I agreed a long time ago that I would die.
— Maya Angelou
He looked homeless, whatever that means.
Truth is, Mike Markiewicz looked the way he did — bedraggled, a bit greasy, disheveled, grungy, filthy, even — because appearance mattered not at all to him.
What mattered — matters — are books, records, art films and the people who needed — still need — books, records and art films the way Mike did.
Mike understood the personal ramifications of spending rent or Duke money on records and books not because we cannot live without these things but because we breathe more deeply when we own them, because the sacrifice was not frivolous.
The sacrifice was meaningful.
Mike Markiewicz did not judge our literary and musical selections.
He was no snob, merely a provider, a genteel pusher man.
It makes perfect and perverse sense that the man who gave this city Kaldi’s Coffeehouse more than 20 years ago, thereby ushering in the first-wave golden age of Main Street, died on Final Friday, the day of the month when tourists, art lovers and hipsters converge on one another to slip in and out of galleries and shops, sip white wine and be seen.
Final Friday is much more civilized now than it was in the early 1990s when Kaldi’s — now a too-expensive urban “general store” — was the epicenter for poetry, live music, books, records, food, liquor, coffee.
Someone had to plant a flag and make a place for the throngs of then-starving artists to have a Honeycomb Hideout to meet, talk shit, compare and compete, and that’s precisely what Kaldi’s was. It was also like walking into a joint down a side street in Greenwich Village because there was smart and raucous live music there.
When I saw Jazz singer Mark Murphy, sweating and scatting his Kerouac-ian tone poems in that corner by the bathrooms, I felt transported to another city.
Then when I heard Ma Crow, I was greatly comforted and reminded of my own deep Appalachian roots in West Virginia.
I looked around the room and realized we were all souled-up together.
This predates the encroachment of 3CDC, before the unspoken competition between the developments, gentrifications and requisite displacements of the people between Vine and Main streets.
This was when this part of downtown was still soulful and not merely a nighttime blur of haircuts, maxi-dresses and heads bowed in prayer to smart phones.
What was always so revolutionary about Mike Markiewicz, Kaldi’s and later his record and book selling at Iris BookCafe and then his own musty wax oasis next door at Another Part of the Forest is that he brought literature and records to the ghetto.
This cannot be overstated because the biggest problem with classism moving into inner cities is that it blocks access.
Mike made what he loved and cherished accessible and affordable to others who loved and cherished the same things.
This access will always be his gift to me and to this city.
The vast majority of my record collection hails from Kaldi’s and Another Part of the Forest. After I read the liner notes from Aretha Franklin’s Atlantic box set, I had to get my hands on King Curtis; after seeing Gary Bartz at Al Williams’ Loft Society, I wanted all his post-McCoy Tyner funk sides with Ntu Troop; and I was always looking to fill in my Coltrane collection. Mike had it all in that back room in Kaldi’s and I’d spend hours perusing and reading album covers.
A romp through Kaldi’s for me rarely meant food or coffee drinks. I was there to cop records and take a serious sideways squint at the poetry titles.
Years and years later when I got the itch to recreate from memory my mother’s great gospel record collection — early- to mid-career James Cleveland, Walter, Tramaine and Edwin Hawkins, Charles Fold, Andre Crouch and His Disciples — I went to Another Part of the Forest and they were all there.
Just as he’d let me into the basement record storage room beneath Iris, Mike gave me an early personal tour of Another Part of the Forest while he was still arranging records, and I was gobsmacked by how he’d clearly turned what was probably a penchant for hoarding into artistic sensibilities that he loved sharing with people.
In one of these places, he pulled out the complete recorded speeches of Malcolm X; another collection of speeches given by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on a stop through Cincinnati; a record of James Baldwin talking about white racism and black literary revolution; records by Langston Hughes, Ruby Dee.
All stunners. All pristine.
Some he just gifted me, saying: “Nobody’s gonna want these but me or you. I know you’ll appreciate them.”
He affixed insanely reasonable prices to the one or two he thought “valuable” and I gladly paid for them.
Whenever I saw Mike quietly walking through Kaldi’s or later shuffling between Iris and Another Part of the Forest, I assumed he’d always be around, a forever-living, ghostly presence with one of the longest-reaching citywide institutional memories.
But he died quickly, I heard, of lung cancer.
He died knowing the seriousness with which we meet and choose a book or a record is incalculable. Because once home, if a work of art pricks that part of the soul where a shared experience lives, where the articulation of a presumed singular experience dwells, where a memory becomes dislodged or where the perfect turn of the perfect phrase shows herself, then our cells rearrange and suddenly the afternoon shifts with possibilities, with sentences, with silence and new meaning.
Mike somehow knew all this, and his offerings are catalysts.
I thank him.
I admire his independence, self-reliance, generosity, community stakeholder status, his hair and his giggle.
But I most admire Mike for living out the life he wanted for himself fully understanding he needed other people to make his life’s work and to make his life “work.”
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]