WRITE THIS DOWN,’ Travis Hugh Culley says.
Nearby, a tape recorder imprints his voice onto a 90-minute blank cassette. Before him, a reporter’s pen scribbles on notebook paper.
Culley is not quite as peremptory as he sounds. The 27-year-old Chicago bike messenger wants to make sure his words are being noted, to deliver his message and be on his way.
“To have a real politics, it incorporates the uniform, it transcends boundaries,” he says. “A real political view is one that incorporates the power structures of our day, incorporates the people within the structures of authority that are at this point in time undermining our democracy.”
The weightiness of the language seems odd for an author of an adventure memoir. “The Immortal Class: Bike Messengers and the Cult of Human Power,” though, is an urban chronicle of high-speed, self-powered, individual survival among the machine-driven anonymous masses.
A political statement
The uniform he’s talking about is the one Philadelphia policemen wore when they arrested him last year. Two days after Culley sent off his final draft to his publishing house, he flipped off a busload of Republican governors the day after a protest at City Hall.
His solo performance earned him a car ride to the station and the threat of a charge of disorderly conduct. Culley claimed First Amendment rights and that there was nothing disorderly about his middle finger, and the officers let him go hence, politics incorporating the uniform.
It has been quite a ride since the former theater major took up the delivery job in the winter of 1998. Ironically, a bicycle accident a taxi cab passenger had opened her door in front of him had sidelined him from working stage sets. He needed to pay the rent, and became number 39, his handle at Service First Courier at 62 West Huron Street in downtown Chicago. Since then, Culley has been on a mission to revive bipedal transportation, reunite urban centers with their populace and insist that a democracy keep to its tenets. For him, he says, drama moved from the stage to the streets.
“I didn’t climb mountains. I didn’t survive arctic seas. I
wasn’t found in a basket, you know, floating down a river somewhere. It’s not that kind of story,” Culley says. “The adventure takes place in me, the eye of the narrator looking at society. The adventure is right outside my readers’ rear-view mirror, right outside their mailbox, right outside their front doors.”
The larger message of the book, politicizing bicycles and questioning the “industrialization of modern mobility,” is spelled out clearly. The experiences that have taken Culley to this viewpoint have been exhilarating, burned into his retinas.
“I closed my eyes,” he describes in his book. “Opened them. Closed them. Opened them. I tried to retain, even for just a second, blackness but it would instantly turn into an onslaught of reflected glass and headlights. I would see, in the back of my mind, crowds pressed into the shadows of buildings like ghosts. Skid marks and potholes had scarred my pupils.”
To promote his book, Culley spurned hotel rooms for friends’ living-room couches and saved his publisher enough money to add several more towns to his book tour, including San Francisco, home of the monthly Critical Mass bicycle ride. He gave the automobile escort a book tour amenity the publisher provided out of habit the day off as he navigated San Francisco by his most dependable means his bicycle, Ariel.
Culley slips through the gas-choked downtown San Francisco noontime traffic with volatile liquid grace. Slender and upright amid this unnerving, kinetic mass, Culley might be forgiven for his cocksure posturing.
He probably wouldn’t appreciate the vehicular metaphor, but Culley exemplifies what must have been the prototypical engine, burning with the restless, relentless but efficient energy people had before automobiles rendered them isolated and sluggish.
“The Immortal Class” covers an incredible voyage that takes place in a brief nine-month span. The dissonant, dizzying sense of time comes from the accelerated speed of his daily experiences, interspersed with his story of growing up in a “lost America.” Packed with the history of Chicago and its lost promise to be a pedestrian (and bicycle-friendly) city, his prose becomes more streamlined in recounting details of the job. “Only in movement did I find peace,” he writes. “Only at thirty miles an hour, inches from tractors, drafting emergency vehicles, dodging cars, ducking truck doors, and floating four-lane intersections like I was Casper the friggin’ Ghost, would the world seem to have any balance, any peace at all.”
The memoir arose from his first win at an alley cat race, an informal competition with real-world messengering obstacles including traffic tossed in. “My whole world had been shifted by that moment, it was such a moment of glory for me,” Culley recalls. “I wrote (the account) down in a huge blast of creativity that weekend.” His girlfriend at the time, Haewon, suggested turning his essay into a memoir.
He sought at first to incorporate other bike couriers’ voices. A repository of talent exists among couriers, who produce everything from newsletters to documentaries to music. Culley himself constructed a 10-foot sculpture out of car parts and stolen traffic cones, titled “Polutician.”
The collaborations did not work out; as he puts it, “the people I worked with became an obstacle to the book.” Culley does not elaborate beyond remarking that they had very “little faith” in him, but the book’s acknowledgments are prickly: “I think few people believed that I could accomplish the task of writing this book. For that lack of support I am neither surprised nor resentful Failure and defeat are part of the typified world of the messenger that I am proud to have embraced.”
So it is Culley’s voice alone talking about how messengering exposes one to the human drama: “In the average day, we see everything, all the layers of society working, interacting.”
Life and death
What the messenger perceives comes from facing a literally concrete, harrowing reality: class divisions and violence and peril at street crossings.
“It’s not unusual to die downtown where civilization is at its peak,” he observes. “There’s a paradox in this, that at the height of humanity’s capacity to cooperate, there’s still a life and death element that reads much like warfare.”
If the streets are the battlefields, then Culley is certainly one of the road warriors. He writes at one point, “if a car coming towards me at thirty miles an hour didn’t offer me enough room to pass, I would lunge into his path, coming at him dead-on until he slid to a stop or avoided me outright.”
When his girlfriend went to medical school in Philadelphia, he followed her there. “For a moment I thought I would leave Chicago forever, but I was willing to do whatever I could for what was a very good thing.”
The relationship did not work out. He did finish the book, returned to Chicago and to the same company, where he now sports a new handle, Five-0.
Culley says he is “lazier” now. He will not ride himself to the extremes he did delivering record numbers of packages but compromising his body. He has no plans beyond pursuing his activism, including promoting his book. While theater within four walls seems unlikely, writing remains a possibility. For him, writing and messengering are the same.
“It’s about crossing boundaries, going from king to king all day, regardless of who they are, loyal to no one,” Culley says. “It’s front line to front line and everybody’s against you. You just keep going.