Man of Steely Resolve
By Matt Dibble
Photography by Matt Dibble
Sometimes columns have sequels too. Last year, I wrote about a man I found striding through downtown Oakland dressed as Superman. Intrigued by what blue tights and a red cape meant to a 45-year-old black man, I got to know Mark Jackson, who worked security in a tough San Francisco bar and wore his garb as a beacon of hope in a troubled world.
After the magazine [July/August 2005] came out, I went to find Mark at the Old Oakland Hotel where he was living. In his room, barely larger than the bed on which he sat, Mark had constructed a shrine to Supermania. In the midst of a floor-to-ceiling collage of Superman and Mighty Mouse memorabilia, articles about Christopher Reeve and pin-up girls, there were already multiple copies of the column with Mark’s image, his eyes scanning the streets for evildoers. As we caught up, he told me that his boss no longer allowed him to work in full Superman regalia. Mark now had to wear the security company jacket over his red and blue costume. This setback, however, had not dampened his resolve to live as Superman in the world: A serious hurricane named Katrina was scheduled to hit New Orleans that week, and Mark told me that if he had enough money he would go down there, tie himself to a tree and see if he could endure the wind. Or maybe he could help the people out somehow. He was also eagerly anticipating the release, less than a year away, of Superman Returns, the first new Superman movie in more than 20 years. We made plans to see it together.
In June, with the yellow and red Super emblem blazing from billboards and every passing bus, I called the Old Oakland to make a date with Mark. “He doesn’t live here anymore,” said the desk clerk. “He moved out a couple of months ago.”
There was no forwarding address, and my Internet searches came up blank. One day I was in the neighborhood and stopped by the hotel. The front door is always open during the day, so I walked up the ancient stairs, covered, like the rest of the floor, in matted gray carpet. No one was at the desk, but a blonde woman in camouflage pants was on her way out. I was surprised when she said, “Oh, yeah, I saw him yesterday. He is the sweetest guy. I don’t know where he’s living though.” The clerk at the convenience store down the block also knew Superman, and without much hope, I left my phone number to pass along if he ever showed up again.
Two days later the phone rang. “How’s it going, Olsen?” At first I thought it was a wrong number—then remembered that I am Jimmy to his Clark. It was great to hear that Mark was still around, and we made plans to see the movie, despite the fact that it would be his fourth time. On the way to the theater he filled me in. He was now working seven days a week at two jobs—and he was sleeping on the streets, usually in a bus shelter. His memorabilia collection was in storage, and he had two sets of clothes: the polyester Superman suit and something to wear when the Super suit is in the wash. “It’s not because I don’t have money. I am saving it up for a project I want to do and also making myself tougher for the role.”
On the way into the movie a woman smiled at the golden S beaming from Mark’s chest and said, “I’m so glad you are wearing that.” Though the Reeve portrayal remains his favorite, Mark thinks the new guy does OK. “If only they had these special effects back in Reeve’s day. That would have been the best.” But he is not at all happy with the new cape. Following the trend for comic heroes to have a darker look, the current cape comes in a shade aptly described by one film critic as “Merlot.”
I wondered how Mark, the son of a minister, felt about the film’s many references to that other tortured savior, Jesus Christ. “That’s what Superman’s like. Even though he had the power to go back and kill Lex Luthor, he didn’t do it. He is like a Samaritan, just trying to do good things for people.” Mark’s father and schoolteacher mother raised him to do good also. “I was the type of kid who didn’t want to see nobody picked on or beat up. I’d say, ‘Why’d you take that guy’s lunch money?’ I might end up getting a black eye for that. But that’s the way I was.”
When I first met Mark he told me about his “initiation” of walking the streets of Manhattan dressed in a Superman T-shirt on a freezing winter day. He now described the project for which he is saving all his money. “I want to do a video. Do some things such as survive a snowstorm in Baltimore. Baltimore is a very dangerous place. If I can survive Baltimore, then I’m Superman. Detroit, Chicago, make a tour like a boxer. If I can get through this, I have no reason to be afraid, and I can protect a lot of people.”
Since his days as a kid spending the night in the graveyard of his small Texas hometown, Mark’s life has been full of these personal tests. I suggested to him that maybe by now he could rest on his laurels a bit. As we shook hands, I pointed out that he couldn’t protect all of us if he didn’t take care of himself first. He nodded and smiled, gave a panhandler a dollar and walked off into the city night.