John Jackson helps Birgit Grove settle in for dinner at Harbour’s Edge. He wears diff-erent colors each day.
Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
All the men and women who serve the 340 elderly diners at Harbour’s Edge, a luxury senior living community in Delray Beach, dress with the utmost professionalism.
All their collared shirts are light blue and crisp, their slacks are black, their shoes and socks are black.
All except one.
“When I started here, they gave me a uniform,” John Jackson concedes. “But I said, I can’t do the uniform, so I started wearing my street clothes. I had to give back something.”
Street clothes does not begin to describe what Jackson has worn to work this Thursday afternoon in March.
Relaxing at a table outside the Edgewater dining room before his 5 p.m. shift, he sports a suit so red it almost could make Santa jealous, a black dress shirt, red-and-black plaid socks, a white necktie and white boutonniere.
“I’ve upgraded the job,” he explains. “Not the work, but the dressing. That’s what the residents love. They come down every day just to see what I’ve got on. And after they see my suit, they want to see my shoes.”
How to describe those shoes?
They are red, of course, to match the suit, and they sparkle. Imagine for a moment that the same designer who created Judy Garland’s ruby red slippers had also conjured a pair of manly dress shoes for John Jackson.
“I have 35 or 40 pairs of shoes,” he adds.
Jackson wore a different outfit to work yesterday, and he will wear a different one tomorrow.
“I know how to mix and match,” he says. “Most people, black or white, don’t know how to do that.”
He spots a little woman in a canary yellow blouse maneuvering her walker across the lobby.
“Oh, I like that blouse!” he calls. “It’s very pretty. And you’re walking better!”
She returns his greeting with a “Thank you” and a smile.
“You go to anybody over 65, there’s always something wrong with them,” Jackson says, watching her go. “Your body starts breaking down. I got problems, but when I come here I don’t think about what’s wrong with me. I keep it moving. I’m 81 and I’m enjoying my ride. A kind word and a smile changes everything.” At work in the dining room overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, Jackson does not take orders or deliver meals. Anthony Cammarano, the director of culinary services, calls him a “valet.” The ID badge around his neck calls him a “scooter valet.” Residents call him the “walker valet.”
Once the diners have reached their tables, their walkers and wheelchairs are a hazard, blocking aisles and hindering the servers. Jackson’s job is to valet the walkers and wheelchairs to a small area off the maitre d’s stand, and retrieve them when the residents are ready to leave.
“I remember their names and the color of their walker,” he says. “I’ve got a system. The ones that come early, I put the walkers in a certain place, and the ones that come later I put in a different place.”
John Jackson’s job as valet is to move residents’ walkers and wheelchairs out of the way during dinner. He keeps track by organizing them into early and later arrivals and then remembers which residents have which colors. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Jackson began at Harbour’s Edge more than a decade ago, after spending most of his working life as a private duty nurse.
“I worked at a nursing home in Brooklyn, and then I was in Chicago nursing a multimillionaire. I had my own room, my own phone and my own car.”
At Harbour’s Edge, to the north of Linton Boulevard, he began as a concierge, took a few years off for another nursing job, then returned as the walker valet. After a nearly two-year interruption when the coronavirus hit, he considered retiring, briefly. The allure of friendly residents and colorful clothes brought him back in April 2022.
“The residents absolutely look forward to seeing him,” says Cammarano, the culinary director. “He knows them all and he provides a service they look forward to.”
You might argue that Jackson began preparing for this job as a boy in Wilmington, North Carolina, where he was born, one of eight brothers and sisters, on Christmas Eve 1941.
When he was 12, Jackson’s mother had a charge account at a downtown men’s store, where she bought him a suit for $29, to be paid off at $2 a week.
“Well, it looked like a croker sack,” he says, distaste creeping into his voice at the memory. “I mean, it was ugly. So I took it back and exchanged it for a $49 gray flannel suit, and when my mother found out she made me pay $2 a week until I paid it off.”
He had a job in a neighborhood grocery store then, earning $9 a week, so after giving his mother $5 a week toward the rent and $2 to pay off that suit, Jackson was left with $2 spending money. But he has no regrets.
“This was about 1953,” he says, “and that’s when I started getting fascinated with clothes.”
Not long ago, a new book appeared in the Harbour’s Edge library, just a single copy, the only copy.
Gentleman John is a homemade tribute with page after page of John Jackson modeling his seemingly endless wardrobe of flamboyant ensembles. The photos were taken by Judy Weitzmann, the book compiled by Helen Mctighe, the comments contributed by some of the other residents he inspires:
“Elegance with pizzaz” — Susanna Smith.
“No. 1 on the hit parade” — June Davis.
“You sparkle and shine” — Lee Emmer.
“Something extra to add to our dining experience.” — Gloria Weiner.
“I wish I dressed as well as John.” — Audrey Kaufman.
“A living work of art. He brings the joy of living to everyone who sees him.” — Linda Sandelman.
Motivation for all
Away from work, Jackson lives a contented life in the Leisureville section of Boynton Beach. He’s divorced, and the father of four children born before he was 25. Two daughters and a son survive. His oldest son died of COVID-19 at 63.
Nowadays he likes what he calls “the old music.” Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Jamaican reggae, and he likes dancing to it.
“I have a very fine girlfriend,” he reports, “but if I lose her I won’t have another one. I’ll just flirt.”
And travel is not so important anymore.
“I’ve been on cruises but I don’t like them,” he says. “There’s too much damned water.”
He works five days a week, 5 to 9 p.m., and now it’s nearly time. As he’s preparing to head for the dining room, Shirley Bonier, 94, and Marjorie Grande, 97, pass by and receive a kind word and a smile.
“He’s the best thing that ever happened to Harbour’s Edge,” Grande says.
“He brings color to the place,” Bonier agrees. “We look forward to seeing John every time we come down.”
Seven decades after he bought that $49 gray flannel suit, the fascination with clothes still gives John Jackson a reason to come to work, and the men and women of Harbour’s Edge a reason to smile.
“They might not remember what they ate, but they remember what I had on,” he says, heading to the dining room. “I don’t care how much money you’ve got or how high your status is, it’s all about love. Most of us are on our last ride here, so this is a motivation for me and for them.”
Then he pauses a moment to consider.
“Tomorrow,” he decides, “I’m going to wear blue and white.”