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The Day the Wheels Fell off Kozmo.com

So this is how the world of a dotcom ends, not with a bang but with some soon-to-expire Fresh Samantha juice. A tale of the last days of Kozmo.com, told by one of the last remaining Kozmonauts.

I was there when it all went down — clad in the trademark blue cargo pants and orange messenger bag, smartly accessorized with a Kryptonite bike chain around my waist.

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I worked as a bicycle delivery person for Kozmo.com, an online purveyor of videos, groceries, ice cream, and electronics. As the corporate ad copy read, “Lawrence of Arabia and Camels from the Internet to your door in under an hour.”

The death of that golden dotcom pledge hit me last Wednesday evening as I sat in the Upper East Side branch warehouse (aka “spoke”), waiting to receive my next set of deliveries. When I clocked in earlier that day, I didn’t realize that within hours, I would take my place among the swelling ranks of former dotcom-ers. Reality hit when Dan, the manager of our spoke, gathered his 14 employees — including 6 riders, aka “Kozmonauts” — shortly after 6 PM for an “important announcement.”

Dan (after a month and a half on the job, I never did learn his last name) prefaced his remarks saying, “I hope I don’t ever have to make another announcement like this.” He continued, with commendable understatement, to explain that Kozmo would be doing things very differently in the future: There would be major changes. Kozmo would be a different sort of company. “That’s really all I can say; you can all go home now. Tomorrow morning, go to the 45th Street spoke at 10 AM. They’ll explain what’s going to happen.”

The Web site normally shut down each night at 1 AM. Needless to say, it wasn’t a promising sign when employees left work seven hours early that day, with no advance warning to customers. Dozens of orders sat undelivered on the shelves that night. Packs of Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough ice-cream bars languished in the freezers. Boxes of fresh, “original glazed” Krispy Kremes grew stale from neglect. A deluxe Woody Allen DVD gift set lay nervously in back somewhere. And dozens of gay porn rentals spent their first quiet night alone.

We cleaned out our lockers and then, on the Wednesday night before Easter, scattered into the evening like orange-jacketed apostles fleeing the Garden of Gethsemane a day early. I bicycled my familiar route down 2nd Avenue from 91st Street, keeping an eye on darting taxicabs while recalling snippets of my brief stint as a dotcom employee.

I was a blue-collar dotcom worker. “It’s not like I’m a techie writing code in some converted Chelsea warehouse; I bike through rain and snow in East Harlem and Columbia University,” I told myself. Gracie Mansion was in our delivery area as well — although as far as I know, Rudy Giuliani never availed himself of our services. Had he taken Kozmo’s advertisements to heart (“Häagen-Dazs, a chenille blanket, and What Lies Beneath from the Internet to your door in under an hour.”) and ordered, say, The Vagina Monologues in hardcover and Tampax satins, someone from my spoke would have ridden the few blocks to deliver the order in under an hour.

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The evening of Dan’s cryptic announcement, I phoned a friend who works in human resources at another floundering dotcom and asked him what I should expect at the 10 AM meeting. Intrigued, he called back 15 minutes later and suggested that I check out FuckedCompany.com, a Web site that exults in listing new-economy casualties. Kozmo was the lead story. According to the site, almost $300 million and 1,100 employees were “down the drain.”

Thursday morning, that rumor was realized. Entering the 45th Street spoke at the appointed hour, I passed a Kozmo employee at the door with a bottle of Heineken in a paper bag and quickly came upon a jumble of bikes and messengers looking relatively jovial. Riders swarmed around the now worthless branded items offered us by ID card-wearing managers — Kozmo cargo pants, vests, fleece blankets, hats, cigarette lighters, Slinkys, mugs, T-shirts, bicycle helmets. Dozens of hands grabbed for these spoils of defeat.

Shortly, a young man named Scott, wearing glasses and a cranberry-heather sweater, addressed the mob. “Kozmo’s a great gig. It’s been fun, but now it’s over,” he said. “It’s been a wild ride, but in the end, there was nothing else to do. The money wasn’t going to come in.” Scott, who I imagine once dreamed of retiring early on his stock options, had found out at 3 PM the previous day. Now, 19 hours later, he was handing out final checks (signed in ball-point pen!) to New York’s share of 1,100 newly unemployed Kozmo workers.

Managers walked around drinking soon-to-expire Fresh Samanthas while more ID card-wearing folks handed out freshly printed notices from the New York State Department of Labor Web site on applying for unemployment benefits. A rider next to me, standing on a chair, announced, “We should break the shit apart, man” before he tore the human-resources notices and transactions-per-hour bar graphs off a bulletin board in a clumsy, futile act of mutiny.

People took pictures and wrote down their addresses on slips of paper. It was like the last day of high school had come, without warning, in the middle of April. In the glass-doored cooler behind the counter lay two packages someone had ordered yesterday: perishable, undelivered, wrapped in orange Kozmo bags. The estimated time of delivery was laser-printed on the labels like the stilled hands of a frozen clock: “4/11/01 6:30 – 7:30 PM.”

Peter Kempe is a freelance writer based in New York. Contact him by email (peterkempe@hotmail.com).