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.

Markus named his first bike Dottie -- an ancient Schwinn one-speed with a big wire basket in the front. He became a dedicated biker, whipping up and down the canyons of the Financial District, not wasting any gasoline or polluting the environment -- and getting paid for it! His peer messengers were as eccentric as they came, a motley crew of propeller beanies, weird-beards, and mohawks, the more outrageous the better. At that time, few companies required uniforms, so Mark adopted a sartorial mishmosh that would remain his trademark the rest of his life: leopard jackets, pajama tops, sleeveless fake fur vests, and cutoff pants patterned like the hide of a Holstein.

These were the salad days, a couple of years before the evil fax machine started to cut into the market. Everybody in the high-flying yuppie economy needed deliveries. Messengers got to meet architects, judges, and attorneys, and see how the machine was run. The trade taught them quick lessons in urban geography: how the streets fit together, where the hills rose and fell into the ocean.

"I would call it the world's second-oldest profession," says Now Courier owner Jack Stevens, who has worked in the business since 1973.

Mark wasted no time in assimilating himself into the messenger culture, and it wasn't long before everybody knew who he was. Between deliveries, they hung out at "The Wall," a concrete barrier at the intersection of Sansome, Sutter, and Market; they cashed their checks at Harvey's coffee shop on Fifth at Folsom; they went camping on the Russian River every Memorial Day. To deter thieves, they painted their bikes to look like junk. If they rode a company-owned bike, they made a point to see how crazy they could get on it. They all wore the distinctive handmade sling bags designed by local messenger Eric Zo. And if they hung out with Mark, they soon found themselves scaling that giant billboard on Bryant and Delancey that greets commuters crossing the Bay Bridge into town. From their perch, they'd view the bay and talk for hours.

It's a bit of a misnomer to talk about the "messenger community"; there are as many denominations in the community as there are messengers. For every extrovert, there is a quiet loner who turns in his "manifest" paperwork at the end of the day and goes home for the night. But it is the extroverts who get noticed, hanging out at watering holes like the Drunk Tank, Zeitgeist, the Armadillo, and especially on Friday afternoons at the Covered Wagon, where they pound beers, wolf hot dogs, and swap war stories. Two blocks away the ritual is repeated by journalists at the M&M newspaper bar, and a few blocks farther into the Tenderloin there's the Red Room, full of hipsters preparing for the weekend with martinis.

But newspaper hacks and downtown goatees don't spend the day recovering from slamming into a car door that suddenly opens in their path, or pitching over their handlebars when their wheel gets caught in the cable car tracks. It's a physically and psychologically punishing trade, and the messengers who do cut loose tend to hit it hard.

"After four years of this, I nearly killed myself with alcohol," says Jason Walters, a dispatcher for Flash.

The job holds special appeal to young newcomers. Nobody really cares what you do as long as you make your tags (deliveries). You get to work outside and test yourself against the elements -- natural as well as man-made -- and there's usually a party at the end of the day. For those also going to law school or playing in bands, messengering is an excellent diversion that can maybe even cover the bills. And for those who are running away from something, as many San Franciscans are, the messenger community is the best surrogate family one could have. Just pick a nickname and you're set: Tyrone Shoelaces, Warp Drive, the Moped Mute. Mark became "Mark of Cain."

By the end of 1984, Mark had met his future wife, Jennie Hammett. At their wedding in Sacramento the next year, all the men in the wedding party wore exaggerated mascara, and the drunken (male) bike messengers startled oldsters by dancing with each other at the reception. The couple set up housekeeping in Mark's apartment on Germania Street in the Lower Haight, and their happy home became a magnet for messengers. New Year's Eve parties were legendary, spilling out of the one-bedroom apartment and onto the street, people banging on pots and pans. Nobody had any money, might as well have a good time.

In August 1985, Mark was captured in a People magazine feature story on those "kamikaze bikers" of San Francisco. Accompanying the story was a full-page photo of the U.S. Messenger gang, a grinning Mark of Cain standing in the back of the crowd.

The article started with lyrics to one of his songs about being a messenger:
The rain, the blur,
The world stands still
As I careen uncontrolled
On down the hill --
Don't wanna die,
Ain't ready to go,
Just another dent
In some yuppie's Volvo

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