What I Learned from Pulling Rickshaws

Portrait of the author as a young man, circa 1997 in Ottawa, Canada.

By Harry Hodge

So you wouldn’t know it meeting me now, but I used to drag humans around for money.

We’re talking 500 pounds of dead weight up Parliament Hill on Canada Day. And down again. And up again. Or from one province to another, running from downtown Ottawa across the Alexandra Bridge to Gatineau, Quebec. I did it for parts of three summers, and only on later reflection has it shown me what tools I took from it.

That’s right: I used to pull a rickshaw.

As summer jobs go, it was a job I sort of fell into. Make your own hours, independent contractor, get fit. This was more or less how it was pitched to me. At the end of the day, without any better option presenting itself, I said “F&ck it. I’ll try it out.”

Everyone needs a celebrity passenger from time to time! Dan Aykroyd was more of a Brews Brother when he sat in ol’ blue!

Be different or die

If you were in the Byward Market in the 1990s, you couldn’t walk from one corner to the next without being badgered by a rickshaw runner. They were literally everywhere. And some were more “normal” than others, myself included. Guys with nicknames like Stitch, Shakes, Pousse-pousse, Sidewalk, the Enforcer, Tornado. Some I’m still friends with today, some I’ve got no idea where they ended up.

The point was, not being “normal” was actually clever marketing. When you walk into a shop and are faced with 15 different soft drinks, and you have no idea about their individual merits, you go for the one with the loudest, most colourful packaging. Selling people a ride around the neighbourhood in a human-powered contraption takes some showmanship.

In my case, I was the master of the “pitch.” If I saw a couple walking by and one was smoking a cigarette, I’d venture “that looks heavy. Let me give you a lift.” If a late teens/early 20s woman walked by, I’d often mistake her for Britney Spears and offer her a (1%) reduction on my fees. I’m pretty sure any of my old coworkers reading this will agree I was good for the snappy patter.


Talking a good game

Not only did pushing people into a ride they probably didn’t need require snappy pick-up lines, but also solid debating skills. If a potential passenger said they were too heavy, a popular counter was “nonsense. You’re light as a feather, and twice as delicate.” Outright lying also worked; I’d often say “there goes med school” when refused a ride. Then I’d have already moved onto pitching the next passerby with similar gusto.

For some, constant pitching was mentally exhausting, as well as the inevitable refusal rate being pretty high. The physical demands carried all the predictable ailments; sore back, shin splints, etc. The contraptions themselves went through considerable wear and tear, like flat tires, stress fractures in the metal frames, warped rims and the like. But having people tell you “no” day after day was far more draining, compounded if the guys around you were making more money than you were.


Peaks and valleys, highs and lows

When your tuition for next semester is based on your earning power in a sector like tourism, you are at the mercy of several elements. Weather is a major factor; oversaturation of the marketplace (in this case, too many runners); things like injuries or mechanical issues. It also helped to maintain good relationships with the people around you, which I think most of us were overall pretty good at. I’m told other markets, like Toronto, were a lot more cutthroat and less collaborative. For example, if there are four people in a group, and I can only take two, I pick the closest guy OR the guy I get along with the best to share the fare.

As well, my time doing this particular line of work opened my eyes to different methods to attack obstacles.


Climbing the mountain vs. beating the clock

I used each of these strategies at different times, and have continued to do so to this day. “Climbing the mountain” was effective for me when I was running a daily newspaper, but can be applied to any situation, like a student ploughing through term papers to finish their degree. I treated different days of the week as more or less profitable, and set goals according to expectations of how much I could earn. Making $80 on a Wednesday in May was fairly ambitious; making less than $400 on Canada Day would be disappointing.

I also treated my lease on the rickshaw itself ($1300 for a season, which in my case was May-August) in this regard. I chose to pay the entire amount in the shortest time possible, even though it was normal to pay a payment each month; the cost wasn’t higher to do it that way. In my mind, it was a mental obstacle to overcome, and the ensuing revenue I generated was profit.

“Beating the clock” has actually been a metaphor at different times in my life. In my mind, the clock is about to strike midnight and my carriage is about to revert to pumpkin form. We all do this, whether we know it or not. Trying to buy while the market is low so we can sell when it’s high later; using connections to get front-row seats to a hot ticket event; waiting in line to buy a phone at midnight (which I still don’t understand, frankly).

Whether you’re aware of it or not, many of you have been doing these things your whole lives. What pulling a rickshaw did for me, despite what a strange job it sounds like, was teach me: The importance of relationships; maximizing my time and knowing when to cut my losses; the ability to deal with the unexpected; and the art of persuasion (in certain scenarios).

It’s funny, though. I still can’t fix a flat tire.


About hodgedude

I'm a Canadian journalist and teacher, most recently living in Edmonton and Toronto, now located in Ho Chi Minh City. Graduate of Concordia University in Montreal. I've taught English in S. Korea, pulled rickshaws in Canada, taught at a Taiwanese language boot camp, edited newspapers in China and played a French-speaking Spanish colonel on Vietnamese TV. I also play Australian football. Pick up a copy of issue one of my independent comic, "Getting Lucky," at Happy Harbor Comics in Edmonton, the Comic Hunter in Moncton, New Brunswick, and the Spotted Cow Pub, 111 Bui Vien, District 1, Saigon.
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2 Responses to What I Learned from Pulling Rickshaws

  1. Tonya says:

    Great read! Thanks for the memories 😆From a Fellow part time runner 97,98. I remember you well.

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