Ted Jack did what many young men and women have done throughout the centuries when faced with surviving in the world without an education and a family safety net: He learned the life of a fisherman.
From age 11 until his early 20s, Jack worked on fishing boats in the Bering Sea and in canneries along the Alaska coast, two of the most grueling and dangerous jobs in the world.
“He would go out on the fishing boats during the season, make good money, stay in hotels and party really hard and then he’d be back staying in his tent for the rest of the off-season,” says Mellani Calvin, a friend and one of Jack’s former social workers. “He would mostly work on smaller fishing boats that flew under the tax radar, not the big commercial operations.”
To look at Jack’s life through the interviews with friends and social workers, and having my own relationship with Jack, much of his life would appear to be filled with one tragedy after another. It would be hard to argue anything different. There were also moments of triumph.
By the time Jack was 20, he was living homeless under trailers, in tents and in doorways. He began hearing voices in his head and self-medicated with alcohol. Jack’s life had become a living nightmare with hallucinations and hearing voices. He found himself traveling from town to town, hopping trains and taking solace again and again in alcohol.
His life became a cycle of violent fits of rage, fist fights, broken bones and binge drinking. He was even hit by a car. All of this resulted in Jack taking countless trips to the emergency room and being thrown in jail in his early 20s.
Over the next few years, Jack was hospitalized in several psychiatric units throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, roaming from one institution to the other, experiencing homelessness and alcoholism in between. His health was taking a beating.
In 2000, it seemed that Jack wanted the pain and the voices in his head to simply stop. That December, he lit himself on fire, suffering second- and third-degree burns. He became obsessed with doing this again the following year. On more than one occasion, Jack had tried to commit suicide.
In 2002, things went from bad to worse. Jack was savagely attacked by several men and left to die homeless on the streets of Anchorage. Doctors had to fuse his vertebrae together. The attack also aggravated his scores of traumatic brain injuries. He spent the next three months in a Seattle rehabilitation center learning to walk again, and he would spend the rest of his life disabled.
In Jack’s own words, the “hallucinations and headaches became intolerable after all of the head injuries over the years. I just wanted to die.”
Life continued to spin out of control for the next two years. Coping any way he could, mostly with the bottle, Jack was living in doorways and under bridges in Seattle. In 2005, Jack tried selling Real Change, which he attempted on three occasions, but the pain was simply too much, and he couldn’t control his binge drinking in order to stay sober enough to be a vendor.
In March 2006, Jack attempted suicide again by jumping off a bridge in Seattle. Miraculously, he survived and spent nearly three weeks in Harborview Medical Center Psychiatric Unit. Upon his release he was given two weeks’ worth of psychotropic medications.
He tried selling Real Change one more time. He remained clean and sober for two and half weeks before he relapsed and spent the rest of 2006 drinking and panhandling on the streets.
In January 2007, Jack came to Portland and visited Street Roots. He told me at the time he simply had no place left to go and didn’t really care if he lived or died, but that he was willing to give Street Roots a try if we would have him. He wanted badly to get sober.
That same month, he went to Hooper Detoxification Center and was discharged to Central City Concern’s transitional housing and treatment. He was assigned a case manager and began a relationship with Old Town Clinic. He was also taking his medications again.
Like many people who have spent time on the streets, Jack had no proof that he was even a citizen of the United States. He had no I.D. or Social Security Card. Unable to cope with simply obtaining these basic documents — even with mountains of medical and police records — Jack left Portland for Seattle.
He hoped that in Washington he could replace his Social Security card and get re-established. Within two weeks, and without medication, Jack was picked up by the Seattle Police Department for talking to himself on a street corner. He was taken to Harborview again.
This time, after he left the hospital, something was different. According to friends, he decided to turn himself in for outstanding warrants and spent a month in the King County Jail. After his release, he was, once again, without his medication on the streets of Seattle.
The voices returned and he started drinking. He made his way to Portland and entered Hooper Detox one more time, then returned to the same transitional housing and on-site case management services he had left months before.
Jack, by then 36, had been homeless for 26 years of his life.
In the late summer of 2007, he began to sell Street Roots at a coffee shop near Portland City Hall. Jack was going to regular treatment groups, including Alcohol Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and he received acupuncture therapy through Central City Concern. Assisted by Mellani Calvin and others at Central City Concern, Jack also began to work on the long and complex process of getting Social Security disability assistance.
By 2008, those working with Jack at Street Roots and Central City Concern began to witness a slow transformation. He was coming out of his shell, making friends with a range of people, including Street Roots readers and a woman, Heather, whom he had met in recovery.
“We were two lost souls,” Heather says. “We had been to hell and back. We were right for each other.”
Heather and Jack started a new life together. He sold Street Roots a few hours a day, went to meetings and began to go fishing with a friend he met in AA. He went on fishing trips on the Columbia River and fished on the Eastbank Esplanade. Catching a fair share of sturgeon and salmon, he would text proud photos of his catches to friends.
Jack also began to give back to the community that he felt closest to. Volunteering once a week at Street Roots for a six-hour shift, Jack began to bring in items other people on the streets needed to survive.
“He did what he felt was right and managed to show compassion to others no matter how tough the situation seemed to be,” says Becky Mullins, a former staff member with Street Roots. “Jack would donate things like socks, razors, shaving cream, deodorant and many other items vendors needed. Jack was always giving himself back to the family who helped him in his hardest times.”
Jack began to realize that giving back to the community was something he was good at and took pride in doing. He started making stacks of bologna and cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches almost every day to give to people he encountered on the streets — his Street Roots readers, people experiencing homelessness and people he met through his recovery.
“Teddy had an incredible will to live and a need to be kind to others when the world had been so harsh to him,” says Calvin.
Jack did not have a formal education. He learned to read but could barely write. His letters were often reversed as if looking in a mirror, a strong sign that he had dyslexia.
His disability did not stop him.
For years, Jack had talked about his dreams of going back to Alaska and to live in the wilderness.
In late 2010, with the help of Central City Concern, Jack received a large sum of back pay and a monthly check for his disability.
In August of 2011, Jack and Heather moved to Alaska. Jack purchased a plot of land, an RV and a dog.
“He had a dream of owning his own mailbox,” says Heather. “He had never had a mailbox before. When he received his first piece of mail, a neighbor told me his face just lit up.”
In many ways, Jack traveled back to a place that he imagined as a youth, a vast wilderness full of lush forests and rivers full of fish for the catching.
In reality, he had traveled to a plot of land that had no running water or electricity in the harsh Alaskan terrain where he lived out his last days. Unfortunately, he had been robbed of his physical abilities through a short life of trauma.
On Nov. 7, Jack died of health complications at the age of 41.
Although he lived a life most of us will never know, he also lived a life that far too many do know. For better or worse, Jack lived a life out in the open.
“Jack was a wonderful man,” says Heather. “He was a caring human being who had a very hard life.”
Sometimes there is no explanation for the storm that builds up inside a human being. Regardless of how many lighthouses remain lit for Jack and others, the storm sometimes is too strong and consuming.
Jack died knowing that he was loved and that he had loved, clean and sober, with a clear mind.
Ted Jack was a good man.