the mysterious rebecca reilly

I came across Rebecca Reilly’s name in Zack FurnessOne Less Car, where he briefly mentions her as a bike messenger and the author of a book on bike messenger culture in the 1990s. A female bike messenger? Who wrote a book that’s probably available on the internets somewhere? Who is this girl? Buffalo Bill’s short but beautiful 2006 Moving Target article portrays her as a kind of messenger messiah, “making a journey across the United States, visiting cities where there were messengers, living and working in each city in turn.” Meeting her for the first time is “what Erik Zo, SF messenger bag maker, describes as the Great Dispatcher doing a good job,” and Rebecca herself is captivating: “full of enthusiasm, open, big smile, loud voice, words tumbling out of her like water over a fall.” And he calls her “an inspiration to many female messengers, because she stood up to the men, and never asked for special treatment, only to be given the same chance as a man.”

That article points to two reviews of her book, Nerves of Steel, one of which is actually John Greenfield’s 2001 Chicago Reader article reviewing another messenger book released the same year, Travis Culley’s The Immortal Class. While Reilly’s was 8 years in the making, self-published, and had a run of only 1,000 copies, Culley’s book was written in only a year or so and was backed by a major publisher – hence, in the intervening years, his book has gotten considerably more press than hers (though it doesn’t sound as though she was trying to make any money off the book.)

The end of Buffalo Bill’s article also mentions that Reilly joined the Marines in 2001, and a 2004 Military.com article by Fred Zimmerman provides less of an insider’s view of Reilly’s book, but retains the admiration so evident in the other reviews I’ve found. Zimmerman traces her courier career from DC to Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York as she pursued her two goals of collecting material for her book and travelling around the country. He quotes Reilly saying that “I could have been a secretary, but if it’s a girl’s job I don’t want it,” and that, because she was one of the few couriers who travelled the country, they called her the “messenger for the messengers.” It’s an interesting article, with more personal information than inside scoop, but I still wanted to know: what kind of woman travels around the country doing a ridiculously hard job at least as good as a man, makes friends everywhere she goes, and writes a book about her culture not to profit but to document her own and her friends’ lives so that readers will understand who they are? Who is she?

Although I have yet to meet her, two more finds make her much more human. In 1995, an anthropologist named Rachel Strickland made a short video of Reilly as part of her Portable Portraits/Portable Environments project – because Strickland is interested in what people carry around with them all day, the video has Reilly going through her bag and showing what she carries, and if you know that she’s eventually going to publish a book, seeing the notebook where she writes down people’s stories makes you smile.

Also, both Greenfield and Zimmerman mention that Reilly got her start in DC, and since she would have been riding in DC in the early or mid-nineties, I texted a friend who also started messengering in DC around then. “You ever heard of a messenger called Rebecca Reilly or lambchop?” I asked. “Yeah,” came the reply, “Lambchop is old school original gangsta fixed gear queen!” A few weeks later, over beers, he said he still talks to her occasionally, and that she’s still in the military and is somewhere near DC – which, since the most recent thing I could find on her was from 2007, was a relief to hear. That settled it. I went to Amazon to see if her book was available for sale, and sure enough it was – from Reilly herself, at a third of the price other dealers were asking. Of course. I’m looking forward to reading it when it gets here. 🙂

*Nerves of Steel cover from Howard Williams’ 2002 review in the San Francisco Call.
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