Last week, you might have seen something unusual. Like the Mariners’ Moose, standing in Pioneer Square, waving a Real Change in the pouring rain. Or Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard, offering signed copies at First and Marion.
Or, you might have seen me, paired with longtime vendor Lisa Sawyer, selling Real Change outside the Westlake Bartell Drugs.
Every year, the International Network of Street Papers — which has about 100 member papers across 35 countries — celebrates #VendorWeek during the first week of February with a “celebrity sell” event. It’s a way to get some visibility and show community support.
Basically, local celebs team up with vendors to sell Real Change. Then we post about it on social media and see if we can make the hashtag trend.
This was the third vendor week I’ve done. What I’ve learned each time is that selling Real Change isn’t easy, and that the cold and rain make it even harder.
That, and that I’m not much of a celebrity. My face and $1.85 will buy you a drip coffee at Starbucks.
So, this time I had a plan. I bought Lisa’s first paper for $30. That way, no matter how much I sucked, I wouldn’t have to feel bad.
The last few months have been very wet, and everyone selling Real Change is feeling it. Even the vendors who put in long hours are selling fewer papers. It’s like the rain makes them more invisible.
Lisa, who normally sells at Fifth and Union, has another problem as well. Since the nearby shooting this month, her longtime spot is a bit deserted. While the downtown has never been an easy place to sell, new safety concerns make it even harder.
Feb. 13 marks a year since Lisa was homeless. Real Change helps keep her inside. Success at selling the paper is all about consistency and Lisa has put in the time. We were close enough to her normal spot to see her regulars.
We were there about two minutes when Lisa called out, “How you doin’, young lady?” A woman smiled and waved as she hurried past in the rain. At the beginning of the month, Lisa said, she’d helped her make rent. Real Change is a community, and Lisa’s people make sure she’s OK.
Before long, Dennis, the regular Bartell’s vendor, asked us to leave. Most weekdays, he stands quietly in front of the drug store between noon and 1, and again from 3:30 to 4:30. He’s been doing this for about six years. He sells around a hundred papers a month that way.
It was a quarter after 12, and Real Change event or not, we were cramping his style.
Ten bucks was enough to make him happy. Dennis went to McDonald’s for lunch and returned with a cheeseburger for Lisa. We chatted while they ate in the rain and I tried out new slogans.
“Reeeeal Change! Meet the 2015 Vendor of the Year!”
“You don’t need to crowd,” I bellowed. “We have enough for everyone!”
For Dennis, selling Real Change isn’t about the money. He’s sold Real Change for six years, mostly because it’s something to do.
“I make about enough in an hour for a sandwich and coffee, but then I miss the free meal at the senior center,” he explained. “I really just break even on this.”
Like many older vendors, Dennis lives on a small fixed income and is in low-income housing. “The real blessing is having a reason to leave my sofa. I don’t like staying home all day. It gets too comfortable. It’s like I’m waiting to die or something.”
Despite the rain, our day had a happy ending. Lisa made $19 in an hour. Her first two papers went for $5. The next two were a straight two bucks each (with one purchased through Venmo). And then, another regular with another $5.
She and Dennis both got what they needed that day. And I got to see, one more time, why Real Change matters. It was worth every cent.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace. He can be reached at director (at) realchangenews (dot) org
Read the full Feb. 12-18 issue.
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