Denver's Bike Messengers Are a Union Divided

Bike messengers ride fast and they ride alone, which is why an effort to organize them has hit the skids.

House of J-Bone, July

"I'm Father Time," Jason Abernethy says with a crooked smile. "Others can talk to you about the bike-messenger scene, I suppose, but they sent you over here because I have an increased vision of bike messengers and time."

Seated in his cramped Capitol Hill apartment, surrounded by stacks of papers and magazines, art pieces that he refers to as "sculptures," and plates and platters of silver and gold to be melted down in the event of economic collapse, Abernethy, aka J-Bone, does indeed seem to have an augmented mastery of time. For starters, there's his appearance. J-Bone is 56 now — an old man, he says — but he is wiry thin and looks fifteen years younger, particularly when you take into account the flaming red Mohawk, Mad Max shin guards and funky shorts and T-shirts that make up his messenger regalia.

"Being a bike messenger keeps you healthy," he says. "You quit riding, you turn into an old troll."

And then, of course, there's the time machine.

"I'll read out some tiny things to connect you to where we're at," J-Bone says, unearthing an eighty-plus-page book he's written, a meticulous tome full of ornate drawings, elaborate calligraphy and instructions in different languages explaining how to build and operate a time machine — or, as he calls it, a KIBX machine. "'But we're going back to the beginning and essences of time itself and what it is,'" he reads. "'As time itself being subject to life, it cannot be pre-cast into a living object. Time can only be cast in real physical form, as life itself is neither subjective nor objective.'"

He pauses. "It's literally scary what you can do with a time machine if you really know how to use it," he says.

For J-Bone, a self-proclaimed conceptual artist, all of it is connected: the KIBX machine; the denim vest hanging on the wall, carefully outfitted with thousands of safety pins; the interview taking place in his living room. It's all part of the canvas of his life, another art piece adorning and documenting his existence.

But of all the "sculptures" J-Bone has molded in his time on this planet, his proudest accomplishment by far is the Denver Professional Bike Messengers Association, a loose-knit union of messengers that he conceived and manned for years — and recently turned over to new management.

J-Bone grew up in Five Points and attended Manual High School before moving in the late 1970s to San Francisco, where he was first exposed to the concept of bike messengers. He had just quit his job as a dishwasher when his roommate told him he could find work making deliveries. J-Bone started out on foot before earning enough for a bike, and he never looked back.

Or up.

"I remember it was Friday the 13th, 1978, and I got hit by a 29-ton streetcar," he says with an explosive laugh easily three times louder than his normal speaking voice. "People to this day marvel at how I could get slammed into a full-blown streetcar and live; the strike alone is enough to kill. I just remember waking up and being underneath the wheel and crawling out as fast as I could. That's when I knew God was on my side, by golly."

Streetcar lesson learned, J-Bone stuck around the city for another ten years, mastering the trade, earning street cred by never missing a drop, and reveling in the San Francisco bike-messenger scene in its glory days. With his signature style and skills, J-Bone found himself the subject of local news stories and magazine profiles, involved in a messenger documentary and sought after to model clothing in advertisements. But it was a pure love of messenging and riding that kept him satisfied.

"It's ever-changing, all the time," he explains. "Everything is quixotic — the bikes, the whole scene. It's great. You don't have to think. I'm a horse. I make deliveries. I'm not going to be a computer designer or programmer, because I can't; I'm ready to admit my deficiencies. But I've always been quick and physically adept, however inert, so biking gives me the personal satisfaction of being able to achieve and keep a state of physical activity that I need."

So when J-Bone moved back home to be closer to his aging parents in 1988, he never considered hanging up his messenger hat; he merely donned it in a different city. But the Denver bike scene back then was far less cohesive then what he'd left behind in San Francisco, and far less understood.

"It was chaotic," J-Bone remembers. "Messengers and police were at arms; the police were unrelenting in their rhetoric, not allowing any messengers to ride on the sidewalk. Every day, people were getting tickets — three, four a week you would get. It was the ugliest thing in the world, people being treated like that, and they were paying for those tickets out of their paychecks, which have never been all that much. They needed that money to pay rent, to eat. These kids were in shambles.

"And then one day, by the stroke of God, a man walks up to me and says, 'Hi, I'm Mayor Peña,'" J-Bone recalls. "I said, 'Hey, Feddy, I'm J-Bone! Your Honor, things with bike messengers here in Denver are just not really happening at all, and it's not good.' And then the next day, he sent the police captain to my house to talk about it. I said, 'Shit, boy, it's a good thing I didn't have everything laying out, by golly!'"

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