When I was eighteen, I worked as a messenger for a large
shipping company at 17 Battery Place in New York City. My job was delivering shipping documents: bills of lading, customs declarations and consular papers to various firms around town. The company was a large established firm and there were five of us in the messenger department. Although I was pleased to be working at all, what I really wanted was a desk job since I felt my talents were being wasted as a low-level messenger. Embarrassed by our low position, we five messengers called ourselves couriers and never messengers.
We weren’t bike messengers. We traveled all over the city by foot or by train or bus. Back then, in the early Fifties, it cost only a nickel to travel by train from Union Street in Brooklyn to Whitehall Street in Manhattan, which we called New York.
There were times when we also made unofficial trips for the bosses, the executives, especially around the holidays, which included picking up precious cargo, usually artwork, or various other expensive parcels at upscale stores and galleries. For those anticipated journeys we were instructed to take cabs and protect our precious goods and never dilly dally along the way. On one occasion, I delivered an expensive cigarette lighter to Alfred Dunhill’s for repairs. On another, around Christmastime, I picked up and delivered a large framed painting of one of the vice presidents’ wives.
For about a year and a half I traveled throughout the city, learning the location of many Manhattan streets and avenues. I trekked from the Battery and Bowling Green to Wall Street, to Canal, from Union Square to Times Square and north along Fifth Avenue. I thoroughly enjoyed my job and I loved the town. As I walked the streets of the city I felt an excitement and an electricity that was new to me. Although I was on the lowest rung of the company’s ladder I pretended to others (and especially myself) that I was a smart junior executive on the way up. To play the part I dressed with conservative panache, always a blue suit and tie and made certain to always carry my briefcase wherever I went. Unknown to the general public, along with the necessary shipping papers I usually had my lunch packed neatly away in the briefcase.
Usually I knew just how long I would be missed on routine trips so that I knew exactly when to speed up and when to relax and take my time. On bright sunny days, when time allowed and if I were in the area, I would enter Central Park for a brief stroll. If I were downtown I sometimes checked out the little cemetery at Trinity Church, where Alexander Hamilton and other famous individuals were buried. And there were times in the winter when I would stop my travels and enjoy ten or fifteen minutes watching the skaters at Rockefeller Center. On one occasion I even rode the elevators at the Empire State Building straight to the observation deck and stared mouth-open at the city I was learning to love. When I felt the least bit spiritual I would climb the steps at St. Paddy’s. Christmastime was my favorite time. Then I would stop and marvel at the displays in the decorated department store windows. Sugar plums danced in my head for sure while the falling snow flakes melted on my briefcase. At times in midtown I would make a point to see which headliner was appearing at the Paramount. Or if I had loads of time and felt the urge I would stroll Fifth Avenue as if I belonged. Briefcase in hand.
Once on Fifth, near Bergdorfs, I was unknowingly walking alongside Rita Hayworth and her daughter Jasmine. When I realized it I froze and I was so taken aback that I forgot to ask for an autograph. Another time, in the middle of Times Square, I saw a familiar gentleman walking briskly toward me. On closer look I realized it was a face I knew well, it was Pat O’Brien. Near Penn Station I almost physically bumped into Dagmar who used to appear on television’s Broadway Open House. I marveled at how tall she was. She smiled at me and I melted.
I enjoyed the city more and more while stealing minutes and sometimes half-hours from what I considered the menial work of a messenger. I convinced myself that Manhattan was there for my enjoyment. I was a good student and I quickly learned the basic geographic layout of the city and quite a bit about the town itself. I knew where the major museums on Fifth Avenue were located, and Carnegie Hall, and many of the fancy hotels, such as the Plaza and the Waldorf. I knew well the public library on Fifth Avenue, with its two imposing lions out front. I was thrilled when I first came across Tiffanys and Cartiers, places I had thought never really existed.
If I found myself in midtown around lunchtime without lunch from home, I’d eat at one of the many less-famous places on restaurant row. Usually however, I took lunch at a Cafe Sabrett, one of the many hotdog pushcarts around town. If I had extra money, I treated myself to Delmonicos on Beaver Street. There I would rub elbows at the counter with other aspiring go-getters. I also ate at the Horn & Hardart Automats and the Chock Full O’Nuts.
The day would usually go by quickly because I thoroughly enjoyed my work. At the end of the day, my fellow couriers and I would usually visit a down home Puerto Rican bar on Pearl Street where we would munch on papas y chorizos, drink tap beer and sing Granada as loudly as if we were native Puerto Ricans. We were all just over eighteen then (the legal drinking age in New York at the time) and we swigged down our alcohol like adults, pretending to be refined couriers instead of the low-level messenger boys on the bottom rung of the corporate ladder we were in actuality. After all, we were couriers and not messengers.