I got an email from Morrie Markoff suggesting we “hang around” together, seeing as how we’d both flatlined and lived to tell the story.
In Morrie’s case, he was getting fitted with a pacemaker the day before he turned 99, when “there was an unexplainable flash (wires shorted) scaring the hell out of the surgical crew (not me), bells rang, pandemonium reigned (not me again) and I became code blue. Not good. The surgeons killed me. (With six attorneys in the family, lots of work.) Some birthday present. Who needs dead?”
That was in January, and he asked at the time if doctors could put a pastrami sandwich in his IV drip.
All right, I thought. If this guy was firing off pithy emails at his age, I wanted to meet him. Morrie suggested we have breakfast at the “Water and Power cafeteria.”
Morrie explained that it was the LADWP employee cafeteria, just up the street from Morrie’s Bunker Hill condo, where he lives with his bride, Betty.
On Nov. 4, they will celebrate their 75th wedding anniversary.
On Jan. 11, Morrie will turn 100.
“I hope he makes it,” said Betty, 97, who met Morrie in New York when FDR was president.
“Being old hasn’t been bad,” said Betty. “The hardest part is when you see your kids becoming senior citizens. That’s really odd.”
The Markoffs lived comfortably in the lefty environs of Echo Park and Silver Lake for decades, raising a daughter (Judy), who ran the old Gorky’s restaurant, and a son (Steve), who hit it big in precious metals and coins. Morrie ran an appliance shop on Melrose Avenue but always had a million and one interests, including history, photography and sculpting.
“I was never bored one minute in my life,” said Morrie, who recovered quickly from his brush with death and doesn’t give it much thought. “There’s always another book I haven’t read.”
The move from Silver Lake to Bunker Hill was a trial for Morrie and Betty, who weren’t in the market for major upheaval. Morrie is an incurable tinkerer who always had a project going in his workshop, and he was grumpy at the thought of dismantling it. But his driving wasn’t so good, and the house was too much to manage. So they sold, bought a condo in the same building as their daughter and 80-year-old son-in-law and got a surprise.
“I think this new downtown L.A. is really, really, wonderful,” said Betty, whose one regret is that physical limitations keep them from exploring as much as they’d like to.
But they’ve done a lot of people-watching in Grand Park, and they can almost hear the music from Disney Hall on their back patio, with its impressive skyline view. Then there’s the elevated pedestrian bridge that takes them from their condo to the area around the main library, by way of the Bonaventure Hotel elevators, without their having to walk any hills.
Betty misses the convenience of knocking out three errands in an hour by car. On Wednesday, they left the house at 9, ran errands by bus and didn’t get back until 4 p.m.
“But there are lots of people on those buses, and my wife and I talk to anybody and everybody,” said Morrie.
On one bus ride they met Tracy Huston, owner of the Red Pipe Gallery in Chinatown.
“We became friends,” said Huston, who told me the Markoffs have visited her gallery, and she’s got big plans for Morrie’s 100th. Red Pipe is going to host a birthday bash and show Morrie’s work.
These Markoffs, they’re such urban hipsters.
At breakfast, Morrie and Betty knew everybody at the DWP cafeteria, where Morrie got an omelet and Betty had oatmeal. She swiped a sausage patty off Morrie’s plate, put it between two pieces of toast and wrapped it in a napkin.
“That’ll be for lunch,” she said.
On the way back home, Betty told me she likes sitting outside the nearby Colburn School cafeteria and watching shadows fall across the patio. And she insisted we stop at just the right spot near the DWP pond to catch dappled sunlight turning a bronze sculpture into a golden sail.
“There. Do you see it now?”
Back at the condo, Times photographer Gary Friedman was flabbergasted at the quality of Morrie’s 50-year-old photos from family trips to Europe, Mexico and Asia. Morrie had an eye for drama, chaos and beauty, and flipping through his black and whites was like time travel.
As for the sculpture, Morrie said he was fixing a toilet tank one day and noticed that the floating ball had pleats, like a ballerina’s skirt. That’s exactly what he turned it into in his very first sculpture, and over the decades, he’s turned a lot of scrap metal into finely detailed works of art.
I asked if he regretted not having devoted his full attention to photography or sculpting.
“Not at all,” said Morrie, who lately has been working on a treatment for a movie, even though he’s never written one.
He did what he did when inspiration struck, Morrie said, adding that the daily stresses of life may have fueled his creativity at the time.
Do what you want to do when you want to do it, Morrie and Betty told me. Desire is too precious a thing to put on hold. And then move on to the next thing.