My first morning as a courier was a panicked disaster. I was standing outside my flat on Camden Road wearing a terrible company bag and it was all going wrong. I couldn’t call in, just static and angry beeps on the radio when I tried, but I could hear the dispatcher’s metallic Polish accent talking with other riders and giving out jobs while I tried phoning the office every few minutes for an hour worried they’d sack me before I’d done a single delivery. I had put in my notice at my property firm job in Mayfair after seeing a messenger laying on a bench in Berkley Sq get a call on his radio and disappear into traffic like a wizard. Eventually I got through on the phone, it was the radio not me, and I stayed with Courier Systems for the 2 and a bit years I worked in London. At the end almost every person working when I started had quit couriering or moved on to a better company and I was so used to the radio I’d reach for it hearing phantom calls on the weekend and grab air reaching to call back with a ’75, did you call?’
London was home after 6 years and the final 2 couriering got me more hooked into the city and made me feel part of the function of the place. Jorja and I met on the road there in 2012, she’d ride toward me with both arms extended fully above her head waving madly whenever we passed each other and kept offering freshly baked things when I’d be standing-by at CIBT (our biggest client). A month after moving in together we had a world map plastered on the wall and soon after flights booked from Rome (where we’d tour to) to Sydney where we’d start saving up to cycle around the world. She had turned a someday dream into practical steps that we started toward by leaving London. Couriering in Sydney was a mystery to us then, some people said it was hard to get work, or that everyone rode cargo bikes, but a few weeks after landing I was up in North Sydney for paperwork and then doing my training day with Paddles. The day after that I logged onto my Intermec in Pyrmont wearing my Mail Call yellow jersey and the cheapest helmet I could find.
(My favourite street in Toronto, University Avenue)
London to Sydney was a huge change for work: 35 degrees in December, no radios, sharp hills, not many messengers, double the workload, and a super compact CBD. I remember noticing couriers on the footpaths thinking they’d gone lazy but it’s so dense with one-ways it’s stupid not to. I missed the communication on radios those first few days out in the suburbs, rushing to come back into the city, getting to the bottom of a hill and then hearing a new job come in and turning and going back up, over and over, wishing I had a radio to call my POBs. I remember one day cycling up William Henry St when I was still using my flat London 51/16 ratio and a group of middle aged Japanese tourists overtook me walking up the sidewalk as I pulled faces trying to keep moving. I’d gotten used to hearing where other people were, what kind of work was out there, if the dispatcher was in a good or bad mood, using only Intermecs (data/signature units) was so isolating it felt like something had gone wrong. It was impossible not to compare every part city to London. Even the couriers were different, in Sydney everyone was kitted up with good bags and bikes, and said hello to each other and anyone new on the street was known the same day compared to the constant coming and going of new couriers at the big companies in London.
It was an odd sort of exotic with a modern western city transplanted onto a totally unwestern looking environment. It seemed like I saw or heard new animals every day when I arrived: the weirdo scavenging ibises, kookaburras screaming in the mornings, hundreds strong bat colonies rising up in circles in the evenings, and shy possums in Hyde Park poking around the edges of the clink and drink circle. The couriers there are a tight group and they welcomed us in straight away.
It quickly hit me after being on the road in Sydney that the years of building a mental map of London streets was suddenly worthless. So much of what I’d learned there counted for nothing. The winters of doing long one-ups from E14 to W2 might have given me practice in not complaining when I got the Sydney equivalent but I started with no reputation at the new company. Whenever I was standing-by or before I logged on I’d stare at a mapbook and do the main east to wests and north to souths until I had them nailed and then move on to jobs I’d done the day before and try to find better routes. I’m guessing most couriers just get on with the work and learn the city gradually but I took it as a challenge to try to learn as fast as possible and see my paychecks rise gradually as the weeks went on and my effort paid off.
There’s an ingrained irrational fear that’s stuck with me from my first days at Courier Systems that if I’m not always proving my worth the job will be taken away from me and I’ll have to go back to sitting in an office or building houses. So many couriers were sacked over small things and that ruthlessness management style followed to Sydney. Mail Call were one of the few companies in town and if I ever got sacked I could be stuck working in a bar or have to go begging to Crisis where the owner refused to even speak to me when I first arrived. Eventually I chilled a bit and didn’t race around with one-up standards, especially just before we left to start our tour from Tokyo, but after so many weeks of trying to stay off the shit list it became how I do the job without processing it. If there’s one job, I do it quick and take whatever’s next without complaint. Doing them quick, being hungry for work seems to apply everywhere and can only help when starting.
My first shift for Send It in Toronto was the day after I landed. I put my bike back together and rode down to the office on Niagara Street, not nervous but with a head full of unresolved thoughts. It didn’t seem real that what I’d been talking about for 2 months in Nova Scotia was finally happening while imagining Jorja in a plane between Hong Kong and Sydney with her first few days working for Canon and BikeWise coming up, both of us starting new lives in separate cities after cycling across a decent chunk of Asia. From talking with Tim and Zach I kind of knew what I was getting into at Send It but walking into the office, meeting everybody, and seeing it for myself, still left me feeling super fortunate. Having only worked for Courier Systems and Mail Call this company run by couriers where every dispatcher still does shifts on the road, where there’s respect instead of ruthlessness, is a dream come true.
(My new work bike)
Having an office I want to go to after work, where I can drink a beer and hang out instead of standing at a hole in the wall waiting for someone to acknowledge my presence is amazing. I’ve never been this stoked to go to work every day. Send It use radios so there’s a warp with memory and place hearing the same number I had in London here in Toronto too. “175-75” comes in my ear and I’m in two places dreaming of my first days in London and comparing them to this city I’m trying to learn. I imagine for people who’ve worked in 5-6-7-8 cities those direct comparisons would blur into being a couple places and the adaptation from feeling like a rookie to competency would take less time. I’m definitely not competent in Toronto yet, and won’t be for a few months but it’s happening faster than London or Sydney and that must be because I’ve done it before.
I would never suggest someone move their stuff to a new city, and find a place to live, just to experience couriering there. It’s been circumstantial for me and I’ve gotten lucky. If it’s tempting seeing other people move cities or you’re reading this on stand-by in your city hating work, remember all the shitty little annoyances that peck at your forehead each day are everywhere and moving cities also means new lifts and new loading bays and different bad weather alongside everything that’s stimulatingly different. I kept thinking Toronto would be a wholly new experience, and I’m sure the winter will be, but after 10 or so shifts and taking a couple of the same elevators in condos to deliver food to the same people, it’s obvious that all those things are in every city. All that said, Toronto is better than my highest unrealistic expectations. It’s a chilled doggy heaven here with Leah. I come home each night to them in a tail wagging frenzy at the door and Nemo the cat on my lap the second I sit down.
(From left Ripley, Sasha, and Rosie, very confused about having to all sit together)
(10 minutes later)