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.

It seemed a romantic lifestyle, fleets of freewheeling Rimbauds crisscrossing the city, but Mark was hungry for something more. In 1986 he cut back on messengering and enrolled at San Francisco State full time, majoring in geography, a move that pleased his family. He and Jennie took ice dancing lessons in Berkeley, composed songs about their cat, Linus, went for Sunday walks, and hosted small dinner parties on their big oak kitchen table. He devoured each issue of Z magazine cover to cover, discussing progressive politics and military stupidity with friends, and later explaining it all over again on the phone to his mother. Mark barely cared when their apartment was burglarized; they never owned much. But on the day Dottie was stolen, he wept and wept.

In 1989, a special SFPD division called the Police Tactical Squad began responding to increasing pedestrian complaints about a messenger running traffic lights or otherwise flouting traffic laws by shaking down messengers at random for not having licenses on their bikes.

The messengers were livid. With 30 to 40 tags a day, working on commission only, few made more than $200 to $300 a week. A messenger could bust his ass five days a week, schlepping deliveries for the suits, riding two miles to make one whole dollar, keeping the city running, and the town gives him a ticket for doing his job?

Mark was positively outraged. "We'll show them how important we are," he thought. "We'll shut the city down, just like the couriers did in New York."

"He went around to different companies and said, 'We're meeting tomorrow at noon in front of the [Transamerica] pyramid,' " remembers Lemonhead, a longtime messenger.

One Friday at high noon, Markus and 50 messengers rode onto Market, spread themselves the width of the street, and began pedaling at a snail's pace, bottling up Financial District traffic for the rest of the afternoon.

"Police harassment really sucks!" echoed the cry off the tall buildings. "We just want to make some bucks!"

Not only were the cops and the suits amazed, so were the messengers themselves -- "Jesus, look what we're doing here!" Critical Mass had yet to happen, there was no lobbying coalition, and certainly no messenger union -- this was just a gaggle of pissed-off messengers on dumpy bikes, demanding some respect.

"It was the first instance of messenger activism," says Jason Walters, a messenger at the time.

"There have been efforts throughout to unionize bike messengers," continues Lemonhead, "and the failures of it kinda show how just split apart and independent messengers are. Markus had a knack of organizing things in a way that messengers would enjoy. You gotta play to their likes. 'Oh yeah, stop traffic and yell about stuff!' That kind of thing is for 'em. Behind it all, he had a solid worldview, and he was looking to further the cause."

Bike activism in the city dates to 1970, with the formation of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, but the group had lain dormant for years. In 1987, the San Francisco Bike Messenger Association formed, with Mark Cook actively involved. When renewed interest drove Dave Snyder to take charge of the SFBC in 1990 and revamp it, it needed strong believers for its first board of directors. Mark was elected. And in 1992, when Snyder met with bike activists Chris Carlsson and Joel Pomerantz in the back of Carlsson's typesetting office to discuss the idea of a Critical Mass monthly bike ride/protest through the streets, they realized it would never work unless they gained the support of the bike messenger community. Mark volunteered.

"For Markus, it was a pool of water where he could stretch and swim," says Cate Cusick, a longtime friend and former messenger.

Joel Pomerantz compares his friend's organizational style to that of a painter. "His palette had different people with different skills, and when he was working on a project that needed those skills or involved those skills, he'd go to that person and say, 'You know, come and be on my canvas for a little while here.' But he would never talk about it as his canvas. It was, like, the city's canvas."

Mark and a few friends gave messengers a voice in 1990 when they started their own zine, Mercury Rising, loosely a mouthpiece for the Bike Messenger Association. Their slogan was "Don't Kill the Messenger," and their self-proclaimed mission was "to inform, amuse, piss off, and otherwise reinforce" the scene. Photocopied late at night by a kindly copy shop manager, the first issues were tentative, but the zine soon evolved into a wild melee of bike-related news and fiction, poetry and gossip, obituaries and birth notices, and stolen bike reports. When the management of 456 Montgomery posted this insulting memo to its regular couriers, Markus reproduced it verbatim:

This is a reminder that all messengers must use the freight elevator ONLY! The graffiti scratched on the passenger elevators by certain messengers is forcing us to take strict measures. Any messenger that uses the passenger elevators will be expelled from this building and you will not be allowed to deliver here again. We will also call your company and advise them that you will not be allowed access. Please make it easy on yourself by using the freight elevator.

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