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On the half-empty rear car of a northbound Purple Line last night, it was quiet as snowfall, until Jack S. decided to call his brother Lambert in Orlando and tell him about the approaching storm. Soon Jack’s voice was gusting through the car.
“I’m calling to say good-bye to you,” Jack boomed. Jack apparently had never heard the recorded CTA admonition to be considerate while talking on phones so as not to disturb other “customers.” The few customers in the car glanced up at Jack, then resumed fondling their own phones.
“I’m saying good-bye because I’m about to be buried,” Jack told Lambert dramatically. He paused, then delivered the punch line: “Under this snow. This gonna be a blizzard!"
Jack is a stocky 61-year-old with a sprawling nose and a forehead as wide as a snow plow. A hat with earflaps and a fur front was loose on his head, and he had on a black coat and black jeans.
“Let me tell you what it’s gonna do,” Jack said to Lambert. “Around rush hour tomorrow—4:30 or something? The snow’s gonna start up, and the wind gonna start blowing—they say it’s gonna be from 35 to 55 miles an hour! We ain’t gonna be able to see across the street! It’s gonna be a motherfucker! But I’ll be out there shoveling that shit.”
Jack had gotten out of prison in September, having done three years for burglary, I’d learn later. He’s been in and out of prison the last 30 years for various property and drug crimes. How does a 61-year-old with a felony-studded resumé get by on the outside? He rakes leaves in the fall and shovels snow in the winter.
“I gotta get out there and make some of that money,” Jack told Lambert. “I called up Andy the other day, I say, ‘Hey, Andy, you know it’s fittin’ to snow, time to get that snowblower’—‘Oh, no, no, no, no.’ So I ain’t gonna ask him no more. Me and Menard? That lives on Dodge? We is going out there tomorrow. I been hanging with him this last month. He ain’t got no money, you know what I mean? But, hey, listen—I ain’t either! I started going out there and buy me a snowblower—but the little money I got, man, I gotta keep that, I might need a TV!”
Jack paused, listening to Lambert. “It’s 75 degrees there? So y’all runnin’ ’round half-naked? Ha ha! I wish we could say that.” He glanced over at the young couple sitting across from him. They were reading something on the woman’s turquoise phone. “This girl over here got on a parka, her boyfriend got on a coat, and I mean it’s cold out here, man.” The young man and woman looked up shyly at Jack. “It’s my brother in Florida,” Jack explained. “Talking about, ‘It’s 75 degrees.’ Next year? I’m gonna be there.”
He chuckled and turned his attention back to Lambert. “I just told the guy sitting next to me, ‘I’m outta here, man.’ I’d rather be in the joint than be out here facing this shit. Alright, I’m gonna let you go. Hey, hey—can you wire me some money where I can get me a snowblower?” Jack asked. He listened to his brother’s response. “No, I ain’t gonna need that. Alright, well, I’m gonna handle the shovel while I’m here then. But I’m outta this motherfucker next year. Alright, brother, hey, call me in the morning.”
Jack put his phone in his coat pocket and told the young man across from him, “Next year, this time? God willing and the creek don’t rise? I’ll be down there.” He reached into another pocket and pulled out a cotton face mask. “Look look look look—here’s what I got to wear tomorrow. Because it gonna be sleet in your face! I’m prepared. I’m prepared. I’m 61 years old. I ain’t got no business being out there in all that wind, but I got to be. But this is the last time.”
I approached Jack, sat in front of him, and introduced myself. He said he stayed in Evanston, near Church and Dodge, but also stayed in Chicago sometimes, on Canal near Roosevelt. Later I saw that the address he gave prison officials on his release was 1458 S. Canal—the Pacific Garden Mission.
“I been watching this snowstorm all week,” Jack told me. “I gotta get out there and make some money. All you gotta do is knock on people’s doors, ask them if they want you to shovel their snow. Whatever you say it gonna cost, they gonna pay you, ’cause they need it. So that’s what I’m gonna do tomorrow. But this is the last year—ever. I’m 61 years, man. I done fell five times. They showed on the news this morning where people was walking on the ice? And fell, bam. You know, just bam. And they were laughing up there where they broadcast the news at. I laughed too when I seen ’em fall, but let me tell you something—once you fall? It ain’t nothing to laugh at, man. But luckily I’m harder than nails.”