Wednesday, November 11, 2015


ONE EARLY EVENING several years ago, when I was still living with my family in Oakland, I walked towards the storefront district along Forbes Avenue. I don't recall what for. I may have been headed to the 24-hour drug store, or the local music store where my sister worked, or any other number of places. I don't remember exactly which street I was on either, although it was one along the Fifth and Forbes corridor near the hospitals. I also don't remember a small item falling unnoticed from my bag.

What I do remember in very exacting detail is hearing a voice, a child's voice, calling out to me above the din of Oakland's street and sidewalk traffic. I was so focused on getting to wherever I was going that I hadn't heard this at first. I turned to make sure it was me being hailed, and there was a little boy, no more than four or five years old, running down the hill after me. (For those who live outside of Pittsburgh, everything here is on a hill.) In his outstretched hand was my umbrella (for the sake of expedience, we're going to say the item was an umbrella), and he continued to call to me, with a slight Chinese accent, "Sir! Sir!"

Just up the street from him was a lady, presumably his mother, who had presumably just told him to run after me and deliver it back. I knelt down and he handed it to me. I thanked him and smiled, then watched him turn and run back up to her. I waved my thanks and she smiled back. Then the two of them continued on their way and I went mine, amused and touched that the woman would trust her child to be safe enough to allow them both to grant me that small act of kindness.

The entire exchange took maybe twenty seconds and I never saw that mother and her son again (that I'm aware of), but I remember it clearly. I've thought often of the two of them and wondered where their life paths took them. I've also considered how there are people you can see regularly for days or even years, like school mates and coworkers, and then forget their names and faces once contact is broken. Conversely, sometimes the briefest of encounters can leave an impression that lasts a lifetime. Not just traumatic or dramatic encounters, but the quiet, nondescript ones. Such interactions might seem random and unpredictable but I don't think that's the case.

When we remember those small interactions with people, there is often something embedded in the exchange that is important for us to have. We may not realize what the meaning is for days or even years afterwards, but in time that comes to us.

We just have to be patient.

*     *     *     *     *

I HEARD STORIES about Marko quite some time before I met him, as happens with most local legends. He was at the hub of a network of new buddies my friend J.F. had made. They were all significantly younger than either of us, so J.F. was affectionately nicknamed "Mom" and she told innumerable stories of "her kids." The stories of her biggest kid were almost always delivered with laughter.

Mark (I don't know where he got the "o") was an Armed Forces veteran, and he currently worked as a bartender. They had met through friends while out drinking and eventually gotten absorbed into each others' networks. J.F. adopted a lot of the group into her life and home, and Marko took up immediate squatters' rights. He often raided the refrigerator and destroyed the bathroom, and could be found at her house for Sunday dinners where he would devour the meatloaf in seconds. He loved fruit snacks, a fact that I personally appreciated even before we met.

He also infamously rained attention on the women present, whether they wanted him to or not. Depending on your sense of humor, those stories were either funny, disturbing, or both. Along these lines, he had pretty consistent success with the ladies. What emerged from the stories was an almost mythic figure, the Statue of Arrested Puberty, who usually left people chuckling while shaking their heads.

When I finally got to meet him in person, at a Christmas-time get together at J.F.'s place, it was like meeting a celebrity. He entered the house in very loud and unmistakable fashion. A few years older than most of the others - but still a good fifteen years my junior - he was obviously the center of a lot of their attention and the big brother of the kids. They all knew him. He was tall, strong, and absurdly, cartoonishly handsome. He exuded brash confidence and was at the same time incredibly childlike, even immature.

He blew into the house, speaking a mile a minute, and introduced himself while grabbing a plate of food. He excitedly talked about his plans for the night, then left...then eventually returned with a pretty girl on his arm. Then he spoke of more plans, and was gone again. I left before he returned, but I presume he followed through and made the most of his night out. That seemed like the kind of person he was.

Marko was everything I was warned about, to such a degree that I almost instantly forgot he was a veteran. It just didn't jibe with this public persona. He was loud and crass, full of energy and unavoidable. Maybe even borderline obnoxious. Still, you really couldn't help but like the guy: he was funny and very friendly. He was their resident rock star and he basked in it.

Everyone in their circle of friends loved Marko. From what I heard, he took a liking to me as well.

*     *     *     *     *

IT'S IMPORTANT TO note that I can pinpoint exactly how often Marko and I crossed paths. It was eight times. We hadn't entered the level of friendship where people lose track of how often they see each other, even taking it for granted they will see each other again soon. But all it took was our initial introduction to put us on one another's radar.

We saw each other twice at parties at J.F.'s, another time for one of her well-attended Sunday dinners, four times at his workplace, and once in Lawrenceville, not far from my house, down by the 40th Street Bridge. Each instance saw a rise in his enthusiasm when he saw me, which I have to admit surprised and charmed me. I didn't consider myself much of a presence in his world, at best existing on the periphery of his friendships. That was probably still the case. Regardless, he greeted me with gusto, which seemed to just be his way, and it was impossible not to reciprocate.

When I dropped by for Sunday dinner, he and several of the others were outside on the sidewalk chilling, and the second he saw me approaching he got incredibly excited. "Marcel is here!" he shouted. He pulled the screen door to the kitchen open and hollored inside, "Hey J.F., Marcel is here! Quick, get him a chair to sit on!" I don't embarrass easily, but it's funny to have the star of the show make a fuss over you just because.

One evening I was invited to a happy hour social mixer at the piano bar he tended bar at. As usual, he greeted me and my girlfriend with joy and let us know he would take care of us no matter what. There was the immediate feeling he meant this when he said it. It wasn't just him being a good employee; if he knew you, he was looking out for you. "Come see me," he said, and he'd admonish you if you got drinks from another bartender or server.

I watched him that night. He also loomed large over the landscape of his workplace, but in a different way than in social settings. He was a GREAT worker. He had hustle and the respect of his coworkers. That became evident as they followed him, listened to his instructions without question, and he got business taken care of. After having seen him be so incredibly silly at J.F.'s gatherings, it was refreshing to see this side of Marko. This was the adult who laid dormant beneath his facade of tomfoolery, and I developed a new respect for him that night. It changed my perception of him in an important way.

The warm and sunny day I saw him in Lawrenceville, a friend and I had gone to have lunch down by the 40th Street Bridge and take advantage of the weather. When we were leaving, a parked car honked at us. I presumed it was one of my friends and just couldn't see through the windshield to make out who it was. Once I got close enough to see it was Marko and his girlfriend, I remember feeling my first buzz of true personal affection. As short and sweet as it was, this was our one encounter that wasn't anticipated or hindered by friends or work. Just two people genuinely glad to see one another.

He had a helping hand in tricking me into arriving at his workplace for a surprise birthday party a couple of months ago, and he played his part perfectly. I arrived under the auspices of getting J.F.'s keys from him to bring back to her at her workplace so she and I could go to dinner. At first he seemed confused (as I found out later, he wasn't aware of all the details of the cover story) and told me to stay at the bar and he'd be right back. He returned a moment later with car keys, and asked me to follow him and he'd show me "where it was." I was confused. J.F. had mentioned nothing about a car. Where was he taking me...?

He was taking me across the bar where a gathering of my friends sat around decorated tables, hidden beneath the glare of the lights. Everyone laughed, because they totally got me. Marko grabbed me by the shoulders, laughing that it had all come together so well.

It looked and felt like this:

Photo by Dave Meyers
As blurry as he is shown here, this is still a perfect Marko photo. This captures his personality and humor and spontaneity just as it was. I'm incredibly happy it exists.

This is one of him, J.F. and me together that same night.

All smiles. That's how you like to remember your friends.

A few months ago, he moved in with J.F. and helped strengthen the family ties that were already apparent within their circle of friends. I wasn't visiting so much, but by all accounts there was a lot of merriment and craziness - and maybe some intermittent groping - had by all. I know that he also valued J.F.'s counsel and held her in very high regard. For her part, she took pride in his baby steps toward belayed maturity.

And even as I write that, I want it perfectly clear that he was mature when he needed to be. He did the things that everyone does. He loved and laughed and played (he played really freaking hard...they call it "getting Marko-ed!" now), but I'm sure he hurt and cried and had his troubles. I was not a close friend and am sure he wasn't perfect by any means because no one is. But people with larger-than-life personas often just keep soldiering on when they're in pain and hope no one sees it too closely.

I saw him most recently at this same workplace just under three weeks ago (the guy had a lot of jobs -- he wasn't lazy) where I gathered with a small group of friends for a night out just to have something to do. He was his usual charming and busy self, and he looked fine and happy and healthy, and maybe just a little bit tired. I asked our waitress to let him know we were there and say hi for us; a short time later he magically appeared beside our table to greet us in person. He hugged me before stepping back behind the bar, and we said goodbye when we left several hours later. It was a completely inauspicious evening.

*     *     *     *     *

THERE COULD ONLY be one Marko, and sadly he passed away last week at age 29.

It was sudden and unexpected and painful for everyone at the epicenter of his world. I got the news from J.F.'s sister last Monday morning, and I experienced a moment of dislocation as the words filtered in. She couldn't have meant the same Marko who is J.F.'s roommate, could she? The loud kid? The bartender? Not that guy. It must be someone else. But it wasn't.

I got to her house a little later, and she was still there, tired, saddened, and in shock. She was the one who had last spoken to him the previous day, and she was the one who discovered he had passed. She was the one who had to make all of the heartbreaking phone calls which no one should have to make. Their close friend J.R. was also there and the pain and grief between them was thick and palpable. All I could do was be present and listen. Just like that, their ever bright rock star had flickered out and dimmed forever, and nothing I said was going to change that reality.

The news hadn't hit me in the same way. Frankly, I'm still more incredulous at the swiftness of his passing than anything else. That handsome, healthy, ridiculous veteran is gone and I want to ask someone, are you sure? It just doesn't feel right. Why here and why now? As I sat with them, I tried to think of all the times I'd seen Marko and came up with eight, a number which I could measure our abbreviated friendship by. He'd left a notable impression in the course of eight encounters, and I searched them all for a common thread of meaning. What held them all together?

Then I remembered the little boy who had run up to me and handed me my umbrella a decade or more ago. A young man who is now probably in his late teens or early twenties, who possibly has no recollection of me at all...or maybe he does. Maybe he clearly remembers running after a smiling Black man after his mother told him to return the man's umbrella. I remember things from when I was that little, so it's possible he did too.

It's not quantity that makes our memories of people count. It's quality. And often it involves giving something of yourself that can stand the test of time.

I told J.F. and J.R. about the little boy and how I've retained those twenty seconds of interaction for years. I likewise had known Marko for only eight interactions, but there was and is no way he'll be forgotten by me. J.F. had known him about a year and shared living space with him for a couple of months, and now his spirit will be tattooed on her heart forever.

*     *     *     *     *

MARKO WASN'T PERFECT, and that bears repeating. But he didn't need to be. He belonged to family and friends, and was able to turn friends into the family he needed. When it's all said and done, he got one last hug goodnight from someone who cared for him unconditionally, and went to sleep knowing he was loved.

He was an adolescent of a man who had life experiences we'll never know and will now miss others it would have been nice to share with him. He's gone, just like that. But you can't have led a life as big as his and not remain in the world in the ways that matter.

He is still loved. That will undoubtedly continue.

I'll think of him from time to time when I tear into a pack of fruit snacks, or when I walk down by the 40th Street Bridge, and I'll make an effort to remember him on Veteran's Day. There is no telling the toll his service to our country took on him, and he probably should have been thanked more frequently for it. He provided an umbrella of protection for us; it would have been nice for him to have stayed with us long enough to give it back to him.

So thanks for soldiering on as long as you did, Marko. Your service and friendship was and remains appreciated. You were a hard worker, and a good guy, and you were thoroughly ridiculous.

We need more ridiculousness in the world.

At ease, sir.

*****     *****     *****

In memory of loved ones who lived to serve others, we invite you to come out on Saturday, November 14th to LUVFEST, an annual fundraiser benefiting the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. This year's event will take place at Most Wanted Fine Art on Penn Avenue. The theme is "LOTTO" because life is like a lotto -- when people care enough to support you when you need it, you've got a winning ticket!

Today more than ever we've got to live to LUV!