Images above, from left: Darnell Young and his skateboard; Indigo, a popular restaurant in the H Street corridor of Washington, D.C.; Tymeer Roberts delivering meals on his scooter
When the coronavirus arrived in Washington, D.C., and Homeland Security named me an “essential critical infrastructure worker,” free to work as others sheltered in place, I felt like a wallflower at a party suddenly beckoned to the dance floor. I nearly glanced right and left—no other girls there—and put a hand to my bosom. Me?
I doubt I’ve ever before been considered critical or essential to anyone not immediately waiting on a meal I was delivering. Lurking at restaurants until my app dings and offers me a job, then dodging in and out of traffic on my bicycle, I normally drift between invisible and pain in the ass. But here we are.
I’d been sitting out the last few winter weeks, looking forward to riding in warm weather. It arrived on the second day of spring, 71 degrees and balmy, when the coronavirus claimed its first victim in the city.
I suited up for my evening rounds. Leggings in a light-colored print that would flash in headlights, layers of tops, a windbreaker. My backpack: a peasant basket I’d bought in Laos, with an insulated delivery bag inside. I’ve dotted the basket with reflective tape.
There are people who deliver in cars, and then there are the rest of us on everything else. My bicycle is a 1980s Bridgestone that a friend gave me in New Orleans; a woman had traded it to him for work on her car. Someone stole it, but months later I spotted it on Frenchmen Street and got it back. Bike enthusiasts walk up to me to say the Bridgestone is a museum piece. I thought it was badass until I saw another courier, a young fellow a head taller than me, inside a Thai restaurant with a skateboard under his arm.
“Do you blow people’s minds when you show up on that?” I asked.
I added Purell and nitrile gloves to my gear check. Those were the early days, when we met the pandemic with a pioneer spirit. The coronavirus was terrifying, but fear was a novelty then, and we felt a sense of possibility and adventure. We stocked up on dried beans, and our aunts sewed masks.
I met a cluster of my fellow Molly Pitchers outside an Italian place, where we waited 45 minutes for the food. That kind of wait trashes a night’s earnings, but we comforted ourselves that our apps were stacking on bonuses, clearly having a hard time getting enough people on the road.
A guy with a slight Caribbean accent had been driving for both Uber and Lyft but switched to food deliveries when the virus arrived and he didn’t get passengers. Another guy had worked in a Georgetown restaurant, and when it closed he bought a $700 electric bike for delivering; this was his second day. A guy with a wounded affect had driven for Instacart in the morning and switched to deliveries at night. He wanted to start a side hustle giving financial advice. We swapped tips on getting out of debt.
The scene at the restaurant was confusing—the staff had set up a table inside for checking in, but a socially distanced crowd of customers waited outside for the orders they’d placed. They chided each of us as we went in, thinking we’d cut the line. When one of us, trying to be helpful, said that they could check in too, a man in the crowd refused, yelling, “There’s a global pandemic!” We essential and critical workers shook our heads.
Looking out at the crowd, I remembered texts from my brother, who’d begun beseeching me in January to prepare for the coronavirus, sending lists of things to purchase. I found this entertaining; I have since bought everything but the firearm. The apocalypse my brother has been waiting for all his life, in which one is called to defend one’s stash of lentils and iodized salt, had always seemed ridiculous …
Outside a pan-Asian joint that sells Cambodian street food and $28 five-spice fried chicken, another deliverer, in waist-length braids and latex gloves, backed away from me. He stood by a Dodge Ram with his landscaping-company decal on the door. He’d been out since morning, watching Netflix in the cab while waiting for assignments, and had made $75 so far. He’d gone through a few dozen pairs of gloves; he had a secret source in Maryland.
It was a spooked and cheerful night. We weren’t making many deliveries, but we were getting bonuses. Customers thanked me as if I’d done something special for them, even the ones who requested “no-contact deliveries” and waited behind a door while I left their goods outside. They tipped the kind of fat tips that you normally get only from people with sleeve tattoos, a sliver demographic on Capitol Hill.
I became a bicycle courier after returning from a month-long reporting trip to Mexico in 2018. When I got back my funds were so low that when I splurged on celery I ate it all, even the leaves and the base. It would be a while before I got paid for the story, but I was counting on a high-paying gig facilitating grant reviews for government agencies, which I’d had each spring. News that it had been pushed to late summer came like a punch in the face.
I had $1.77 in the bank when I got my first weekly payout from the app. I remember opening the box of stuff I bought from Amazon, things I’d needed for ages. I pulled out a sack of dog-poop bags and stared at it grimly. “The fruits of my labors,” I muttered to my dog.
My evening rounds became the happiest part of my day. When the weather isn’t horrible, I love riding, and the sheer goofiness of my mission delighted me. I was my favorite fictional character, the fat medievalist Ignatius J. Reilly, pushing around his hot-dog cart and musing about his downward spin on Fortuna’s wheel. Between deliveries I tooled around backstreets, practicing languages with an app, listening to audiobooks, and peering into boxes of free stuff that D.C. folks leave out. One night I came across a box of beautiful dresses, size extra-small. I threw them in my basket, and zoomed them over to the petite staff at the Thai place.
Every night in the coronavirus era has its mood. If that first Friday was one of prophylactics and camaraderie, Saturday was haunted. The weather was cold and the streets were empty. You could do U‑ies in the middle of Chinatown.
An upscale pub near the National Mall was locked; you had to call them, and a security guard would come out and hand off an order, reading each item on the ticket like a newbie.
Outside Indigo, an Indian place with a funky international-backpacker vibe, the streetlight revealed an intergalactic helmet and a fat-tired scooter with a seat on a post.
Tymeer recognized my basket. When we’d met months before, his battery wasn’t lasting the night, so he did his final deliveries carrying the scooter onto the free streetcar in the area and walking the rest of the way to homes. People had stopped to admire his ride, and then he gathered his ramen in one hand and with the other led the hobbled, magnificent scooter away.
He’d since bought two new batteries, he told me. The old one had caught fire. He pulled up a video of it burning.
On his cheekbones, steel piercings embedded in his skin twinkled like stars.
On Sunday, my app lured in too many of us with bonuses. I got one delivery in two hours. Normally, I could pass time sitting outside Whole Foods, but all the tables had been removed. Before the coronavirus, I could use the bathroom in restaurants, refill my water bottle. But no more.
Monday I got two orders in three hours and made $16.58. I’d filled a small spray bottle with diluted bleach and entertained myself by spraying down restaurants’ doorknobs. Malaise had already settled in, along with the realization that COVID‑19 was going to be long and slow, and that we might lose our homes and dreams and even people we love, but our small, dull problems weren’t going anywhere. Maybe that last part is just me, but I don’t think so.
I dawdled at Indigo. It is beloved in D.C., always packed, and the takeout station is a well-oiled machine. Nidhi, who owns the place with her husband, Dinesh, was in the kitchen. She said 22 people work at the restaurant. They’d cut shifts but had managed to keep everyone on the payroll. Two people stood outside waiting on orders, and me.
Farmbird was so quiet, I was greeted like an old friend. Someone I’d never spoken to came from the back to say hello.
Last spring a New York Times reporter spent a few days as a bicycle delivery person and wrote about it. He got it all in there—the blind rides that spit you out on the other end of town, the lousy tippers, the apps’ cat-and-mouse with bonuses, the bad pay.
But what is the alternative? It would be one thing if riders had a choice between delivering meals and working at The New York Times. And those dwindling manufacturing jobs that nonprofessional workers are supposed to want? A lot don’t. Some of us weren’t meant to be employed, and we’ll work twice as hard at our own hustles to avoid punching a clock.
It’s true the job can be hard as hell. I don’t depend on it now, but the year I lived off deliveries turned me into an athlete, which is unbecoming after a certain age. It’s nothing to retire on.
When I started riding, I would have been destroyed by a bike repair that cost more than a few dollars, let alone a broken bone.
I once crashed my bike on ice outside a restaurant while trying to make rent. I’ve favored my Dr. Martens Mary Janes for cool-weather riding ever since the soles of my waterproof moccasins slipped—I hadn’t heeded the online reviews before purchasing—and I fell down half a flight of stairs at a ramen place. It wasn’t one of those falls where you spring up and look to see if anyone saw it. I knew everyone had.
And now there is the virus.
A couple of weeks into the pandemic, I ran into the kid with the skateboard. His grandmother lives a block away from me. Darnell—Nell—is 24 and has a fighter’s face, with brows pulled down at the outer corners and a slight underbite, but his nature is sweet, that of someone who brings medications to his grandmother in the afternoon.
He thought the idea that we’re “essential critical infrastructure workers” was B.S.—“they just need someone to bring them their food”—but felt lucky to have work, and this work in particular. “A 9-to-5 would have you in an office, in a kitchen. It’s so beautiful to have your freedom.”
He appreciated that the apps he rides for had bumped up pay, but he wasn’t counting on the new compensation policies they’d promised to cover illness. He’d seen the virus coming and put money away, and he’d changed up his routine.
“I’m barely moving my hands from this vicinity”—he demarcated a space in front of his torso. “I don’t touch my hood! When I’m done delivering, everything I have on is washed. I clean out my delivery bag. Every. Day.” When he found himself wiping down the door handle at a condo building with disinfectant, he worried he’d gotten obsessive—“people are losing themselves to being scared.”
He’s double-shampooing his hair now. He pulled a long strand from under his Raiders hoodie, which was enormous over his braids.
This article appears in the June 2020 print edition with the headline “How I Became Essential.”