After every holiday dinner my grandmother would pull me aside and give me some words of advice. The advice varied, but over time, the same nuggets of wisdom would begin to repeat themselves. The two most popular were: “Don’t ever get a tattoo, because only sailors and criminals get tattoos” followed by the more common grandmotherly standard “Always wear underwear in case you get into an accident.” This wasn’t sage advice by any means, but I often recalled her words and found them comforting.
A year or so after graduating high school in 1986, I was preparing to move from Humboldt County down to The City where I would begin my study of graphic design at the Academy of Art College. Before the big move my grandmother pulled me aside one last time for some last minute wisdom before adding something new: “Always carry around a can of Lysol for spraying on handrails so you don’t catch that AIDS virus. San Francisco is full of that AIDS.” I think she was mostly joking this time, but I made a mental note anyway.
Art school was fun at first, but it didn’t really pan out for me. The many distractions of the city took hold and I slowly began failing my classes after the first year. I was young, distracted, on my own for the first time ever in San Francisco—and I’ve never been a good student—it’s just not my thing. So I decided to drop out to avoid any more tuition debt that my parents had been subsidizing. I was working part time as a moped messenger during school to pay the bills, and when the the crew at Aero Messenger heard I was now a college dropout, they happily gave me a full-time slot. The real world was calling.
I spent the next year speeding through downtown San Francisco traffic taking packages from one end of town to the other while running red lights, hopping curbs, careening down tiny alley ways, and basically trying to stay swift and upright as much as I could. I only ever got one ticket and I never wore a helmet. The bicycle guys had more messenger street cred than we did, but us moped guys could take stuff way outside the city if needed, and that’s why we were valuable. As long as you didn’t mind ducking when the kids would throw rocks and batteries at you, a 45 minute roundtrip to Hunter’s Point could be very lucrative.
We all wore the standard company blue windbreakers except for two brothers: Omar and Alex. They were members of a Mission Bloods gang who requested special red jackets and the guys at Aero obliged. One day I was cruising down Bryant street heading back to the shop after a long day and I see Omar flagging me down on the side of the road. I pulled over and he gave me a big bear hug. He had just been released from county after two months behind bars and I was the first person he saw. He was beaming. He grabbed my radio and started yelling in Spanish back to dispatch. Everybody chimed in on their radios and cheered his release. We had spoken maybe two or three words before this particular event, but now I felt like we were old pals.
During this time I was living in a flat off Golden Gate park on 44th & Fulton with my oldest friend Kevin who worked as a messenger for a reprographic firm, and another pal Sean, who I had met a few years earlier. I got Sean his first messenger job at Aero and he lasted one day on the moped before calling it quits. Sean was a real motorcycle guy—a Suzuki 1100 motorcycle guy—and the paltry top speed of 45 miles an hour on the two-stroke Puch just didn’t cut it for him. He took his race bike down the street to Lightning Express and eventually became one of San Francisco’s most notorious messenger outlaws. The SFPD would often put up road blocks to try and catch him. One night I looked out our window and saw a motorcycle headlight racing up the tree-lined hillside of Golden Gate Park across the street from our flat. Moments later Sean would burst through the back door panting with a wide grin as police cars sped by with lights flashing on the street below, the bike safely stashed in the woods. (Earlier in the day he had head-butted a lawyer who tried to cut in front of him to file legal papers at the county courthouse before the 4PM cutoff.) Sean died many years later in a motorcycle accident. His gas tank still hangs on the wall in memoriam at a bar called Zietgeist in the Mission.
We were all partying quite a lot. All the city’s messengers would get paid on Friday and then take their checks to a Filipino grocer just south of Market street. The grocer cashed all messenger checks without ID and no questions asked. In turn, we would all buy our beer and food at his market before heading out to various parties. Outside on the street an open-air drug market would form as everybody was flush with Friday cash. You could grab a case of malt liquor, a bindle of coke, a handful of ecstasy, and your weekend was pretty much covered.
This went on for almost a year until one bright, sunny Monday morning in early spring. Unlike a typical Monday, I wasn’t hungover from my usual weekend shenanigans as I had opted for a more subdued couple of days off. (There were quite a few life-threatening Mondays previous where I wasn’t even sure what planet I was on due to residual LSD psychosis and severe sleep deprivation, but this wasn’t one of them.) On this particular Monday I was clear headed with a fresh cup of coffee and a spring in my throttle. I grabbed my first ticket, started up the bike, and picked up my first run of the day. All was good in the world.
Crisscrossing the city all day would often make my mind wander—as well as my gaze. And I’ll be honest here, I had an enthusiastic appreciation for the backside of the female San Francisco office worker in high heels on her way to work. On this particular Monday, I encountered a posterior so captivating that I forgot for a moment that I was hurtling down Sansome street at 35 miles an hour. When I finally got my eyes back on the road, the last thing I remember seeing was a bus board advertisement for the Carl’s Jr. Double Bacon Western Cheese Burger—a half second from my face. Then a loud crunching sound.
I regained consciousness lying on my back in the middle of the street as a business man in a suit and tie loomed overhead asking if I was okay. (I wasn’t.) I got up and stumbled around a bit before falling down again in the gutter. When I woke up a second time I was looking out at the street from inside the back of an ambulance. I spotted Omar’s red jacket as he rested on his handlebars shaking his head. He must of been called to get my package and move it along. The back doors of the ambulance closed and that was the last time I ever saw him. The police report would later say that after hitting the bus I was thrown 75 feet through the air, but I don’t think they realized I had been stumbling around quite a bit before I passed out the second time.
The EMTs noticed that I was awake now and started asking me questions as the ambulance sped along with sirens blazing. Who was the president? George Bush (The Elder) seemed like the right answer, but I wasn’t entirely sure. They asked me if I knew what month it was and all I could come up with was that “I’m pretty sure there’s a July. Isn’t there an August too? Wait, what’s a month?” They kept up the questions for a bit and I struggled to answer them. Finally I looked out the window and realized that we were entering SF General. “Do you know where you are?” they asked me. “1001 Potrero.” I replied without hesitation. They seemed rather impressed with that one. As a messenger, I knew the address of every building in the city, and it was all starting to make sense now.
I was wheeled down a few hallways and led to a room where two doctors began poking and prodding. One of the doctors grabbed a pair of scissors and began to cut the legs of my pants off. As she got closer to removing the pants altogether it suddenly dawned on me: I wasn’t wearing any underwear. Grandma was right all along! It was not typical for me to go commando, but I had skipped laundry over the weekend and was forced to make due without. To make matters even worse, I had just got a tattoo the week before and it had barely healed. I was flouting years of guidence and paying for it dearly. The doctor finished the exam by sticking an index finger right where it mattered—almost as if to punish me for not listening to grandma—and I was now fully awake.
A bone was set and some holes were sewn up and I was placed in the common hallway for further concussion monitoring. There were other patients in beds all around me and the person behind me had a compound fracture and was screaming in pain for an hour before she was finally wheeled away for surgery. Patients and visitors and doctors all walked past my bed carrying on conversations and bumping into my IV stand.
More hours went by and I really needed to use the bathroom. I tried to get out of the bed in search of relief, but this proved to be more of a struggle than I anticipated. A nurse finally rushed over and asked what the hell I was doing. She gave me a plastic bottle and told me to fill it up and leave it on top of the bed when I was done. This seemed kind of awkward out there in the hallway with all the commotion, but it was my only recourse. I had some difficulty positioning the goods just so with my newly broken wrist, but I eventually got it right and began a very satisfying release. Just as I did this, a doctor approached my bed with about six medical interns all writing on clipboards. They formed a semi circle around me as the doctor began to explain my various head contusions while I tried keep the flow going unnoticed. He finally lifted up the blanket to show my slightly disfigured knee and they all nodded and took more notes. I’m not sure if they also noticed that I was filling up that bottle, but if they did, they never let on. The group moved down to the next patient and I placed the full bottle on the bed.
At around 6 in the evening I was finally wheeled out to the front of the hospital and the orderly wished me luck. It was getting dark now. I hobbled over to a bank of pay phones and called my friend Bill for a ride home. A few months later I moved back to Humboldt County and got a job as a bus boy in an Italian restaurant. I suppose the best advice my grandmother never gave me was that it’s very impolite to stare. But, I never did get another tattoo and my underwear drawer has been full ever since.