The shade of trees lining S. Elliot Street in Brooklyn’s idyllic Fort Greene neighborhood offered respite from the heat and balminess of summer. New Yorkers rarely “stroll,” but we weren’t going anywhere in particular. C. offered me a small bag of Bazzini chocolate-covered peanuts. “There’s weed at the bottom if you want some.”
Several months before, we had worked together at a job we both hated. I hadn’t seen C. since. Clad in cut-off jeans and worn t-shirt, helmet in hand, C. had a lull in work at her new job. The conversation drifted in a theme very familiar to young people in New York City, about finding work that doesn’t suck and getting by. I pocketed some of the weed, helped myself to a few peanuts, and handed the bag back. “That’s how I usually do hand-offs if it has to be in public,” C. said. One can have just about anything delivered in under an hour in New York City: take-out food, wine, groceries, laundry, documents, a cozy oversized cardigan. Weed is no exception.
You simply text a dispatcher at a service after you have been verified (usually by personal reference). Within an hour or so, someone is in your living room, often with a bicycle in tow, showing you their selection of different strains and edibles. C. wasn’t in great cycling shape when hired, but was given the job as a favor.
“Besides the quick cash, I really loved the freedom of it,” C. says. A courier rides around the city all day often in 10-hour shifts. It’s a long day, but it offers an aspect of mental reckoning that a typical job doesn’t. “It gives you a lot of head space, and personally for me, I can sort out a lot of things floating around in my head while biking around.”
Riding a bicycle all day is great exercise and the money was “pretty damn good,” according to C., who sometimes cleared several hundred dollars a day. The daily takeaway would depend on certain variables like the time of the year or the weather. But, when business is good, you have to hustle.
After the quick descent from the Williamsburg Bridge to Delancey Street, bomb up Manhattan’s Lafayette Avenue, trying to avoid collision with any number of vehicles, people, and things that could potentially block the bicycle path, yellow Crown Vics and the new, environmentally friendly, Priuses whizzing by at dangerous speeds and too-close-for-comfort proximities. You need only to have one harrowing experience of cycling through the streets of New York City to realize that being a courier has its share of anxieties and adrenaline rushes.
“It wasn’t all easy breezy,” C. says. “I could be cruising around all day totally relaxed and then get six calls in four corners of the city and have to make it to all of them in under an hour and a half. It can get really intense, especially in an NYC winter or 100-degree day.”
Calm streets of stately Brownstones give way to more modern, urban avenues. Steel and glass structures stretch upward, reflecting the light and the heat. The asphalt swells under the bicycle tires. The heat can seem suffocating. “I had someone ask me if it was raining once because it was 100 degrees out and I was completely soaked through in sweat and probably smelled fresh as hell. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me, ma?’ It was one of the hottest days on record in NYC.”
The call or text comes through and the courier is off to their next destination. A courier doesn’t get a choice where they have to go make deliveries. They are the on-demand traveling salesperson. The process is simple enough. C comes to your door, provides the products you want with the service and affability you desire, and leaves you alone to get high. But not every delivery is hitch-free.
“Someone got murdered once in an apartment next to the one I was delivering to in a really bad section of Brooklyn,” C. says. “There were cops everywhere.”
Besides being concerned about safety, C. had to make sure not to get busted by a curious police officer.
Luckily, the clients had felt comfortable enough to let C. stay in the apartment until the police had cleared from the crime scene. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, apartment buildings usually have a doorman. It’s one of the richest places in New York City – in the world. A courier might sell some product to a trust fund kid with family roots in 19th century New York, then ride down to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, the setting of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and famous stomping grounds of Biggie Smalls.
“It was always interesting to go into so many different homes and see how other people live for a minute,” C. says.
New York City is a diverse place, but smoking crosses the bounds of most social or class divides. As recreational marijuana becomes more normalized throughout the US and Canada, will legalization (perhaps by 2020) in New York put hard working couriers out of work? Presumably, new and legal shops would offer delivery, like many businesses in the city. But that is to assume that the black market would disappear. As Washington and Colorado have demonstrated, lingering tendencies and high taxes seem to be sustaining the old arrangement, if only partially. Cigarettes are heavily taxed in New York State, which has contributed to a thriving trade in contraband. It seems likely that the old system built on relationships and convenience won’t be going away anytime soon. The modernization and efficiency of delivery services in New York City (and elsewhere) have eliminated some of the potentially negative aspects of the local dealer. That friendly-but-kind-of weird dealer who wants to hang out and talk after the sale has become obsolete. But interaction as transaction can’t always be the mindset where camaraderie is the default. C.’s favorite customer was “this really geeky and awkward comedian” that C. would save for the last delivery of the day, if possible, to end on a good note. After a hard day’s work, it was nice to see a regular and joke around.