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Old 08-20-2008, 10:26 AM   #1
JoeyBones OP
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The minor adventures of a motorcycle courier

Note for anyone just starting to read this thread: Since I started this in 2008, a number of other couriers from around the world (and even a motorcycle cop) have added their stories. This began as a thread about one guy. It's become a thread about many people, some far crazier than I ever dreamed of being... Enjoy.


The Background:

From 1980 to 1982 I worked as a motorcycle courier in downtown Washington, DC. I was nineteen, twenty, twenty one years old, immortal, and quite the wild hooligan on my Suzuki SP400, a dual-purpose thumper that would carry my then 150-pound self absolutely anywhere (more on that later – the “anywhere”, not the weight I’ve gained in the years since these stories took place).

This was in the days before e-mail. Before faxes. Before cell phones and before the internet (yes I know some of these things EXISTED but they were VERY scarce or in their infancy). I thought some of you might get a kick out of hearing what it was like to zoom around town, oblivious to and pretty much immune to things like traffic laws, security concerns, personal hygiene and common sense. Sadly, no pictures exist, so this will have to be a RR sans photos.

I have some general observations, and a few specific stories that may be of some interest. I'll save the best for last, where I was a witness to, and in a very VERY small way a part of, our nations history.

First off, we were BUSY! Press releases were delivered to the various newspaper offices by courier. Lawyers sent documents for signature by courier. Letters that couldn't wait for what we now call Snail Mail were sent by courier. Video tape, legal briefs, court filings, pictures, House and Senate resolutions, architectural drawings, airline tickets – you name it, we delivered it. I might make 35 or 40 drops in a day. Many more if there was a big press release that went to every single occupant of the National Press Building. I've been to most of the Embassies, the White House, the CIA, the FBI, the Watergate and was such a regular at the Capital building that most of the guards recognized me (as well as some of the other couriers) and would let me park on the sidewalk right next to the private entrance reserved for members of Congress. And then let me use that entrance.

Speaking of sidewalks….that's where we parked. Always. No exceptions. Things are different now but back then, we were motorcycle Gods. The cops would sometimes scold us, but the corps of maybe 40 or 50 motorcycle couriers (working for three different companies) who constituted the "regulars" had essentially a free pass. Parking on the sidewalk. Splitting lanes. Forty-five in a twenty-five zone. Wheelies at green lights. U-turns wherever the hell we felt like it. The cops knew us and just looked the other way. I even drove the wrong way on a one-way street for an entire block once as a shortcut and nobody said anything. Maybe it was because I was coasting downhill. On the sidewalk.

Stay tuned……
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Old 08-20-2008, 10:36 AM   #2
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This is sounding REALLY good so far! keep it coming!
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Old 08-20-2008, 11:07 AM   #3
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I'm tuning in for this one... :)
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Old 08-20-2008, 11:09 AM   #4
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The Law:

The Law Enforcement Officer environment in Washington, DC is not your average LEO environment. Having jurisdiction were . . .. The Metropolitan Police department. The Park Police. The Secret Service. The FBI. The National Capital Area Police. The Treasury Department Police.

Oh yeah, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The one time I did get pulled over in anger it was by the Park Police and the Secret Service. At the same time. It had to do with trying to catch up to a teenage girl in the back of a school bus who made suggestive gestures and then LICKED THE BACK WINDOW OF THE BUS while flashing me. The bus was from Indiana or someplace – I guess they were on a field trip and I still wish I had been able to follow them to their hotel or wherever…..

My Favorite Steps:

I had a weekly delivery to a University Law School. I think it was the George Washington University. The school sat high up off the street, with a large open plaza in the front, the size of a football field or two. Between the plaza and the street was not only a very wide sidewalk but a broad expanse of granite steps that rose well up above the street level. Maybe 25 or 30 steps. The first time I made that delivery I parked on the sidewalk, walked up the steps and across that plaza. After that, every week, I'd simply point my trusty Suzuki up those steps, stand on the pegs and gun it. Had to maintain pretty good speed to get up those steps – so good a speed that I would land a good eight or ten feet into the plaza. Scared the living crap out of some poor student every time but no one ever said a frickin' word to me. Maybe it was because I never took off my black Simpson helmet with the dark tinted shield. Ever. Walk right in, hand over the packet of papers, have 'em sign, walk back out. Drive back down the steps.
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Old 08-20-2008, 11:21 AM   #5
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Had a girlfriend who interned for a senator in the late seventies. I'd ride my XS650 down from Connecticut on weekends. I'd marvel at the motorcycle couriers and wish I was one. Though I don't imagine the pay was so great ... do I remember correctly that most rode R65's?
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Old 08-20-2008, 11:35 AM   #6
Deah
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Great stories so far.

Cowboys of the slab.

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Old 08-20-2008, 11:43 AM   #7
MoBill
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Thanks for the PM and for the stories

Joe,

Thanks for the PM! I've been waiting for this (rubbing hands together). I swear this stuff could make a movie!!

Got my heart rate up just sitting here visualizing standing up on the pegs to get up those steps.

Great stuff!!

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Old 08-20-2008, 11:51 AM   #8
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Awesome thread, can not wait for the next story.
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Old 08-20-2008, 12:12 PM   #9
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Old 08-20-2008, 12:40 PM   #10
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The Machines and the People:

I was the only guy riding around down there in those days on a dual-purpose bike (and mine was new at that). Most guys had older street bikes in the 400 - 500cc category, with a few 750's thrown in. Light and nimble and tough were the key attributes you looked for. My SP 400 thumper with kick-start was pretty important to me - I was actually making payments on it and it was my only transportation!

One of the Courier companies, Metro Courier, actually supplied the drivers with motorcycles. Yellow BMW's with fork-mount fairings. I considered working for them at one point but you got paid a LOT less, and that fairing would have cramped my style; renegade lane-splitting wheelie king that I was.

I was pulling in between $400 and $450 on a good week. Not bad for 1980 or 1981. I burned maybe two gallons of gas a day. Maybe three?

But we drove the crap out of our bikes. It wasn't the miles so much as the fun we had. Racing from light to light whenever we came across each other heading the same direction. Splitting lanes at red lights, then pulling a wheelie halfway across the intersection in front of all the cars. For six lights in a row.

I was particularly fond of riding up and down steps whenever I had the opportunity. I remember looking at the steps in front of the Supreme Court with awe, admiration and a pitter-patter of lust in my heart. The Holy Grail, the Mount Everest of steps! But no, I never got the chance. Pretty well Guarded, that Supreme Court building . . . .. .

And the speeds we kept - zero to 50 and back to zero in one block. For six blocks in a row if you caught the lights wrong. I actually found a couple of off-road opportunities within the Washington DC city limits (one of which will come along in a later installment). I kept my bike semi-clean, changed the oil twice a month and adjusted the valves once a month. No gaskets or parts needed for the valve adjustment task - you just un-screwed an inspection port, loosened the tappet screw, slipped in a feeler gauge and then tightened the nut back up - no bucket and shim arrangement here!

There were three social classes of Couriers; the bicycle riders - trim, fit, possibly educated, certainly clean (if perhaps sweaty), and serious. Always serious. And they stayed mostly in downtown - not out to Embassy row or places like that. Then you had the guys driving cars or pick-ups. They carried bigger packages, ran out to the suburbs, and avoided the downtown area like grim death. The motorcycle guys (no women riders that I remember) were the outlaws. And whether we worked together or not we'd wave, talk when we could, and sometimes grab lunch in between trying to outdo each other with random lane-change moves, ever newer and ever wilder shortcuts, jumping curbs and full-throttle stoplight drags. I rode a bicycle for two or three weeks once to see how it was compared to my Suzuki…..ummm…. BORING.

I specifically remember balancing two slices of pizza on my gas tank (between my knees) one day and eating as I drove down Rhode Island Avenue. With my full-face helmet tilted back far enough to eat but not so far that I couldn’t see where I was going.

At lunch one day with one of the riders from Metro, we get to talking about how they held those BMW's together with chewing gum and bailing wire, mixing up whatever parts they had to keep 'em running. He said his particular bike was a little rough - the right hand jug was a 450 and the left hand jug was a 650 (or some similar odd combination of engine sizes). He said it "vibrated pretty bad", and turned right better then it turned left. I’m not a mechanic but I guess those old BMW’s from the 60’s and 70’s were pretty tough, assuming he was telling the truth.

I was zooming around one of the circles in DC (down by the Jefferson Memorial), dual-purpose tires and all, at about 50 mph or better one day, leaned over in my best Eddie-Lawson-on-a-dirt-bike impression, ass hanging off the side of the seat, left knee nearly scraping the curb, when a pigeon flew up out of the bushes and I smashed him with my faceshield. Blood and guts and feathers everywhere, my head snapped back like on old rag doll and how I managed to get stopped without crashing I will never know. In fact, how I'm alive today at all is kind of a mystery to anyone who knew me back then. Another day, another road, another pigeon - this one flew right into my front wheel spokes at 50 mph. Pigeon puree and it made a sound like shuffling a deck of cards. I had a week-long neck ache from the first pigeon and a couple of bent spokes from the second one.
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Old 08-20-2008, 12:57 PM   #11
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great thread ... it remind,s me of my own days as a motorcycle courier here in glasgow , one blazing hot summers day i got a delivery to the isle of skye...before they built the bridge , from glasgow all along the side of loch lomond , up to crianlarich , and on through the mountains of glencoe to the kyle of lochalsh , and then the ferry over to skye , a great ride in fabulous scenery, and i got paid to do it ! and once getting stopped by two motorcycle police who asked me why i was speeding , i had just been to the glasgow royal infirmary hospital to pick up some drug that i had to deliver to the hotel room of a member of the russian ballet , who were performing in glasgow that week ! after speaking to my controler and trying not to laugh , they let me go . and another of my regular runs was to the stobhill hospital aids unit , where i was handed several large brown envelopes containing some sort of long thin tubes inside , you could clearly feel the tubes through the envelope , the envelopes had a large yellow sticker on them saying ... danger warning of infection !!! handle with care . looking back now , i am amazed to still be alive . being a motorcycle courier can be the best job in the world , but if you do it too long , it will either kill you , or send you out of your mind .
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Old 08-20-2008, 04:04 PM   #12
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My friend was a bicycle courier in DC circa 1988.

I would drive down from PA with my road bike and meet up, just to step into the courier cleats for an afternoon. Major hairball activity.

Later, I worked up on Wisconsin and commuted into the District from Arlington on my R100GS/PD. I actually had some roadrager ram me from behind once because he didn't like the time I made up on the Key Bridge. I confronted him, and scared the snot out of him. Then he tried to run me down with his car as I continued on my way to work. I figured getting killed just going to the office wasn't in my plans that day.

I really enjoyed DC, but the sumemr heat just sucks when it's radiating off every surface.
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Old 08-20-2008, 04:23 PM   #13
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Great so far. Hey, is your avatar the chick from "Vanishing Point"? Cool!
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Old 08-20-2008, 07:02 PM   #14
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Great so far
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Old 08-20-2008, 07:05 PM   #15
JoeyBones OP
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Wink

Quote:
Originally Posted by Hughlysses
Great so far. Hey, is your avatar the chick from "Vanishing Point"? Cool!

Yep. Gilda Texter. Wacky movie but LOVE that scene with her in it ......

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