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Job's Not Much, But Ex-Con Has His Dream

Rick Green

September 02, 2008

'I'm going to work tomorrow," Tjayda T. Jones tells me. "Yeaaah!"

So what if it's in a warehouse sorting the junk people put out at the curb for recycling.

For Jones, 42, the ex-con with the hot dog cart dream that I've been telling you about, it's a two-bus trip to an exhausting, filthy job that pays minimum wage.

Along the uncertain path of life outside jail, it is impossible to overestimate the significance of just being able to go to work in the morning.

Felons are not part of society. People who work, who get paid, who can buy clothes and food and cigarettes and have cash in their wallets, are.

Working at a job, after drugs and prison, is to begin to breathe again.

A day later, after his second day on the job, I pick up Jones over at the Connecticut Resources Recovery Authority on Murphy Road. He is exhausted, dirty and lacks some of the basics: decent work boots and a belt to hold up his pants.

Jones has been out since June, living in a state-subsidized apartment on Hillside Avenue in Hartford. He was arrested a year and a half ago on narcotics charges and spent a year at Carl Robinson Correctional Facility. He dropped out of high school. He is an addict with a lifetime of low-level criminal drug arrests. He is a large man with a bad knee, so there are some jobs he can't do. There are two young toddlers he must provide for.

In short, Jones maybe wasn't the guy for a columnist looking to tell the story of how an ex-con re-enters life outside prison. The guy's odds, on paper, don't look so hot.

Except for that hot dog cart. Once a dope dealer Big Smooth, they call him, for his easy-talking manner Jones has this redemptive dream of slinging sausages on a Hartford street corner.

"It feels good. I told you I was going to get a job, and I did. I'm keeping my word," Jones says when he gets in the car and we start talking. He knows I've been skeptical.

"I don't want to be 50 or 60 years old without anything," he tells me.

"My job is to recycle the plastics and the paper. I sort it all out. I get up at 6. I catch the bus on New Britain Avenue to downtown. It's pretty much OK. You are on your feet all day."

There have been a few other milestones lately. He finished parole, which means they took off the ankle-bracelet monitor and the GPS device he had to wear around his waist.

It seems as if we should celebrate somehow, but Jones is an addict, so a beer is out of the question. I pay for his Mountain Dew and pack of Newports when we stop at a small market on Park Street.

We talk about a hot dog cart that he has been looking at, owned by a man in the North End. Some folks who have read about him have made donations, and he is eager to buy it, but there are many issues he needs a license, a place to store it, money to run the business, an apartment of his own.

"If I came out and went to selling drugs, just like everyone else does, I wouldn't be like this now," he tells me, nodding to the grubby shirt and dirty jeans. "I'd have a $200 pair of pants, $200 sneakers and $300 or $400 or $500 in my pocket."

"I'm dirty as hell, but I feel good. I know I can get out of the car and walk around knowing that the police aren't going to bother me."

A few days later, I pick him up after work and we drive down to Cromwell, where a librarian who read about him has collected a box of used clothes, size XXL. A stranger donated a kidney to her last year, she explained. That's why she's doing this for Jones, she writes to me, because she now believes in random acts of kindness. Miracles happen, she believes.

Jones is hoping for work boots, I think, but he's happy with the neatly folded, clean shirts that are waiting for us in a blue plastic bin behind the reference desk.

"I'm going to do this truck thing, and I'm going to make it happen," Jones tells me as we drive back to Hartford. "There's a guy around the corner with a hot dog truck. $2.50 for one hot dog! $2.50!"

Sounds good, I tell him. It's only 6:30 in the evening, but Jones soon nods off, asleep sitting up in the passenger seat next to me as I speed along I-84. But that's OK. He has to work in the morning.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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