When you’re in Ed Jackson’s line of work, you’ve got to watch your back. He practices his trade on the corner of 11th and S Streets NW, a gritty slice of Cardozo that’s seen better days. Across the street from where Jackson stands is a burned-out building, the black shell of a restaurant whose owner was brutally stabbed and killed. Jackson himself has survived his share of robbery attempts, but he’s been luckyhe’s got neighbors looking out for him.
Jackson’s customers are loyal. Cash in hand, they come to him daily for their fix, confident that he’s ready to deal. But early this spring, usually the start of the busy season, Jackson got a tip from a couple of well-connected customers: The authorities were hip to his racket and were intimidating his clientele. Stuck with a shrinking business, Jackson can’t hide his rage.
“Look,” he says, pleading innocence, “kids are going to buy candy whether they get it from me or from somewhere else.”
Sixteen years ago, Jackson opened Jack’s Variety candy store in the hopes of supplementing the income he made selling real estate. Sky-high interest rates and the double-dip recession might have gobbled up the housing market, Jackson reasoned, but everybody could still find some pocket change for a stick of gum or an ice-cream sandwich. The business he opened is actually more of a window than a store, though. It resembles a dilapidated cave carved into the bottom of an old brick building located across the street from Garrison Elementary School.
Appearances notwithstanding, Jackson’s hole in the wall is a popular destination for Garrison students. Jackson knows that money’s hard for the kids to come by, so if they’re a few nickels shy, he lets them slide. When the students are successful in the classroom, Jackson rewards them.
“Little kids bring their report cards to me before they take them home,” says dealmaker Jackson. “Even if they get a D, I’ll give them a small gift and tell them that if they improve they’ll get something big. And it works!” Jackson adds that he’s watched some of his customers work their way through the school system to college.
However, Garrison vice principal Earlene Jenkins had little use for Jackson’s incentive program. When she found her students feeding on junk food, she ordered them to quit patronizing Jack’s Variety.
Spouting dogma plucked from the schoolmarm’s guidebook, Jenkins explains, “Eating habits in children are formed early in life. The consumption of candy and those things that are not nutritious is just not good for childrenespecially in the early morning hours.”
The kids, Jackson says, told him that Jenkins would not allow them to graduate if they were ever caught at his store, but if they wanted candy, they’d be allowed to buy it from a store down the street without the threat of punishment. When Jenkins approached Jack’s Variety late last March, she found she was not welcome on Jackson’s corner.
“I told her to get off my property,” says Jackson, who has filed a complaint with the school superintendent. “I told her to go back in the school where she belongs. What she did is wrong.”
Jenkins denies telling the children that they should get their candy from another dealer or threatening them with expulsion. But the misunderstanding is not likely to be cleared up soon. “I don’t even know the gentleman,” she says of Jackson. “But in his disrespect for me, it seems that he’s not approachable.”
Garrison students don’t seem to agree. “Yo, Jack,” says one girl, waving a dollar in the air, “give me one of them ice cream cones.” Jackson hands her the goods and passes along a bag of potato chips and an ice cream to her two friends. The kids, whom the candyman seems to know, are beaming.
Although Jackson says his business has dropped off noticeably since students returned from spring break, hard-core customers like the three schoolgirls have defied Jenkins’ admonitions.
“See how the kids come in here?” asks a beaming Jackson. “The kids like me, and I like them,” he says. Jackson turns into the darkness of his shop to put money away. When he swivels back around, he’s shaking his head. “Kids need lots of attention, and they’re not getting it at home,” he says. “Their parents are yelling and cursing at them all the time. I’m good to them.” CP