Here’s how a bike messenger is fighting back—by giving back—after the Trump election
I’m a bike messenger—which means the most startling thing that happens to me with any regularity is when I’m on a rush delivery and a driver throws a door open in the bike lane. I’m pretty good at dodging them, but every now and again one gets me and sends me sprawling.
Like many Americans, the election of 2016 left me feeling powerless, irrelevant, and doored by the biggest Buick ever to make a drivers’ side exit into traffic. I took the time I needed to cuss and pout, and then figured out a way to shake myself off and actually do something in response to our incoming administration.
Aside from writing some occasional articles for local websites, I’m not much of an agitator, and don’t usually consider myself to be an engaged activist. And I’m not in government. But I wanted to get my voice out there, so needed to come up with a creative solution to cut through the noise and use whatever tools I have to get there.
Like I said, I’m a bike messenger. I ride around San Francisco with a black canvas cargo pack the size of a mini fridge. It’s the sort of bag capable of holding a full Thanksgiving banquet with room enough for coffee and pie. Which is to say I’ve got a lot of free advertising space strapped to my back and nothing much I was doing with it. I thought—after all, taxis have ads stuck to their sides. Why couldn’t I do the same?
My first thought was to put up a sign expressing protest and disapproval. But good as it might feel to give the finger to the electoral college, snark isn’t a productive response to disappointment.
My next thought was to put up something like ‘this space for rent’ and charge businesses to advertise. But while that certainly felt creative, I wasn’t convinced that it would work. And, if it did work, that I could be trusted to do something productive with the money.
So I came up with a third solution, or rather, borrowed one from coffee shops. The election left a lot of people feeling disillusioned and powerless. As though their say didn’t matter, even if they held the majority. With that in mind I took a tip—literally—from those coffee shops that give customers two jars and a choice. Batman or Superman? Puppies or kittens? Coffee or sleep?
In my case I put one sign on the back of my pack, asking that instead of tips for good service, customers give to a charity instead. And then on the sides of my pack, a choice. On the left side, they can give to San Francisco AIDS Foundation. And on the right, the American Indian College Fund.
My reasons weren’t entirely altruistic. More than just advertising for a good cause (‘raising awareness’ as they call it), I wanted some agency over where my money was going. President-elect Trump has vowed to cut both taxes and federal spending, which has me deeply concerned for the well-being of programs that provide free health and social services and which receive some level of federal assistance.
I already had some connection to San Francisco AIDS Foundation which made the choice to fundraise for this organization easier. As for my choice to fundraise for the American Indian College Fund, it was because they sent me a letter. That felt like reason enough. (I’ve since received letters from other local and national nonprofits asking for support but—appropriately—the AICF got there first.)
So far as I know there’s no direct connection between the two organizations, but the next four years are likely to see some unexpected—and highly necessary—alliances. I want people out there fighting who are both deeply knowledgeable within their fields and broadly compassionate across them, and I want to be one of those people so much as I can. Just to be clear, I’m not American Indian. I also don’t have HIV or AIDS. But I do support both national education and local health care and want to see programs that offer those services succeed.
So from now through the holidays, I’m not accepting tips. Instead, I’m doing an ongoing charity ride (and not a charity drive, a semantic choice only because I hate driving). Giving customers the double-tip jar choice so they get a chance to say something about their values and to vote with their dollars for the programs they support. That’s more of a say than many feel they got with the election. It’s certainly more than anybody gets to do with their taxes.
I haven’t changed how much I ride or where, and I don’t directly ask customers to give, but if they ask me about the signs then I explain what I’m doing and leave the choice to them. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’ve collected far more than I would typically make in tips. But I have been surprised so far both by who gives and who doesn’t.
I‘ve been keeping a spreadsheet of the miles biked and dollars raised. I ride an average of 32 miles a day, almost all of in the Financial District and SOMA, and so far I’ve raised $81.50 between the two charities over five working days. That’s a rate of $16.30 a day and around fifty cents a mile. If those numbers hold steady, then come my last work day before Christmas, I’ll have ridden 768 miles and raised around $384 total. (If all those miles were laid out end to end then I’d blow way past LA and be well into Baja even before Chanukkah.)
But of all that money I’ve raised so far, only $5 total has come from customers. The remainder has come from other service workers—baristas, drivers, messengers—with a few bucks from a pedestrian who wanted to contribute, and even in one case, five dollars from a man on subsidized housing through Tenderloin Housing Clinic. I don’t know the financial situation for that one pedestrian, but none of those others could be making more than $150 a day, and certainly not anywhere near the amount made by the office workers and finance clerks who make up around 90% of my customer base.
I’m not offended in any way by the choices of those who give and those who don’t. I think people give what they’re ready to. As for the office crowd, they, like me, are on the job and in a hurry and they have other things on their mind.
But if the trend holds, then it may support a suspicion I’ve long had: that those who rely on social services, or are in the same bracket as those who do, are more likely to give and to give more often than those outside that bracket. Or to say it more simply, the people who have the most to lose are also the most likely to give. It might just be easier to have financial empathy when you know what it feels like to be strapped.
I’ve gotten no shortage of praise for the campaign—the office crowd has been very generous with their ‘great jobs’ and ‘atta boys’—but it’s the service workers who have actually pulled out their wallets. However there are still a lot of days between now and the holidays. Plenty of time for the trend to reverse. And in this case, nothing would please me more than to be proven wrong.
Premium aged, naturally aromatic, produced in a facility that also uses soy, nuts, dairy, and gluten: these are the words that might be used to describe Cirrus Wood. Or they may just be something he read off a bag of basmati rice he had in the pantry because he didn’t know what to write here.
Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer, fine art model, bike messenger and, occasionally, adult film actor. His writing has appeared in the Bold Italic, California Magazine, UC Berkeley alumni journal and other publications.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of BETA or of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. BETA serves as a resource on new developments in HIV prevention and treatment, strategies for living well with HIV, and gay men’s health issues. Our goal is to inform, empower, and inspire conversation.