He stepped on the Florida bus as Jack Owens and arrived in Fort Erie as John Morrison. The man walked into Canadian customs like the snowbird he wasn’t.
He looked the agents in the eyes as they examined his handwritten birth certificate.
“I’ve been gone to Florida for 31/2 weeks,” he said in his gravelly voice. “I lost all of my ID. This is all I have.”
He was calm. He didn’t glance sideways — that would be a giveaway.
Everyone else on the bus was antsy. It was a cold December night, and Morrison was holding up the show. The border agents at the Peace Bridge reluctantly waved him through.
Just like that, John Morrison was back. For 40 years, he lived in the United States as Jack Owens. He owned homes, married women (sometimes twice) and paid taxes to Uncle Sam.
The only snag was that Jack Owens had never been born. He was a man created on paper, an identity whose expiry date had finally passed.
“People might say I’m a cheating liar. Maybe they’re upset thinking I used the government,” he said. “If I die tomorrow, I had a hell of a life — the greatest time a human could have.”
His cloudy green eyes open wide behind his glasses and he begins his tale. It is a story couched in “believe it or not” predicates and illustrated with yellowed photos pulled from envelopes he keeps in a black shoulder bag. They’re from a life filled with beautiful women, pool halls and a hurricane. They’re all Morrison has left. That, and endless stories.
Morrison’s story, as he tells it, begins in Nova Scotia in 1937, when William Lyon Mackenzie King was prime minister and $1 bought you a hockey pullover at the department store.
By the time he was 6, his father was in jail and his mother was dying of tuberculosis and put her two children in an orphanage. He and younger sister, Jean, were shuffled from home to home but eventually settled with their grandma and an uncle. Morrison was pulled out of school in Grade 7 to work at a lumber mill but didn’t stay for long. The 14-year-old walked to the side of the Cape Breton road, stuck out his thumb and never looked back.
He joined the army in the ‘50s, but he wasn’t accustomed to taking orders in Petawawa. The life of a poolshark was more his style. He learned how to shoot and travelled the country hustling strangers. He moved to Montreal, met a girl at a party and married her in 1964.
The marriage didn’t last long and he was soon gone.
It was a blue and white Ford Fairlane that delivered him to his a new life. He and a lady friend rented the car and crossed the border in 1968. He dropped it off nine months later in California.
Morrison played pool, sold shoes and took night courses in business administration. He once sold six pairs of Gucci shoes to a car dealership owner, who offered him a job.
Like most of Morrison’s stories, that job lasted until the next stroke of luck. This time, a friend invited him to Mardi Gras.
“I must be part gypsy,” he says.
Morrison met another girl in New Orleans, fell in love and got a job at bar. And, as it turned out, he also got a new name and knocked a decade off his life.
It was the boss at the bar who set Morrison up with his new American identity. Keen to stop paying him under the table, he introduced Morrison to a well-placed guy who could set him up with legitimate U.S. documentation. Morrison could even choose his name. He went with Jack Owens and took 10 years off his age.
“It’s easier to get jobs if you’re younger,” he says.
Morrison got a licence, a social security number and a bank account. He took out a small loan and paid it back — bingo, a credit history.
He was nervous those first few months, but soon Jack Owens fit him like the well-made shoes he had once peddled. The only person who knew the truth was the woman who would become his second and later his third wife.
He met Linda at a bar in New York City. She was 20 years his junior, and he decided to stay in the city and sell expensive suits.
They got married, divorced and married again. When they split up for good in 1997, he moved back to the Big Easy.
Then, in 2005, the levee broke. Hurricane Katrina ruined Morrison’s condo. He lost his teeth when a light fixture fell on his face. He got a parasite from the water.
When the floods subsided, Morrison returned to the car dealership where he worked. A car on a hoist had the only dry engine on the lot. Owens sold it to himself for $500. He headed east on Interstate 10.
He cruised into Live Oak, Fla., where as a hurricane victim, he was treated like gold.
Town councilman George Blake took him for a steak dinner. Now retired, Blake still vividly remembers the drifter. Most of the hurricane victims just asked for food and a place to stay.
“He said, ‘I need teeth. I’m a salesman, how can I sell with this?’“ Blake said from his home. “He was just an ordinary guy down and out because of the hurricane.”
Blake got him a new set of teeth, courtesy of the town dentist. A gas station owner gave Morrison new tires and clothes. A couple named Brenda McGee and Greg Hurtt took him in and nursed him back to health.
Morrison got a job at a dealership, but the economy soured and he lost it. The car he drove out of Louisiana was stolen, trashed and found in another state. He sold it for $400. (“Not bad,” he says.)
Everything seemed to be back on track. But around the bend, just out of sight, his long-ago life in Canada was waiting.
Earlier this year, Morrison chatted with a government official about his social security money. Sure enough, the money he’d paid into the system for 40 years was waiting for Morrison — or, rather Owens — but first Uncle Sam needed to see his birth certificate.
Owens promised he’d return the next day. But, he says, “there was no use going back.”
By then, he had a few friends close enough to tell about his double life.
“Jack’s got some great stories. We didn’t know if he was giving us a line,” Hurtt said. “We coaxed Jack to get back together with his family and become himself again. He’s a man without a country, without an identity, but he’s our Jack.”
With Hurtt’s help, Morrison visited an immigration lawyer.
“I was told my morality was down the drain,” Owens said. “I decided I gotta go back. I can’t exist here.”
He left behind the markers of his old life — his licence, social security number and wallet — and boarded the bus with his handwritten ID on Dec. 7. A Salvation Army case worker would be waiting if he could talk his way across the border.
Morrison has family in Hamilton. After he left in 1968, Morrison didn’t call for his sister 14 years. He would slip across the border for the occasional Christmas until 9/11 made it too difficult.
Jean MacDonald, born 10 months after her brother, lives with her autistic son, daughter and son-in-law, and their four children. She’d like to help her brother, but she can’t offer him a place to stay.
MacDonald reflected on their shared losses — the dying mother, her brother’s turbulent teenage years, the Morrison name he ditched. “It’s all true,” she said.
“It just breaks my heart. At Christmas there’s a lot of sadness,” she says, her voice breaking. “I will be calling and visiting. He’s never seen any of these children.”
Morrison will spend Christmas at the shelter, reading books and trying to get a health card. He wants to work as a greeter in a dealership. A case worker is looking into an old age pension; someone else is trying to find him a place to live.
Morrison also took a step to help himself: He called the newspaper.
Sitting with a reporter in the shelter’s common room, reflecting on his life, he says there are things he would change.
“I regret not starting with a green card and getting U.S. citizenship,” he said. “I was naïve at the time. After 10 years I was Jack Owens. It was too late to turn around … I let the whole ride go.”
He has smoked for 60 years but quit last week. It’s cold here; his bones feel their 73 years.
“I’m in the twilight of my life, starting over as a Canadian,” he says. “Make it front page so people can get me out of here for Christmas.
“Do something right for me, little lady.”