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Imagine a bike messenger. You’re probably visualizing a reckless young man—perhaps Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Premium Rush, or Puck from The Real World—weaving through traffic on a featherweight fixie, grabbing onto taxis and plowing into strollers.
That is not Meghan Mack. Sure, she has her right pants leg cuffed to reveal a pair of orange-striped socks, arms tattooed with mermaids, and earlobes stretched by heavy silver hoops, but you won’t find Mack flouting traffic laws on her fixie. Mack rides a custom-built, royal-blue, front-loader cargo bike that, she notes, is not very “cool or stealth.” But as a courier, Mack has cred. The 45-year-old has been working as a bike messenger since 1993, mostly in Portland, though she spent several years in San Francisco during the dot-com boom. “There was so much money in San Francisco then,” Mack says. “You did rush delivery all day long.”
Like cowboys and heavyweight boxers, the golden age of bike messengers is past, but their mystique remains. Bike couriers have dwindled in numbers, but they remain influential as the ultimate urban cyclists—tough, speedy, never foiled by the weather. You can’t ride down a Portland street without seeing snug racing caps, seatbelt-buckle messenger bags, and U-locks strung through belts.
The practical allure of the work persists, too. Mack is one of five partners of Magpie Messenger, a bike-courier collective she co-founded in 2002, and she says she receives two or three résumés a month from prospective couriers. Not that the collective has enough business to take on more employees. Though law offices and accounting firms still make up most of Magpie’s clients, it’s had to expand to other areas of service in recent years: delivering food, distributing
catalogs, occasionally ferrying giant hamster wheels or golf balls or animals bound for the Humane Society. (To accommodate such loads, Magpie riders have steel cargo bikes.) But Mack says you have to draw the line somewhere.
“We have this lawyer who’s a little crazy, and he wanted us to go pick somebody up at the jail and take him to a rehab center,” she says. “He was like, ‘It won’t be a problem. He’s a nice guy, he won’t do anything weird.’ We were like, ‘No, we’re not gonna do that one.’ We could have put him in the cargo bike, but that’s why there are cabs. We’re not a cab service.”
Mack, who’s notably fidgety in person, says she was drawn to courier work because it allowed her to get out her “nervous energy, good energy, whatever.” She also relishes the exposure to the elements: She excitedly recalls a massive windstorm that sent newspaper boxes flying through downtown Portland, and in the next breath recounts that when the Willamette flooded in ’96, she got to watch relief workers haul sandbags to the riverbanks. She’s had only one significant crash—a high-speed hit-and-run in San Francisco that miraculously left her with just a few scrapes—and says she feels safe enough in Portland to eschew a helmet.
“Things have changed in Portland in the last 20 years, and drivers are a lot more aware now,” Mack says. “I don’t think people have ever been aggressive here. In San Francisco, if you made drivers mad for any reason, they would have no problem pushing you to the side of the road.”
But for a courier in Portland, speed is less of a priority than courtesy and reliability. And in some ways, Mack thinks being a woman has worked to her advantage as a bike messenger. “Those boys, the young ones at least, go in there and are aggro and scary and sweaty,” says Mack, a petite blonde with a gray-streaked ponytail. “I deal with a fair amount of female administrative people, so I think they like the fact that there’s a female they can talk to. Because I have a child, we talk about our kids.” Sometimes Mack even totes around her 12-year-old daughter.
Like many dedicated urban cyclists, Mack doesn’t have a car, but not out of uppity principle: She simply doesn’t know how to drive.
“I have a permit,” she says. “I’ve had it for, like, four years. I feel like I should learn. It would be good. But then I say to my daughter, ‘You’ll be 16 in a few years, and you can just drive me around!'”
Burn every guidebook to Portland. They don’t make sense anymore.
Because every single one of those books will tell Portland visitors to go to Cartopia, at Southeast 12th and Hawthorne, the city’s most iconic food cart pod.
And after the carts’ leases expire in October, Cartopia will probably not exist.
Specifically, developer Vic Remmers signed a contract to buy the lot, as first reported by the Oregonian, and TVA Architects plans to put up an apartment building with ground-level retail and no parking. The chaotic fun of the food-cart era is being replaced by mixed-use, new-metropolitan development planning.
The carts received no warning until yesterday. “We suspected [last October] that something was not normal,” says one of the cart workers, who spoke to WW on condition of anonymity. “The landlords denied that there was anything out of the ordinary. Then about a month ago they did a soil sample to look into contamination from the storage tanks under the parking lot, but told us it was because of the car lot next door leaking into their lot, although we all suspected that a buyer was wanting that information.”
Willamette Week reported in 2010 on the tenuousness of the food-cart economy. In part, when developers can make more money with buildings than with parking lots, food cart owners might lose their locations. This past year alone has seen the closure or impending closure of a number of cart pods, including North Station, Green Castle, the D-Street Noshery at Southeast 32nd Avenue and Division Street, and a pod on Southeast 47th Avenue and Division
“The problem,” says Greg Abbott of Whiffie’s Fried Pies at the Cartopia pod, “is that our success is now our downfall. A lot of what made that neighborhood so cool is having an awesome late night place to eat at. It made it super appealing. But with that appeal came the increase in property values. Now we can’t afford to stay.”
The best-known food carts of Cartopia—Potato Champion, Perierra Creperie, Whiffie’s Fried Pies, Pyro Pizza—count among them some of the first carts to set off the food-cart revolution in the minds of Portland and even the U.S. Since its opening six years ago, in 2008, they have been visited by national TV shows, and featured in food cart reality television. Visiting celebrities still make pilgrimages to the carts of Hawthorne, because they are told that they must.
Because really, more than just a collection of food, what Cartopia has always been is the longest standing late-night street party in Portland. For a while, it was the only thing on lower Hawthorne that was any fun at all.
When Snowpocalypse came in late 2008, with its six solid feet of snow and ice (OK fine, nineteen inches), the carts put up a disco inside a tent, with strobe lights, and served free egg nog to anyone in the neighborhood. Random fire-breathers and jugglers would hang out by the tents at 2 am. Maybe you like jugglers and maybe you don’t, but the fact remains: The jugglers showed up, because that’s where the fun was. The revocation of the carts’ late-night noise permit did nothing to quell the clamor of the crowds. It just meant the music couldn’t blast.
Well, the music is over, and the musical chairs begins. The carts look to get just one more summer at that location.
“This will be a huge blow to us and our employees,” says John Eads at Pyro Pizza. “We have been able to provide a living for our family and our employees for almost 5 years doing what we love and it will be sad to see it change or go away.”
“We’ll probably at least talk about seeing if there’s something in the close in east side,” says Abbott, who jokes he’ll move to Detroit with money he made on Bitcoin. “The problem is that the jig for close-in empty properties is up—at least at a relatively inexpensive price… I’d lived in that neighborhood since 1999 and I can’t afford to live there anymore. I’m farther out now—to the east.”
One of the food cart owners is more sanguine about the news. “Actually, I’m excited,” writes Dustin Knox of Perierra Creperie. “I’ve been living in this neighborhood for thirteen years, right next door to Cartopia (way before the creation of the pod), and I’m excited to see the neighborhood change. As for Perierra Creperie, I feel like we were at the forefront of a movement, but now the lot is sort of defunct, and personally I’d love to see a more professional environment come out of this change.
“We’ll see where the little Creperie lands in the mix.”
Everyone wants to be Prince. But some are better at it than others—even Prince isn’t that great at being Prince anymore.
Maya Rudolph is the latest to try stepping into those formidable platforms. This week, the former Saturday Night Live cast member brings her gender-flipped homage, Princess, to the Wonder Ballroom. She and cohort Gretchen Lieberum are new at this, so we asked Julian Stefoni—who’s been leading Portland’s long-running Prince tribute act Erotic City for 20 years—for a few pointers on embodying His Royal Purpleness.
1. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Dirty Mind-era’s briefs-and-trenchcoat combo, the regal look of Purple Rain or “the ass-out ‘Gett Off’ outfit” from the 1991 MTV Music Video Awards, the clothes (or lack thereof) make the Prince. “No matter what era you take on, dress the part, fully to the max,” Stefoni says. “No exceptions.”
2. Saying “sing the songs right” seems obvious, but realize it ain’t all squeals and androgynous moans. “Prince has an exceptional vocal range,” Stefoni says, from the silky falsetto of “Kiss” to the deeper come-ons of “Little Red Corvette.” You’ll get bonus points for nailing his computer-altered “Camille” voice, too.
3. When people pay to see a pretender to the purple throne, they want the total package—”the manners and smirks and sexiness,” as Stefoni puts it. “Learn his dance moves, or moves that come close to what he does in that particular song,” he says. Just be careful not to pull something while attempting the splits in 4-inch heels.
4. If you’re not willing to dry-hump the stage, the microphone and any other inanimate object in the vicinity, then you should be willing to go the distance in other areas. “If you’re going to sing ‘Darling Nikki,’ then become her onstage,” Stefoni says. “Give the crowd a visual of what that song is about—not just the tease but the raw sexiness.” He suggests utilizing stage props, which, in the case of “Darling Nikki,” means a magazine and several unspecified “devices.”
5. Aloofness is key to the real Prince’s persona, but when you’re faking the funk, you can’t afford to be detached. “Be engaging to the crowd,” Stefoni says. “Make them feel part of the show. Make them feel like dancing and singing with you.” And remember: There’s not a crowd out there that won’t react to a pair of assless chaps.
SEE IT: Erotic City plays Bunk Bar, 1028 SE Water Ave., on Sunday, April 24. 9 pm. Free. 21+.