Empire Messenger Service
My first days working at Empire Messenger Service were spent in the Thirty-fourth Street office, located in the basement of the Empire State Building. My duties were simply the delivery and pickup of packages within the famous building itself, riding the elevators up and down all day, collecting packages from the basement and delivering them to the lofty inhabitants almost a quarter-mile above Fifth Avenue.
I wasn’t the only messenger, there were dozens of us, scuttling up and down and all over the massive building.
You think the Empire State Building is big from the outside? You ought to deliver packages in it.
Within a week, though, I found it mind-numbingly boring.
I mentioned it to the boss.
“All right, Flasher,” he said. He still called me Flasher, refusing to believe I didn’t have a felonious past as a wienie wagger. “You haven’t screwed up yet and I haven’t had any complaints about you. We’ll put you out on the streets. It’s a chance to earn a few more bucks.”
There were Empire Messenger offices up and down Manhattan. I was transferred to the Fourteenth Street Office, close by Union Square.
The extra bucks came when you had a delivery more than three blocks away east to west, or more than six blocks north to south. In such cases, you were given two subway tokens, covering the journey there and back (good on a bus also), to further speed you along. It was accepted practice for a messenger to augment his income by pocketing these tokens and walking the entire distance. One could sell the tokens later for cash.
This I began to do.
Within a couple of weeks of implementing this practice, however, my knee started acting up painfully from an old motorcycle injury I’d sustained years before.
It’s a funny story involving a Suzuki 500cc two-stroke twin, a barbed wire fence lining a lonely curving road at night, and a Jersey cow.
I believe alcohol also played a part.
Too bad we haven’t got the time to go into it now.
It’s probably a better story than this one.
Anyway, I found the walking part of being a messenger the difficult part. After pounding the hard, unyielding pavement of NYC for a few weeks my feet would be aching and my knees exploding after only one delivery a mere block away. With each agonizing step along Fourteenth Street the bones of my legs and feet would pop and crack.
I could hear this painful leg music even over the sound of automobile traffic and the insane honking that inevitably accompanied it. The fiendish honking of car horns in Manhattan never ceased, day or night, although what good it did anyone remained a mystery to me.
I hobbled along, my ears ringing, my feet aching and my knees burning, thinking this could never last.
I recalled my friend Buck from the Ministry of Works. I was sixteen-years-old when I began working in the ditches with the road gangs, and Buck had befriended me and shown me the ropes. He became a kooky, profane uncle to me. He had had a crippling accident years before and couldn’t work with the others, but remained behind at the depot, where he cleaned up and made the tea for our smoko breaks.
“The tea boy,” he called himself with a bitter laugh.
Now here I was, destroying my body for minimum wage to deliver something to somebody I didn’t even know.
Hmmm, I thought. Buck had hobbled in pain from place to place, too.
Forget this, I decided, so I started taking the bus or subway in every case. This reduced my income considerably, but saved a great deal of pain and wear on my lower body.
So my plan to make millions in the personal delivery business by avoiding the use of mass transit and pocketing the proceeds was scrapped.
It wasn’t all bad fiscal news, however, because sometimes in the messenger business one received a gratuity. A crinkled dollar or a few quarters dropped into your hand. Ha! Ha! The first time someone tried it, I refused. I’d never been offered a tip before and my first reaction was to be slightly insulted.
No thanks, I said, that’s not the kiwi way.
However, it didn’t take me long to realize the stupidity of that philosophy. I soon learned to stand expectantly after making my delivery, my body language suggesting that a modest gratuity would not go amiss and now was your chance to help an out-of-work animator, down on his luck. Then I’d finish with a big, friendly smile. Thank you, kind sir or madam!
No, better yet, bless you, kind sir or madam!
Other times, one was met with hostility or fear, or not met at all, just a hand reaching out to grasp the package and the door slammed in your face.
Usually, one was merely met with indifference. You were simply the invisible messenger boy, a very small part of their day. After observing you through the spy-hole, they would open the door, sign the receipt and take the package from your hands without looking at your face, perhaps offering an anonymous dollar as the door was shutting.
I got along well with the other messengers at Fourteenth Street.
It was sort of like working for the Ministry of Works again; totally masculine, rough and tumble and lots of cursing. They were mostly good guys who showed me how things worked and welcomed me into their world.
Perhaps it’s difficult to believe, but America is a strange place when you’re from somewhere else.
My new workmates found my cursing particularly impressive, although I often had to repeat myself because of my accent, and this helped to break the ice. Particularly after they heard me call the boss a few names, after he’d called me some. (It was hardly a fair contest. A kiwi can out-curse anyone alive and I had an advantage having learned my swearing in the ditches with the work gangs.) It helped too, that I went out back and smoked a little reefer with them now and then. For they were a little suspicious of me in the beginning, me with my “English” accent, my suntan in the middle of winter and also being, except the boss, the only white person working there.
A great many of us were from another country, though.
Most of us working without proper papers.
“What are you doing here, man?” they asked me. “You said you were an American. You got a social security number, don’t you? Sheee-it!”
What some of them would have given for a Social Security Number!
I told them about my dreams of hitting the big time in America.
That I was an animation artist trying to crack it in New York.
Boy, you should have heard them laugh when I said that!