Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Interview with Dagga, bike messenger

What does your nickname mean?

One day I was walking home wearing boots that laced up to my knees and this guy on the street, who needed to say something just to say something, starts talking to me, saying, “Are you hiding weapons in those boots? You got daggers in there?” and he just starts saying “Dagger, dagger, dagger,” and my friends were with me at the time, so it just stuck.

Since then, the spelling has changed to Dagga.

How long have you been a bike messenger for?

Three years. I worked in a bike shop in college and a friend of mine saw that I was racing on a single speed and he was like, “What? You have to come to this party.” He brought me to the pre-party to Monstertrack, New York’s biggest messenger race. I competed in a race at the party and won. Then all of a sudden people were like, “Who is this girl?” “Are you from New York?.” Immediately, I was introduced to this underground community of messengers, which was awesome. I raced for two years before I started messengering.

How many female messengers are there in New York City?

There are different kinds of messengers, walkers and bikers. Maybe 50 out of the 1,000 total messengers in the city are women. There are also all kinds of people who are messengers; there are 20-somethings that like the freedom of it, and then there are jailbirds who can’t hold down other jobs. There is a great diversity among messengers, people from different backgrounds and ages. I know messengers who have been at it for over twenty years. It was a very lucrative profession that was very lucrative in the 70s and 80s…

Things have changed a bit since the economy has slowed down, so there may be a few more, but I would say there are 10-12 female bike messengers. My company likes to employ women and we have three women working for us right now.

How does it work? Do you each cover a part of the city?

No, you can be at any borough at any time. Most of the riding occurs in Manhattan, but I also go to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Some companies will even have you ride to Connecticut.

So you work off commission?

Yeah. As a bike messenger, I’m technically an independent contractor. It sucks because I get taxed out my ass and I don’t get health insurance.

Do any companies offer health insurance?

Yeah, but they’re shitty companies. There are courier companies that offer health insurance and 401(k)s but they’re exploitative and they might pay you $2 for a package.

Do you ride in any weather?

Yeah, rain or shine. Unfortunately, it’s in my best interest to go to work on a rainy day, because fewer messengers will probably show up, and I’ll get more work.

Is there camaraderie among the female messengers?

That’s complicated. A lot of it has to do with seniority. Now that I have been working as a messenger for three years, I’m considered one of the “elders.” I was at a bar the other night and I heard a (female) messenger complaining about a new girl that just started working at her company. She was saying how the new girl was taking money away from the other messengers—but I was thinking, “That’s not the new girl’s fault. It’s the company’s fault for over hiring. They over hire so they can pay each messenger a little less. “ As a female messenger, you should never hate on another woman. You should support her.

I recently read an article in the NYT that was published a while ago about female bike messengers. Do you know the women mentioned in the article?

Yeah, I know them. Cassandra [the woman featured in the article] sounded bitter, but the truth is: she loves this job. She wouldn’t do anything else. She’s been a messenger in three different cities: Philadelphia, Portland, and New York City.

I see Carmen (also mentioned in the article) in my neighborhood all the time. The article claims she only drinks coffee for hydration, even in the summer. Is that true?

Yeah, Carmen is a veteran—she’s been around for a while. Her husband is also a messenger, and he contributed to my zine. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I can tell you I drink 6 cups of coffee a day.

Man, doesn’t that make you dehydrated?

Well, yeah. But another thing is—as a messenger; it’s really hard to find a place to use the bathroom, especially as a female. You can’t just go anywhere. Some clients will let you use their bathroom but most won’t. I have my go-to places in the city that I like to stop and use the bathroom and wash my face, etc. I like 645 5th Avenue; it’s really clean and I can rest for a little while. But in general, you don’t want to be drinking too much because it’s a pain to find a place to pee.

Wow, I never even considered that. So…that might be something you dislike, but what do you love/hate about your job?

Well, first I should say, there may be some things I hate about my job but the things I love are weightier. First, I love riding my bike. I like the freedom of being a messenger, I don’t have a boss looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do. I like the fact that I can just get on my bike and do my job. This is definitely one of the best jobs I’ve ever had—I’ve learned a lot from this job. I’ve seen how many different jobs people do in this city—I’ve seen what it takes to make this city work. Also, I like seeing different neighborhoods in a day and how they’re changing.

What I hate? Messengers get very little respect. There is a stigma associated with messengers; that you’ve spent time in jail, that you’re uneducated. Of course, some of that is true, a lot of guys have been in jail or they just have issues so they messenger because they can’t function in an office. But I’m college educated, and people are rude to me just because of the stigma. Pedestrians and cars also disrespect messengers. Even if I have the right of way, pedestrians still walk out into the middle of the street. You can get really hurt as a messenger. I’ve been really hurt and that sucks because I don’t have health insurance and then you can’t work. I’ve cracked my skull and then worked three weeks later. Its just part of the job.

What’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you as a messenger?

The craziest thing that’s ever happened…was when another messenger pushed me over. I ran into this guy in Park Slope and he wouldn’t get out of the way as I was riding towards him, even though I had the right of way. We exchanged some words, and then I rode off. I saw him again in the city and he was wearing headphones. I told him I didn’t want any trouble, but he didn’t hear me over his headphones and he just saw my mouth moving, so he thought I was giving him shit. He started riding up really close to me and swerving into me, being an asshole. Finally he rode right along side me and elbowed me hard, so I fell off my bike. He was laughing as he rode away.

I told my office this and they told me to call if I ever saw him again. I did see him and I called them. I went to get my bike and when I came back he was surrounded by five guys from my company who were taunting him, “You wanna pick on a GIRL?” They made him apologize to me on the spot and now when I see him he just says “Hi.”

What would you be doing if you weren’t a messenger?

I worked in a library as a clerk before I started messenger-ing.

Wow, that’s the completely opposite job.

Yeah, but I liked it. I had a job in a library at Columbia University and it was really chill. I actually worked at the library and as a messenger for a while, because I worked the night shift at Columbia. I thought [working at the library] was what I wanted to do. Now I’m looking to get into the iron workers union, so I can help low-income people fix their houses.

Do you look forward to work everyday?

Not so much anymore. I’m kind of over it. I’m over being disrespected and even some “elders” not speaking to me. It took awhile for some of the females to come around and even now there are messengers who don’t talk to me. I’m thinking about what I will do next.

Cool. Something I’ve always wondered about messengers: do you still bike for pleasure?

I’m always biking. I hang out with Dykes on Bike-Cycles. Whenever I go on the subway or bus, it’s the first time I’ve been there in months. I bike for work, I bike for pleasure, and I love racing. I’ve been going to the Nationals every year since 2006. It’s really the worldwide messenger community that has kept me going in this job. From racing, I’ve made friends from London, Europe and Japan. If I went to Japan I would have a couch to sleep on. That’s something that I love about being a messenger.

What kind of bike do you ride?

My work bike is a Bianchi Pista. I also have a Cannondale Capo, a Kirin frame, a Specialized Hybrid, a Surly single speed and an old school Schwinn. I’m building a tall bike with my bike club. The tall of my tall bike will be a girl’s bike so I can easily swing my leg over when I get on.

What is your favorite part of NYC to bike through?

Hmmm. I’d have to say riding into Manhattan over the Brooklyn Bridge at night…it’s like riding into Gotham, you know?

I like going over the Brooklyn Bridge, but there are always so many tourists in the way.

I know! There’s a little picture of a biker in our lane. Even if you don’t speak English, there’s a picture!

What does the tattoo on your wrist mean? (a pic of a diamond with the word fo’eva next to it):

Everyone in my bike club gets a diamond tattoo. Everyone has a different one, but there is always a diamond.

The tattoo on your arm is really well done. Who did it?

Alex from Three Kings. He’s also a messenger, and a lot of us get tattooed there. This is Pan from Pan’s Labyrinth.

I know that movie! The little girl in the movie is Catalan. I always think of the gnarly ginger plant that comes to life.

I know, right? But it’s a mandrake root, not ginger, so don’t worry.

What would your advice be to newbie messengers?

To a female, I would say: if this is what you want to do, go for it. It’s going to be hard, and you should probably save money before you go into it, so you can get by. Don’t get discouraged. Other women might snub you but if you want to do it, and you enjoy it: go for it.

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