Jeff Clark doesn’t remember getting hit by the train, which is just as well. There are so many other reminders.
He was in Little Italy that night, two summers ago, singing in a bar with a cover band called Backstage Pass. He wandered away between sets and wound up standing on the tracks at the Hawthorn Street crossing in San Diego, California, the United States. Witnesses said he was talking on his cellphone, unaware of what was headed his way. A 490-tonne Amtrak Surfliner.
The conductor saw Clark, blew the horn and hit the brakes, but there wasn’t enough time to avoid impact at about 48kph.
Clark spent weeks in a coma and almost a year in various hospitals. A brain injury slowed his speech, his motor skills, his memory. Numerous bones were broken. His legs, arms, feet, shoulders, hands – almost nothing works the way it used to.
One thing left unchanged, according to people who know him: An optimistic streak bordering on stubbornness.
“I got hit by a train and I lived,” he said. “I’m not bragging. I’m just fortunate beyond belief.”
Now the 57-year-old Clairemont resident spends his days trying to move beyond just being alive. He wants his life back, too.
For almost three decades he was a retailing free spirit, running the used-goods stores Music Trader and Thrift Trader, revelling on the front end in the bargains he found at estate sales and swap meets, and then on the back end when customers discovered those same treasures on his shelves.
“I loved everything about the stores,” he said, which were shut down, the merchandise put in storage, when it looked as if he might die from the accident. “Still do.”
He’d like to sing again, too, and not just in the steam room at the fitness centre where he works out almost every day. The hot, moist air soothes his vocal folds, and he’ll sit in there and do voice exercises.
His singing on four CDs and in live gigs around town reminded some of Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz or Live’s Ed Kowalczyk. “Such a great rock voice,” said Mick Kling, a guitarist who performed with Clark in Backstage Pass.
But while getting his life back is the goal, Clark is also a realist. He knows he’s someone now who goes to McDonald’s for takeout one night, puts the food in his minivan and then forgets about it until he sees the bag the next morning.
He’s someone whose shuffle from the locker room at the gym to the front door takes almost 10 minutes. And he’s someone who wears a yellow rubber bracelet, given to him by a friend, with words etched into it that serve as his motto: “It’s a work in progress.”
Passion for music
He was probably drinking.
Clark liked to down beers when he was performing, and on June 24, 2017, he and his band mates at the Loading Dock in Little Italy were also celebrating a birthday. Kling, the guitarist, turned 50.
“So I might have had more than I usually do,” Clark said.
But something else was going on that day, based on text messages he sent to friends. He wasn’t feeling well. Kling remembers him as “particularly loose and loopy”.
Clark has a history of cardiac issues, including a stroke, and he wonders now if he had a second one that day. Scans after the accident suggested that might be the case, he said. Or maybe there was an issue with his heart medication.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t enough to keep him from the stage that night. Not much could back then.
Rock music has been a passion of his since he was seven. Growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, he saved his nickels and dimes until he had enough to go to a record store and buy two Elvis Presley records.
When he was 19, he moved to San Diego, California. He worked different jobs in movie theatres and bookstores.
One day, on the radio, he heard Monte Kobey talking about a new swap meet downtown. Clark took some of his own CDs, bought others, and began selling them there.
“I didn’t make a lot of money, but I learned a lot,” he said.
He also met a woman there who would become his wife, Debbi.
“He had a magnetic personality, always drawing other people to him,” she said. “He was the life of the party.”
Together, they opened Music Trader in the late 1980s. From one store on El Cajon Boulevard, they grew the used-CD business into a chain that had 16 outlets throughout the county when they sold the business in 1999 for US$4mil.
Clark used some of the money to bankroll a recording of his own, Addicted, by a band he called Ten Sugar Coffee.
He sang polished versions of songs by John Gorka, Patty Griffin, Dave Alvin and others.
The CD garnered radio play on stations in San Diego and elsewhere, and it led to opening-act performances at concerts by B.B. King and Sonia Dada. Three other CDs followed.
Clark also began sitting in with various cover bands around town, which is how he wound up in Little Italy with Backstage Pass that June night two years ago, wandering off between sets at about 11.30pm with his cellphone in his hand.
Life or death
About 1,000 people were hit by trains in the United States in 2017, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Some 20% of them were in California. Of those, 123 were fatalities.
The non-profit public-awareness organisation, Operation Lifesaver, has helped trim the number of annual casualties over the past 30 years. Still, people wind up on the tracks for a variety of reasons. Some are suicidal.
Some, in coastal areas, are crossing to get to the beach.
And some, like Clark, are distracted.
When he didn’t make it home, friends started calling friends and one of them eventually tried Clark’s cellphone. A stranger answered and said something to the effect of, “This is the phone of the guy who got hit by the train last night.”
Word made it to his ex-wife Debbi and she got on her computer and read media accounts of the accident that pointed her to the hospital where Clark had been taken.
She contacted their two grown children, both college students, and Clark’s family in Michigan. While everybody was making their way to San Diego, she heard from doctors that a decision might have to be made about letting him die.
It was something they had discussed when they were a couple. “He had always said he would want us to save his life, to keep fighting for his life,” she said. “So that’s what we did.”
While he was in a coma, his future uncertain, family members shut down the three Thrift Trader stores in San Diego.
One of Clark’s friends let them use a warehouse in Escondido to store the merchandise.
About 20 workers lost jobs when the stores closed, but that didn’t stop many of them from visiting Clark in the hospital. “He could have been like the average boss, with all these rules and regulations, but it was like a family there,” said Vicki Stein, who worked at the North Park store. “We were all pulling for him.”
Clark’s recovery came in fits and starts. He spent time in different care homes and rehabilitation centres until he got well enough to move back to his house in Clairemont.
When he looks back on that period now, he tears up remembering the support he got from family and friends. It breaks his heart a little to know that his elderly mother came out from her retirement facility in Michigan to see him when he was comatose, sat by his bed and held his hand, and then went home and died a few weeks later.
She never knew that Clark would regain consciousness, walk again, make it to the point where he’s so upfront about what happened that when he makes arrangements over the phone to meet in person with someone he doesn’t know – a reporter, say – this is how he describes himself: “I’m 6-foot-4 and I look like I got hit by a train.
“I’m getting stronger,” he adds. – Tribune News service/The San Diego Union-Tribune/John Wilkens