Morrie Markoff and his wife, Betty, in 2013. (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
It was dumb.
But I did it.
My daughter wanted to throw a ball around, so we stood on a beach during her spring break, and I did what I’d told her to never do. A thousand times, I’d told her not to throw the ball hard, early in the season, before her arm was warmed up and ready. You could really do some damage, I’d preached.
So what did I do?
I threw the ball hard, without warming up, trying to push it through a stiff breeze, ignoring my own advice and refusing to give an inch to the reality of advancing age.
And then my arm went dead.
“I’m hoping it’s not a rotator cuff injury,” I told the doctor, knowing that would require surgery and a long recovery.
It might well be, he said. He ordered up some scans and told me he’d get back to me.
They say having a child in middle-age keeps you young. I should have asked for a warranty.
But in the grand scheme, a wounded wing is a minor setback. And rather than dwell on the fact that I can’t open a box of cereal without pulling a muscle, I prefer to think about people I’ve met who cheated age by pretending life had just begun.
Remember my friend and neighbor Mae Laborde, the former bookkeeper for “The Lawrence Welk Show”?
Fifteen years ago, when my eyes started to go, Laborde gave me a pep talk and a driving lesson. She was 93, 2 inches shy of 5 feet tall and, as I described it at the time, looked like a cricket behind the wheel of a tank. A talent agent named Sherrie Spillane saw that column and called Laborde to see if she wanted work.
Laborde wondered why it took so long for someone to realize she was a natural.
In her mid-90s, she did TV, film and commercials. Once, while she was shooting a Lexus commercial, someone on the set asked Laborde what kind of transportation she used when she was young.
Horse and buggy, said Laborde.
Years later, she told a young relative she was worried about her finances. He took a look and told her not to worry, because she had enough money to last till she was 110.
Instead of being relieved, Laborde was distressed.
“Oh, honey,” she said, “what’ll I do then?”
She made it to 102.
Remember Hedda Bolgar, the Westside therapist who was still taking clients at the age of 102?
Bolgar, who fled Vienna in 1938 when the Nazis invaded Austria, had a beautiful smile and a sharp mind and hosted salons nearly until the end.
She made it to 103.
And then there’s Morrie Markoff, the East Harlem kid who moved west in 1935 and began a series of reinventions.
Markoff reached out to me in 2012, when I wrote about flat-lining after a knee replacement only to be resuscitated by a nurse. In an email, Markoff said we should hang around together because he had come back from the dead too. In his case, it happened the day before he turned 99.
Not only is Markoff still kicking, four years after defying death, but he continues to branch out. At 100, he had his first art exhibit, a collection of sculpture he created years ago with metal scraps during down times in his job at an appliance shop.
At 101, he got a letter from President and Michelle Obama, wishing him a happy birthday.
At 102, he helped Betty celebrate her 100th birthday, and they’ve now been married 77 years.
So how could he add to his resume?
Markoff told me a few years ago that he wanted to write a book.
What kind of book?
A memoir, he said. He’s seen and done a few things, so why not? He’d struggled in the tenements of New York. He’d married a wonderful woman and they’d survived their differences. They’d raised a successful son and daughter. They’d traveled the world. And Morrie had gone from machinist to vacuum cleaner salesman to appliance man to amateur photographer to sculptor.
The problem, he said, was that he wasn’t a writer. But he hadn’t thought of himself as an artist, and yet a Chinatown gallery operator scooped up his creations and sponsored his art show.
As the early draft began coming together, Markoff occasionally would leave copies of his rewrites at my office. The young man had talent, in my humble opinion, and his prologue began like this:
“I am not a writer. Am I deluding myself? Do I really think… I will live long enough to tell my story? Who knows?”
The answer is yes.
Markoff did live long enough to tell his story, muse on a century of global triumphs and tragedies, and touch on the value of good friends, the lessons learned after a mugging, the importance of senior centers, the glory of world travels and local discoveries, and the joy of being engaged, connected, curious and alive.
For the title, he used his secret to a long life.
Markoff’s book is not perfect (there’s a typo here and there), Philip Roth has not been dethroned (although this was only Markoff’s first try), and he didn’t land a contract with a big publisher (it’s essentially one of those self-published deals, with help from Beverly Palm Books).
But so what?
This weekend, Markoff will have his moment at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, and none of the fancy, big-name authors will enjoy themselves any more than he will. You can find him Saturday, beginning at 11 a.m., taking questions and holding forth in Booth 35.
By the way, the doctor got back to me with good news, and it looks like I’ll be able to avoid surgery. So now I have no excuse for not writing a book in less than two years, like Markoff did.
“It took me a long time at first, because I wasn’t a writer,” Markoff told me. “But now I’m a writer, and I can’t put the pen down.”
Is he writing another book already, I wondered?
No, he said. He’s adding to “Keep Breathing.”
“I’m on the fourth edition,” he said, and then he used a line I’d heard from Hedda Bolgar. “I’m too busy to die. Besides, I was dead once. That’s enough.”
Do you know someone who’s living a vibrant life well into their 90s? Are you that person? Tell us in the comments below.
Get more of Steve Lopez’s work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez.