Mercury Falling

For 11 years, Markus Cook was synonymous with Bay Area bike messengers. But he didn't live to see his dream come true -- the Cycle Messenger World Championships held here in San Francisco.

Info:Correction date: May 15, 1996
Mercury Falling
For 11 years, Markus Cook was synonymous with Bay Area bike messengers. But he didn't live to see his dream come true -- the Cycle Messenger World Championships held here in San Francisco.

By Jack Boulware

"Bananas for everyone!"
A bearded guy runs inside the Covered Wagon bar at Fifth and Folsom streets, tossing a bunch of ripe bananas on the bar. Mishka tears off one, takes a bite, and slaps the blue trademark sticker on her forehead like a third eye.

The bar is filling up on this April Saturday afternoon for a benefit for the fourth annual Cycle Messenger World Championships (CMWC), which San Francisco will host in August. A messenger rides into the bar on a bike, towing a one-wheeled trailer with a pair of stars-and-stripes underwear flapping the air like a flag. He pays the cover charge, then rolls his bike into an inner room and parks it. On the bandstand, a tough girl named Shelly cranks up her Gibson SG and her band, Bimbo Toolshed, launches into another song. People are drinking beers, eating bananas, bouncing to the music.

When the Covered Wagon hosted a similar CMWC benefit back in November, the headliner was L. Sid, the town's premier bike messenger band. It was one of L. Sid's best gigs in months, as lead singer Markus Cook thrashed about in Iggy-esque fashion. Between songs, Cook's onstage patter took on an unusual confessional tone.

"Hey, I'm Markus, and I'm an addict!" he yelled into the mike, his natural 'fro bouncing in the air. "Anybody who's out there who needs help, all I can say is Walden House is a great program. I've been clean for a week. If you need help, get it!"

He introduced his counselor, who was standing in the crowd. Some were stunned, others already knew he had a problem, but everyone knew he would beat it. He was Markus, embodiment of the San Francisco bicycle scene. He somehow managed to do anything he wanted, always encouraging those around him to do the same. He was their cheerleader, promoter, activist, and dispatcher. But less than two months after the show, on Jan. 3 of this year, Markus stunned the community when he relapsed and died of an overdose. He was 35.

For 11 years, nobody was more visible or popular in the bike messenger world. Markus was the voice of an overlooked working class, and he made them feel they were special. In his eyes, they weren't orphan street rats or stoner scum, they had human rights and politics worth defending. Markus served on the board of directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, lobbying for better biking conditions in the city. He helped launch Critical Mass, the monthly direct action in which bikers commandeer the streets in protest. He appeared in the columns of Herb Caen and Rob Morse, and was profiled in People magazine as one of San Francisco's "wacky" messengers. He acted as a messenger in a Dreyer's ice cream commercial. He was voted the crowd's favorite at the AIDS Bike-a-Thon bike messenger fashion show. His zine, Mercury Rising, was mined by William Gibson for his novel Virtual Light. He was single-handedly responsible for San Francisco's involvement in the world messenger championships (L. Sid played at the inaugural event in Berlin).

When a guy with green hair walks into the Covered Wagon benefit, Mishka points him out as "the best heavy metal DJ in the business." She has been a messenger for three years, and currently works administration in the office of the Lightning Express courier company. Dressed in a "Satanic Army" sweat shirt that mimics the Salvation Army logo, she talks about Markus, who was one of her best friends and biggest inspirations. It was Mishka who helped organize the throng of messengers at a Markus memorial the Friday after he died.

"It was rad!" she says.
Although Cook's family wants his story to be told as both a cautionary tale about heroin addiction and as a tribute to his accomplishments, many in the messenger community aren't keen about talking to the press. Some prefer not to relive the memories, and want to protect their friend. Others are convinced their agendas will be ignored and their world betrayed, that once again the media will screw up the story.

Why shouldn't they be suspicious? The Chronicle and the Examiner portray messengers as "local color," i.e. freaks. Hollywood made a botch of the culture with the Kevin Bacon bike messenger movie Quicksilver. Anybody who saw MTV's Real World saw how the messenger character, Puck, fared -- he was kicked out of the house (he got his revenge later, by appearing in the Pauly Shore bomb Jury Duty). And even William Gibson's futuristic novel about the culture embarrassed the messenger community because it misused their street slang.

What's the angle of this story going to be, the folks in the messenger scene want to know. Is it just going to be about heroin? Is this another rise-and-fall tragedy? Could you not mention such-and-such? And could you mention this instead?

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