The Bike Courier
by Carlos Antonio Piñón
March 8, 2019
It's about 8pm on a Thursday night in May when I get the notification on my phone. I pull up to the restaurant—a McDonald's, no less—and I leave my bike out front with two police officers who are monitoring the area. It takes longer than normal for the order to be ready, which isn't uncharacteristic of McDonald's, but it bothers me anyway. As I walk out, another guy on a bike pulls up. "How's the area around here?" he asks me. As this is my third trip this evening, I tell him it's been pretty nonstop, but to stay vigilant since apparently someone was robbed doing the same thing nearby. As he nods and walks into the building, I strap my bright orange helmet on, toss my bag on my back, and pedal away.
I'm riding up LaSalle as fast as I could. Luckily, the somewhat busy street has two lanes, yet I stick close to the parked cars anyway. The GPS tells me to take a left on North, so I make my way to the turn lane. As I wait for the light, a car pulls up behind me. I consider moving to the side, but I take up the whole lane instead. They could wait. I make the turn and pass by another McDonald's. I gotta laugh a little. I slow down after making a right on Sedgwick. All of the lights on the block are off, and as far as I could tell, any of these houses could be the one. I flash my bike light and, sure enough, a scrawny looking man comes out from two houses down. "Here's your McDonald's!" I say, handing over the brown paper bag. He doesn't say much before heading back. I mark this trip complete and start riding north when UberEats notifies me of another delivery.
I learned how to ride a bike when I was nine years old. Since I'm from Gage Park—a south side neighborhood known for gang violence—I never had a chance to become the cyclist I was destined to be. Before coming to the US, my dad used to race on his bike for petty cash, and his dad, my grandpa, died after being hit by a truck while biking drunk. So when I hopped onto that rusty purple bike as a kid, I was a natural. You know the feeling? You've got one foot on the pedal and one on the floor. You make that initial push and the bike wiggles a little as you transition your other foot onto the pedal, but then you smooth out as wind blows through your hair. I remember that same feeling—of riding on a machine powered by my own two feet—once at the park when I was a kid. I was biking along the road when I, being the clumsy fool I still am, managed to fall and scrape my knee. It hurt, but it was fun. After that time, I only ever remember seeing that bike in my dad's garage until it eventually disappeared.
Fourteen years later, I quit my job in taxes to be my own boss. I signed up for UberEats, ordered myself a huge insulated bag, and borrowed a blood red bike from my dad. Knowing the limited food options around, I set out during lunchtime to make my way to the Loop, but with the app open in case I got lucky. I took 51st down to California, made a slight right on Archer, and kept riding until I made a left on Damen. Now, being a local, you'd think I recognize this particular route sooner, but instead, imagine the shock on my face when I see the Stevenson Expressway two blocks away.
I suppose a nimble person would've pulled into the Dollar Tree parking lot, but not me. I suppose a rational person would've rode to the end of the block, but not me. Calculating my options, I decided against the road underneath the underpass, which slouched into a concave abyss between two tall barriers. No, I chose to go up the sidewalk where I narrowly missed, hit the curb, and flew off. Luckily, I landed on my hands and knees, so when I managed to pick myself up, I was able to limp back to the 35th/Archer train station with only minor lacerations, but not without UberEats telling me there's an order nearby.
I was back on my bike a week later. My first official trip was to Firehouse Steak & Lemonade and I got lost trying to drop it off. Somehow, not being able to find an address would be the least ridiculous situation of my month-long affair. Over the next few weeks, I'd find myself subject to slow restaurants who don't start cooking until I get there, shitty drivers, and ungrateful customers. On average, I'd bike at least 20 minutes to a building with nowhere to lock my bike, chat to an equally annoyed concierge, and wander through a maze of halls on the 30th fucking floor. I stopped trying to call people beforehand since I almost never got an answer. Finally, whenever I found the place, people couldn't wait to shut the door in my face.
Out of the 39 trips I made, I received only two tips. The first was from a lady who I had to call three times to find her room after she kept hanging up on me. $2.00. The second time, I wandered aimlessly to find an apartment building when a seemingly random lady walking her dogs gave me directions. When I finally found the man I was delivering to, he tipped me a whopping $10. On my way down, I saw the lady again, who was apparently that guy's wife, and she thanked me with another $5 before asking if I was already tipped. Now, I'm too honest to lie, so I gave her back the $10 on her request. I told myself, "Well, at least I got tipped!" When I think back, I often went above and beyond. One person ordered four bottles of water from McDonald's. They were a block away from Walgreens. Another time, I accidentally entered the Kennedy Expressway because it was the fastest route according to Google. My least favorite trip had me ride into lower Wacker when the Red Robin was on upper Wacker. This was not the only time I've had to carry my bike up stairs, but it was the most inconvenient. Not to mention all the trips I made past 9pm with no sweater and in the rain. What kept me going, despite everything, was the fact that I was having fun.
My days as a courier ended on my way to M Burger. I started hearing a strange noise on State street, but didn't think much until I turned onto Ontario. When I got off, I saw my back wheel was flat. A smart man would've canceled the trip and let someone else deliver, but not me. In retrospect, I should've taken the train; however, me, a poor man, abandoned my bike on Dearborn and walked forty minutes to Van Buren and Franklin. I knew I wasn't getting a tip, but damn if I didn't work my ass off for that $11. Several days later, I carried my bike to a train station with an elevator, and by the time I arrived, it was 4:30pm. The CTA doesn't allow bikes on trains during rush hours, so I waited an hour and a half with a dead phone until I could bring my bike back home. That summer, I biked about 150 miles and made just over $300, but I had more fun working than ever before. After all, several jobs later, my bike still feels like home. My time as an UberEats delivery courier may be over, but it'll take a lot more than a flat tire for me to say goodbye to biking.