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Chicago bike messengers say the job isn't all Hollywood hype—but it ain't easy either

  • Chicago bike messenger Charlie Rifenburg
Chicago bike messenger Charlie Rifenburg (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
August 22, 2012|By Mick Swasko, @mickswasko | RedEye

Chicago bike messengers say the job isn't all Hollywood hype—but it ain't easy either

Charlie Rifenburg knows how it feels to be chased on a bike during a delivery.

The 33-year-old courier from Bridgeport wasn't trying to escape some evil conspiracy likeJoseph Gordon-Levitt does in the upcoming big-budget flick "Premium Rush;" he was evading a ticked-off downtown driver. But Rifenburg and other two-wheeled warriors of the road surely could get themselves out of the kinds of jams depicted in the movie, which opens Friday.

"I think most messengers would be able to get out of the way, get out of danger," he said. After all, making more than a dozen deliveries a day gives him the advantage of knowing every shortcut, alleyway and one-way street in downtown Chicago. There are no police chases, gunslingers or under-the-table cash exchanges to speak of—all of which are featured in previews for the flick—but for the estimated 150 or so active couriers in the city, the job does get interesting. And even though the Internet has cut down on the need for a quick, in-person delivery, Chicago's messengers still find themselves navigating busy traffic, dodging lost tourists and using their expert knowledge of the city's streets to make on-time deliveries.

"There is romanticism, or an ideal of romanticism, of being a bike messenger downtown all day," said Justin Congleton, 32, of Bucktown, who has been a messenger for 10 years.

A typical day can bring any number and variety of jobs, Congleton said. In some cases, it's a day's worth of standard pick-ups and drop-offs of blueprints and legal documents. Taking a delivery from "the can" to "the daily dump" might not mean much to the layman, but Congleton knows he'll be picking up from the Aon building and going to Richard J. Daley Center. Lingo that only couriers understand is part of the job.

"We have colorful names made up for some of the companies that probably shouldn't go in the paper," he said.

It's not always envelopes and shipping boxes toted around town, he said. Modern messengers commonly find themselves returning phones left at restaurants or picking up golf clubs forgotten in cabs, luxury services that many high-profile companies are willing to pay for. Other times, the deliveries get plain strange. When Congleton first started, he would transport tissue samples from Stroger Hospital.

"We used to joke and call that a lunch run," he said.

For Rifenburg, there is a sense of community associated with the job, a bond evident when a fellow courier gets injured and everyone rallies in support. It's the love of hustle for a good day's pay and outdoor work – good weather and bad – that makes a desk job nearly impossible.

"Basically all you need is a messenger bag, a way to contact work, a bike and a lock," he said. A good day's work is about 30 deliveries. Lately, because of the season and the general decline in business with electronic documents, it's more like 15 to 17 per day. The U.S. Bureau of Labor estimates that, nationwide, the median pay for the job is $11.58 per hour, or about $24,080 per year.

Congleton, who has been a messenger about four years longer than Rifenburg, said he feels some of the messenger subculture has faded in recent years. With the popularity of cycling in the city on the upswing, he said messengers aren't revered for their skill of weaving in and out of traffic and speeding across the city as they once were. He also said that younger messengers no longer have to "prove themselves" as they once did to the rest of the courier community. Once, only the truly passionate riders took up the job. Now, younger messengers pick it up just to say they've done it.

It's the sense of competition that keeps Christina Peck, 25, of Humboldt Park, coming back to jobs that require two wheels. Before her current job at ZipCar – where she rides her bike to cars throughout the city to bring them in for maintenance – she was a courier for two years. Making deliveries was a job, but competing in official and non-sanctioned races keeps her going. She became the first woman to rank first overall in the National Cycle Messenger Championships in 2009. Despite being in a male-dominated field, she's never felt like she's had something to prove.

"I still think it takes a certain type of person to want to do this job," she said. "I'm a pretty competitive person. Maybe it's just a certain type of girl that wants to do a job that's more physically taxing and there's mostly males."

Despite the shifting industry and daily grind, Rifenburg said he is happy Hollywood is giving his livelihood the big-screen treatment, even if he feels he and fellow messengers will poke holes in the inaccuracies. His experience on the streets has him guessing that Gordon-Levitt wouldn't last long as a Chicago courier.

"He gets hit at least three times in the preview alone. He wouldn't be a very good messenger if he got hit three times in one day," he said. "He'd have to reconsider his strategy."

mswasko@tribune.com

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