Friday, January 23, 2009


i should have interviewed this man long ago...especially after reading his answers. the man's got years of experience and much knowledge of the industry. say ben...did i take you to your first alley-cat? i thought that was me? shouldn't i be one of the cats you remember from the industry? that hurt...that hurt big time. enough about me...i present the prom king ben fietz...

1.why did you decide to messenger?

I guess I decided to messenger for the same reason as most. I was living in New Orleans at the time, and was about to lose my job. One day I was hanging out downtown trying to figure out what to do with myself. A bike messenger cut through an intersection, and I thought to myself “that looks like a pretty cool job.” I went down to the only company that was hiring, and started working the next day.

2.when did you start? has the time been on/off or straight?

I started messengering in New Orleans in the spring of 2003. The only time that I have ever taken off was the whole month of September in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit and the city flooded. I moved up to Chicago because the house I lived in had been destroyed, and it looked like I would be out of a job for a while. I started working in Chicago in October of 2005. So I guess that’s going on six years, and at last count I have worked for nine different messenger companies.

3.what bike did you start on? what do you ride today?

I started on an old Schwinn LeTour road bike. I have a couple of bikes that I use for work now. Most of the time I ride a Capricorn track bike. I had the frame custom made in Wisconsin by Brad Wilson, and then I built the wheels and put it all together myself. It’s filthy, but it is a really sweet bike.'ve seen many come and go...any stick out in your mind?

I really miss my old crew. Anzie, Elijah, Dewey, and Mike McGarry. That was the heyday of Chicago messengering for me, when we were all out there together. Nick Pieper showed me how to be a good messenger when I worked with him in New Orleans. Simon Q, because I have worked with that guy in two different cities now. Of course the one messenger who isn’t out there anymore that I think of the most is Ryan Boudreau. He is still missed by everyone who knew him.

5.if you weren't messengering what would you be doing?

Hopefully fixing something outside. Maybe hanging off of a telephone pole, or digging a ditch, or building a house, I don’t really know.

6.since you've started...what changes have you noticed for the industry?

It seems like the industry is really on the decline right now. It’s getting hard to make a living out there. Between not making any money, the way most of the messenger companies exploit their workers, and the way we get treated by the building managers in Chicago, it gets really depressing sometimes. I guess NICA really got started in the industry about the same time that I became a messenger, and that has really contributed to the downfall. For those who don’t know about NICA, it is a nationwide pay-to-work scam that a couple of the biggest companies in Chicago use to save on payroll expenses and the expenses associated with having employees. A lot of the other companies do things like charge bikers for radios, bags, and uniforms. It seems like the messenger companies always have their hands in our pockets, and there isn’t much left for the bikers in the end.

When I worked in New Orleans, there weren’t any buildings that you had to leave your bag on the floor or take freight elevators in. I remember when I first started working in Chicago and I had a bunch of packages in my bag, including a bank deposit for several hundred thousand dollars, and some confidential papers from a law office, and I had to leave them in my bag on the floor of a loading dock for 20 minutes while I waited for a freight elevator to take me up and down. I couldn’t believe this was how things were done. I had always felt responsible for the security of the stuff that I pick up and carry around with me, and have never completely lost a package in my time as a messenger. In general the building policies have gotten even worse since I moved here. In general the messenger companies don’t care how the buildings treat us, and it’s up to the messengers to fight it out with the building managers and security. In a couple of cases we have been able to get them to overturn crazy security procedures, most notably at 303 E. Wacker.

There is an effort to unionize messengers across the country right now, and I do a lot of work with the Chicago Couriers Union. We have been able to make some things better over the past few years, but we need more people to get involved in order to really make a difference.

7.greatest day messengering? worst?

I don’t really have on day that sticks out as the “greatest”. Every day of messengering when you are in the zone is the greatest. When you are flowing through traffic perfectly, and the building guards are being cool to you, and the receptionists are smiling at you (especially the pretty ones), and the sun is out, that is what keeps you coming back.

The worst day was in New Orleans. I got my front wheel stuck in a grate on Canal Street while I was in the big-ring going full speed. This was before I wore a helmet for work. I hit my head really hard and cut it, got really deep road rash over a lot of my body (which I still have scars from), and tore something inside one of my knees. I had to ride a small mountain bike for work for over a month because I couldn’t lift my leg over a road bike. It took a couple of moths before I healed up enough to ride hard again.

8.what changes would you like to see for the industry?

$5.00 minimum commission for a tag. The companies can play whatever games they want with the rates after they pay us a decent commission. Even though most messengers hate taxi drivers, we should look at how they stand up for themselves. If it were left up to the customers and competition between taxi companies, they would probably only make 25 cents per mile. But they stand up and demand higher rates, and get them. We need to start doing the same thing. Rates have been going down recently because of heavy competition. It has gotten to the point where some companies are offering 3-hour service on a big envelope for less than it would cost to mail it through the post office. This is ridiculous. The service we provide is worth way more than that, and we should be paid accordingly. much longer do you see yourself doing this kind of work?

Maybe a couple more years. I would like to get out while I am still close to the top of my game.

10.advice for rookies?

I don’t really know, man. Right now probably isn’t the right time to come into this industry and try to make a living. Aside from that, I would say just slow down a bit, and try not to be a dick out there. It makes us all look bad. Don’t buzz pedestrians when you are blasting through a red light. The idea that you need to always be going balls-out to make money is a myth. Efficiency is the key. You look at the guys who have been out there forever, like ‘Drey, Kyle, Kirby, Mad Max, and Bluntman. You never see them going super fast, having close-calls, or making bad decisions. But by the end of the day, they have done a good amount of runs and made their money.

ben rep'n the cuttin'crew...

five dollars minimum would be a sight to see. thanks for the interview is much appreciated...peace.


Jen said...

Thanks for posting this, Julio. I have a lot of respect for Ben, he has a lot of heart and a good head on his shoulders. Unionization is definitely the only way anything is going to get better. Too bad it needs to happen in an industry which has such transient employees.

Cale said...

heh i remember when you and ben rolled into mannys for the BFMNG he had just moved into chi and he and i did the alleycat together and got so lost trying to get back to the finish.

Ira said...

This is a captivating interview. Ben seems like a smart, insightful guy. Looking forward to more posts like this! said...

ben is probably the most annoying person i know. the only reason i say that is cause the man is never angry...NEVER! if he is i haven't seen it or heard of it. ben is cool people and im glad i finally interviewed the man...lots of good things to say.

cale...i'll never forget the awkwardness of meeting you there...ha!

thanks for the good words...peace.

Simon said...

I hate Ben.

toecutters said...

Alright, I feel like I should respond to a couple of things here. First off Jen, the respect is mutual. We miss you here in Chicago. Cale, that was a blast, sorry I got us lost. Julio, I only named people who aren't messengers anymore, otherwise the list would have been like 500 people. You still work in the industry, so I still consider you a messenger. And Simon, you are a wanker.

David Decimal said...

Oh, how i miss the Chicago Crew.

Great interview Ben. So glad you have become an outspoken member of the community, you always had great ideas and and even-keel demeanor.

When i moved to SF and started messengering, i was STUNNED to see the differences between Chicago and SF's messenger industry. Chicago seems like it's on lockdown in comparison. There's only a few buildings in SF which require you to sign in or show identification. I thought the "leave your bag behind' policy in Chicago was ridiculous - for exactly the reasons Ben cited.

Plus, in SF you can actually find a decent messengering gig that pays hourly wages, insures it's employees, and appreciates the dirty work we do. And to think that Velocity was actually once the 'promised land' in Chicago.

mike said...

Who is that attractive men crowning ben in that picture?

No Brakes Bikes said...

It's actually illegal for a courier company to undercut the usps. Companies have been hit by this before and they are legally required to up their prices. It's just a matter of them getting reported. I allways thought about this when doing transit cards that I was pretty sure undercut what the mail would charge.