This is not a story about Markus Manley, not really. I didn’t know him well enough for that, and other publications will document the facts, WE Labs founder dead at 39 following surgery for esophageal varices, that sort of thing. This is not a story about his death, but about a lesson that might be gleaned from even the tiniest portion of his life.
I met Markus only once. It was March 9, nine days before his unbelievably untimely death, at a birthday party in the big backyard of a house off Drake Park. Markus showed up late, but you knew right away he had arrived: that physical presence, that voice, that smile. Even his glasses were huge. Before too long he came up in the conversation I was having with a friend, and she was surprised to learn that Markus and I had never met. She dragged him over and left us alone to chat.
I had never been to WE Labs, but as someone who keep as eye on my community I certainly knew about it, and he knew of me from my writing, so we didn’t have much trouble starting a conversation (not that I imagine anyone had much trouble starting a conversation with Markus). As luck would have it, just days earlier I had been tipped off to inside information about WE Labs’ expansion. Markus was bemused to hear what I knew and confirmed that it was true: good things were coming.
Not surprisingly, most of our conversation was about Long Beach, which we both loved and found frustrating. We riffed on a mutual friend’s formulation of a Long Beach problem: that city government often tries to dictate what good things will happen, rather than finding what good things are happening organically and helping them to grow. Markus floated the idea of the City having “social ambassadors” (I think that’s the term he used), people whose job it would be to basically hang out where good stuff was going on so as to better keep City officials in the loop of the great things at the grass roots. Connectivity. You didn’t have to know Markus long to see that the idea of connectivity was close to the man’s big heart.
We must have talked for a half-hour straight, until it was time for Markus and his close friend DW Ferrell to present birthday boy Evan Kelly with a very thoughtful gift (see accompanying picture). We drifted off into other conversations, and eventually, as must always be the case, the party began to break up. Markus made the rounds to say goodbye. We hugged, and as he drifted off across that big backyard on that winter evening that felt more like summertime, he encouraged me to come by WE Labs. “Encouraged” is not the right word: this was the hard sell, even though all he was selling was my dropping in, one more link in making Long Beach a more connected place. “You should come by tomorrow,” he called from across the yard.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow,” I answered.
“You should come by,” he rejoined.
“I may,” I said.
“You should come by.”
“You should come by.”
“No, really, you should come by.”
There was no denying the man’s charm. “I don’t know about tomorrow,” I smiled, “but I’ll definitely come by at some point. Soon. I promise.”
The very next evening I walked right by the building at Broadway and Long Beach Blvd. that houses WE Labs on my way to the East Village for coffee. I thought about popping my head in to say hello, but it was after 8, and I didn’t know whether WE Labs was open that late, and I was already later getting out for the evening than I’d intended, so I passed on by.
And now Markus is gone. I’m glad I finally met him, but I’m always going to be a little bit haunted by that last exchange, which now seems like a preternatural call to capitalize on the chance to connect while you have it—which, after all, may not be for long.
I didn’t really know Markus Manley, but I suspect that if I take away from my limited experience of him a heightened appreciation for making connections with people while we have the chance, that would suit him just fine.
(Photo by Alison Kermode. From left: DW Ferrell, Evan Kelly, Markus Manley. March 9, 2014.)