During that odd time of year between winter and spring, when light rain and mild hail announce the changing of seasons, the afternoon sky is overcast and the streets are mostly empty in South Slope, Brooklyn, except for several people mounting delivery bicycles. Inside a homely bar, Joseph, a twenty-five-year-old Texas transplant, fidgets with bottles of liquor while simultaneously wiping the countertop.
Order a whiskey and Joseph will surely launch into detailed descriptions of the various rye, bourbon and malt he's stocking. Happy to entertain, you may soon learn Joseph is a caregiver, actor and entrepreneur, in addition to being a bartender. If he likes you, he may also reveal his other gig: spending nights atop his Bianchi race bicycle, darting around New York City delivering everything from psychotropics to painkillers; marijuana to mushrooms.
He made his connection through a chance encounter with a teenage neighbor who moved into his building and brought an upstanding reputation with him. You could smell the pounds of weed in his apartment from a block away. Joseph and his neighbor share the same name (which has been changed here at Joseph’s request). One day, when Joseph came home from one of his other jobs, he ran into the neighbor, who'd locked himself out of his apartment.
“He had two pounds on him and he brought it in. And I was like, ‘Oh I know what that is. Is this your job?’ And he goes, 'Yeah,'” recalls Joseph. “We got along. It's never been like I really had to ask him for anything.”
So he'd take what he was given and sell it. “I'd be like yeah, give me a pound or two, I'll have fun with this. I'll get rid of it,” he says.
As the nature of these things goes, soon he was dealing in Oxycontin, Molly (MDMA, or Ecstasy) and a wide range of hallucinogenics. Joseph was experienced with selling before his move to New York, and was always more interested in the business side than in the drugs themselves. He constantly dreams up business plans; he and his supplier came up with an iPhone Pokemon app they wanted to market, but it never came to fruition.
“It's not a need, really,” Joseph says as he hands off a one-hitter pipe to a burly customer. “I was originally trying to make extra cash, and I was.”
Yet today he hardly needs the extra money. Along with bartending in South Slope, Joseph is a trapeze instructor, a caregiver to autistic children and an actor, starring in B-List commercials and, most recently, a straight-to-DVD indie romantic comedy, for which he received $1,000 for less than a full day’s work.
His litany of jobs is congruent with his lifestyle. One day he could be mixing drinks or flying high on tightropes swinging from banister to banister, and another he is delivering to friends and high-flyers of a different variety.
A customer exits his spacious, albeit cluttered, Williamsburg apartment and says he'll see Joseph again soon. When the door shuts, Joseph starts describing a recent night out on bike deliveries. “I start off at four to five. Stay in the neighborhood, do the close people first...mostly friends. Take care of everything before eight. Go right down the street and they always order the same thing. Then I'll look at my phone to see who wants to meet me here or can I go to Park Slope or Greenpoint.” He sits back and takes a bite of Thai food that's been cooling on the kitchen table. He laughs and smiles as he slurps the noodles while recounting the night in his head.
Sometimes he'll go into Manhattan, where he'll make a stop in Harlem or the Upper East Side. First Avenue is a great ride, but sometimes he'll need a few drinks just to make the long trip through Manhattan, so he'll stop at one of his haunts along the way.
“With just the right buzz, you can ride, just cruising, it's so fun,” he said. “Everything becomes clear.”
Joseph rides with abandon. His look is the farthest thing from a hipster biker cliché—his hair is tightly trimmed and he calls messenger bags “faggy,” sporting a Jansport instead. Along with the substances crammed in his backpack, Joseph always carries a spare tire and pump, just in case.
“I bike everywhere. It's great exercise. Freedom and free will,” he said. “When you're riding, you really don't have to stop. You can take a left, you can take a right. Oh, there's a stop sign. You don't have to stop.”
This is the kind of energy Joseph exerts at all times. His shotgun approach to conversation—articulate at times, though often shy—only underscores a charismatic fervor, whether getting passionately frenetic about bike riding or which whiskey to choose.
“And the bike is always there. Nothing's gonna hold me back. The only thing that's going to hold me back is me.”
* * *
Growing up in Austin, Texas, Joseph didn't get into much trouble. In sixth grade he chose theatre as an elective, which eventually brought him to New York City. He found the freedom of pantomiming and acting reassuring, and soon began taking part in national competitions held by the International Thespian Society.
“I knew what my life would be if I just stayed there,” he said. “I'd go for four years, I'd go out for this job or that job, some mediocre five-day-a-week job. I knew what girls I'd be meeting. It was all there in front of me and I wanted to get out.”
Accepted at an acting school in New York at seventeen, Joseph moved to Midtown, and has since lived in Harlem, Queens and Brooklyn.
He completed an associate degree at the acting school as planned and approached the steep career path as any other Midwestern transplant with a dream: aligning gigs here and there, at one point starring in a Trojan condom commercial.
When his infamous neighbor locked himself out of his apartment, he invited him in for a meal, and then into his life. Their mutually-beneficial business relationship has lasted for several years.
* * *
Joseph’s is, naturally, a high-risk profession. His most recent run-in with law enforcement came when he was stopped by police officers on his way to a delivery in Williamsburg.
“Hey, we've seen you before,” the officers said, pulling their squad car next to Joseph.
“Yeah, I've probably seen you,” he said.
“Where are you off to?”
“Work. What do you need?”
“You were going pretty fast there and ran that red light.”
“I have to be at work at 8:30,” Joseph said, not knowing what time it really was. He lucked out: it was 8:25 p.m. so the urgency to get to work seemed more plausible.
“Where do you have to go?” the cops asked.
“I gotta go to Park Slope.”
“You want a ride man?”
“Nah, I got all my shit and my stuff in my bag.”
At this point the cops wondered what stuff was in his bag. He listed off: Bike lock, knee break, condoms, extra boxers, socks, yogurt, beef jerky.
“I named all this stuff, and they go 'Alright man, drive careful—get a fucking helmet.'”
Really, Joseph was heading out on a delivery. “I had two ounces, two grams of hash and $100 of molly.”
Had he been caught that night, he'd likely face a minimum of a one-year jail sentence, with the maximum punishment of 5 and 1/2 years of incarceration, which makes it all the more surprising that he continues on, just for fun. Or something.
“It's not a need, really,” says Joseph, slurping another spoonful of his Thai noodles. “I mean, it's more of a chore than anything.”
* * *
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Kenneth Rosen, formerly Narratively's social media manager, is a writer living in Alaska. Follow him on Twitter @kennosen.
Award-winning cartoonist Sam Spina won an award once for a comic he made.