Here’s a tip: If you want someone to provide the key to longevity in business, an unorthodox financial guru whose methods are grounded in open-heartedness, then schedule an appointment with Robert Wotjkiewicz.
If the 56-year-old man standing in front of the Starbucks on the corner of Rainier Avenue South and South Edmunds Street might seem an unlikely choice, consider this: Robert, who wears badge no. 133, has sold Real Change for close to 19 years. That’s longer than any other active vendor.
“I don’t know how,” Robert said, his eyes two sapphires that peer from under his shaggy brows. “But it’s a real compliment.”
Perhaps his success stems from the easy-going greeting he bestows on nearly everyone: “Hi. How ya doing?” Some stop to talk, a couple buy the paper, most say “Hi” in return, then walk on. Their response matters little. Each passerby represents a new opportunity to connect.
“From a relative aspect, once you get to know the people in Seattle, they’re very friendly,” he said.
Robert has seen enough of the country to know. He grew up in Chicago, the middle son of three boys. His father drove trucks for Consolidated Food Corp. and also operated heavy equipment; his mother worked in a Singer sewing factory. Both were of Polish descent (hence Robert’s surname, Wotjkiewicz, pronounced why-KAY-witz).
But the Chicago winters blew hard, too hard for Robert’s father, who had put in 40 years behind the wheel of a truck. Not long after Hurricane Camille struck Mississippi in 1969, her Category 5 winds propelling her through the Southeast, Robert’s dad relocated to Hollywood,Fla., just north of Miami. The climate was more temperate, Robert says, the land outside the city rich with agriculture. A few times, the whole family went to Disney World.
Placed in special education classes, Robert went to school for a while, but something started happening in junior high. He began to experience mental health issues. He dropped out, got his ged in ’75 and joined the Navy. Stationed at the Orlando Naval Training Center, Robert says one day he met with Navy officials. “They told me I had a good IQ.” But due to his mental health struggles, they deemed him unfit to serve. He received an honorable discharge. His military career had lasted five weeks.
“So I hitchhiked across the country,” he said.
It was the ’70s, and Robert went just about everywhere: Tennessee, Alabama, Minnesota, West Virginia; New Orleans, St. Louis, L.A. and Denver. He worked in day labor, sometimes sleeping in motels or missions, other times on the street.
During these travels, two things happened: In 1979, his father committed suicide. “But I don’t worry about that,” Robert said. “I love him with all my heart.”
And second, as Robert crisscrossed the nation, his own mental health struggles waxed and waned. When they grew too much for him to handle alone, he says he’d find a psychiatric hospital wherever he was and admit himself. His voluntary commitment might last a couple weeks; at least once, it stretched several months. Then he would check himself out.
After he left a facility in Huntington, W. Va., he ventured West. He wound up in Portland and then migrated north. He landed in Seattle in 1982. Robert was 24.
In Seattle, he switched to new meds, but the pills made him depressed. “I wasn’t suicidal or anything.” But mental health professionals advised him to check into Western State Hospital. His medication was changed, and Robert, who took college-level courses there, improved. He was released. “They said I was a low risk of dangers to others, and I wasn’t a danger to myself.”
He spent some time on the streets, but eventually obtained housing with the Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) and survived off of Supplemental Security Income. In 1992, a lawyer told him that his years-long claim to receive disability income had been approved. He received back payments in a lump sum, but he remained frugal. “It took me about eight or nine years to spend that down.”
On Jan. 2, 1996, he began selling Real Change. He continued to live downtown until February 2009, when he moved to Columbia City, into desc-supported housing. He enjoys his studio apartment. And he continues to reinvest in the paper, another success strategy.
Robert says that while he’s dealt with mental health issues for close to four decades, it doesn’t get him down. “No matter what your condition is, there’s lots of loving people that care for you.”
Since he’s spent years hopscotching from one place to another, he knows that, if the desire hit, he could pull up stakes and find a new home. Robert doesn’t see that happening anytime soon.
“I like Seattle so far,” he said. “I’d like to stay.”