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?

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.

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

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.

The zine also ran photos of white-collar businessmen who commuted on bicycles, as well as tributes to favorite security guards like Hank, who manned the desk at the Chronicle building. Regular updates were filed by messenger Howard Williams and his Bicycles for Afghan Amputees' Rehabilitation, which provided bike-related physical therapy for amputees in Afghanistan. Mark wrote a regular column called Spokes, under the pen name "Fur."

Markus hustled his zine to no end, distributing it to all the messengers at the Wall, members of the media, and fellow messengers in other countries. Other bike zines came and went -- Mudflap, MessPress, even Raw Vulva, the zine for nude female bikers -- but none resounded so strongly, and at such a gut level. Here was the voice of the working Joe and Jane Messenger, in all its Zo bag, elbow-bleeding, visceral beauty. It was Markus on paper.

Messengers were organizing not just in San Francisco, but around the globe. Mercury Rising and other bicycle involvements made Markus an obvious Bay Area contact for the first world championships of bike messengers, held in Germany in 1993. A group of 20 bikers left SFO for Berlin, including Markus, where more than 400 riders competed in timed races and other events like the quickest changing of a tire. The scruffy, eccentric San Franciscans stood apart from the well-funded, Day-Glo-wearing Europeans.

"We're the craziest of all of them," says Williams.
The Germans may have swept the competitions, as they have every year, but the Bay Area delegation had the best time. Markus raised enough money to also bring along his new band, L. Sid, which kicked off a monthlong European tour by playing for the international messenger community.

Of the many bands spun out of the San Francisco messenger community, L. Sid was the biggest. The name was a verbal mutation of LSD and El Cid. Markus started it with Phoenix friend Jack Chandler, and other members came and went throughout the years, including Markus' wife, Jennie, and big band leader Timmie Hesla. Blending country, folk, Middle Eastern jazz, hofbrau polka (yes, the band had a tuba), and ska, L. Sid played intelligent and quirky music, and if they made any money, all the better.

This was the Markus people remembered, a lanky, wild-eyed man in garish clothes, arm in a sling, leaping about the stage enunciating Zappa-esque asides -- whatever came to mind.

"If you went to see us live, you wouldn't be able to keep your eyes off him," says Chandler.

"He was the antithesis of the stoned musician who just hangs out," remembers Adam Kahan, a former messenger and original L. Sid bassist.

L. Sid's audience, primarily messengers, was loyal -- and participatory to the point of jumping onto the stage with a harmonica or tambourine to play along with the band. Markus had a bum shoulder that would routinely dislocate whenever he horsed around. A couple of times it went out before a show, and the audience would forgive the delay while somebody drove him to the hospital and a doc popped the damn thing back into its socket.

After playing the messenger championships, L. Sid continued a grueling European tour through Germany, Switzerland, and then-Czechoslovakia. The tour was shoestring, day to day, and chaotic, and though the shows were satisfying, spending so much time together took its toll. At the same time the band decided to give it a rest, Markus and Jennie's marriage exploded.

"It was like an acid test," says Chandler of the tour, and for Markus, the added stress of a broken relationship "was like a double whammy."

When L. Sid prepared to board the plane in Berlin and head back to SFO, Markus couldn't find his passport. He frantically dumped the contents of his bag on the airport terminal floor, pawing through his possessions, but it was too late. The others left without him. Markus spent the night in the terminal, eventually found his passport in another pocket, and grabbed a later flight.

Heading back across the Atlantic Ocean, Markus looked out the window and assessed his life. Here he was, the life of the party, the international Bhagwan of bicycles, rock star as well as voice of bicycle advocacy. Leading what he called the "velorution," he had hoped that his music, the magazine, and his activism would help swing the labor force away from the car-based economy. But inside, he felt like curly-haired Mark Cook from Phoenix, clawing through the charred remains of his band and marriage. The words of his father replayed in his mind: "Son, you can't ride a bike all your life."

In early 1994, Markus moved out of the Germania apartment and crashed on friends' floors and sofas. He still had a job at Now Courier, but his depression was transparent to everybody. To cheer him up, his sister Camille invited him to Colombia with her husband and child. Mark readily accepted. As they walked off the plane in the Bogota airport, Camille heard a crowd of people cheering behind her. She turned back and saw her brother, smiling and waving at the locals like he was a rock star, after being in the country two minutes. The Colombians were applauding at this bizarre presence, a 6-foot-2-inch man with a 5-inch white-man's 'fro.

The vacation was restful, and Mark easily blended into the culture, stopping to talk with bicyclists, bouncing with endless curiosity. He stayed seven weeks, and flew back home with his young nephew.

Returning in March, Markus soon moved into a flat on Valencia with friends. He was essentially starting over at the age of 32, the big questions looming over his head. He had a college degree -- should he get a real job? Was he ever going to be a rock star? Had he gone as far as he could in the messenger community? Was he ever going to be in a relationship again?

Fortunately there was always another issue of Mercury Rising to be done, preparation for the upcoming messenger championships in London, and gigs to play with L. Sid, which had regrouped with a new lineup.

In July he met up with Carla Laser at a music show. The slender, freckled graphic designer became the love of his life. The two quickly grew inseparable, riding bikes on the weekends, teased by friends for their public affection.

Markus dove back into life with renewed passion. He hustled his band to get booked into gigs all over town, from the Bottom of the Hill to benefit shows for friends. Many performances ended with a stage crowded with dancing fans. He had corrective surgery on one of his shoulders, and switched from messenger to dispatcher at Now Courier.

A few months after the London messenger championships in August, Carla was involved in a serious bicycle accident, which shattered one entire side of her body and left her bedridden for months. She had a day nurse, but Markus insisted on visiting her and staying with her every day.

"Thank God he was in my life," says Carla.
The next month, Mark's messenger friend Thomas Meredith was struck and killed while on the job by a Market Street Muni bus. The messenger community held a ceremony at the spot where the bus ran Meredith down, and Mercury Rising published a special tribute section.

Though his life appeared to be on the upswing, Markus still seemed down, even though he had moved in with Carla. Friends and fellow employees at Now sensed something was going on. Rumors circulated, but most assumed it was the background noise of life -- reverberations from his broken marriage and his girlfriend's injury. His band laid back, letting him know they were rehearsing every month, and that he was welcome to come by whenever he felt like it. But others gave him a wider berth. If somebody doesn't want any help, it's impossible to offer.

In June 1995 Markus made the toughest phone call of his life -- to his sister Camille.

"I've got to talk to you," he said, and biked over to her house in Glen Park on a Sunday afternoon. They sat in her living room, siblings, best friends through hell and back.

Markus cut to the chase. "I'm a heroin addict."
Camille knew him better than anyone, but it had never crossed her mind -- and she thought herself fairly savvy about drugs. Pot, coke, speed, she'd seen all this stuff before. He told her he'd tried to work up the nerve to tell her, and that he'd been using needles for seven or eight months.

The previous month she had taken Mark to Mexico for a week with her family. He was obviously depressed, and she thought a quick SunTrips vacation would snap him out of it. But this excursion was nothing like the visit to Colombia. For the first three days he was completely sick -- sweating, chills, fever, insomnia. The family thought he was kind of a whiner. "Why is he always complaining about the food, and the bed?" they wondered, when in reality Mark was trying to go cold turkey and pass it off as the flu.

"You have to adopt a certain lifestyle in order to maintain a habit," says Dr. Diana Amodia of the Haight Ashbury Drug Detox Program. "We commonly see that as addict behavior in general -- dishonesty, deceitfulness. Your family members don't know you anymore."

Markus Cook told his sister he started using after returning from Berlin. Just snorting at first, but after Thomas Meredith died he switched to needles. Daily, sometimes two or three times a day, if he had the money. He scored most often at 16th Street and Mission -- they specialized in speedballs -- but you could get heroin anywhere in San Francisco.

"This town is awash in it," he told her.
From June to November the family tried to help place him in a recovery program, and endured what Camille refers to as a "confession-redemption-attempt-failure" period. They tried a methadone program. He didn't make it through three weeks.

All the while, he was trying to raise money for the messenger championships in Toronto, hoping that it would turn into a paying job.

"He was damn good at fooling everybody," says Camille. "He had it down to a science -- when he used, how much time he needed to be able to fool people."

They tried the Rational Recovery program at St. Francis Hospital, which also failed. Mark called Camille from a pay phone outside the hospital telling her that he had no place to stay; he was no longer living with Carla. His sister met him in the lobby, and he confessed he'd been using again.

"My first impulse is to put you on a plane to Utah," she said, and he agreed.

Camille sent him to live with their mother in Salt Lake City, thinking it would be difficult to score drugs in the exalted bastion of Mormonism. He attended NA meetings every day. He started calling friends in San Francisco, telling them he was an addict, but he was now in recovery, cleaning himself out here in Utah.

Within 10 days, he was stealing from his mother and shooting up in her house.

"This was hideously ugly," Camille says. "Hideously ugly to watch."
Camille tells the story in a three-hour conversation in a 24th Street cafe, the rain pissing down outside. Although a tough-minded immigration attorney, she can't help bursting into tears occasionally. But she keeps talking.

"We don't see that there's any point in an article being written that doesn't say that he died of a heroin overdose, because that's what he died of," she says. "As far as I'm concerned, if there's any point at all -- and I don't know whether I believe in God or not, but whether you do or not, the only possible point there can be to this death is that somebody should learn something from it."

The family wanted Mark to live with his sister Shawn in Oceanside, in San Diego County, but he flatly refused and bolted Utah for San Francisco. The family was smothering him, he said. He wanted to work with his own program, fight his demons on his own turf. He checked out various NA meetings in the city every day, and looked for work. Later they learned that he would leave Carla's, where he was staying, cop some dope, and go to the meetings high.

Finally, Camille and Carla sat him down and berated him.
"What are you going to do?" yelled his sister. "I'm not going to spend the rest of my life with this. We're gonna do this one more time, we're gonna do this right. I am not going to spend the rest of my life being the sister of a heroin addict!"

Camille opened the Yellow Pages to the recovery program listings, left it sitting open, and went home. One stood out -- 18th Street Services. Mark contacted them, and was referred to Walden House.

When contacted, a Walden House spokesperson expressed extreme reluctance about saying anything about one of its clients. Perfectly understandable, especially if one dies while enrolled in the program.

"To say that Walden House is ineffectual is putting it mildly," says Camille.

After a preliminary screening process, Mark was accepted into the day program of Walden House, located at 15th and Mission, a block from his dealers. He refused to enter a residential program, instead moving into his sister's house. Her ground rules were no lying, no stealing, and no using, or she'd throw him out on the street.

As the days went by, improvement was remarkable.
"He became Mark again," Camille says, "instead of somebody you couldn't trust."

His initial program began at 9 every morning, Monday through Friday, and continued until 8:30 in the evening, when he was released. Saturdays were 10 to 6, and Sundays were free. Walden House provided all meals, counseling, meetings, and regular drug testing.

Markus' infectious personality returned. It was a daily Walden House routine to read everyone's horoscopes aloud out of the Chronicle, but on the morning the paper didn't arrive, Markus insisted on making up horoscopes on the spot, to the delight of his pals. On another occasion, he walked into a meeting for African-Americans in recovery. One of them looked at him and asked why he was here.

"Because I'm black," answered Markus. They loved it.
Soon they had Markus answering the phones, and when he asked special permission in November to play a previously scheduled L. Sid gig at the Covered Wagon, they bent the rules and allowed him to enter a bar, accompanied by a counselor. He was receiving a General Assistance check of around $170 every two weeks, hoping to save enough to pay back all his debts. Camille and Carla monitored his every move throughout the city. No band rehearsals, no zine, no job, no organizing, no promoting. Just Walden House and NA meetings.

It seemed to Camille that Walden wasn't quite prepared for such family involvement.

"I felt like every time I called, I got, 'Yeah, yeah, he's doing great. He's wonderful, he's fitting in. We're all on the same page. He's really getting grounded in the program.' " Camille scowls. "Yeah, right."

Markus was told he would undergo random urine testing, a process delicately called "dropping the bottle." But he was tested only twice, once after he was admitted, and another time around the end of the year. After each test, it would take two weeks for the results to come back. He passed the second test. He'd been clean for almost 50 days. Which meant his tolerance was down.

Camille takes a breath and continues: "Mark's last day."
By this point, Mark's program typically ended at 6:30 in the evening. During his first week at Walden, the program had closed early one day, and when Camille learned this she asked to be contacted if it closed early again. Mark didn't have a key to her house, and he had nowhere else to go. On Jan. 3, 1996, Walden House closed early again, at 5 p.m. Nobody notified her.

Mark had received his latest GA check, and told a counselor he would like to run to the bank and cash it. According to Camille, the counselor thought he probably wouldn't make it back by 5 p.m., so he was signed out at a few minutes after 2 p.m. He was due at Glide Memorial for a choir rehearsal at 7:30 and Camille expected him home around 9:30.

"I made it clear that I was concerned about him, but that I did not believe a word he said." Her voice is full of controlled contempt. "They told me repeatedly, 'Addicts lie.' And I just don't understand why, if you know that addicts lie, why would you believe an addict who says he's gonna go to the bank at 2 o'clock in the afternoon? He had money and seven hours of time. As far as he was concerned, it was a piece of cake. He knew he wouldn't be tested for two or three weeks."

Mark never arrived at Glide, and never came home.
At approximately 8 a.m. the following morning, a Mr. G. Martinez was walking in the Franklin Square Park area, at 17th and Hampshire streets. A passer-by called to him that somebody was lying in the shrubbery at the southeast corner of the park. Martinez checked the body, then called 911. Paramedics arrived and discovered the man had been dead for several hours. Nearby lay an uncapped syringe containing brown fluid, a balloon, and a small can. According to the medical examiner's report, "a recent puncture site was noted in the right antecubital fossa." His blood would later be found to contain 0.330 ug/ml of morphine, and 0.036 ug/ml of codeine, with no presence of cocaine. The cause of death would be noted as morphine-type alkaloid toxicity; a lethal dose of heroin. The body had been stripped of all possessions except for an outdated ID card in a pocket.

An investigator from the Coroner's Office, driving a coroner's van, soon pulled up at ex-wife Jennie Hammett's apartment in the Lower Haight, last known address of the deceased. She saw the vehicle and thought it might have something to do with the neighborhood crack house, but then realized it wasn't the crack house at all. It was Mark.

When Camille got the news, she called Walden House. Told that he had signed out early, she blurted the fact of his death to Mark's counselor.

"You're lying," the counselor said.
"She said it about three times," says Camille. "She didn't mean it to be offensive, she was just shocked. But it wasn't the best thing to say. I'm not lying. Why would I lie?"

Carla ran through Markus' address book, calling every number she recognized to break the news. Friends were dumbfounded. Wasn't he in recovery? Wasn't he doing OK?

"People can say, 'Well, if it wasn't that day it would have been another day,' but I don't buy that," continues Camille. "It was one day at a time. Isn't that another one of those little dogmas? I just feel like they weren't even following their own rules."

The family's frustration with Walden House has prompted Lynne to put her Utah business on the market and make plans to move to the Bay Area. She plans to start an organization and work with other parents of addicts, to help curb the heroin epidemic that claimed her son.

"This is going to be my focus," she says determinedly.

It's a San Francisco tradition that whenever a messenger dies, friends and comrades meet at South Park for a wake. The deceased's bicycle is then wheeled to Mission Rock and tossed over the rail into the bay.

By the time Markus' body was found, his bike and possessions had been stolen, so Mishka improvised by bringing a big picnic basket to the park for his wake on Friday, Jan. 5. People filled it with mementos that reminded them of Markus -- photos, a beer, a tampon. Carla Laser pulled out some of her hair for her beloved and placed it on the pile. Over a hundred people jammed the park, wandering back and forth from the Covered Wagon. Candles were lit, circles formed to hold hands. Many stood silently in shock, sipping beers; others were furious.

Mishka strapped the basket onto her bike, and a procession of 20 bikes encircled her as she rode off to Mission Rock. The entourage passed over the bumpy metal grating of the Third Street bridge, and everybody started screaming at once -- yells of sadness, frustration, and rage. Reaching the bay, she threw the basket into the water.

Former messenger Jason Beaubien was an old friend of Markus and Jennie, and attended the gathering at South Park. He wandered over to the Covered Wagon and noticed many familiar faces he used to work with. Although it had only been a few years, nobody recognized him.

"Jesus Christ," he thought to himself. "You just get to a certain point where you've been beating your head against the establishment and against the machine, living your life as a bike messenger for so long, and you just kind of kill yourself? You either OD, or you drink yourself to death? This band is playing the same songs that I heard them play before. My God, it doesn't change. It just keeps going on."

The funeral service was at Glide Memorial that Sunday. High school friends from Phoenix, bicycle activists, messengers, musicians, members of Walden House all appeared. People sobbed throughout the ceremony. The L. Sid horn section played a medley of their songs. Time was set aside for those who wished to say a few words. Over 30 took the opportunity. Many would grumble later that it seemed like people from Walden House -- people who barely even knew Markus -- hogged the time.

Jack Chandler was sitting onstage with the L. Sid horns, awe-struck at the intensity.

"It was very, very emotional. Many could barely get through a sentence."
"I have a lot of faith in fate," says Chandler, "and when it's your time, then you have to go. And it seems like he had done his thing here on Earth, and that it was time to go. Hopefully people will remember the music, or remember every time he made someone laugh."

"It's harder to accept our dark side than it is to deny we have one," says Cate Cusick, friend and former messenger. "But just because we have a dark side doesn't mean we're evil or bad. It's harder to socialize the dark side, so we tend to ignore it, and when we are ignoring it, I think that's what makes addiction occur. Everyone has one. If you don't accept it, it will run you. You will be the bastard that you don't believe you are."

The February benefit for the Messenger Championships at the Covered Wagon became a combination memorial show for Markus and the final performance of his band, which was billed as the Ghost of L. Sid. The band took the stage and performed for half an hour, rotating all past and present members who had played with the group over the years.

Jack Chandler insisted on no vocals, in honor of Markus. At the end of the instrumental-only set, the sound man punched in a tape of L. Sid, with Markus singing his song "E.T.A.," his anthem of bike messengers.

The 1996 Cycle Messenger World Championships will be held Aug. 31-Sept. 2. For information, call (415) 626-2692.

In "Mercury Falling" (May 8) a reference to Bicycles for Afghan Amputees' Rehabilitation should have made clear that BAAR still provides bike-related physical therapy for amputees in Afghanistan.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.