn cities.”
My postman could have said the same thing of his truck the day he delivered my Amazon order containing the book. Sorry Travis, you are using the bike to carry packages and letters for major corporations in Chicago, not as an instrument of social change. Using the bike for such deliveries in itself is an interesting topic, for it’s an interesting life; had you stuck to that, and kept the windy rhetoric for your fellow messengers in the lobby of the Sears Tower, the book would have been better.
While on the subject, Travis, I find it best to avoid holding forth ex cathedra on subjects I don’t know much about. You rather undercut your extensive lectures on urban planning with the following admission: “I don’t have the degrees from the old universities to call me an authority on urban development, but I do have this: I have the question and I have the city to relate it to…” Sitting on a bike saddle can turn even the most incompetent cyclist into a know-it-all – as anyone who has ridden with me can advise – but there’s no need to advertise the fact.
If you can get past the enviro-politicking and the windy pronouncements from on high, The Immortal Class is interesting, gritty, and thought provoking. The details of a day’s riding, the crackle of the radio with directions in bizarre dispatch code, the feel of the street under the tires, the pounding of the body going through this punishment daily, the excitement of an “alleycat” race – Culley captures it all. Culley never comes to grips with the irony of his being a rebel in the servitude of Corporate America, but in a nation that dotes on millionaires singing songs about being poor, that seems a small quibble.
Of more concern is Culley’s defense of one of the biggest complaints against messengers, and by extension all bicyclists: their habit of violating traffic laws, and indeed being above the law. The incident of the U lock and the cab window I mentioned previously comes to mind. In the book, the cab driver cuts off the messenger, the rider smashes the window, and after he pedals his getaway, he returns to the courier headquarters to change shirts and helmet so he can go back out without being recognized. Culley, a new messenger, is shocked that no one is upset about the incident, but he comes to realize it’s normal and acceptable behavior. In his brave new world, two wrongs do make a right. Incidentally, both Culley the rider and Culley the writer miss the irony of an “immortal” hiding himself from his handiwork.
On the lesser matter of traffic laws, Culley makes much of the cyclist’s ability to react to his environment and to traffic around him: “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?” This “immortal” precognition leads him to mount a case that rules of the road apply to everyone but bike messengers. “A messenger,” Culley writes, “following a commuter’s level of caution and defensiveness would destroy his livelihood, insult his character, and impede his right to the road….An intersection burnt by a courier should herald cheers from cops, motorists and pedestrians alike. It is the clearest expression of a messenger’s technique.”
So much for “Share the Road.” The 27 year old has spoken, folks. Let us learn about life from his wisdom. However, if like me, you can chalk up the posturing to youth and the arrogance to the bike, you can enjoy The Immortal Class. Just don’t ride with them.