Imagine a bike messenger. You're probably visualizing a reckless young man—perhaps Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, or Puck from The Real World—weaving through traffic on a featherweight fixie, grabbing onto taxis and plowing into strollers.
That is not Meghan Mack. Sure, she has her right pants leg cuffed to reveal a pair of orange-striped socks, arms tattooed with mermaids, and earlobes stretched by heavy silver hoops, but you won't find Mack flouting traffic laws on her fixie. Mack rides a custom-built, royal-blue, front-loader cargo bike that, she notes, is not very "cool or stealth." But as a courier, Mack has cred. The 45-year-old has been working as a bike messenger since 1993, mostly in Portland, though she spent several years in San Francisco during the dot-com boom. "There was so much money in San Francisco then," Mack says. "You did rush delivery all day long."
Like cowboys and heavyweight boxers, the golden age of bike messengers is past, but their mystique remains. Bike couriers have dwindled in numbers, but they remain influential as the ultimate urban cyclists—tough, speedy, never foiled by the weather. You can't ride down a Portland street without seeing snug racing caps, seatbelt-buckle messenger bags, and U-locks strung through belts.
The practical allure of the work persists, too. Mack is one of five partners of Magpie Messenger, a bike-courier collective she co-founded in 2002, and she says she receives two or three résumés a month from prospective couriers. Not that the collective has enough business to take on more employees. Though law offices and accounting firms still make up most of Magpie's clients, it's had to expand to other areas of service in recent years: delivering food, distributing
catalogs, occasionally ferrying giant hamster wheels or golf balls or animals bound for the Humane Society. (To accommodate such loads, Magpie riders have steel cargo bikes.) But Mack says you have to draw the line somewhere.
"We have this lawyer who's a little crazy, and he wanted us to go pick somebody up at the jail and take him to a rehab center," she says. "He was like, 'It won't be a problem. He's a nice guy, he won't do anything weird.' We were like, 'No, we're not gonna do that one.' We could have put him in the cargo bike, but that's why there are cabs. We're not a cab service."
Mack, who's notably fidgety in person, says she was drawn to courier work because it allowed her to get out her "nervous energy, good energy, whatever." She also relishes the exposure to the elements: She excitedly recalls a massive windstorm that sent newspaper boxes flying through downtown Portland, and in the next breath recounts that when the Willamette flooded in '96, she got to watch relief workers haul sandbags to the riverbanks. She's had only one significant crash—a high-speed hit-and-run in San Francisco that miraculously left her with just a few scrapes—and says she feels safe enough in Portland to eschew a helmet.
"Things have changed in Portland in the last 20 years, and drivers are a lot more aware now," Mack says. "I don't think people have ever been aggressive here. In San Francisco, if you made drivers mad for any reason, they would have no problem pushing you to the side of the road."
But for a courier in Portland, speed is less of a priority than courtesy and reliability. And in some ways, Mack thinks being a woman has worked to her advantage as a bike messenger. "Those boys, the young ones at least, go in there and are aggro and scary and sweaty," says Mack, a petite blonde with a gray-streaked ponytail. "I deal with a fair amount of female administrative people, so I think they like the fact that there's a female they can talk to. Because I have a child, we talk about our kids." Sometimes Mack even totes around her 12-year-old daughter.
Like many dedicated urban cyclists, Mack doesn't have a car, but not out of uppity principle: She simply doesn't know how to drive.
"I have a permit," she says. "I've had it for, like, four years. I feel like I should learn. It would be good. But then I say to my daughter, 'You'll be 16 in a few years, and you can just drive me around!'"