Jack Quietly Becomes an Expert on Homelessness

by Christopher Butler

     The temperature on the day when I meet Jack Taylor is 17 degrees with wind chills gusting to single digits depending on where you stand. In the buildings and store porticos, where many people stand huddled together sharing a cigarette and small talk, you can avoid the wind. But on the sidewalks outside the Grapevine offices—as Jack and I make a quick walk to a nearby coffee shop—the wind blows right through you and you imagine the wind chill to be around zero.

     Jack admits that he’s been reluctant to speak with me since I tried to make contact nearly two weeks ago. He doesn’t know why, but he assures me that he gives only straight answers, even if his responses aren’t popular. And quickly he backs up his assertion. He tells me a story about confronting a police officer that had stopped to harass two homeless people sitting on a park bench. “These same guys drive by 15 drug dealers standing on Detroit Avenue and then they stop to pick on a couple homeless people who aren’t bothering anybody. I don’t get it.”

     As we walk along, the wind seeps through my clothes and I cringe until the gust passes. I’m dressed like Jack—a long-sleeve shirt, a sweatshirt and a medium-thick jacket—but he doesn’t appear to mind the cold like I do. In fact, he doesn’t think it’s cold at all when I ask him. Its just part of the life he’s grown accustomed to. When we’re finally inside, he says he’s been outside in much colder weather, like the time when he and three other homeless friends built a camp in the woods near West 14th and the highway. Out there, having built shelter with stray wood and boxes, they survived nights with sub-zero temperatures and wind chills falling to depths that sound unreal, except for knowing that they did occur when you read about it in the newspaper, most likely while you were cozily nestled in a firm, reliable structure of your own.

     We sit down and Jack moves his chair back away from the table far enough to stretch out his left leg. He rubs his knee thoughtfully as we start to talk. Many of Jack’s troubles (although he’d never call them that) could be traced back to his left leg.

     Twenty-five years ago, Jack smashed the lower part of his left leg in a car accident—he was driving—when he hit a phone pole near the intersection of West 130th and State Route 82 in North Royalton. He crushed the ankle, 13 breaks and fractures that rendered the joint nearly unreadable through x-rays. When Jack visited a doctor three years ago, the doctor was incredulous. “How in the world do you walk on that thing?” he asked. Now 40 years old, the leg suffers from osteoporosis (due to inadequate diet) and arthritis, and the pain in the ankle has moved up Jack’s leg to his lower back. He says its just part of the life he’s grown accustomed to. Next month, Jack’s having a third operation on the ankle, a total fusion that will prevent any kind of flex in the joint.

     The life that Jack’s “grown accustomed to” has taken him to some unique locales, spending part of his youth on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles where his father operated the island’s only radio station, KBIG. In those days, residence on the island was exclusive and his family had neighbors such as the Wrigleys (of chewing gum fame) and the Lamases (Fernando and son Lorenzo). The island was tight-knit, and Jack remembers it fondly. Cruise ships would often stop for day tours and the passengers threw coins off the bow and watched as the children dived into the cool water looking for spending money. “We would come home with cans full of coins,” Jack explains.

     Through the years, living in Arizona and Ohio, he married and had three children (but is now divorced). Jack stayed busy and employed, brandishing skills in concrete, sewer construction, truck driving and heavy equipment operation. The money was good and he loved the hard work, but all the trappings of domestic life were difficult—the emphasis on things and the accumulation of more and more things—it was stressful, too stressful. So eight years ago he left home without notice.

     He went to a place beneath a bridge near Train Avenue where other homeless folk had built a small community, pooling resources to make ends meet. When Jack saw police, they would tell him there was a missing person’s report filed in his name. Jack ignored them. He was embarrassed about his situation and yet did know how to fix it. Or know if he wanted to fix it. He stayed near Train Avenue for nearly two years until an assault in a nearby neighborhood enraged residents there. They blamed homeless people and police flushed the area, pushing Jack and his friends out into the cold again.

     That’s when Jack and his friends formed a camp near West 14th and the interstate. In this area they were far away from homes. Jack made ends meet by walking the neighborhood looking for work, shoveling snow, raking leaves, all while standing on a deteriorating ankle. After five years, a neighbor started harassing Jack and his friends. He was trying to sell his house and claimed their camp was hurting his real estate value. “You couldn’t even see us from his house. No one would even know we were there,” Jack explained. The neighbor took matters into his own hands, throwing Molotov cocktails at their shelter and making false complaints to police. After a while, Jack and his friends gave up and moved away again.

     As the conversation moves along, I keep asking Jack about times and dates and he has trouble remembering. To me it’s confusing but to Jack it’s another symptom of homelessness—the lack of structure and calendar to guide your activity. “You lose all concept of time when you’re on the streets because you don’t have any days to look forward to. You don’t pay this bill on this day. Just another day goes by.”

     Jack values the services provided by agencies in Cleveland, but he thinks some of the work is misdirected or too often beset by poor supervision. He says affordable housing would be the best cure for homelessness, but any attempt to do this should also have adequate services nearby to insure that people get the treatment they need, whether its substance abuse or mental training. While Jack appreciates these agencies, he also carries a healthy sense of skepticism of the how these groups are run. “If we’re paying some guy 75-thousand to run a non-profit... well, that sounds like a lot of profit to me. I don’t think that’s right.” And it’s not just on the home front that we misuse money, according to Jack. “We spend a billion dollars to drop peanut butter half way around the world and we can’t even provide someone here with money for a bus ticket.” It’s tough to argue with Jack.

     Today, Jack has a small apartment which he funds through odd jobs and subsidy checks. He sells the Grapevine, but typically gives his profits to other vendors. Jack says he doesn’t need to money but he likes to be out there with his friends. He takes pride in being someone who can be relied on for help. He likes the fellowship it brings. He says Grapevine is a helpful project, but the way the vendors are treated makes him angry. Jack says you can tell when someone in the street doesn’t even regard you as a normal person. “You can just tell. They think were all drug addicts or lazy. The worst is when they act like they don’t even see you.” As upsetting as it might be, it doesn’t deter Jack. As we part ways, he goes in search of his friend Tony who’s getting ready to hit the streets with a stack of Grapevines in hand.

Copyright The Homeless Grapevine Issue 59, February-March 2003, Cleveland, Ohio