ON the afternoon of last Halloween in Manhattan the rising tide of rush hour swept a curious group into Herald Square. The group's monster masks and black witch outfits appeared tame next to its everyday accessories: chains, leather, shaved heads, dreadlocks, and lip, tongue, and nose rings. And everyone had a bicycle: the square was cluttered with road bikes, mountain bikes, dilapidated ten-speeds, mint-fresh twenty-one-speeds, and customized fixed-gear bikes. At New York's second annual Halloween bicycle-messenger race it was hard to tell who was in costume and who wasn't.
Kevin, better known as Squid (messengers go by either first names or nicknames), circulated through the crowd, mild jitters evident beneath his ghoulish makeup. He had been one of the organizers of the event, in which riders would have to go through six checkpoints around the city, in any order, before finishing. They would face the ever-present danger of accidents and, of course, trouble from the police: it's not exactly legal to conduct a race through Manhattan rush-hour traffic.
As three o'clock approached, some twenty riders coalesced near the appointed landmark, a statue of Minerva. Riders of fixed-gear bicycles stood on their pedals like cowboys in their stirrups, making slow semicircles. (Cyclists can't coast on fixed-gear bikes; the pedals always move forward and backward with the wheels. The bikes often have no brakes, meaning that riders must use sheer leg strength to force deceleration.) Squid's brother James, a powerful-looking rider on a fixed-gear mountain bike and the favorite to win, took off his monster mask. The riders crowded to the starting line, waited for the signal, and broke into traffic in a pack.
Within a minute they had diffused, separating by skill, speed, and choice of route through the checkpoints. They looked the same as when on the job, each bombing through the city with a bag slung over one shoulder.