For the past 15 years or so, Stefan Fitzgerald has made a living selling weed. Back in high school in Austin, Texas, he sold joints to classmates. He would keep them stashed in empty magic markers. Then pot helped pay the bills for six years in San Francisco. Two years ago, he moved to New York and got a job working for a marijuana bicycle delivery service.
He pulled into New York on Halloween 2006—“One date I can remember,” he said with a laugh—rented the cheapest place he could find, a studio apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and began looking for work in his field of expertise. A friend provided the necessary recommendation; he bought himself a bike and soon enough he was on the road with a prepaid cell phone and 50 bags of marijuana.
“It was a great way to see the city, you know,” he said. “Just sort of trial by fire.”
After a month or so on the job, Mr. Fitzgerald got burned while zipping down Park Avenue—in the biker lane, mind you. A car door opened and sent his lanky frame flying through the air. He landed on his hip, broke it in two places.
In the ambulance he clutched his backpack and hoped no one would notice its pungent contents. He was still holding it to his chest when his gurney was wheeled into the emergency waiting room and parked next to a guy whose tattooed arm was handcuffed to his bed and whose presence was being closely monitored by a plainclothes police officer.
“Then a big screaming woman who had both hands cuffed to her bed was wheeled in on the other side of me, with a uniformed police officer escorting her,” said Mr. Fitzgerald, who somehow escaped with a broken pelvis and a $10,000 hospital bill. He’s still battling to get the reckless door-opener’s insurance company to pony up.
He spent that winter nursing his hip, and by the end of January he was back on rotation. He says they like him at the service because he always calls in on time and doesn’t complain.
The way it works is the biker on duty the day before brings you a bag containing the weed he didn’t sell, the balance in cash—minus his cut—and the phone. Next morning, using a pay phone, Mr. Fitzgerald checks in with “dispatch” at 9 a.m., letting them know he’s ready to ride. At some point in the day—it’s a 12-hour shift—he meets up with The Man, who takes the cash and refills his supply. The cell phone works as a pager, basically: When there’s an order from a customer, dispatch calls you; you call back from a pay phone, dispatch tells you where to go.
“That way it’s untraceable. Supposedly,” he said. Mr. Fitzgerald was comfortable telling me about his work because it’s been his experience that the cops don’t really care about small-time pot dealers.
“Frankly, the guys I work for I think are a little paranoid,” he said of the elaborate phone system. “But I guess it goes with the territory.”
He says his parents were hippies; dad’s a comedian, mom’s a midwife. To what would surely be their relief, Mr. Fitzgerald says he’s always preferred to let someone else deal with the stress of a larger criminal operation. “I’ve never wanted to be the guy who’s sitting on a lot of weight,” he said. “Maybe it’s ’cause I’m from the South or grew up in the ’90s—it seems sort of stupid to kill yourself to make a dollar.… I just want to make enough so that I can afford to do what I really want to do.”
He hopes that one day his artwork will pay the bills. In the meantime, he makes about $500 a day biking around the city, just like the hundreds of marijuana bicycle delivery boys in this town.
Things don’t always go as planned. In July of ’07, Mr. Fitzgerald was up around 125th Street, spinning his wheels.
“So I’m riding on my bicycle and I get my page. I’m going past a pay phone as I get the page, so I double back to use the phone. There’s these guys shootin’ dice, sellin’ dope—I think they were probably selling rocks of somethin’—they were definitely selling something. So I go to use the pay phone. Make the call, get the address, hop on my bike, start to ride, and I feel someone grabbing on my backpack and slam me on the ground. It turns out the police had been there watching these guys from a van from across the street, and they thought I had just made a little deal. Because the cops were like, ‘Where’s the crack?’
“They pat me down and search me—they don’t find anything at first, and they seemed kind of bummed.”
When they found the giant bag of weed in his backpack and $2,000 cash, they still did not seem “that stoked,” but they cuffed him and put him in the back of an empty police van. It was around noon and the sting had only just begun. The officers told him to get comfortable; they would not be heading back to the station until the van was full.