There were still little clumps of snow around downtown and I found myself marveling at the fact that everyone in Seattle seemed to have acquired an ankle-length down coat in the last 48 hours.
I tried out a few lines, brandishing Real Change papers to people headed to lunch.
“You look dapper today, sir! Buy a paper?”
“That’s a very fetching hat, ma’am! Interest you in a paper?”
None of it worked. One after another, pedestrians shooed me away without a glance. Some mustered a weak smile. It was jarring to be so thoroughly ignored by my fellow human beings.
My corner companion and Real Change vendor, Yehmane Berhe, is a warm, funny fellow. In addition to selling Real Change, he makes ice cream and other tasty sweets for Sweet Treats — which he enjoys because he’s learned a lot about baking. When he’s not on the job, he likes to watch videos of comedians from Eritrea, his home country.
I asked him what he thinks the secret to making a successful sale is. He shrugged and took a few steps back.
“Buy a copy today?” he called out. A distinguished-looking man said nothing and hustled past. “Have a nice day!” Yehmane said to the back of his expensive wool coat.
“Hey thanks, you too!” he responded. He didn’t buy a paper, but at least he acknowledged Yehmane in that moment.
Later, a traffic cop approached us. Feeling protective at first, I met him with skepticism. He was a bit unsure, too, and admitted he didn’t really know much about Real Change or the vendors. I told him what I knew and he said it sounded a lot more valuable than he’d initially thought. He didn’t buy a paper either, but as we left our post for the day, he raised a hand.
“See you guys next time!” he said with a smile.
In the few months in 2018 that I had the pleasure of sitting in the Editor’s chair, I spent a lot of time staring at the newspages. I got to know contributors and I lived and breathed the events calendar. I was deeply connected to the paper and felt in awe of the people who make it. I’ve also had the sincere honor of getting to know the vendors, as they made suggestions and asked critical questions. I’ve learned about what brought them to Real Change. What I couldn’t see, though, from behind my computer screen, was what happens on the corners.
It takes so much to make Real Change work: reporting and printing and photography and connections and phone calls and more. But it also takes a lot to make Real Change move, especially when so few people want to stop and talk or even smile.
The more I see the vendors doing their work, the more I’m convinced that just by being out there, they are making our city a warmer and less fragmented place. Whether people are buying the paper or not (but they really should), Real Change vendors are out in public places, smiling and waving — wishing you a nice day.
Personal connections have proved pivotal for Real Change vendor Yemane Berhe
Vendor Week: Learning the art of the deal
Director's Corner: Selling the paper is often harder than it looks
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice. She writes, Access Denied a monthly column, for Real Change.
Read the full Feb. 13 - 19 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.