‘Sounding the deeps of his nature’ — Remembering Ted Jack

By Israel Bayer, Staff Writer

Ted Jack was a simple man. He lived a very complex and hard life.

Born on a boat off the Alaskan coast into a youth spent in orphanages, Ted ran away from a world he would never speak about. He was all of eight years old. Learning how to look after his needs at a very young age and not to rely on others, Ted lived a life few human beings could ever imagine.

Ted 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, Ted worked on fishing boats in the Bering Sea and in canneries along the Alaskan 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 Ted’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 Ted’s life through the interviews with friends and social workers, and having my own relationship with Ted, 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 Ted 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. Ted’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 countless trips to the emergency room and jail in his early 20s.

Over the next few years, Ted was hospitalized in several psychiatric units throughout Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, roaming from one institution to the other while experiencing homelessness and alcoholism in-between. His health was taking a beating.

In 2000, it seemed that Ted 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 Ted had tried to commit suicide. He was only 30 years old.

In 2002, things went from bad to worse. Ted was savagely attacked by several men and left to die homeless on the streets of Anchorage, Ala. 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 the rest of his life disabled.

In Ted’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, Ted was living in doorways and under bridges in the Emerald City.

In 2005, Ted tried selling Real Change, the Seattle street newspaper, for the first time. That’s where I first met Ted. He tried vending the paper 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, Ted attempted suicide again by jumping off a bridge in Seattle. Miraculously, he survived, and spent nearly three weeks in the Harborview Medical Center Psychiatric Unit. Upon his release he was given two weeks worth of psychotropic medications and 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 of Seattle.

In January 2007, Ted 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, Ted went to Hooper Detox 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, Ted 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 — Ted left for Seattle in March. He had hoped that in Washington he could replace his Social Security card and get re-established. Within two weeks, and without medication, Ted was picked up by the Seattle Police Department for talking to himself on a street corner. He was returned to Harborview Medical Center.

This time, after leaving 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 from jail, Ted found himself once again without medication on the streets of Seattle. The unstoppable voices returned and he relapsed. He quickly found his way to Portland and entered Hooper Detox one more time. Shortly after, Ted returned to the same transitional housing and on-site case management services he had left months before. Ted was now 36 years old and had been homeless for 26 years of his life.

In the late summer of 2007, Ted began to sell Street Roots at a coffee shop near City Hall in downtown Portland. Ted was going to regular treatment groups, including Alcohol Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and he received acupuncture therapy through Central City Concern. Ted also began to work with Mellani Calvin and others at Central City Concern to try to obtain Social Security disability assistance — a long and complex process.

By 2008, those working with Ted 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.”

For the next four years, Heather and Ted 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.

Ted 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, Ted 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. “Ted would donate things like socks, razors, shaving cream, deodorant and many other items vendors needed. Ted was always giving himself back to the family who helped him in his hardest times.”

Ted 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.

Ted did not have any formal education. He learned to read, but could barely write legibly. Many of his written characters were reversed as if looking in a mirror, a strong sign that Ted had dyslexia — something I was also diagnosed with at age 9. His disability did not stop him.

When Ted worked behind the desk at Street Roots, we often joked that between the two of us, no one was going to be able to read a thing we wrote. The organization and Ted created a method for understanding how he documented each communication on paper. We made it work.

For years, Ted 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, Ted received a large sum of backpay and a monthly check for his disability.

In August of 2011, Ted and Heather moved to Alaska. Ted purchased a plot of land, an RV, and a dog in the harsh Alaskan wild.

“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, Ted 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 Alaska terrain to live out his last days. Unfortunately, his physical abilities had been robbed of him through a short life of trauma.

On Nov. 7, Ted 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, Ted lived a life out in the open.

“Ted 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 remained lit for Ted and others over the years, the storm sometimes is too strong and consuming.

In the end, Ted died knowing that he was loved and that he had loved, clean and sober, with a clear mind. He was a good man.

“He is sounding the deeps of his nature, and of the parts of his nature that were deeper than he, going back into the womb of time.”

—   Jack London, “Call of the Wild”

Memorial: There will be a memorial service for Ted on Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Downtown Chapel at 601 W. Burnside. For more information, contact israel@streetroots.org.

Author’s note: This was a very difficult piece to write. Ted was my friend. Even now, I’m not sure if this is how he would like to be remembered. But I believe Ted embodies the life of many people on the streets, and his story, no matter how tragic, should be told.

(Photo courtesy of Mellani Calvin.)

5 responses to “‘Sounding the deeps of his nature’ — Remembering Ted Jack

  1. Israel-you should write more often! Beautiful article on Teddy Jack. I am lucky to have known him.

  2. what incredible words, although he was a stranger to me … I felt that I knew him as I finished reading. I’m sorry for the loss of your friends, but incredibly happy for your amazing tribute to him

  3. I used to buy SR from Ted (I never knew his name) when I worked downtown. He had a bunch of toys displayed on the newspaper box that he’d sometimes give away and would put stickers on each paper he sold.

    Thank you Israel for writing this eulogy, and for everything you do.

  4. be still my heart…your words wrap him in honor and love and give to us a part of him that lives on.

  5. Thank you for sharing this story with us. I am very touched both by the arc of Ted’s life as well as by the compassion and respect shown by Israel, Melloni, and Heather. I am so glad for Ted that he was able to find friends, recovery, a partner, and his own mailbox in his last years.

    The picture is beautiful; the story is eloquent. Thank you for honoring his life.

Comments are closed as of Dec 17 2012 to prepare for migration of content to our new News site.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s