Out in the Kozmos

by

01/02/2001

190 e Ninth Street ny 10003

Neighborhood: All Over, Manhattan

When the car nipped at my bike tire it made a ‘zzzzow’ sound like a mosquito on uppers buzzing in my ear. The muscles in my arms and legs got tense at once and that’s probably why I didn’t tip over. City sounds sang out in a cacophony of car horns and screaming pedestrians. Potholes dropped the earth out from underneath me. New York in June hung around my neck in a necklace of sweat. The sweat wasn’t so much from the heat as it was from the nearness of the taxis that didn’t seem to be able to go slower than 60 miles per hour.

Five hundred dollars was all I brought to New York. In Maryland, Indiana, and Utah it had been more than enough money to start a new life. In New York, it took less than a week to spend. So there I was, on a curb, thinking about home, and other places where people said hi to strangers. There was no more than $50 to my name as I read an ad for bike messengers in the free weekly newspaper. In the mere seconds that my eyes spent lingering on the ad, my fate had been decided.

The first time I rode a bike in New York City traffic I may as well have been seven again and trying to ride without training wheels. An ant on a floating stick in the Hudson River seemed safer than I felt. As the smallest thing on the road I had suddenly been relegated to the bottom of the food chain. Not long before, I had lived in a place where cows chewed their cud in the streets and now here I was in a place where I never even saw my neighbors.

New York bike messengers for Kozmo.com were in a post-apocalyptic video game where the risks were high and the payoff not worth mentioning. Except a black screen with “Game Over” in the middle didn’t come up at the end of this game. I didn’t get three lives. When I first pedaled amongst the cars I thought about dark red blood and pain so dense I could drink it.

Before I ever crossed over from the mainland, my New York was Thelonius Monk at the Five Spot, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in Greenwich Village, and Dylan Thomas at the Whitehorse Tavern. To an outsider, New York life was art. Great love affairs happened here that spawned songs like “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Broken dreams were soaked through on bar napkins, where they turned into poems like “Do Not Go Gently Into That Good Night.” To someone who grew up in the country, creative stimulation was a cobble-stoned street in Greenwich Village. Now I was a part of it too, albeit less romantically, as Scott Waldman: Kozmo.com bike messenger.

If I could last for a month or so, I’d have time to find a job that would make me want to stay in New York. No income in New York meant no New York for me. Without the opportunities of New York it would be harder to get started on my writing. There weren’t agents and publishers out there. Out there people thought the things I wrote were weird. Competition from the multitude of writers in New York who were better than me would keep me on my toes. On the other hand, an injury, since I didn’t have any insurance, would send me home and I’d never get the chance to do it my way or make it here and make it anywhere or whatever that Jersey guy used to croon about.

The Kozmo office was clouded with smoke when I walked in for an interview. A large man sat behind an inch-thick pane of glass smoking a cigar. When he talked smoke came out of his mouth in little bursts.

“What?”

“I saw your ad in the paper and I came here for an interview.”

“You got a bike?

“No.”

He coughed and it sounded like he was stepping on a balloon filled with water. He sucked in hard and opened his eyes so that I could just make out the yellow in them. “Not much I can…”

“I’ll get one.”

“By tomorrow?”

“Yeah.”

“Then be here at 8 A.M. Sharp.”

In lieu of a handshake we looked each other in the eye. With a hard stare, I held my gaze firmly, like a soldier at attention. His eyes roamed all over me with the probing confidence of a doctor. I nodded my head down once and up once. He nodded his up once. The deal having been finalized, I left.

I had bluffed about being able to get a bike, but luckily a friend had one in her backyard she didn’t want. My new bike had spent a year being at the mercy of the elements. It weighed over 50 pounds. It could support the weight of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. If a cab got me, I’d at least make a deep impression on its hood. I wore my lock and chain around my neck. The chain links were so thick they had to be cut with a hydraulic machine in the store when I bought them. Locks double as an effective car-repellent. Drivers stay a little farther away because they know how we messengers will defend ourselves if our personal space bubble is encroached upon.

Kozmo.com customers ordered videos and food over the internet. Their order printed out at our office. The job was simple. Show up at base. Get a package. Deliver it. Do not get nailed in Times Square by two-story red tourist bus. Return to base. Get new package and repeat. Buildings loomed over me like indifferent gods and I was Sisyphus, doomed forever to repeat the same task.

The city buses floated with the deliberate slowness of a killer whale in their vehicular sea of smaller traffic. They came up behind me, didn’t slow their speed. Rarely beeping, but always gaining. A bus’s grill is a gaping whale jaw ready to swallow a bicyclist. But the MTA-fueled monsters have their weak points. They’re slow. If I didn’t make a hard right to the curb they would send me into oncoming traffic. Hit the brakes and see if they pass. If they didn’t pass it meant they were going to box me into the curb.

As I later learned, to back them off I needed to reach out and hit the driver’s side mirror. The drivers couldn’t have a blind spot so they’d have to slow the bus to adjust the mirror.

Doors claimed the greatest number of bicycle victims. When a rider got ‘doored’ he slammed into an unexpectedly open car door. The results could vary from painful to broken bones. It would take one car door to send me home. A few days into the job and I was enjoying the Columbus Avenue wind in my face as I rode downhill. Having a heavy bike meant I could attain great speeds with a minimal amount of effort. The wind was fresher when I got up to 20 miles an hour and the heat couldn’t keep up with me. A car door creaked as it was flung open about 10 feet ahead of me. Two seconds of reaction time was all I had been afforded. For two seconds my fate wavered like a tightrope artist who had just stubbed his toe. I swerved hard to the left. The edge of the door shaved a patch of hair off my calf.

The adrenaline in which I had been doused was equaled by the scorn of the woman getting out of the car. She hurled an assortment of expletives after me. In New York City the other person is always guilty.

Quitting the messenger job wasn’t as simple as listening to the voice of reason. By the sixth traffic light on the second day, I was scared enough to wet my pants and not feel socially awkward about it. But when the old woman, at least 75, pulled up next to me on her vintage Schwinn she may as well have slapped me in the face. Her bike had two gears and was made at a time when that was impressive and to make it worse she had lined the basket on her handlebars with velvet. The basket contained the fearless 2.5 pound hairy mass of dog that could have been an albino stunt double in the Gremlins movie. Its saucer-sized eyes were shielded by a mask identical to the one the woman was wearing. They looked over at me with the calm indifference of two people meeting one another in a daydream over afternoon tea. The light changed. I almost pulled my thigh muscles, I pedaled so hard.

Tipping was an essential part of the job. The extra money gleaned from a good tip could make a lucrative career out of my spinning two-wheeled over the boundary between life and death. Never, though, was it guaranteed that I would get a tip. It was akin to making an educated guess, except that it was an improvised gamble. Oftentimes getting a tip required that I be stealthy and say the right thing in under 30 seconds. My success at getting tips could make or break my day.

The doorman eyed me as I entered. Nothing new for Park Avenue. I sized up the lobby as I locked my bike to a sign. The wall was covered in silk fabric. Dark maroon with gold elks. The revolving door spun as indifferently and indiscriminately as the second hand on a wall clock. A woman approached. She was pushing an antique baby carriage. She was looking down and relating in baby talk the apparently exciting news that they were home.

“Charlie. Charlie. Home! Home! Who’s glad to be home? Haaah? Who’s likes home?! Charlie likes home! Yeaaah! Charlie’s home!”

In another place the scene might have been touching. Charlie, unfortunately, was a miniature dachshund with a bow tied around his neck. I felt no remorse using them as shield from the doorman when I came in. But he was quicker than I had expected.

“Excuse me. Can I help you? I don’t think I know you.”

The elevator was so close it would have bitten me if it had teeth. My mission was to get upstairs. If I failed, he took the package. If he took the package, he gave it to the people in A1. He got the tip.

“I need to give something to the Wilcoxes in A1.”

“Our service elevator is currently being used. I’m sure it’s nothing terribly important. Leave it here.”

The game was in full swing. He had called my bluff and was raising me two chips.

“No. I need to give it to them.”

“You said that. Unfortunately, I can’t…”

“The client requested that it be hand-delivered.”

There was an art to the manipulation of doormen. Improvisation. Start with known facts. It was a fact. Doormen existed to make the wealthy feel wealthier. That’s why they had to dress up like little nutcrackers that lacked fashion sense. To manipulate doormen I preyed on the one definite fact. They couldn’t question their masters. So I had spoken for the master. I was delivering videos, there was no such thing as hand-delivery. But it got me upstairs.

The paintings on the wall weren’t reprints from shows ten years ago at the Met. Not pastel watercolors or landscape scenes. They were originals. So was the mosaic on the Wilcoxes floor. So were the flowers in the vase in the hall. So were the echoes of the crescendo of Pachabel’s Canon that played inside somewhere when I rang the doorbell. The door opened. A man in loafers looked at me. I felt his eyes on my sweat necklace. The bike grease on my calf. I stared straight ahead.

“Oh…the videos. Well, thanks. That was certainly quick. Have a good one.”

The door was too heavy to be slammed. But when it closed the hairs on my forehead were picked up with the gust of air. The brass knocker quietly clicked. So did something inside me.

New York almost had me. The street was littered with people it had eaten and spit back out. People who conversed with, and even shouted at themselves. People with one foot already in the bottle trying their hardest to get the other one in. People whose spirits had been crumpled into hard little balls like aluminum foil. It would have been easy to run then. Where I came from beauty rose raw from the earth, cloaked in mountains. In New York beauty was as small as the reflection of a cloud in a mud puddle. Drops of dew on a windshield. To a newcomer, New York is nothing more than a complex system of nooks and crannies in which to hide.

The New York that had filled my midday dreamscapes during college had slipped away from me. Dylan and Baez had long since moved away, the Five Spot was now a pizza place, and the Whitehorse Tavern was full of frat boys. In New York dreams were glass bottles nailed to a wall, abstracted fragments of their original forms, reduced to sharp pieces that could cut skin or transform light. The fragments you were left with could toughen you or destroy you. New York was New York. It didn’t change. Didn’t notice when one of its eight million souls was lost or injured. I hung about New York like a co-dependent lover, daring it to cast me aside by riding so close to its cars for nine hours at a time, yet utterly unable to bring myself to leave it. At the time I still hadn’t quite put my finger on why I should stay. Another day as a bike messenger, a passive traveler through New York’s gritty exterior and its loving heart, did that for me.

The dew on the grass in Central Park at 8 A.M. in June was the footprints of a billion fairies that had carried the night on their backs when they flew away in the morning. Even out of the shade it wasn’t sweating weather yet. The back of my neck wasn’t dirty and gritty. My thighs and calves worked hard, thrusting the pedals up and down.

The previous day I had finally been offered a job teaching immigrant children how to read English. The problem was I didn’t know if things like the beauty of Central Park in the summer were enough to make me want to live in New York. Surely there were easier places to find work as a writer. Stench and city heat rose from the concrete thick enough to be visible. People barely seemed to notice one another.

This hesitation was reinforced when I rode out of Central Park and found myself in East Harlem. East Harlem was the only place where I held my bike chain in my hand and rode like I knew where I was going even when I didn’t.

The Morris Housing Projects had over thirty floors. The elevator door looked like it had been pried open with a crow bar at some point. There was either a muffled screaming, cat wailing, or child crying somewhere in the dark end of the first floor. I hit the stairs. Twenty-two floors worth of them. I could feel the piss smell working its way into my pores like diner grease. Footsteps seemed to echo below mine at the same pace from the eleventh to the nineteenth floor. Finally I was there. Ga-gump. Do do do do do do. Ga-gump. Bass thumps rattled the door gently as I knocked on it.

$3.35. That’s how much the order was. A football Nintendo game. A kid answered the door. He had large, chubby cheeks. On his head was a New York Yankees hat. He held out his hand. I put the game in it. A slight, but uncontrollable smile spread across his face. The bass thumps stopped. The kid handed me a five, nodded his head and turned towards a friend who was sitting at a computer in the corner. They had typed in a couple numbers, clicked a few squares, and now a sweating man was at their door holding their objet de desire. His friend won the smiling contest. I reached in my pocket for change. He waved a no with his pointer finger and closed the door. Heat hung in the hall and stuck onto the walls. This time the door wasn’t a movable wall. It came between us as pleasantly and as suddenly as the closing credits in an old black and white love story.

No one had ever tipped me like that. A guy gave me ten bucks once. But this was a lasting tip. There was an extra $1.65 in my hand, but like all numbers it would slip away with time. The tip never would. Within a week I would leave the job, but I wouldn’t leave New York. The bass thumps started up again as I left. And they beat repetitively, ga-gump, ga-gump, ga-gump, like a heartbeat.

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