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January 3, 2006
How's Business? Picking Up, With a Smile

by Conrad Mulcahy
IT'S not just his flashy white-rimmed sunglasses, his sparkling dice earrings or the way he makes the sidewalks as neat as his crisp blue uniform. What makes Cortez Jackson stand out on this stretch of the Upper East Side is his I-just-won-the-lottery attitude toward a job many people take for granted.

Mr. Jackson, a street cleaner, moves efficiently up the block, working his well-worn dustpan and broom across the gray sidewalk. He is focused, and his fluid movements hint at the athlete he once was. Despite the wind, he manages to dig out the cigarette butts from crevices, sweep them into the pan and transfer the unruly pile into his trash barrel on wheels.

Every now and then, a familiar face greets him or a passer-by compliments his work, breaking his meditative spell. He responds with a wide smile and an easy laugh.

"You would think that this is a menial job, but it's really not," said Mr. Jackson, 48, leaning over his matching blue barrel near 82nd Street and Second Avenue. For him, it is a path to redemption.

Less than two years ago, he was in a cell at the Attica State Correctional Facility, reflecting on what had gone wrong with his life. After a knee injury in high school dashed hopes kindled by a basketball scholarship to the University of Florida, Mr. Jackson wound up dealing drugs on New York's streets in the 1970's.

Addiction took over, and he lurched between prison terms and homelessness for almost 20 years. "I made a conscious decision that I need to get my life together," he said.

In prison, he stopped using drugs and found out about Ready, Willing and Able, a program run by the Doe Fund that emphasizes self-sufficiency to homeless men and women, many who have histories of jail time and drug addiction.

He owes his job to the charity. "As much dirt as I've done in New York City, it's about time I pick up a little," he said, now near the end of the nine-month program, which tries to instill self-respect and a sense of community.

"It's more than a bunch of guys just sweeping the streets," Mr. Jackson said, halfway through a final inspection of his 10-block domain. "The feeling you get having this blue suit on, it's deep."

A bus pulled away from a curb, blowing some papers on the sidewalk he had just cleaned. Without a hint of frustration, he went back to pick them up.

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