“I’m often the only person my customers see all week”: When Covid struck, this TV professional became a food courier

“I’m often the only person my customers see all week”: When Covid struck, this TV professional became a food courier

For the last seven years, I’ve made a living as an assistant director in TV production, while working toward becoming a full-time writer. I’ve worked on Designated Survivor, Hannibal, Schitt’s Creek—if you’ve seen a show shot in Toronto, there’s a good chance I’ve been a part of it.

On the evening of March 12, I said goodnight to my colleagues on set, knowing it would likely be the last time I saw them for a long time. Within 72 hours, TV and film productions across the province had shut down. I’m used to being on my feet all day, and I wanted something to keep me active and help pay the bills. Pretty quickly, I realized I could make some money as a bike courier. I picked up an insulated backpack at an e-scooter dealership and signed up with an online food delivery service.

While most Torontonians are confined to their homes, I’m riding from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. In a normal week, I work four five-hour shifts during the dinner rush. Depending on how busy it is, I can make 15 to 20 deliveries per shift. My pay fluctuates based on travel time, distance travelled, number of deliveries and tips.

Before I go out on shift, I get into my cycling gear and put a buff around my neck so I can cover my face when I find myself with others in restaurants or condo lobbies—better than nothing, they say. I wear a pair of leather gloves and carry plenty of hand sanitizer. I also keep a small radio so I can listen to some music while I bike around. I log in to the app, wait for my phone to ding, and an address pops up sending me to the restaurant.

Before Covid, the most dangerous part of the job would have been navigating traffic through the city. Now the biggest risks are pickup and delivery. Every restaurant in the city has some sort of system in place to separate their staff from whoever might walk in the door, with varying degrees of success. At some fast-food places, they lock the door while you wait outside until your order is ready; then, staff drop off the order on a table, unlock the door and run off while you pick up the order. Other restaurants are less efficient. A few times a night I have to wait 10 to 15 minutes in a dining room with a wall of tables separating delivery people from the staff. Sometimes I’m closer to other couriers than I’d like to be. If the dining room is too full, I wait outside.

When orders are ready, staff members will usually drop it on a table and walk away, but not always. Some staff approach me to try to hand over the order; if it’s a busy night, they’ll forget about social distancing in the heat of the moment. When this happens, I have to speak up—I ask them to put down the order and walk away so that I can pick it up safely. For the most part, people are more than happy to keep their distance when you ask.

Then comes the best part of the job: the journey. In the before times, traffic was stop-and-go at all hours, and cyclists would be dodging car doors and absent-minded pedestrians. It might take half an hour to ride down University from College to Front. Now, if you time the lights right, you can rip down in under 10 minutes. Once I get to my destination, I drop the food at the door, knock, and move away to a safe distance. Customers open the door and usually thank me before I leave. Most customers are pleasant, and the rest are indifferent. I have yet to meet any outright jerks. Tips can range in value from “Why bother?” to “Oh, that’s nice” to the occasional “You are too kind.” I have to say, there’s something special about delivering McDonald’s—you generally receive a hero’s welcome. I haven’t quite figured out why, but people are absolutely thrilled when you arrive. Maybe it appeals to their inner child.

In many condo buildings, delivery people aren’t allowed past the concierge desk. In those cases, I have to call the customer to come down, and am forced to wait in close proximity with other couriers, sometimes as many as five other people. The longer I have to wait, the less money I can make during my shift, and the more I risk potential Covid exposure. In the last few weeks, a lot of customers have walked right up to me to grab their food like in the old days, and I’ve had to jump back. I chalked it up to the customer’s ignorance or arrogance.

But I realized something one evening this week, when I was delivering a small order of sushi to a condo on Front Street. For the fourth time that shift, I had to wait in the lobby for the customer to come down, and I was getting annoyed. When my customer arrived, he greeted me as though we were old friends, enthusiastically and with a bright smile. That’s when it occurred to me I could very well be the first flesh-and-blood person he’d interacted with all day, or even all week. It gave me no pleasure when I had to harsh his buzz and stop him short of approaching me. He stopped in his tracks, grabbed his order, thanked me profusely and sent a generous tip. This delivery made me realize that in the era of Covid, I do more than deliver food. I’m more than a cog in the takeout machine. I’m helping strangers remember what it’s like to interact with another human being. When this is all over, maybe we can add consensual hugs as an option with your delivery.

Judging by the number of single-serving meals I deliver, I’d guess that around half of my customers live alone. Many online delivery services now offer contactless delivery, where you drop the food on the porch, ring the doorbell and leave. That’s an excellent way to keep me and my customers safe, but it also means that a customer doesn’t see anyone at all. It is a necessary but unfortunate consequence of the times.

As orders slow down at the end of my shift, I make my way home to my condo in Fort York and call it a night. My wife, Alex, has me strip down at the front door, and my clothes go straight into the wash. I hop in the shower right after, and sometimes, Alex brings me a shower beer. I wash off, do some stretching and listen to some tunes. When I signed up to be a food courier, I was excited to make some money and bike around an empty city. I never expected I would be making people’s days a little bit better. In her address on the Covid crisis, the Queen made a promise: “Better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.” Until that happens, I will drop your food off on your doorstep and smile while you retrieve it, standing at least two metres away.