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Culture Shock: What My Buffalo-to-Chicago Move was Originally Like

Culture Shock: What My Buffalo-to-Chicago Move was Originally Like

I moved to Chicago years ago, and in many ways it became more a home to me than Buffalo ever was. Now, since I’m attempting another inter-city move in a month, here is a list of things I noticed upon moving from Buffalo to Chicago that I never quite adjusted to:

Pizza and Wings don’t go Together
It’s not fair to expect every city on the planet to weave chicken wings into the culture like Buffalo has, but growing up in Buffalo, it does seem fair to expect wings to be the tasty accompaniment to a handful of particular dishes. Namely, pizza. In Buffalo, it’s ubiquitous to pick up the phone, speed-dial your favorite pizzeria, and say you want a large pepperoni and a double hot wings. They know the request because you’re a regular customer and they’ve heard slight variations on the same order a million times in the past. We take the combination for granted so much that wherever we go, we expect our pizza with a side of wings and let our hosts know what terrible people they are if they forget the wings. When I arrived in Chicago and made friends who ordered pizza, though, it was a short flight to my realization that people there didn’t feel like the extra grease with chicken meat on the side was an essential side dish. Hell, even that’s overstating their importance – Chicagoans went about their pizza business like the pizza/wings combination didn’t exist. Fortunately, Chicago is so good at pizza that you won’t care after the initial shock wears off.

The Street Grid Makes Sense
Buffalo loves to advertise its status as America’s Best-Planned City. No less an authority than Frederick Law Olmsted said Buffalo was the best-planned city in the world, and Buffalo was planned in a radial pattern, which is extremely rare in the United States. I guess it would make sense that Olmsted and other old-school architects would think that, though; they didn’t live long enough to witness abominations like the HSBC Tower, Main Place Mall, the Buffalo Convention Center, and all those other buildings which wipe out the meticulously planned radial design. The Convention Center and Main Place Mall in particular are notorious for choking off parts of downtown which would otherwise be reached very easily from Buffalo City Hall if they weren’t sitting in the way. Compounding the architectural mistakes is a legion of one-way streets going in so many different directions that you would think the city had a deal with an oil company which would cause motorists to keep getting lost and having to buy more gas. Chicago’s layout only seemed confusing at first. Once someone explained the directional and numbering scheme to me, though, I never got truly lost again. Chicago’s blocks are blocks, and its streets mainly stick to one direction. True, some of them – like Clark Street – curve a little after awhile and slant, but generally, even with all the one-way streets – I guess some things are constant between cities – it was refreshingly easy to find my way around.

The directional system is very easy: Madison Street is the official north/south marker, while State Street marks east and west. The corner of Madison and State places you at 0/0 numerically, and numbers increase like normal in every direction. The further away from Madison and State you get, the higher the address number. Even-numbered addresses are on buildings on the north and west sides of their streets; and by a rigorous and time-consuming process of elimination, you’ve maybe concluded that south and east street sides have the odd addresses. One thing I find a little dumbfounding, though, is that State Street is the barrier between east and west. State Street gets cut off around Lincoln Park, and the east side ceases to exist.

The People Think Chicago has the Monopoly on the Word “Pop”
We get it: Using “pop” as our word for soda is a regional thing. We’re told that from birth. Chicago apparently missed the memo. If you’re from out of town, every use of “pop” as a way of referring to soda is accompanied by a wink, a smile, and the occasional elbow nudge as the Chicagoan who just used it explains to his guests that “pop” is the word they use for soda in Chicago. They seem to think they’re letting you in on the secret formula for Coca-Cola when they say it. Well, the thing about “pop” is that the region that uses it as a term for soda is fucking massive. In fact, according to The Huffington Post, a survey anyone can fill out on a site called popvssoda.com, and Discover Magazine among many other sources, “pop” is absolutely dominant along the entire northern coastline from the Pacific coast – including Alaska – to western New York, except for a small spot in Wisconsin along the Lake Michigan coast. It changes to “soda” around Rochester, New York. The point where “pop” stops being used going south varies, but it drifts as far down as Oklahoma and changes to “coke” in the deep south. “Soda” actually seems to be the minority word for soda. Back to point, though; there’s no need for Chicagoans to cling to their use of “pop” like it’s some special identifying mark or secret handshake because everybody fucking knows what it is.

Chicago is a Hate Group for Ketchup
When you move to Chicago – or, hell, even if you’re just passing through it – you’ll be forced to try one of those seven-topping hot dogs that are so popular there, possibly at gunpoint. Your first thought upon glancing the Chicago-style hot dog for the first time will probably be along the lines of “how the hell do I eat this thing?” You’re not going to shove the whole thing into your mouth to bite down, since there’s too much between the onions, relish, peppers, pickle, celery salt, mustard, and tomatoes. (And the dog itself is, of course, made of beef; not just beef, but Vienna beef, and placed on a poppy seed bun, because any other beef on any other bun will toss the universe out of whack.) Your second thought may be of ketchup, but Chicagoans will recoil in horror at that thought. Hatred of ketchup is something known to unite Cubs fans and White Sox fans. The city tries to bully people about this; some hot dog places don’t even have ketchup available. Others just have assholes at the service counter who insult you to your face for putting ketchup on hot dogs.

Ketchup is treated much the same way you would treat asbestos. The fact that these people drown their french fries in ketchup instead of eating them with salt and vinegar and that mustard is a legal form of torture never seems to bother them. Meanwhile, Buffalo introduced a type of dog called the Texas Red Hot to the planet. Unlike the dicks who vend in Chicago, no one in Buffalo cares what goes on your Texas Red Hot, and long as you’re getting the dogs themselves at a place that makes them halfway decently. There are many of them; Louie’s has its fans, but Ted’s is the consensus place to find a good hot dog in Buffalo.

The Football Fans are Idiots
You would expect to find a sizable number of mouth-breathers among a fanbase which made Mike Ditka, the NFL’s response to Donald Trump, into their patron saint. That’s a good summary of Bears fans. These are fans who bitch if their team committed to something other than outmoded run-first football and growl a lot about “Bear weather,” a make-believe home field advantage offered by Soldier Field’s location alongside Lake Michigan and the blustery winds swirling in. On one hand, you can’t blame Bears fans for looking at the team’s incredible successes on the ground: An amazing nine titles, including a Super Bowl victory in the 1985 season, and a running back roll call of transcendents like Bronko Nagurski, Red Grange, Gale Sayers, and the immortal Walter Payton as well as locally memorable runners like Neal Anderson, Matt Forte, Beattie Feathers, and Rick Casares. On the other hand, Bears fans all still seem to believe this style amounts to some insurmountable advantage. They’ll talk up Bear weather as if no other team in the NFL plays in the cold. I would remind fans that it gets pretty damn cold in Buffalo too, and Bears fans, bless their tiny dino brains, tried to argue with me about it. They’ll insist you can’t pass in a Chicago winter, even though a certain outdoor team which plays in even worse weather than Chicago has spent the past two decades showing the Bears differently. Yeah, three of those FOUR Super Bowls the Green Bay Packers have reeled in were all led by Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and that fourth title was guided by another quarterback who plays with the kind of form that leads quarterbacks to the Hall.

And about those titles: That one I mentioned from 1985 happens to be the most recent of them, and fans dwell on it like it’s the only thing that matters. Granted, from everything I’ve gathered about that 1985 team, they were quite memorable, but no other fanbase lives in its past like this. Even the Bills fans old enough to still sing shoulda coulda wouldas about those four Super Bowls set the glory years aside once the current season starts. Deadspin’s Why Your Team Sucks football previews listed Chicago’s sports loyalties a few years ago and placed the 1985 Bears over the current Bears. It was accurate.

Summer is the Real Bad Season
To paraphrase Douglas Adams, Chicagoans honk on mightily about the pleasures of summer, but if Chicagoans knew the first thing about summer, they would also be able to think of at least 3268 places to spend it, and that’s just on the same latitude. The thing about living in Buffalo is that we have the lake effect. Lake Erie might bury us on a regular basis, but come the summer, it becomes an air conditioner which prevents the heat and humidity from becoming unbearable and keeping the city relatively dry, but giving us enough rain for all kinds of gardens to sprout. The summer temperature average in Buffalo is in the low 80’s, and we get an average of three days a year where the temperature hits 90. The city just broke a streak of below-90 days in the last month which was two years long. Buffalo has never had a 100 degree day. Although Chicagoans love to play up their city’s winter weather reputation, that won’t intimidate anyone who spent a long time living in another cold weather area. The summers, though, are like saunas. If they didn’t hit the high 90’s often, it certainly felt like they did, and the humidity frequently got so high that the fish in Lake Michigan didn’t have any trouble making breaks from the lake into cleaner waters. A school of fish taking a pleasant Sunday swim along Lake Shore Drive is capable of holding up traffic and endangering bicyclists. Motorists probably don’t want to get the guts of a splattered Great Lakes trout splattered on their windshields, just because fish guts don’t seem like the kind of thing that would come out very easily if you tried to wash them out with windshield wiper fluid.

Chicago’s Toughness is a Charade
If you move from a smaller city to a major 21st-Century megalopolis like Chicago, it’s only natural to feel a little overwhelmed at first, especially if the megalopolis in question has a reputation for drawing and quartering people. After awhile, though, it will become clear that the only reason Chicago has such a hard reputation is because the local media and frat megadouchebros running around on the Near North Side of the city are the ones who are saying it. You know those guys: Every Dylan and Chad in Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville who was raised in Evanston or North Barrington and is working corporate for six figures because of Daddy’s marketing connections believing they’re suddenly hard because they’re loud, keep getting way too drunk at Cubs games, and bought every worthless piece of junk with Al Capone’s face on it.

I had lived in Chicago around a month when I figured out the city had nothing to show me on the toughness front, but one incident that happened after a few years sticks out to me: Combos – yes, the snack – had released a list of the 50 manliest cities in America, and Chicago was number 48. The only reason I know this is because the local media raised an uproar about it. Naturally, it was mentioned every other page in the following day’s Redeye, and I seem to recall something from the Sun-Times as well. I’m not sure which is worse here: The fact that Chicagoans took an innocuous list written as a promotion by a snack food corporation seriously, or that they were actually offended by it. I could only imagine the reaction if someone brought it up in Buffalo: “Hey, did you hear Buffalo was (some number) on the Combos list of manliest cities?” “The Combos what list now?”

As a close cousin, Chicago is also too under-equipped and prissy to pass itself off as a true winter city as well. It’s a city which has, more than once, run out of its snow removal budget. If there’s heavy snowfall, anyone who can’t dig themselves out will starve to death because their neighbors aren’t going to sweep in and take up the duty themselves. The highest snowfall I experienced during my residency in Chicago was around 15 inches, and it was enough to keep people off the streets for days. People barely went outside, and it was incredible to walk around days later and see how many people didn’t even shovel their front stairs.

That Infuriating Inferiority Complex with New York City
If your sole reason for moving to Chicago from anywhere in upstate New York is to escape New York City’s shadow, don’t. Every now and then there’s lip service to Chicago being the better city – which it is, except the people there don’t seem to believe that themselves. Tell a Chicago native you’re from New York City and watch them light up like they’ve noticed you’re Batman. Seeing a city which holds New York City up to the light – especially one like Chicago – is a slap in the face to someone who came from a place which was very clear about an ethos and attitude toward NYC which said “you want to live in NYC so bad, go fucking live there. Or shut the fuck up about it before we run your ass out of town on a rail.” What the inferiority complex tells everyone is that New York City – with its impossible price ranges for everything, its legions of unaccomplished intellectual nitwits who believe they’re entitled to respect only by virtue of living there, and its upper class which takes every opportunity to flaunt its wealth to the lower classes – is something to be aspired to. I have some mixed feelings about my hometown, but I do still have enough pride in it to say: Chicago, you want to live in NYC so bad, go fucking live there.

No Cycling Allowed

No Cycling Allowed

I took to trudging across the Transit Road bridge recently and picked up six nails. SIX. This is one of the major quirks I developed after I turned into a cyclist: Every time I’m out just walking, I stop and pick up every nail and screw I see discarded along the side of a road. I certainly wouldn’t want anything sharp puncturing my tire, especially if I’m far from either my house or a bicycle shop where I can get a quick fix.

I don’t think I’m making some far-out, absurd request by wanting a road shoulder free of debris so I can ride my bicycle without worrying about anything. Finding nails and screws on the side of a bridge is a very special kind of weird, though, because it isn’t like anyone has their houses or garages set up along the shoulder of the bridge. Most of these dangerous video game spikey points aren’t old and worn out bits which fell off the back of an old pickup truck, either – they’re new and ready to make their first stabbin’. This begs the question of how these pieces of debris manage to find their way out onto a bridge which is suspended a hundred feet in the air and which takes five minutes to walk across on foot. This bridge is dangerous enough as it is; the shoulder is maybe 18 inches, and that’s a generous estimate. There’s no sidewalk, which I guess is natural of a spot designed to keep people away from civilization at every possible cost. The section of road the bridge is placed on is essentially a freeway, and the only other way to cross the creek at this section of it is to walk over a mile along a twisting road to a whole other bridge which also lacks a shoulder, but is elevated much lower and is much shorter.

When I pick up the screws and nails, I just throw them out. What I would like to do is throw them out in the middle of the street in the hopes that they start popping tires in endless succession. Maybe they could cause a pileup.

Okay, I’m just ranting right now, but that doesn’t change the fact that debris-filled road shoulders present one of those great frying-pan-or-fire dilemmas for cyclists: Do we risk getting run over in the main road, or risk the debris on the shoulder? The dilemma itself doesn’t exactly stand on its own, but is instead a symptom of a larger problem: The city’s problem with bicycling. This is something Buffalo like to pretend doesn’t exist, and the city’s boosters love to hold up the shiny Bronze-level award given to it by the League of American Bicyclists to say “look at how great we are to bicyclists!” The Bronze-level award, though, is basically a door prize. Here’s the uncomfortable truth regarding the bicycle-friendliness awards handed out by the League of American Bicyclists: That Bronze-level award is the lowest of five tiers of bicycle-friendly awards. To be fair, I’m assuming the requirements to meet the League’s top-level statuses are pretty demanding. The Diamond-level award, which is the top level, was handed to precisely zero cities. Platinum-level is the second-highest, and it was given out to only four cities: Boulder, Colorado; Davis, California; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon. My thoughts on that selection go like this: First, you knew Portland was going to be there. Second, of those four cities, the places people would actually visit are Portland and maybe Boulder.

The further you get down the awards list, the more the League loves handing them out. The Silver-level tier has a whopping 75 cities on it. There are at least a couple hundred sitting on top of the Bronze-level seats. It’s clear the League is giving out its Bronze-level awards to any city that isn’t actively outlawing bicycling. The Bronze-level list also includes suburbs: Batavia and Naperville, relatively close suburbs of Chicago, both have Bronze-level awards. North Little Rock is pretty much exactly what and where is written on its tin, and is similarly honored even though the real Little Rock didn’t make the cut.

This begs the question: What creates a bicycle-friendly community? Although the League of American Bicyclists claims it decides for “providing safe accommodation and facilities for bicyclists and encouraging residents to bike for transportation and recreation,” it seems to be flying solely by infrastructure, which is a mistake. A few miles of bicycle paths doesn’t make a city bicycle-friendly, and let’s be honest: A few miles of bicycle paths don’t necessarily mean the city added bicycle paths, either. They mean the city painted a few arbitrary lines on a road which is sometimes a little too narrow, which can endanger the cyclists. One website recently called out a popular bicycle publication because the publication placed New York City at the top of its list of best cycling cities, even though the argument for the city’s bicycle scene consisted almost solely of bicycle paths.

A quick Google search pops up a single result for bicycle tours in Buffalo: Buffalo Pedal Tours. Buffalo Pedal Tours offers bicycle tours at a price that’s a steal… For Buffalo Pedal Tours. The privilege of having a professional guide show you the pedal-view of Buffalo is close to $150 per hour. In the meantime, Chicago has Free Tours by Foot, which is a misleading name that offers bicycle tours and still has a name-your-price option. Their website brags about tours which cost about $40 per person. Bobby’s Bike Hike’s most expensive tour is $60. Looking for bicycle rentals in Buffalo brings up five results, all of which are primarily dealers or mechanics. Chicago has nine or ten places where you can rent. Although most of them are also shops and mechanics, there are at least three that deal exclusively with rentals.

Let’s talk about the one factor no one wants to mention: Peoples’ attitudes toward bicycling. Attitude is the angry elephant. It’s the difference between an onlooker asking a few curious questions or assaulting you, and whether or not your assailant gets away with it. Buffalo’s attitude toward cycling is to basically liken it to a form of witchcraft. Even if those little nuts and bolts I mentioned in the opening were removed, cars in Buffalo are still mistaken for weapons when a cyclist is spotted on the side of the road. Those while lines which are supposed to designate the bicycle lanes are more or less suggestions, and if a motorist is approaching while particularly close to the side of the road, the chances of them moving or give or take, even if they have all the space in the world on the other side. Some of these people have the gall to honk or even scream at you on the way by. I ride my bicycle to visit my bank which, despite being several miles down the road, is only a half hour away on the pedal. The distance gets treated like some insurmountable obstacle course involving several canyons and volcanoes, even by people who know I once worked as a bicycle messenger and have therefore lost all concept of the term “cycling distance.”

You would think Buffalo would have a little more understanding of how useful bicycles are. They’re cheap, you don’t have to buy gas for them, they’re accessible to places you can’t get cars into, and the suburban infrastructure is basically laid out in a lot of places so the people have to cross the furthest possible distances to get to civilization. Then again, we’re up against gas and automobile companies which view anything less than living in your car as a blowout loss.

Buffalo isn’t anything close to an ideal bicycling city. For it to improve, we need to see a mass influx of better cycling services, more bicycle rental and tour places, trails that aren’t painted on, and a friendlier infrastructure. But for that to happen, the people also need to start looking at bicycling as something greater than a game they learned as kids.

How to Bicycle Like a Real Chicagoan: A FAQ

How to Bicycle Like a Real Chicagoan: A FAQ

It’s a given that Chicago is a very ideal bicycling destination. The flat terrain makes it easier to cycle there than it does in a lot of other cities, lots of nice bicycles lanes make it convenient, and the constant traffic congestion means it will be easier to get where you’re going on a bicycle than in a car. But what, you ask, is the story with bicycling in Chicago? What should you look out for and expect? How can you make the most of a real Chicago bicycling experience? I’m glad you asked, because here I am to give you the best advice you’ll ever hear about cycling in Chicago!

I don’t actually want to bicycle in Chicago. It’s windy, cold, and the sky always looks like a harbinger of doom.

Wuss.

But I didn’t bring my bicycle with me!

That’s not an excuse. There are many bicycle share and bicycle rental programs floating around in Chicago, many of which will lend you a perfectly good bike for half a day or a day for a reasonable price. Dish out the cash, then you’re free to use your bicycle any way you want! Ride in Critical Mass with your rental!

How do I deal with the cold?

Dress for it! Gloves and something to cover your ears with are both a big help. Wear nylon pants to keep the wind and any rain or snow off. Don’t skimp on the socks.

Oh no, my bicycle was stolen! How?

You locked it up with a cable lock, didn’t you? Yeah, they’ll cut through those things like hot butter. You need a good padlock, save the cables for making sure the seats don’t get stolen.

Why did you just smash that car’s rearview?

What, did you miss the part where he cut me off, braked right in front of me, then sent a whole red light screaming at me and honking his horn despite the fact that he couldn’t actually go anywhere at the time? Or the fact that he went around the block to tailgate me, or that he drove the wrong way up a one-way street? Well, rearview-smashing is our way of getting even. Motorists don’t care if they kill anyone, but hit them in the wallet, and they’ll think harder next time. Maybe. Hopefully. They’re motorists, so you can never be sure.

Where is the best place to begin a good bike ride in Chicago?

You’ll want to get on the Lake Shore Trail somewhere around the Shedd Aquarium or Soldier Field. Head north from there. When you get up to about Grand Avenue, head west until you get to Milwaukee Avenue, then ride up Milwaukee. That’s a nice way to begin. Or if you’re setting out on the last Friday of the month, go to Daley Plaza at 5 PM and ride in Critical Mass.

What about my plans to see the Magnificent Mile and Willis Tow-ow! OW! Why did you just stab me?!

So, are you really visiting Chicago just to see the national retail chains? Tourists visit the Mag Mile, and the drivers there all want you dead. You’re insane to try cycling up the Mag Mile. The cars swerve in every last direction without warning. And the Sears Tower is the tallest building in the city, and you can see it easily enough from the Lake Shore Trail. And I stabbed you because it’s called the Sears Tower, not Willis Tower, no matter what the popular news and travel outlets and insurances companies try to cram down your throat! You want to throw away money, do it in the small, local, and, you know, unique boutiques and quirky places along the Milwaukee strip in Bucktown. Or for god’s sake, at least Clark Street if your tastes are really that mainstream.

Is there a good place to get a Chicago-style hot dog on the way? And… Crap, I can never remember all the proper ingredients!

Dogs in this city are a dime a dozen. Surely you can find them easily enough along Milwaukee, or back down Clark, where I’m also going to send you. And don’t worry about remembering what’s on top of one. The guys making the dog will remember, which makes them a step up from any of the people who don’t work for hot dog joints. No one remembers all the toppings on a Chicago dog. If you’re getting a dog and can’t remember what the topping are, just use ketchup. I don’t care what those ridiculous cultists who are all opposed to ketchup on hot dogs say. Frankly, I can’t stand mustard, and among those cultists you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who actually has celery salt in their pantry. Don’t worry about the Chicago dogs. Worry about a proper Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

So, back to Milwaukee, where do I go after going up that street?

You’re free to hang east at Belmont, but if you want to see some of the most interesting neighborhoods in the city, wait until Lawrence. No matter which one you choose, you’re heading back to Clark.

Oh god, there are hipsters in Bucktown!

Yep. They may be annoying, but look at the bright side: They’re not trying to kill you.

What’s so special about this route, anyway?

Good, wide bicycle zones, considerate drivers, and good asphalt. Be picky about your favorite streets because some look like they’ve been through a war. Parts of Lake Street were capable of ripping the treads off a Sherman when I was living here. On the subject, LaSalle is also highly reccomended. Franklin used to be really awesome until they made it two-way. Now it’s merely awesome. Damen is a wonderful ride as well. On the South Side, be sure to visit Bridgeport and Bronzeville.

What about Hyde Park? That’s President Obama’s neighborhood!

Yes, I’ve had that Obama factoid drilled into my head. No, I don’t know where his house is. Anyway, what are you, rich? Go to some real neighborhoods. Live a little.

Hey, it’s Wrigley Field!

You don’t need to be at Wrigley Field to experience the ambience of a Cubs game. Go see a White Sox game. Watch actual baseball.

Wow, this is a big city! I’m starting to hurt!

It happens.

Why are you stopping at this bar?

I need a drink.

What, now?

Hey, you said you wanted to bike like a Chicagoan. Drinking before, after, and during a good bicycle ride is a proud Chicago tradition! If you’re in Critical Mass, it’s practically required!

What’s this Critical Mass thing you keep talking about?

A giant bicycle ride on the last Friday of every month where cyclists dress up in their peacock best and join together for a long bicycle ride! In good months, there are usually several hundred participants. Great way to see cycling as a subculture!

Who are those nutcases with the bags who keep zooming around The Loop?

Bike Messengers. Don’t mind them. They have work to do. Good folks. I did that myself for awhile.

Christ, didn’t you ever get hurt?

Thousands of times! Several doors, several cars, angry pedestrians, and the times when I was just carrying something big and lost my balance. That movie Premium Rush is more accurate than you would ever believe.

How long did it take to recover from all those accidents?

In the most severe cases, a day. That’s how long it took me to get back to work. I couldn’t go to the hospital most of the time.

What are you, crazy?

That’s what everyone keeps telling me.

A Review of Premium Rush by a Former Bicycle Messenger

A Review of Premium Rush by a Former Bicycle Messenger

Premium Rush won my heart so thoroughly with its opening monologue alone that it would have taken a galactic screwup for me to be completely put off it. Reviewers have made a lot over one small line in said monologue: “I like to ride. Fixed gear. No brakes. Can’t stop. Don’t want to, either.” Its been called smarmy and ridiculous, but I doubt much of the bicycle messenger community shares that opinion. I worked that dangerous and punishing job myself on the Chicago circuit for several years, and in my official capacity as a former messenger (no, we don’t call ourselves couriers), I can honestly say the opening monologue – which actually rambles on for a couple of minutes – wouldn’t be a better summary of a messenger’s job had I written it myself. Yes, it’s a movie, and so writer/director David Koepp is naturally prone to taking some Hollywood license with it. But he also captures enough of what life is really like for this unique breed that I wondered if he had ever made his living as a messenger himself. By my estimation, the accuracy rate of the portrayal of messenger work in Premium Rush stands around 80 percent.

If Koepp didn’t work as a messenger, then it’s eerie that he was able to write it so well. I notice a lot of reviewers tend to look at the script of Premium Rush with an air of disbelief, naturally thinking Koepp was writing in the drama of “messing” as he pleased. Messing, though, is a job in which the real life might be more unbelievable than anything based on it. The main character in Premium Rush, Wilee, rides a fixed gear bicycle. Fixies, as they’re called, are track bicycles made strictly for racing. Fixed gear means the gear is directly attached to the chain, to the bike can only move when you peddle. They’re made with an emphasis on lightness and speed, so most of them don’t have brakes; the ones that do have only one brake. Fixies are possibly the most insanely dangerous bicycles on Earth even if you know what you’re doing, but some messengers really DO use them, although the practice isn’t common. Also, people who have been messengers for any serious length of time do have multiple stories about getting hit by cars, doored, and flipped over their handlebars. There was an early scene in Premium Rush where one messenger makes a phone call from a freight elevator, showing that in many buildings messengers ARE segregated from the business public and made to go through the back. (This isn’t good for the messenger; freight elevators are very slow, and since almost all messengers are contractors, time is money. The messenger union once held a strike outside of one building on LaSalle Street in Chicago because it was easy to spend 20 minutes waiting for the freight. Another building, on Wacker, tried making messengers go through the freight for a few months, but that experiment was quickly axed when the businesses in the place complained that delivery slowed to a crawl.) Messengers frequently eat, drink, and make phone calls on the peddle. Ripping off motorists’ mirrors really is a way messengers frequently attack drivers if they’ve been pushed too far, except in real life we don’t use our locks to do it because they’re bulky and mirrors aren’t the most tightly bolted part of a car. We know there’s no consequence for such a thing, ever, because who besides the driver will care? Yes, it’s possible Koepp might have written everything believing he was just making the movie more exciting, but take it from the pro: THIS STUFF REALLY HAPPENS.

Naturally, I was jacked at the release of Premium Rush, a movie which featured a messenger as the hero! Unfortunately, my euphoria was knocked out a little at the beginning of the movie because of the attitude of the main character, Wilee. Mercenary attitudes are common in messing, but Wilee acts like one of the anti-heroes from 90’s movies. It’s a point against the movie because it makes him unlikable, and shows that the only reason he’s the hero is because Premium Rush needed a hero. So anyway, here’s this perfectly ordinary bicycle messenger named Wilee, who gets sent to a location to pick up an envelope and make what is supposed to be an everyday run. As he heads out, a guy in a fancy suit walks up to him and starts demanding the envelope. See, he REALLY NEEDS it! Wilee, being the honor-bound and noble messenger, of course escaps him and is off to make an average run as part of his $80-a-day job. This scene, by the way, is one that requires suspension of disbelief from messengers. If someone wants a package off a messenger THAT badly, he’s getting it, no questions asked. No matter how committed, all messengers know there’s no such thing as a package worth dying for, and I knew one or two people who had no reservations about outright destroying packages out of frustration themselves, though it was extremely rare.

Anyway, things kick up a notch when Wilee hits the road and douchebag suit is now following him in his car! He just doesn’t give up, even when Wilee jumps into the other lane to ride into traffice coming at him. (This happens in real life.) Koepp makes some astounding chase sequences though the movie, and there are some incredible stunts. The chase sequences make Premium Rush fun, and it occurs to me that, had the chase alone been the whole movie, it would have been a wild ride and ended a lot better. In fact, Premium Rush could have spotlighted a day in the life of a bike messenger, and it would have been very exciting.

That’s ultimately where Premium Rush goes wrong. A lot of reviewers like to point out the whole thing takes place in real time, but it certainly doesn’t feel like real time. Real time is when the entire movie follows one character for the whole 90 to 120 minutes spent watching it. Well, Koepp and his co-writer, John Kamps, get credit for the realisation that, had Premium Rush followed Wilee through this one delivery, it would have been shorter than the average sitcom episode. So how does he get around the problem? By creating arbitrary contrivances, of course! After a few minutes of the first chase, the movie then decides it should probably try to develop the bad guy. Now, the bad guy chasing Wilee, Bobby Monday, is so over-the-top that he would have worked better without a background. But not only does Monday get a background, he gets a backstory which would make us sympathetic to him had he not been so over-the-top. He needs what’s in the envelope to pay off a gambling debt before his loan shark knocks him off.

Oh, yeah, Monday’s a cop. So Wilee can’t just go running to the Police. To the screenwriters’ credit, he thinks of that, but that plan is abruptly axed when Monday shows up at the station Wilee visits to file his complaint. After he escapes the station, the whole movie goes nuts. Wilee has to outrun Monday, a particularly zealous bicycle cop who is also out to get him for, well, I don’t know. (Seriously, the only crime Wilee committed was riding on the sidewalk. As much as pedestrians whined and threatened to call the Police at messengers who got too close, the cops DON’T CARE. Especially not the officers who are also on bicycles. The only time they’ll say anything is if the messenger is dangerously close to running them over, and even then, we’ll get off with nothing but a stern warning.) Wilee also goes to return the package from where he got it because he’s angry. (Would never happen.) Alas, one of his messenger buddies gets it first and now Wilee, guilt-ridden after finding out what the package would mean for the person who originally called for it, has to race his pal to get it back.

Did I just ramble through two paragraphs off my original point? I guess I did. So anyway, plot contrivances are just one of the ways Premium Rush pads its length. The other is flashbacks, which are in there for the sole purpose of telling the story that could easily have been told just as easily chonologically. In doing this, the filmmakers give themselves both a gimmick and a way to get around the inconvenience of having a gimmick. It’s certainly nice to know what the story is, but the way it’s presented destroys the flow of the movie. There’s a chase, then a flashback, chase, flashback, chase, flashback. Virtually every switch of a scene feels disruptive, especially during the action sequences because here you are, just enjoying yourself and tuning out when you suddenly have to turn the switch back on to pay attention again.

Want more contrivance? Wilee is also having girlfriend problems. Apparently his best friend, Manny, is moving in on his girl because the girl (who, by the way, is a messenger) thinks Wilee is out of his freaking mind. Manny is also a messenger. See, the difference is that Manny isn’t out of his freaking mind like Wilee is. We know that because he uses a proper road bicycle with real shifters and brakes! So, through the course of the movie, we see these three knotheads call each other while making their runs almost constantly. (Doesn’t happen, at least not with messengers who use phones provided by their services. Messengers DO makes phone calls on the fly – it’s damn near required to be able to pull that off – but the calls are only with dispatchers.) Does boy get girl back? When has the hero of an action movie ever been left hanging for nookie?

Half of Premium Rush, I was rooting for Monday. That’s how bad this sucker is with its characters. After all, Monday had the mob on his tail and we don’t know what the hell some other person wants with the envelope until later. When Wilee made his inevitable heel-face turn, I wasn’t sure I believed it. Maybe that could be seen as more length-padding desperation – Koepp and Kamps were so stuck that they made the mistake of trying to develop the guy we’re supposed to hate.

Once my messenger years were behind me, I felt a little conflicted about walking away. On the one hand, I’ll never have the kind of personal freedom offered by messing again. On the other, since it’s a poor-paying contract job, I walked away with a mountain of debt in taxes and medical bills, the latter of which I haven’t even started to repay, and was glad I wouldn’t see them rise more. I’m also now afflicted with a series of cumulative old injuries upon which my body – especially my wrist and ankle – will never be the same. Ultimately, I’m glad I’m not a messenger anymore, even if the economy did force me to move back home. Yet, there is an understandable appeal to the lifestyle. That also sums up my feelings about Premium Rush; some truly wonderful points, but the experience just didn’t feel worth it to me.

Be nice to your messengers.