LETTER TWENTY-NINE // LABOUR DAY SPECIAL

2 September 2016
Toronto, ON

Hi Henry,

There's a lot to write about, so I hope I don't go on too long. Maybe I'll take a page out of your book (blog?) and divide this letter into sections. We'll see.

I know it's not Labour Day yet, but I think it's notable that the first letter I wrote you was about Labour Day weekend, exactly a year ago (Well, a year minus five days. Hope you'll excuse my imprecision). Now it's Labour Day weekend again.

Yesterday (Thursday, September 1) was first day of class, or first week of frosh week, or something postsecondary related. All through the downtown core, from First Canadian Place to the Metro Convention centre, students were parading in droves, and letting the world hear it. I didn't see UTSC, but I did hear UTM––or "Mighty Mississauga", as they refer to themselves in their chant. Exactly a year ago I underwent almost the exact same experience––almost; life may repeat itself, but in different ways every time. Instead of walking aimlessly around the College and Spadina, Baldwin Village, and the Steelworkers Union area, in and out of the milling students like I did last year, this year I'm on a bike delivering envelopes for the Man.

And it feels good, mostly. There were a couple weeks when I was out of work––my derailleur was mangled in a braking incident (no injuries). On top of that, I wasn't enthusiastic to be back on the road. The first couple weeks of August had been slow, and although drinking beer and smoking pot with co-workers in the long afternoons was fun, it wasn't how I wanted to spend the month. What I wanted to do was get my summer travelling in; which, for reasons I won't go into here, hasn't work out.

So after a couple weeks of moping, I managed to get a ride fixed up, I'm now back on the job and, like I suspected, September is much busier than August, which is important when you're paid on commission. Since my return, I've also noticed how much I've improved at my job, in the way you always notice improvement after you take a break from something for a little while.

It's taken me four months but I'm starting to pick out regular faces. Only yesterday morning I spotted a courier at Mt Pleasant and Eglinton. I recognized him by his camo backpack, which I'd seen up and down the Bay St elevators since May. When I asked him what he was doing so far north, he told me it's where he lived––he'd be waiting on stand by, apparently, in the most convenient office tower lobby near his apartment.

Of course, that's a courier working for another company. Then there's the couriers working for my company.

Our fleet is divided into three parts: drivers, bikers, and walkers. I was a walker; now I'm a biker. The bikers are the most cohesive unit, as far as I can tell, but even it's not too cohesive. It's not like it's big or anything, but I still haven't met most of the fleet. I met Crash, briefly, who's actually injured right now, so not working. Then there's Downie, who I'd consider an aging hippie if he weren't a Gen X'er (I think). Piper, who claims that meat used to be much cheaper in Toronto back in the day (big surprise). Then there's Saul. He's been floating between biking and dispatching lately. I saw him a couple days ago smoking outside a BMO branch, where he'd plugged his phone into one of the charging outlets. Then there's three or so younger bikers.  There's probably a ton I've missed. It's hard to keep track.

They're all pretty decent, even though it took me four months to learn Piper's name. 

Besides how long it's taken for me to meet even a fraction of my co-workers, there are other features of the job I find strange. It might be the most ideologically driven jobs I've had. The other week I watched Quicksilver (1986) starring Kevin Bacon, an options trader-cum-bike courier, whose fate was set in motion by a bad gamble on the wrong day. Probably one of the worst movies I've seen, for the record, but not without its merits. They managed to resolve at least one of the subplots: Hector, the bike courier, with Jack's [Kevin Bacon] help, manages to secure enough funding to kickstart his own hot dog stand, at which Jack and Terri go for lunch in the final scene. Free enterprise solves poverty, roll the credits to the tune of "Through the Night" by John Parr and Marilyn Martin. Need I mention this film was made during the Reagan years?

Which is why I'm starting to think bike couriers are in some aspects emblematic of a common kind of labour that started to pick up speed in the 80s. Not because of our thrill-seeking appetite––although I wouldn't rule out the possibility that an element of danger makes precarious work alluring to some people. Mostly it's the sheer individualism which dominates our industry that makes bicycle messengers so typical of the new order. Many bike couriers clearly prefer to be independent contractors, implicitly asserting that being a small business owner is superior to being a member of a collective bargaining unit (although allowed to, independent contractors are hamstrung from unionizing for various reasons). We believe that small business owners have more freedom, more autonomy, and more dignity, than their unionized counterparts––even when they both do the same work. This is interesting, but it's the following ideological turn of the screw, the way we take that simple belief, and give it one more grinding revolution, which makes bike couriers distinct: it's not merely that we believe individualism to be a virtue; we also believe that individualism and its finest expression––entrepreneurialism––are some how a form of sticking it to the Man.

This is some of the good courier philosophy I've noticed, whether you agree with its logic or not. On the other hand, some of the thinking going on in this industry is downright lazy. It can wear on the nerves. To wit:

A month ago I was waiting in the Uber office. A driver was being attended to by one of the customer service representatives, all of whom have fully imbibed the Uber free market potion. The driver had been out of work from a physical assault, which he claimed had been perpetrated by a taxi driver (I see no reason to think he'd lie). Customer service was shocked, but grateful to hear that the Uber driver was taking the taxi driver to court––the taxi driver was being sued. When the Uber driver left, the customer service reps, arrayed around the room at various stations, loudly discussed how horrible it was––not that their driver had been out of work for months with zero worker's compensation, that he was middle-aged and struggling to support a family on a piddling wage––but that a taxi driver could be so petty as to physically squabble with his competitor whose product was evidently superior. As one of the rep's aptly put it:

"That's like if I ran a hot dog stand, and you ran a hot dog stand better than me, so I tried like physically assaulting you because your hot dogs were better."

In other words, they weren't repulsed by the jeopardized livelihoods of both drivers; they were repulsed by the taxi driver's unwillingness to basically lose with civility. The assumption being, whether made in bad or good faith, that the battle between Uber and the taxi industry is a battle between different levels of service––when in many ways, the real battle is between different types of employment.

Luckily I'm not competing with taxi drivers or any other unionized workers. But I am a member of the legions of so-called independent contractors, whose best bet when injured isn't appealing for help from our (not)employer, but more or less suing whoever we have a remote chance of getting money from.

Well my eye lids are drooping and it's time to go to bed. I included a slew of photos I've been planning to show you for a while, but I won't write about them here, although I will include some captions below the notable ones.

Yours always,

Sal Walker

P.S. So you know, I will come to New York. It was my summer goal, and, well, it didn't pan out. Now it's my fall goal. There will be no third attempts.

P.P.S. I read all your letters. Can't believe you had a tree house––but I'm not surprised that, when you made it, you weren't satisfied with anything less than the best tree house.

 

This is a roof top garden I saw during a delivery. I actually got locked onto it, so I had to get a gardener to let me back into the building. This garden reminded me of the roof top garden in JG Ballard's Highrise, which was recently adapted into film.

This is a roof top garden I saw during a delivery. I actually got locked onto it, so I had to get a gardener to let me back into the building. This garden reminded me of the roof top garden in JG Ballard's Highrise, which was recently adapted into film.

High Rise 2
High Rise 3
High Rise 4
This is the 14th floor of an office tower, which I wandered onto quite by mistake, platform 9 and 3/4 style. It's under construction and it reminded me of the final scene in Fight Club, which might be why it feels apocalyptic to me. I was here a month ago. Last week, on my way down in the tower, the 14th floor button had been deactivated, disallowing me from going back. The day I'd gone had been a total fluke made possible by some programming error––or rather, lack of programming security, period.

This is the 14th floor of an office tower, which I wandered onto quite by mistake, platform 9 and 3/4 style. It's under construction and it reminded me of the final scene in Fight Club, which might be why it feels apocalyptic to me. I was here a month ago. Last week, on my way down in the tower, the 14th floor button had been deactivated, disallowing me from going back. The day I'd gone had been a total fluke made possible by some programming error––or rather, lack of programming security, period.

Fight Club 2
Looking out from the elevator lobby.

Looking out from the elevator lobby.

Unfinished flooring, fluorescent lighting, heart of financial district––great location for a banking conspiracy (For the record, Sal Walker does not, as a rule, condone conspiratorial plotting).

Unfinished flooring, fluorescent lighting, heart of financial district––great location for a banking conspiracy (For the record, Sal Walker does not, as a rule, condone conspiratorial plotting).

Looking north toward the Canadian (Imperial) Bank of Commerce (CIBC) Building, which according to Torontoist was the tallest building in the Commonwealth for three decades. (See: http://torontoist.com/2008/05/historicist_tal/)

Looking north toward the Canadian (Imperial) Bank of Commerce (CIBC) Building, which according to Torontoist was the tallest building in the Commonwealth for three decades. (See: http://torontoist.com/2008/05/historicist_tal/)

Looking west––I believe that's the RBC Plaza.

Looking west––I believe that's the RBC Plaza.

Looking south toward to Gardiner Expressway.

Looking south toward to Gardiner Expressway.

Looking East. You can see the Portlands in the the distance by the chimney stack.

Looking East. You can see the Portlands in the the distance by the chimney stack.

Just thought it cool to be so close what appears to be the HVAC system on the roof of the adjacent building...

Just thought it cool to be so close what appears to be the HVAC system on the roof of the adjacent building...