Life

“There Are No Equals to This”

Duane Jackson has faced down car bombs and 70,000 daily tourists in Times Square. Nothing was like the coronavirus.

Times Square looking eerily empty.
New York’s Times Square is seen nearly empty during the coronavirus pandemic on April 25. Justin Heiman/Getty Images

One of the eeriest sights of the pandemic is Times Square empty, the throngs of tourists and bright lights and buzz of city life gone. For some people, like Duane Jackson, an empty Times Square also meant the loss of a workplace. Jackson is a sidewalk street vendor who’s sold his wares in the global destination for years. (Jackson came to Slate’s attention via his daughter, young adult author Tiffany D. Jackson.) Jackson has kept working through more than one city crisis—he was selling downtown during the terrorist attacks of 1993 and 9/11, not to mention the time in 2010 he was recognized for alerting police to what turned out to be a car bomb. (Authorities managed to defuse it.)

But as Jackson told Slate, he’s never seen anything like this. We spoke as he headed back to work. This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: How long have you worked in Times Square?

Duane Jackson: I’ve actually been in and out of Times Square, mostly in, since 1989. Every now and then you’ll meet a street vendor who just happens to have a master’s degree. I majored in city planning at Boston University, and I was a city planner for 15 years. When that job came to an abrupt end, one of my friends said: “Well, go down and get your street vending license. They’re free for veterans.”

People at Times Square, we’re a little neighborhood unto ourselves with not only the street vendors and the cleaning people who clean the theaters, [but also] the security people and the stage managers and every little aspect of the theater district. You see a lot of the same people every day.

Where is your spot exactly?

It’s 45th and Broadway. Normally, over the last 15 years, I’ve either been on the Lion King side of the street or I’ve been on the other side, which is where the Marriott Marquis hotel is.

What do you sell?

Over the last five years I’ve been doing “I Love New York” things like T-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts—very much a tourist type of thing.

When did you know you were going to have to close?

In the winter, my wife and I usually take two weeks off and we go to Cancun. We left Feb. 15 and we didn’t get back until March 6. So we were laying on the beach and watching everything unfold and not really being in touch with people in Times Square. Because January, February is slow. When we got back, I opened up, and business was booming. There were a lot of people out on the street. Times Square on a warm night, you’ve got 70,000 people, easy. When we heard about what was happening in Washington state, that just seemed so distant. When the [New York] governor decided to close down after California closed down, I guess I didn’t get it. I said, “OK, it’s going to pass.” And then you’re one week in, you’re two weeks in, three weeks in. Probably I was about five or six weeks in and I decided to drive down to Times Square—and I saw 12 people.

When [my daughter] Tiffany came by last week, she was just struck by the fact that Times Square was empty in the middle of the day. There’s no hustle-bustle from people coming from New Jersey to the Port Authority going to work, or people coming into Grand Central Station. It looks like major league sports teams will get back in action to some degree before the Broadway shows.

How does the pandemic compare with other times when there have been downturns?

Maybe 15 years ago, the stagehands went on strike, and all the Broadway shows were closed. The strike was only a week, maybe a week and a half, so that probably up until now was the biggest downturn. I thought I was going to lose about 65 percent of my business. It actually was 85 to 90 percent. That’s how much my particular stand depends on theaters. In terms of how bad things are with the pandemic, I’m probably down about 97, 98 percent. It’s ridiculous to be out there all day and make $40, $50 maybe.

There’s always daily things happening, situations, demonstrations. Instead of being closer to the corner, you have to move down a little bit beyond the barricades. But what we’re in right now is of epic proportions. There are no equals to this. I mean, this is uncanniness.

Especially in the summertime, I would say probably 25 percent of our business was from overseas and another 20 to 25 percent was from Southern states and Sun Belt states. You take all of that off the map, you don’t have very much of a map left.

When did you start thinking about coming back to work again?

A few weeks ago. It was kind of predicated on the fact that Pride Month had started. During Pride Week last year, with the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, business was stupendous. I had the rainbow flag and rainbow glasses, all kinds of stuff. So I actually had some of those things left over from last year. The weather was getting a little bit better. You know where Restaurant Row is? I went on Ninth Avenue and I set up my stand there and I started selling my stock from last year. I did that for about four days in a row. Then I went back to my old spot in Times Square. When Cuomo said that you could start doing outside dining, that was my cue to give it a shot.

How have you been doing on those days?

If I make 50 bucks, I’m actually happy. It’s nothing to write home about at all. But it gets me out of the house, gets me out of the normal routine of being home.

What do you remember about the day you discovered a bomb in Times Square?

When I walked up to the car, my curiosity was, why was this car parked with the flashing lights on and running on a beautiful May 1 evening at about 6:45? And there was no one in it. One of the peculiar things was that the car had black lacquer paint on the inside windows from behind the passenger seat all the way through the back of the car, and then there was a curtain and you couldn’t see into the back half. Fortunately, one of the local beat cops had just walked by. I got his attention. He came back to the car, and while we were both standing, me on the passenger side window and him on the driver’s side window, we smelled the gunpowder when the first fuse went off. And then when the second fuse went off, there was a little popping sound, and then it was that time we started moving back ourselves and called for the Fire Department. The lieutenant surveyed the situation, and that’s when they called in the bomb squad.

So that took from about 7:30 in the evening till 3 o’clock in the morning. There are approximately 43 or 45 theaters that make up Broadway, and 45th Street is the most populous theater block. There’s seven theater houses on 45th Street. So certainly the terrorist did his homework to see what place would have the greatest impact in terms of people traveling, going to an 8 o’clock show.

What was it like afterward?

In 2009, Dolly Parton was producing the play 9 to 5. That theater is right by the Marriott Hotel, so it was maybe 20 feet from my stand, and I would see Dolly going in through the stage door. And of course I know the stage door manager and the manager of the hotel. So one day I had asked Dolly’s manager if I could take a picture with her. So we went inside and we took a picture, and about half an hour later Dolly’s assistant came to the stand, and she spent $130 buying pocketbooks. I don’t know who they were for.

Then the [2010] incident happened, and I was on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts. Three days later, Dolly came by my stand in Times Square to give me a hug and a kiss and to thank me because she had seen me on Good Morning America.

The only thing that even halfway compares to that is when I got a phone call from President Obama [after discovering the bomb]. He says, “Thank you for your service in Vietnam to the country, and certainly thank you for what happened Saturday night.” Then he says, “Have you met with Mayor Bloomberg yet?” And I go, “No, as a matter of fact, I’m going to do Good Morning America with Mayor Bloomberg tomorrow.” I had said I sell ladies’ pocketbooks and stuff. And he says, “Well, you make sure when you see Mayor Bloomberg that he buys everything you have, because you know, he’s got it like that.” He was so funny and so personable.

You talked about walking up to the car with a police officer. What was your relationship to the police like before the current reckoning?

Right now, and even before the [car bomb] incident in 2010, I had the numbers for some of the local police officers. Somebody comes by and tries to buy something with a phony $100 bill: “Hey, let me call up an officer from Midtown North and say, ‘Hey, Johnny, there’s a guy trying to pass some phony $100 bills.’ ” That’s the type of relationship that I’ve had over the years with many police officers. Maybe I get a little more respect than the normal Joe because I am a veteran and I have veteran plates on my truck.

Has seeing the protests over police violence affected how you think about your relationship with them?

It’s a tough job dealing with real criminal people on a day-to-day basis. It’s just a constant reminder of why we have police officers. Now do things go too far with it, like with George Floyd? Absolutely. Are Black men susceptible to being pulled over? I’m a 68-year-old Black man. I’ll give you a classic example. I worked at Disneyland in 1969. I was 17 years old. I can remember driving off to Disneyland on at least one occasion, maybe two, and I got pulled over. The officer said, you know, license and registration. I gave him my license and registration and he says, “Where are you going?” And I said I worked at Disneyland and showed him my Disneyland ID. He goes, “Oh, you work at Disneyland! What do you do, are you one of the characters?” and went on and on. Never told me why I was pulled over. You’re a Black guy going to a white neighborhood, and some folks were like, “OK, what you doing? Where are you going? Where are you coming from?” But that’s America. I don’t have any illusions about what the last 400 or 500 years has produced.

During the crisis, have you kept in touch with your fellow vendors and other people you used to see every day?

Yeah. I’ve seen about three or four of the old-timers. The relationships between the veterans and the hot dog guys are probably the strongest. And then the picture guys, we’ve been knowing each other for 15, 20 years. So we have each other’s phone numbers. You make phone calls and kind of check in to see who’s doing what. Some of the guys who were at the stage doors, they’re working one day a week. Haven’t seen none of the cleaning ladies, because there’s nothing to clean every day.

Do you think you’ll survive?

The good thing about the street vending business is I can pack up and go to some other part of the city. But there’s some talk that people are thinking about moving out of New York City. There are more vacancies for apartments. Like my son, he’s 25 years old, and his company probably won’t open back up their offices at 46th Street. In terms of what it’s all gonna mean going forward, a year from now, where are we going to be? Are we gonna be clear and free, or are we going to be still struggling?