2

Where the author starts working as a bicycle messenger; is forced to switch to another messenger agency; and learns that her father is dying of lung cancer in France.

As an illegal alien and an independent contractor I had no chance of redress. I tried in vain to find a similar job, grimly convinced that if anybody checked, the owner would give me a bad reference.

One cold morning of February I went out with my pockets almost empty and passed a homeless man in front of the building who said to me "You've lost your home..." This comment caused me great anguish. How did this man know that I couldn't pay my rent? Who had told him and why? Who had told him to speak to me? Shortly after this encounter I began working as a bicycle messenger.

As soon as I started to pedal for a living, my mind was freed from the infinity of trivia that cluttered it when I worked as a secretary. The long and excruciating process of re-evaluating my mother that was allowed to begin when I left my native country was now being illustrated by memories of past events where my mother failed me. Now I saw these events in a new light, like the light of a flash of lightning that illuminates a landscape at night and gives every familiar object a menacing air. Her reasons for denying me her help had always been that she had no money because my father was strangling her financially; that he was a horrible man who made her miserable and no matter how bad my situation was, she was always worse off than me; that she could- n't talk to him, or I shouldn't talk to him about certain things (like my education for instance) because he was set against me for some reason that was never explained to me. But all these were lies! She had failed me because she was the one who was set against me, and she had set my father against me by preventing direct communication between us and telling him horrible lies about me without me having a chance to defend myself. Because she had failed me even when she couldn't hide behind my father's authority. For instance she had let me live in an apartment that she owned in Normandy only until I had done all the work I could do in it and the other one downstairs.

When I moved into the dilapidated house, she had the electric and plumbing work done by professionals, but I had done all the rest by myself: it had started with the nasty job of stripping of their grime all the beams in the attic apartment with a power tool, the installation of styrofoam and fiberglass sheets to insulate the roof, the covering of insulation with fabric, the painting of the walls, doors and windows, the laying of floor covering, the hanging of wallpaper, the stapling of fabric to the walls in a room and the bottom half of a corridor... all I had asked in exchange for the right to live in the unheated hovel was to live rent free and that she bring a piano. And she never brought a piano although she had one too many at home. And when the place was nice and ready, she rented the downstairs apartment and forced me to move out of the attic although I had no place to go. The emotional wound had been so deep that I had blocked the memory. All I had remembered were the words that her acts had belied: she had said, probably to incite me to move to her house, that she wanted it to be a refuge for any of her children who needed it, since my father was inflexible in his denial of help and I refused under the circumstances to visit on the week ends like a dutiful daughter. I was so deluded that I had even taken with me to the United States the key of the house as a comforting symbol.

But now, in my vacant mental state, memories of that nature rushed in and the mask of victimhood fell off my mother's face. I felt an overpowering rage at having been so coldly exploited and manipulated and for a while took it out on innocent pedestri- ans. I forced them to yield to me in the middle of crosswalks, warning them of my approach with a bloodcurdling scream and rushed ahead into the crowd. But then their expressions of terror haunted me, I felt remorseful and stopped it. I got my brakes fixed so they were not so hard anymore. I also realized that rushing at full speed only to be stopped was counterproductive and from then on I timed myself according to the traffic and the lights one or two blocks ahead to avoid stops and starts. And I spent my rage by pushing on the pedals like a demon in the uphill streets. Relatively speaking, since I was out of practice anyway.

About two weeks after I started, I was on Broadway in the Flatiron district when a frightening incident happened. Ahead of me the light was red but there was only a street on my left and there was no car in it so I didn't stop at the red light. In the middle of the block an old man came into the street between two cars. As I wasn't going fast and was still about sixty feet away from him I kept going. He stopped a few feet away from the parked cars and stepped back, seemed to hesitate, decide that he had the time to cross and stepped forward again, at which point I was about twenty feet from him, then he stepped back a second time, then forward a third time, at which point I passed him. But he stepped back again at the moment I passed him and he hit my back wheel. I was furious. I stopped and turned around. He was lying on his back and there was a pool of blood at his head. The impact had not been very violent because I was going slow and I was surprised to see so much blood. We were just in front of 666 Broadway.

A policeman and an ambulance were there promptly. I walked to the sidewalk with my bike and gave my ID card to the policeman who returned it to me. A woman in a business suit yelled some- thing disparaging about bicycle messengers with a fist raised and an expression of insane hatred on her face. I expected to be questioned about what had happened so I looked for a pole to lock my bicycle and return to the policeman. I found a pole about thirty feet from where the policeman and the ambulance were. I locked my bike and a man who was nonchalantly sitting on a car hood next to the pole, with his back to the gathering, engaged me in conversation. He wore bicycle clothing and his bike was at his side. I don't know how he prevented me from going back to the site of the commotion but he did. He was more than six feet tall, very pale, very thin, and he wore about six fluorescent buttons pinned all over his light blue windbreaker. I started speaking about what had just happened but he changed the subject and showed me some gadgets on his bicycle, among them an old-fash- ioned ringer like I used to have on my bicycle when I was a child. I didn't know why he was showing me all this. Was he trying to make me envious? Or self-conscious about my own used low-tech bike? I couldn't see his eyes because he wore very dark shades and never took them off, and all the time we spoke he looked at me with an enigmatic smile on his face.

I thought that the policeman would come to speak to me but when I looked up the ambulance, the policeman, the crowd, all had vanished. I unlocked my bike and said good-bye to the man. I looked for the blood on the pavement in front of 666 Broadway, moved around and looked again. There was not a trace of blood on the pavement.

Later I called the agency to report that I had had an acci- dent. The woman I talked to seemed to believe that I had been the victim of a car-bike accident and when I told her that it was a pedestrian-bike accident she dismissed it, telling me not to worry about it.

A few weeks later I received a registered letter accusing me of having given a false address to the policeman (my ID card bore my old address) and asking me to pay five hundred dollars for the health-related expenses incurred as a result of my reckless conduct on the bike. The letter came from the old man somewhere in Long Island. His name ended in "stein" or "berg". It was typed on a manual typewriter. How he had obtained my address I didn't know because my phone was unlisted, and the amount he claimed I owed him was ridiculous. If he had lost so much blood from a wound in the head, how could it amount to no more than five humdred dollars? "So sue me" I thought. I never heard from him again, never received any ambulance, hospital or X-ray bill whatsoever.

One day I had stopped to look for an address at a crossing in the West Village when a young black man on a bike approached me and offered to help. He showed me the way and asked what agency I worked for, how much it paid and if I liked it there. I thought all agencies paid about the same so I wasn't interested but he insisted that the agency he worked for was really good and I should give them a call. He wrote down the phone number and told me to ask for Ed and to say that I was sent by George. Then problems started at my agency: the dispatchers kept me on hold for long minutes, or they told me that there was nothing at the moment and to call back in fifteen minutes or, worst of all, they sent me to addresses that did not exist. My weekly checks fell below three figures.

The last week of March I ran into George in Midtown. He gave me this warm smile again and asked me if I had called Ed. I said I hadn't. He gave me the number again and this time I called and went to see Ed, saying that George sent me, and Ed told me to start next Monday, April 2nd.

On Sunday April 1st my mother called from our family home in France to inform me that my father had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The shock of the news was increased tenfold by my mother's tone of voice: she sounded like she was lying. Could this be a horrible April Fool's joke? After we hung up I called my father's brother, who was my godfather. He confirmed that my father had indeed terminal lung cancer but here also he sounded like he was lying or rather, he and my mother sounded like they were giving me only the first half of the news. What didn't they want me to know?

On my first day working at Ed's agency this question obsessed and terrified me. I couldn't concentrate. No sooner had I written down an address on a slip than I lost it and had to call again. This happened about three times; I came within inches of a collision with a car about four times; around 2PM I lost a slip again. This time I called Ed and explained that I was upset and distracted because I had learned the day before that my father was dying. Ed was nice about it. He told me to go home and relax, it was better not to tempt fate.

The following days, while I criss-crossed Manhattan on my bike, I took stock of my life. My goal of becoming a professional musician had slipped out of reach again while I looked on help- lessly. Like when I was a child and wanted to learn the piano. Like when I was eighteen and wanted to go to college. When I had my part-time job I had ample time to practice the guitar and the songs. Now I was working full time at this job and when I was home I wanted only to sleep.

I was a 37 years old woman, tall and beautiful, speaking three languages, well-read and knowledgeable in various musical styles, and instead of climbing the social ladder I had just fallen to the bottom. I would never have the money to go to my father's funeral. Therefore I would have to suffer the indignity of asking my mother for money and confess what kind of job I had. How long would I have to work as a messenger? When and how would I re- connect with my musical ambitions if I was too tired to do anything after work? There were no answers. I couldn't see into my future farther than my front wheel. Then I thought about all the ugliness that my father's death would cause. The money of the estate. I was sure that my mother and sisters would rip me off.

About one week after I started working at Ed's agency, an incident happened that terrified me. I was crossing 12th Avenue from West to East and the light turned yellow as I did so. When I reached the far, North-bound side of the avenue, a car one block down started to move and it seemed to aim at me! As I moved East it moved North-East, and the closer I got to the other side, the more it moved to the right until it slammed into my rear wheel. I fell but was uninjured. My bike's rear wheel however was damaged and the chain broken. The driver stopped his car after I fell and came to me. I was speechless. He asked if I was allright and offered to drive me where I wanted. He put my bike in his car and I asked him to drive me to Ed's agency. On the way he gave me sixty dollars for the repairs. After I left my bike at Ed's agency I went home and was too scared to go back to work. However after one week of staying home in a state of stupefaction, terror and disbelief, I had no other choice but to go back to work. Ed showed his disapporval at my absence by giving assignments to everybody but me, even the messengers who arrived after me. After an hour had passed I commented ironically on this attitude without explaining why I had stayed away, and he gave me a "run". I was back on my wheels. And a few days later there was another incident.

I was going downtown on 12th Avenue, passing the site of the old railyard between the avenue and the Hudson River. The site was fenced by chickenwire. Just as I was about to pass a drive- through opening in the fence, a car passed me and made a right turn into it without any warning or signal. My brakes didn't work well in wet weather, and this was a wet day, so in order to avoid a collision I made a right turn into the opening myself and yelled at the passengers in the car, who laughed and made no reply.

After that I felt like a malevolent entity watched my every move from above like a bird of doom. Yet I was reluctant to conclude that "someone was out to get me" because it sounded like a statement only a paranoid could make. If I had voiced this concern to anybody, wouldn't I have been told that maybe I was "overreacting"? That I was being overly sensitive? Or maybe nervously exhausted? Or advised to "seek help"? And anyway I didn't know anybody who could want to harm me. And if I ackowled- ged that somebody was out to get me, what else could I do but keep working?

This situation reminded me of the movie "The Wages of Fear" where the hero (Yves Montand) carries a truckful of drums full of nitroglycerin in the Andes Mountains. And the more helpless I felt, the angrier I was at my mother.

I used to take a ten to fifteen minutes break around 1PM. One day a dispatcher asked me why a delivery had taken so long and I told him that I took a break but that since deliveries were guaranteed within one hour I had not taken longer than was permissible. He said that I could not take a break, that I must work from 9AM to 5PM without interruption.


[Chapter 3][ToC] [Home]