Acid Heroes

January 17, 2014

Bike Messenger Days 1983


Pull up a chair and let ol’ Uncle Ace tell you a story about the Good Old Days back in 1983….1546381_814545661896312_2100578201_n.jpg

It was 1983 and I was deep into my career as a fabulous San Francisco bike messenger. Now, bike messengers are a breed apart. They’re a lot like street people, with the crucial difference that bike messengers are still young and strong, and they pay their rent BEFORE they buy their drugs. And many of them would indeed have fabulous careers waiting for them as homeless street people as soon as they ran out of energy, or got drunk and stoned one time too many.

But Friday evenings were fabulous times on the bike messenger circuit. We all got paid on Friday night. So generally we’d all cash our checks at Honorable Harvey Woo’s grocery store on 5th and Folsom and pound down big meat-and-cheese sandwiches and drink a beer or 12 in the back parking lot. One of the great things about the bike messenger job was, you could eat 5 meals a day and not gain a pound because you burn off so many calories. The job was the closest I’ve ever come to being a professional athlete. It was a lot like running a high-speed marathon and an obstacle course 10 hours a day, with the added excitement of dodging Muni buses which will squash you like a bug if you’re not very careful. And you got paid by the delivery — which is why messengers rode their bikes like madmen through red lights and down one-way streets and across the foreheads of pedestrian’s heads. So there was a lot of competition amongst us as to who was the fastest bike-rider and the most skilled bike rider and the number one Gravy Dog. We took a lot of pride in our expertise on our bikes. We were the wild men, the freaks, the Evel Knievels of the Financial District. And all the secretaries and three-piece-suits envied us (in between fearing us and despising us) because we were big kids who got paid to play on our bikes all day long, while they had to work.


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Anyway, we were kicking back in the parking lot that Friday night, a big gang of us, drinking beer and smoking pot. Among the crowd were Jimbo and Fred. Jimbo was one of the coolest guys I knew, and greatly respected amongst all the messengers as the top Gravy Dog at Special T Messenger. He was a cocky guy with a swagger, but very cool about it.  He had an “I’m-okay-you’re-okay” ambiance that made you enjoy his cockiness. He just dug his life; was very into it. (Later he would achieve acclaim as an illustrator and animated cartoonist). On every social scene I’ve been on, there’s usually only one or two people whose company I seek out. And Jimbo was the one, of all the messengers. He looked a lot like the actor Kevin Bacon, with his pug-nose and tousled hair. (In fact, later that year, Kevin Bacon himself would come to San Francisco to star in a Hollywood film about the bike messenger scene. We were all excited about it, and there was big talk about some of the bike messengers being hired as Hollywood extras or consultants. But it turned out that the movie was typical Hollywood bullshit. They came up with some hokey plot-line about how the bike messenger (Bacon) accidentally gets ahold of some kind of top-secret spy material and gets in the middle of an international espionage ring or some such crap (car chases with bicycles up and down the hilly streets of San Francisco — you can imagine). Which is weird that they have to come up with such contrived plot lines, because in truth there were about a million amazing real-life stories amongst the bike messenger scene. So you wonder why Hollywood has to retread the same old dull phony pabulum. But maybe it’s like the premise of this column: that what’s interesting and funny in real life often doesn’t translate into art.)  (Though I’m sticking with my first theory that Hollywood is just lame.)

So anyway, we’re all sitting there relaxing on a Friday evening with our paychecks in our pockets,  in this big, deserted parking lot South of Market, drinking our beer, smoking our pot, and feeling no pain. Eventually, it started getting dark, so we started organizing ourselves for the trip back to Jimbo’s place in the Haight-Ashbury to continue the party. One of Jimbo’s friends had a pick-up truck, so he offered to give us a ride, which was certainly appreciated since it was a 20 minute bike-ride to Jimbo’s, all up-hill. So we threw our bikes in the back of the pick-up. Jimbo, cocky bastard that he was, said: “Watch this!”

Jimbo leaned a thin, narrow board from the back of the pick-up truck like a ramp. Then he hopped on his bike and pedaled around the outskirts of the parking lot at blazing speed. When his lap had come full-circle, he rode his bike right up the plank at top speed, blasted right up there, and into the back of the truck, stopped on a dime, and hopped off his bike with aplomb, like a rodeo star dismounting from his horse. We all burst into applause at his impressive stunt of dare-deviltry.

Ace Backwords's photo.

Fred said: “Oh yeah?! Well watch THIS!” Fred jumped onto his bike. He was going to top Jimbo’s stunt.

Now let me tell you a bit about Fred. He was a good guy. But somehow he had been stamped Loser by the gods. Like he was always fated to be on the short end of God’s cosmic practical jokes. Fred was stocky and well-built, and looked sort of like Fred Flintstone with a duh-uh demeanor. A nice guy, but a fuck-up. A typical Fred stunt was: Once all the bike messengers got invited to the Boss’s house for his daughter’s wedding party. Fred got drunk and walked right through the Boss’s glass door. Fred’s paycheck was docked for the next 6 months before he finally paid it off. That was the kind of luck he had.

Another night we were at Jimbo’s apartment for a big Friday night poker game. Now poker’s an interesting game, because the results are totally reflective of a person’s basic personality (You can guess what happened to Fred). Now, we mostly played poker for fun, for small stakes; usually at most somebody would win or lose $20. We were only making, if memory serves me right, about $100 to $150 a week (depending on the messenger’s speed, agility, and street savvy). So a $20 loss was substantial enough. This night, SOMEHOW, Fred managed to lose $250, the equivalent of two weeks salary. It was the most unbelievable streak of bad luck I’d ever seen. He kept losing hand after hand, even when he had good cards. At one point, near the end of the game, Fred finally got a great hand, I forget what it was, three Kings and a pair of Jacks, or something like that, the kind of hand where you just COULDN’T lose. So he bet everything he could on this hand in the hopes of somehow salvaging the evening, as the pot built up higher and higher. Double or nothing. Triple or nothing. . . .  Finally, Fred triumphantly flipped his cards over. Only to have Jimbo beat him with an even MORE unbelievable hand; 3 Aces and a pair of Queens, or something like that. We couldn’t believe it. It was so stunning we were rolling around the floor busting our guts in laughter. We couldn’t help laughing, even as we felt guilty about wiping Fred out (though not guilty enough to give him his money back). That was just the kind of luck Fred had.

So anyways, on this one particular Friday night, Fred was going to top Jimbo’s stunt with an even more impressive display of bike-riding virtuosity.  “Oh YEAH??  Watch THIS!!”  So he placed the plank back on the back of the pick-up truck, hopped on his bike, and sped around the parking lot at top speed. We’re all standing there, watching in anticipation. Fred’s stocky little legs are pumping and churning like pistons at top-speed like Fred Flintstone in his go-cart. But before Fred even makes it half-way around the parking lot, before he even gets NEAR the truck, he wipes out on the third turn. Just wipes out. His bike skids in a cloud of dust and Fred goes flying over the handlebars with a loud “WOOOOO!!” scream, and his bike, and Fred, go rolling and cart-wheeling and bouncing across the parking lot in a big huge cloud of dust. We’re all stunned at first, because it was such a spectacular wipe-out. Fred picks himself up from the ground, slowly, groaning and moaning and rubbing his left arm. “OH, MA-AN!” And we all just burst out laughing. Because it was so funny. I mean, here he was going to show off with this incredible, impressive feat of bike-riding, and he wipes out just riding his bike in a simple circle, before he even GETS to the stunt.

But we’re also concerned because he’s in pain. “Are you alright, Fred?”

“MAN OH MAN! That HURT like a motherfucker!” And he’s dusting himself off and groaning and his pants are torn and his bike is kind of bent out of shape. So we can’t help laughing.

Fred stiffly throws his bike into the back of the truck and we all pile into the cab up front. As we rode up to the Haight, Fred would grimace in pain every minute or so. “O-o-oh!”

“Are you alright, Fred?”

“Man, I think I broke my arm!” And he would groan, and we’d all burst out laughing. We couldn’t help it, it was so funny. We were biting our lips to keep from laughing. It was like when somebody farts in church and you have to bite your lip to keep from laughing. I mean, he was really hurting, so we felt bad about laughing at him. But then Fred would groan again and rub his arm: “Oh, ma-a-an!” And we’d all burst out laughing again. (In fact, his arm WAS broken. But the good news was that Fred would later tell the boss that he had hurt his arm on the job earlier that day, so he filed for Workman’s Comp and collected a full salary for doing nothing for the next 4 weeks while his arm was in a sling.  So the story has a happy ending.) But for that whole ride back to Jimbo’s, we kept trying to keep from laughing as we’re all squeezed into the front seat of that truck. But then Fred would groan again: “O-o-o-HH!” And we’d all burst into laughter again. And it was like that the whole ride back, and the whole night at Jimbo’s. Suddenly someone would remember the whole image of Fred flying in the air over his bike and bouncing across the parking lot in a big cloud of dust. “Man, when Fred made that second turn — ” And we’d all burst into laughter again and again. Just gut-wrenching, bust-a-gut, fits of hysterical laughter. And it was one of the funniest things that I’ve ever experienced.

But when I TELL people about it, when I tell people the STORY about what happened to Fred in that parking lot back in 1983, it’s never funny.

See? I told you so.





  1. Very well interesting and well-written. Have a bad day ace

    Comment by Head for the hills — January 19, 2014 @ 6:33 pm | Reply

  2. I think Freds real name was Russ

    Comment by pete moss — February 4, 2014 @ 7:39 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, I generally try to change the names for the sake of privacy, unless they’re already a bit of a public figure.

      Comment by Ace Backwords — February 4, 2014 @ 8:10 pm | Reply

    • Do you know whatever happened to that guy Russ?

      Comment by Ace Backwords — May 28, 2014 @ 3:24 am | Reply

  3. I was a bike messenger briefly in SF in 1981. Worked longer ‘off-wheels’ for Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro law firm in the financial district. Did this while playing music– at Mabuhay Gardens, Deaf Club, various performance art, etc.

    Comment by Stephen D. Anderson — February 15, 2014 @ 10:20 pm | Reply

  4. Russ it was! Hey Pete! I think I better understand the whole Friday night thing now in retrospect. My Dad would talk about his Wartime RAF buddies and the comradery that comes with a short life expectancy. With not much to lose you stuck that Friday paycheck, minus your Harvey’s tab, in your pocket and went through at least half of it that evening. Evenings that sometimes ended Monday morning up at 1016 Haight. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. When I think about being lucky to gave serviced those years, I am quickly reminded how many didn’t. I miss you Dennis, Jim, Stevo, Mark, Johnny, Danny and more recently Dung Boy. Can’t say they didn’t live though. Fast and hard, like they meant it. And we in it together.

    (Comradery: The spirit of friendship and community in a group, like the comradery of soldiers at war who keep each other upbeat despite the difficulty of their circumstances.)

    Comment by Hugh — March 10, 2014 @ 1:50 am | Reply

  5. Good times…I was thinking about Harvey Woo this morning and googled it to arrive here. I rode for Silver Bullet and Lightning Express later in the decade, 86-89.
    Tried the Bitter Melon soup at Harvs once. Eugh! It was bitter!

    When I left SF, one of the first things I did before rolling out was stop by Harv’s to pay off my tab. He was so nice and generous to let us run tabs, I would not have liked myself if I’d ditched out on Harvey Woo.

    Comment by xenubarb — April 11, 2016 @ 5:33 pm | Reply

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