a conversation with Travis Hugh Culley      
Travis Hugh Culley

  How did this book unfold?

One Sunday morning, I competed in an Alley Cat, an illegal bike race hosted by and for other messengers. Somehow I won that race, beating a whole band of messenger/athlete types that I really looked up to. I was more shocked by my victory than you could imagine. That same day, I sat down and started writing about that experience. I figured that I could send it to a cycling rag, maybe they'd find it interesting or unusual. A friend read what I'd written and asked me if I'd ever thought of writing a book about messengering, a memoir. That's how the first seed was planted.

It was funny. I did some research to see if it had ever been done. Books in Print listed one book about messengers that was slotted for publication in March of 2000. It was a book called Messenger, Messenger by Robert Burleigh and it was, I was so relieved to learn, written for readers age 4-8. I nearly shit myself. The voice of the courier had still not been heard in the book industry. So I stepped up to get heard.

Since I began writing, three other books about messengering have been released. Two of them, one from D.C. and the other from San Fran, were self-published by other messengers. Another book was completed not long ago about the fashion of messengers in New York City. The world seems ready for the experience of the courier. Somehow, it's interesting, we all discovered this at the exact same moment in history.

You often write about your devotion to playwriting (and art, in general) in this book. Did you ever imagine yourself writing a book, let alone a memoir?

When the idea of writing a book about courier culture first came up, I was really uncomfortable with the idea of writing a memoir. Like a playwright would, I wanted the collective experience, many voices. I reasoned that I could probably get a more dynamic view, perhaps an even more accurate view of the job if other perspectives became involved in the project. I got some friends together hoping that between us, in the form of essays, a really crystal picture might emerge. It turned out that this outline, written to be an anthology, was sort of doomed to dissolve itself. One problem was that some of the contributing writers had no faith in the book so they didn't really commit. The other problem was that publishing houses across the board seemed uninterested in publishing that kind of an account. I was pretty disappointed but I didn't let it stop me. I had committed to doing the book and so I went with the phenomenological description as opposed to the gestalt.

Still, and I hope that this is conveyed in the book, there are other stories out there, hundreds if not thousands that would really affect a reader and challenge their views on urbanity, equality, industry, class, race, etc. My story is one of many. I didn't fall off any mountains, or sink in any ships or get buried in any avalanches. That is not what makes this adventure important. As a young man I made it through (and as I talk to you today I'm still making it through) a realm of normal, daily, and very dangerous work. What is harrowing is not the job's intensity or its frequent forms of violence. What's harrowing is the mundane truth of that intensity and the fact that it is lived, everyday, by some really earnest people; artists, musicians, some of them still too young to drink. To me, surviving the job was as close as I'll ever get to surviving something like Nam, still is. The question I ask is not what we are fighting for in these "trenches" but why our cities are so deeply rooted in barbaric forms of violence. Is there anything we can do to make them calmer, safer, and more humane? That's what I am after.

You raise some rich sociopolitical questions in this book. Was this your intention from the start or was it something that evolved as the book took shape?

The positions I take in the book were born of the need I had of surviving as a cyclist on the public roadway. They came from experience, from the effort of adapting to the violence of car-culture and they helped me balance my sense of place in the world. In a word, those questions are part of the memoir. To put up with that much action and aggressiveness, I would need to have a strong reason to be there, to continue. Personal gain was not enough. I needed the idea of a safe environment, the idea of a strong community, the idea of a working democracy. As with archery, I needed to think-in the obstacles in order to reach my goals.

Nietzsche once wrote that a soldier is stronger fighting for his country than fighting for himself alone. The idea of country, the idea of peace, justice, work, economy, all of it stems naturally from a need to show great love to people. That was the strength that I drew on and because of it I am able to stand here today and move forward with my life. I did hit the target, didn't I?

At one point in the memoir, you flashback to a conversation you had as a child with your neighbor Gil. He tells you, "You can follow your bliss, whoever you are. In a true democracy, you can be low and noble--and no one can judge you for it." Do you think this is true?

I would never have lifted a finger toward the completion of The Immortal Class, if I did not believe the low and noble to be a class, a spirit in America and in the world, that is beyond judgement, beyond criticism and the beyond the humiliation that comes with poverty. Haven't you ever seen a bus driver enjoy their job? All the time right? Do you have fond memories of your grade school teachers? Of course. Have you ever known a cop to do the right thing? Of course, often enough, right? The low and noble are working people who do for a moment or two gain a profound satisfaction out of their service to others. Maybe it's Jesus Christ, maybe it's the wellbeing of a patient, maybe it's the feeling of doing a job well that is influencing them, but it is always when we, as workers, see our place in some version of a bigger picture. Whatever the cause, we are at our best, our most ingenious, our most heroic and our most complete when we are in the service of other people.

I think it is interesting that I learned this from a man who was virtually banished from society, an addict and a criminal. I didn't learn this from my parents or my Grandfather, to whom I dedicate the book, though he too was a hard-working man, still is. He's just enjoyed his eightieth birthday and, everyday since he sold the bike shop, he's been delivering bagels in a truck and cleaning pools. Why? He can retire anytime. He'd rather work up his savings to help support me and his other grandchildren as they take on new responsibilities. That's a bigger picture and I have enormous respect for him because of it.

Did being a bike messenger fuel your artistic life in a way?

I don't know. It has fueled the lives of many artists. Me? No, not so much. Being a messenger for me was another way of being a student. I absorbed as much of the world as I could see and I could see plenty. Now, if you were to ask me if it has influenced my creative life in anyway, I'd answer differently. What is being an artist? Is it speaking in verse and snapping into existence pretty, meaningless pictures? That's Disney. I am not doing that.

In my view, an artist crosses cultural boundaries. An artist is the instrument which makes it possible for different people, people of different languages, to understand each other, instantly, even innately. An artist is not one part in a puzzle of the humanities, an actor, a poet, a painter. Put those voices together. What are they saying? What is their function?

That function is what I am committed to. I don't even know what I am doing anymore "as an artist". I don't clock in or out. I do what I've got to so as to get the message clearer. In the end, art is not about art. Art is about compassionate sharing and any voice in any cell phone can do that. Honestly, since I began messengering, I've cared less and less about art--in the sense of it being some sort of higher code or language. I care more about architecture, the city, and the lived-world of common people. I want to blur a cultural boundary between private interests and public good. I don't care how I cross it, whether or not it's in the theater or in a song, I want the point delivered, then I'll move on.

Your memoir is blanketed with irony. Do you find it strange that the very people for whom you endured injuries and countless hardships in order to deliver the items they depended on, seemed to appreciate your effort least? They even seemed to work against you...

This might sound strange but when the message is delivered it is always a good thing. Whether not the recipient cares of the trouble I may have gone through is irrelevant. They often do care and I'm glad of that. When I'm shoving forty pounds of legal papers in my bag and stacking another thirty on my handlebars, people are usually quite impressed even. But their appreciation has nothing to do with my job. In fact I've nothing to do with my job, so I shouldn't get caught up in wanting their appreciation. If I didn't do the drop, Sean would do it or Michael, or Sam. And by the way the recipient has nothing to do with their job, either. They can be replaced. They will be replaced in time. All of us will be. As I see it, we are all on different sides of the same machine. If I expected some great appreciation from them, they should expect the same appreciation from me. "Thank yous" all around and I wish it could be that way.

What is ironic, though I think it is more sad than ironic, is that the good people that I see and appreciate in lobbies and in offices, can be so utterly inconsiderate in traffic. They are the same people, yet they've switched like Jekyll and Hyde or something. A man or a woman in an elevator can be pleasant, considerate, generous and grateful, when in their cars, surrounded by toxic fumes and tons of steel, they can just as easily become a murderer. Do I see their reckless driving, their rude behavior, their forceful attitudes as being a kind of disrespect? I do. And I don't take it lightly.

I believe, and I'm not the first, that next to probably the printing press, the bicycle is the most civilizing machine in history and yet its hardly anywhere in sight. There is a prejudice built into our transportation systems that prefers the automobile to the bicycle and it this prejudice which is responsible for our cities being dangerous and unclean, being no more than build ups brick piled up between high-speed avenues. In cities built for cars, appreciation for public space is lacking and the bicyclist feels the brunt of that disregard. But this realm of dealing with motorists, and I mean this sincerely, is entirely separate from dealing with the people I serve day to day. Jekyll is not Hyde and I don't confuse them.

When this memoir ends, though you are still involved in obtaining certain rights for bike messengers, you have retired from the business to work at an art museum. Are you still doing this? How is it?

I only stayed at the museum for about six months. I was in a rich, emotional relationship with a woman who had to go to the University of Pennsylvania to complete a fellowship in medicine. Hoping to keep this relationship solvent, I went with her. While working on the book, I started messengering in Philly part-time. I had a really wonderful experience there. The bikers there are of the best in the world. But I didn't stay because that rich, emotional relationship I was in didn't work. When I completed the book, I returned to Chicago, called up Tom Willett at Service First Courier and told him to prep me a W-4. I've been back at the company working as biker "five-oh" since September of last year. I'm still messengering.

If at some point if you quit messengering for good, do you think you'll miss it?

Will I miss it? No, because I won't be far away. The guys at Service know that. I hope to stay productive as a writer from here on out, but I'll consider working part-time to keep down with the brotha's-keep my ass in shape, you know. It is a whole different job when you're not in dire straits. You can ride at your own pace. You can take in a little more of the beauty of the city.

I'll still be at the big races. I'll be tight with Critical Mass. I'll be supportive to other creative voices out there as they pursue their own missions; racing, writing, playing music, whatever. I hope to be working with the city and helping Mayor Daley get Chicago to be world-class cycling town.

Are you ever afraid that you'll end up like the minivan-driving, Ralph Lauren-wearing, yuppie suburbanites you seem to scorn?

We should get something straight right away. People are good, all of them on some level and I hope to see that level in everything I do. I don't scorn the suburbanite. I believe they are unwittingly funding a war effort out there, consuming land they don't need, using machinery that does nothing but destroy, drinking oil that serves no one but the current commander in chief and I don't see the point in that. I wish they would opt for a stronger, richer, denser community within the city-limits. It would give their children a more diversified education. It would spare the earth a little asphalt. It would make our sidewalks safer, our schools more successful and prosperous.

But to answer your question, I will not drain myself the community that I have found in city-life. I might be pimping a Chinelli or styling a new pair of new racing shoes but I'll be sticking to my political positions as advocated in the book. I'll be street-level, with love in my heart, as always.

Look for me. I mean that. If you're driving, look before you open your door on me out there. Maybe it'll save me a few stitches.

If you could rewind your life and record over parts, would you keep the part of your life when you messengered?

Absolutely. I'm glad to be able to move forward from here but I'm not done with my time as a messenger. Could I rewind it, I'd probably just play it again, sit back, and laugh at all my stupid mistakes. Maybe I'd invite a few friends over.

--interview by Cara Hall
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    Photo credit: Lenyr Munoz