Characters of Tacoma

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

Tacoma has more than its share of memorable and colorful characters, but few were as visible as Jack Falk.

Most of us who have worked or even just passed through downtown Tacoma have seen Jack and his pin-wheel, flag and pom-pom festooned bicycle (those who looked closer might see clocks, televisions and various other bright or vibrantly moving parts not usually found on a bicycle).

But there was far more to Jack than his nearly 400 pound bicycle.

I met Jack when I worked at the Tacoma Rescue Mission. The people I worked with there were, for the most part, a more raw than usual mix of the ingredients of human nature; creative and resourceful, desperate and broken, naive yet hardened, foolish yet often, somehow, wise, haunted by loss, betrayals, and pain.

And yet, many seemed curiously unburdened by normal views of reality.

One of the guys I got to know there was Jack. Jack was half Native American–I believe he once told me Lakota Sioux. He grew up in a hard drinking military family, mostly in Germany. He, as an adult, showed all the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome–he was tall and lanky, and had the sluggish speech of a brain drenched in alcohol.

He fit every definition of being “developmentally disabled” and lived on Social Security.

He was good with his hands and volunteered for several organizations including the Tacoma Art Museum.

Tacoma was just the right size and scale for someone like him – he didn’t get lost in a big city, services were available and there were familiar faces all over his little corner of the city.

Bikeman Poster  Image courtesy BeautifulAngle.com, Tom Llewellyn and Lance Kagey

Bikeman Poster
Image courtesy BeautifulAngle.com, Tom Llewellyn and Lance Kagey

In spite of his “disability” he had found his place in his community. He always seemed to be in a good mood whenever I saw him.

Somehow as a teenager, he had taken to hopping freight trains around Europe. When his family moved back to the States, he kept doing what he knew best – riding the rails. I was told that he had a wall-sized railroad map of North America in his low-rent subsidized apartment where he had marked all the routes he had traveled. He kept the schedules in a notebook or in his head. He was a connoisseur of the rails.

I would see Jack every month or so and he would tell me where he had been – usually to the far coasts – Florida, New York, southern California, Canada, Alaska – depending on the season or his mood.

He used to hop a train to Portland in the morning and be back home for dinner.

He gladly told me his stories. For one thing, I was one of the few people who would listen to him in his laconic, drifting, sing-songy voice about where he had been, the weather, the conditions, and the security people he ran into.

He wasn’t trying to impress me, he just told it straight.

One time, after several months, I ran into Jack.

“Hey, Jack, where you been?” This was my usual question.

“Oh, I been to Japan.”

“Japan! How’d you get to Japan?”

“Oh, I took the southbound freight to LA and then stowed aboard a freighter ship. Then I hopped some trains around Japan for a few weeks and then got on another freighter and caught a northbound freight train back home.”

I could hardly believe what he was telling me.

“Did you have a passport or a visa?”

I realized, as I was asking, how ridiculous my question was.

Jack clearly lived in a parallel universe where standard rules and paperwork did not apply.

Jack gave me a huge grin–as if I were some kind of idiot. “No, don’t need no passport.”

I left our conversation, puzzled and inspired – not sure if I should be horrified that our borders were so porous, or ecstatic that this Huck Finn-type man could outwit every absurdly expensive customs, border and security system out there.

This was, after all, just a few years after the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center Towers.

I wasn’t too sure what to make of Jack’s connection or perhaps lack of connection with the standard practices of travel. He clearly lived by his own rules and moved to his own tempo. In a very tangible way, he was clearly not of our world. He drifted like a stray leaf across time and terrain, and crossed borders, cultures and language barriers like a wild animal.

After not seeing him for a couple of years, I heard that he passed away on Easter Sunday, 2015. But I get the feeling that Jack, in his own way, is still setting his own course.