Duane Jackson has been an entrepreneur since 1989, selling souvenirs to thousands of tourists on city sidewalks.
“'I Love New York' T-shirts: That’s what people from all over the world come to purchase,” Jackson said.
It was not a career Jackson would have predicted for himself. After the Vietnam War, the GI Bill allowed the disabled veteran to attend Boston University. He worked briefly in politics and then city planning.
But when he was abruptly laid off, he discovered street vending through an old law that allows disabled veterans special privileges to sell merchandise on busy sidewalks.
“It gives you the flexibility of being able to work when you want to work but make no mistake about it, you work long hours and you work hard,” Jackson said.
That is, there were long hours, before the pandemic. Jackson worked 12-hour days, 5-days a week. But now, he sets up shop in Times Square only on the weekends.
And Jackson is making a fraction of what he once was. His average used to be $200 a day; now it’s a good day to make half that. Most of the time, he makes much less.
But Jackson remains committed. For the past few months, he commutes 45 minutes to Times Square on weekend mornings to plant his table on Broadway near 45th Street.
“There’s an old saying, you can’t sell it if you don’t set up. You’ve got to be here, you have to be in it, because you never know,” said Jackson.
Thirty years of street vending have given Jackson a special connection to the city. He’s been a part of the city’s highs and the fight back from the lows, like the terrorist attacks in 1993 and September 11th.
In 2010, Jackson was credited with thwarting an attempted car bombing when he alert police to a suspicious car. The act was applauded by celebrities and politicians, including President Barack Obama. After earning national attention, he ran for Congress in 2012. Now, Jackson is serving his fourth term as a Trustee for the Village of Buchanan in Westchester County.
“It may be a little down right now but it’s not out. The fabric of New York is its people,” Jackson said.
And that’s why he’s betting on the city’s come back once again, setting out his table in Times Square, so he can be a part of it.
“No one has the tenacity and the variety of the people than New York City. I mean whether you’re out in Rego Park, Queens or you’re in Bayside, Brooklyn, you’re up in Westchester or Long Island, it’s an amalgamation of just people. And there’s an old song that people make the world go around,” Jackson said.
“New York is what makes the world go around.”