I said goodbye to Mark Lipinski more than five years ago. Yesterday I learned it was our last goodbye. I never made it back to visit as I had always intended to.
As I was preparing to move away, there had been a series of goodbyes. I had accepted a job at the Chattanooga Times Free Press and would be leaving Bradenton. Soon. Yet, it was hard. My sources were far more than sources to me. They became my friends, my family. Mark had jokingly told me, “This has become the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar farewell tour. It’s one event after another.”
He took me out for a scotch to celebrate the new job. I had to drop by to say our final goodbye at 518 12th Street West. It was fitting. It’s where I spent many hours, mostly on weekends, tucked away inside the law office.
As a crime reporter, if I needed to know something about Florida law, Mark knew the answer. If he didn’t, it was scribbled down on pages in a series of black binders. Those binders were his personal law library accumulated from hard fought cases and years of practice. Sometimes wearing two pairs of glasses, I watched as he pored over the pages. It was Mark who represented many clients in high profile criminal cases. He had the inside track about what was going on, and more importantly, what could happen next.
I came to Mark for stories. I needed stories to fill the pages of the Bradenton Herald, which the locals dubbed as the mullet wrapper. I was one of many reporters who Mark worked with over the years. But outside of my job at the paper, I discovered a dear friend, who I spent hours with listening to music and watching Werner Herzog movies.
He introduced me to Patti Smith’s music. “This is the greatest line in the history of rock and roll that you’re about to hear,” he once told me. With the volume cranked up nearly as loud as it would go, the album Horses began to play with the first track, “Gloria.” The music had to be loud. I had to experience this. He cranked the volume up the rest of the way.“Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine,” Smith’s voice began only growing in intensity as the song played on and reached the main chorus. Her voice was now strained and yelling.“I bet you never heard a version of ‘Gloria’ like that,” he said.
He was right. Van Morrison was now lame.
We had debates. Songs you want played at your funeral. Go. I remember saying I wanted “Hey Jude” played at my funeral. I want a black gospel singer to perform it and bring the house down. He pushed back and said it was overplayed and asked was that really a song I wanted on my list. Was it? I had doubts. I said all Beatles songs are overplayed. Coming back full circle, I think he chose a Beatles song for his list too. I’m kicking myself for not jotting our lists down.
Then there were the stories that never made the paper. Those were Mark’s stories. They were stories of his youth. He would talk about his favorite cases he tried and how at least one ended in a fistfight outside the courthouse. I heard about how as a frat boy he raced down the street riding on a piano. He was an animated storyteller.
The talks would often continue into the back alley. Arlo, a yellow Labrador retriever and loyal office dog, would play fetch. The tennis ball always stopped just shy of Sixth Avenue West where cars darted by. I always worried it would keep going into oncoming traffic. Mark never seemed fazed. He knew it would roll to a stop and Arlo would scoop it up. As we watched Arlo run, he paused and turned to me and said he understood that I wanted to move on. People do that. He said Bradenton was the perfect place though. It was rich in interesting characters and fascinating criminal cases. It was small enough to know the major players. With his arms outstretched, he slowly turned making a full circle, “What more could you possibly want?” Indeed.
I have yet to meet an attorney like Mark. I suspect I never will. I was lucky to call him my friend. I’ve shed a lot of tears. I’ve listened to Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Warren Zevon. I’ve listened to songs he loved like “Lawyers, Guns and Money” over and over. I’m happy he did what he loved up until his death. There were always cases waiting. He worked seven days a week on 12th Street. He used to tell me, “I’m not very hard to find. I’m always here.”