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.

Eastern Wyoming offers some of the finest wind and sagebrush in the contiguous 48 states. The capital city of Cheyenne sits just a rock-kick away from the Colorado border and is the largest town for a 200-mile radius. But if you're in dusty Cheyenne, you wouldn't kick a rock to the border. You'd get in your gas-guzzling car, physically drive to Colorado, and deposit the rock. That's what people do in those parts; an odd fixation they share with Los Angeles. Motor vehicles are not just for errands, they're an extension of your body.

In August 1960, the Cook household saw the arrival of Mark Wesley, a third sibling behind two older sisters, Shawn and Camille. The family didn't stay in Cheyenne long. Mark's parents, Lynne and James, divorced when he was 3, his father relocating to Las Vegas to work as an electrical engineer for the nuclear test site. The children stayed with Lynne, moving frequently, from Washington to Utah, until finally settling in Phoenix, Ariz. Camille, Mark's closest sister in age, remembers him -- even as a curly-haired youth -- instructing the family on buying only white paper towels and toilet paper, because they're less harmful to the environment. He was a bright boy, participating in the usual kid activities like youth hockey because that's what kids do. After his voice changed, people often confused him on the telephone for the booming greeting of his gregarious grandfather Mark. He put the voice to good use, volunteering at the local Project for the Blind, reading live on the local radio station for the sightless.

Because Lynne often worked three jobs to put her kids through school, the children helped contribute whatever they could. Mark didn't just work for the minimum wage, he seized the opportunity. During one stint at a local pizzeria, his boss told him he could have a pair of roller skates if he made it onto local television. Sure enough, there was Mark on the nightly news, delivering large pepperonis on roller skates.

When he wasn't hauling pizzas, he cruised the sunbaked streets of Phoenix in a faded red Cadillac convertible with friends, listening to Genesis and Peter Gabriel.

"We thought we were something," recalls high school buddy Jonathan Thymius.
Mark excelled in speech and drama in school, and in his senior year he won a trophy for best lead actor in a production of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? At Camelback High School, alma mater of Alice Cooper and Barry Goldwater, Mark floated easily between the usual cliques of jocks, freaks, and nerds, and was elected class president under the slogan "Mark Cook: If I Win, I'd Be the Winner!" He was asked to give the main speech at his senior graduation. He was on the mayor's youth advisory committee. His family was sure he was going to be president someday. He was always volunteering for some political campaign and was instrumental in organizing an anti-nuke demonstration, the largest such event in the history of the state. This did not sit well with his father, the nuclear industry signing his checks for years.

The children spent the summers in Las Vegas with their father and his new family. Being an engineer, Dad loved to work on cars, and made damn sure each of his kids had a vehicle to drive, because after a certain age, not only do you need your own car, you should have the tools to fix it. Mark showed absolutely no interest in cars or mechanics, largely because Dad did.

A logical step after high school is college, but the restless, intelligent young man had his own ideas. Most parents would blanch at the thought of their kid wasting his talents, traveling across the country making cane furniture and doing other odd jobs. Lynne and James were no exception. Both were curious as to his plans, particularly his father, but Mark was out of the house before they could really protest. After working at a record store that specialized in soul music, he nicknamed himself "Markus."

Sometime in 1980, a local musician named Jack Chandler remembers opening the classifieds of the Phoenix New Times and spotting an ad for a band seeking musicians. The cited influences were Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Chandler called the number, and met Mark at the house he was sharing with a group of musicians. They started rehearsing, Jack on saxophone, Mark on guitar, and, as Zappa might say, picked out a stupid name, had some cards printed up for a couple of bucks, and they were on their way to fame. Fame would elude them, however, and the band drifted apart.

One day Mark stopped by his mother's house and noticed a U-Haul trailer parked in front. Sister Camille was moving to San Francisco, hellbent on law school, and when Mark abruptly asked if he could hop along, they stuffed his belongings in the back and drove to the Bay Area.

The two pulled into the Richmond District one night in February 1984 and met some friends at the Ireland's 32 bar, one of whom worked as a bike messenger. He suggested Mark should apply for a job: "It's easy work, you get to be outside, and the exercise is great." Within a few days, Mark was hired.

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