Hit by a train, Thrift Trader owner works to rebuild his life
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. Witnesses said he was talking on his cellphone, unaware of what was headed his way.
A 540-ton Amtrak Surfliner.
Train operators saw Clark, blew the horn and hit the brakes, but there wasn’t enough time to avoid impact at about 30 miles per hour.
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 as much by feel as by spreadsheet, reveling 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 24 Hour Fitness where he works out almost every day. The hot, moist air soothes his vocal folds, and if no one else is listening — and sometimes even if they are — 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. “I’ll be there by Christmas,” he joked while making the trek one day last week.
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, seemed off in some way. 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 7. Growing up in Battle Creek, MI., 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 California. “I’d seen all the TV shows with the girls in bikinis,” he said. He tried San Francisco first and didn’t like it, and then someone suggested San Diego.
“Everything here made sense to me, the way each community has its own feel,” he said. “I’d never lived any place before where I felt like I did here, like I belonged.”
He worked different jobs — movie theaters, bookstores — and then one day on the radio heard Monte Kobey talking about a new swap meet in the old Walker Scott department store 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 $4 million.
Clark used some of the money to bankroll a recording of his own, “Addicted,” by a band he called Ten Sugar Coffee. Backed by experienced musicians, including ones from Kings Road and Little River Band, he sang polished versions of songs by John Gorka, Patty Griffin, Dave Alvin and others.
Dismissed initially by some as a vanity project, the CD garnered radio play on stations here 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 11:30 p.m. 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 percent of them — 214 — were in California. Of those, 123 were fatalities.
It’s enough of a problem that it has its own non-profit public-awareness organization, Operation Lifesaver, which 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 — “Thank goodness for the Internet,” she said — 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, and 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.
The stores, which sold used CDs, clothes and other items, were quirky and beloved by many, including some who would come almost every day to see what was new on the shelves. Clark sometimes let homeless people sleep inside at night so they wouldn’t be on the sidewalks.
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, ‘Do this and do that,’ 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 centers 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 6’4 and I look like I got hit by a train.”
He greets people with his left arm outstretched, palm down. His right one doesn’t work well enough for handshakes.
At the gym, he moves slowly from one machine to the next. Sometimes he has to use his hands to lift one of his legs into position. His range of motion on most of the exercises is limited.
There is pity in the eyes of some of the other people there, but Clark doesn’t seem to notice. He talks instead about his progress, how he can lift more weight now than he could before.
“I’m getting stronger,” he said.
People who saw Clark right after the accident — when it seemed like he might not live, and if he did he might never walk again — sometimes express awe at how far he’s come.
And sometimes they don’t. They expected as much from him, because Clark has known upheaval before — married and divorced twice, separated from another longtime partner with whom he fathered a child, had court squabbles with roommates — and never seemed to let it keep him down.
“He will not give up,” Stein said. “He’s one of the most optimistic people I’ve ever known.”
Clark dreams about opening another used-goods store one day. He sometimes sells items at Kobey’s on weekends, to keep his hand in. “It’s therapy for me, more than it is about making money,” he said.
But mentally and physically, he still has a long way to go before running a store is possible, he said.
His singing feels further along to him. He’s recording himself for his phone’s voice-mail message again, something he used to do all the time. He’s thinking about which songs he might want to include on a CD.
“It’s a new voice, a new Jeff,” he said. “There’s a depth that wasn’t there before.”
But sometimes that dream feels beyond his immediate reach, too, so he tries to be patient. “I’m just going to sit in my car now and think about what I can do to move my life forward,” he said one day last week, after he finished his workout at the gym.
He leaned on his walker and pushed it slowly along the sidewalk to his minivan in the parking lot. He opened the tailgate, put the walker inside, and closed the hatch door, a process that took him several minutes.
Then he realized he had forgotten to put his gym bag inside. He sighed, and for a moment the idea of going through all those movements again seemed to defeat him.
But only for a moment.
“Sometimes it’s hard to believe this is my life now,” he said, and then he picked up the bag and remembered something a friend told him once in pain-management class.
“Believe it,” he said to himself out loud. “It’s happening.”
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