Pushbike couriers. You see them milling about on Dublin’s city streets every day. And if you don’t know one, or have never been one, they can be the subject of some curiosity.
Why would you want to do that for a living? Is it a real job? Could you live on the money they make? Is it dangerous? Are they crazy?
Well, seeing as I used to be one, I can answer some of these questions. But given that was back in the mid to late nineties, I caught up with one of them briefly, one who worked the streets at the time I did, and just so happens to be still out there.
The big theme of our chat revolved around how much the city and the job has changed. I always remember couriers not wanting to talk too much to people with cameras back in the day (a lot of them used to draw the dole and get paid cash in hand), and it seems that suspicious attitude has stayed intact. So we’ll call my friend “G”.
When I left the road in 1998, a lot of the work involved lodging cheques in banks, picking up photographs from one hour photo shops, getting documents scanned and copied, and ferrying letters from one office to another. Given that email and the internet was in its infancy commercially at the time, I suspected that side of the business had been decimated with the arrival of digital photography, cheap printers and electronic banking. And the way G tells me, it has. There are about a quarter of the number of pushbikers out there now. It’s meant the companies they work for diversifying into other areas and many of the cyclists having to do the same – hence those big, heavy “cargo” bicycles you see about the place with the chest locker upfront for outsize items and the ability to carry more.
The face of the pushbike courier population has developed too. There are as many foreign nationals in the saddle as Irish citizens now. In my day, there was a handful of Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, but the job seems to attract a high number of South American people these days.
The change doesn’t stop there. The geography of the city has evolved to a state in which some areas of the capital bear no resemblance to the way they looked pre-millennium. Temple Bar was only being developed in the mid-nineties, with old tenements and derelicts being demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. But the biggest change of all has been to the docklands. I remember the company I worked with having one client on Upper Mayor Street. To be given a pick-up down on North Wall Quay then was the kiss of death, no other work anywhere nearby, surrounded by nothing but disused warehouses and dicing with forty foot lorries fresh off the ferry. Then, of course, came the boom. Gone were the warehouses (and many of the lorries with the Port Tunnel), and from their ashes sprang towers and campuses of glass and steel, creating whole new streets where there were none before, opening a new world and rich vein of business to couriers.
Directly across on the other side of the River Liffey has been no different. Before Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and their thousands of staff laid their hats in the Grand Canal area, it was a network of cobbled streets lined with mobile homes, with the only people in sight traveller children playing in the street and tourists searching for U2’s recording studio.
The digital age has had its impact on the job at hand for pushbike couriers as well. Squawking two-way radios have, to a large extent, been replaced with smartphones (music to the ears of anyone out there who works on reception), which have also, thanks to Google Maps, superseded the old Ordnance Survey Dublin street map – an impractical A4-sized booklet that turned to wet pulp in your bag after a day or two of prolonged rain.
But back to those questions, and the things that have not changed. Why would you want to do that for a living? Because it’s fun, a lot of the time. Every day is different, sees you in a different corner of the city, with different stories to tell. Yeah, you get rained on. But less than you think. And everyone wants to do what you do in the middle of June. Oh, and you encounter some real, let’s say, “characters” on the streets, who you get to know and, in many cases, avoid as best you can. You’re not going to retire on the money you make, but many see it, in the beginning anyway (the same way G did, and still does), as a stop-gap, something to do while you figure out what you really want to do with your life.
Are pushbike messengers crazy? To a certain extent. And some a whole lot more than others, that’s for sure. But sure we’re all a little bit crazy doing what we do every day.
Is it dangerous? Of course. It would be foolhardy to say otherwise. You’re a very fragile, very breakable, sometimes invisible thing, with no protective shell around you, moving amongst cars, buses and trucks many times heavier than you are. You move silently, which sounds cool, but means pedestrians blindly stepping off footpaths with their back to you have no idea you’re coming, or how bad it’s going to hurt you both if you collide with them.
But once you understand that, and respect it, your chances of survival are good. Something the fact G is still around to share a cuppa with me is proof of.