This world is full of nice people, but there’s only one Robert Wotjkiewicz.
“Nice” is the most common word people use to describe Robert, but other words come close: “sweet,” “kind,” “friendly,” “cheerful.” Actually, the most common word might be “so,” as in: “He’s so nice”; “He’s so kind.” As if Robert’s level of [fill in the blank] sits a notch or two above everyone else’s.
When people talk about Robert, they light up. You see it in their eyes, you hear it in their voices. It’s an unusual phenomenon, not because it’s unusual for people to talk about someone with affection, but because it’s unusual for people to talk about the same person with the same level of affection. Witnessing these reactions time and again, you ask yourself: What is it about Robert that touches people so (there’s that word again) deeply?
Or maybe it’s more accurate to ask: What was it about Robert that touched people so deeply? Because, as much as it pains me to say, Robert, at least in flesh and blood, no longer resides in this world.
Robert Wotjkiewicz died July 20, 2020. He was 61 years old.
If this were a standard newspaper obituary, this is the point where I’d list the cause of death, but little about Robert was standard, so I’ll hold off for a bit. Besides, waiting to write about what caused Robert’s death means I can delay thinking about it, not because it’s tragic in the sense of disastrous or dreadful — though maybe it is, and I just don’t want to admit it — but it’s tragic in the sense of heartbreaking. My heart cracks a little each time I think about it.
If it’s not already clear, Robert was a Real Change vendor. His first day selling the paper was Jan. 2, 1996, which means he sold the paper for 24 years. Think about that: How many people do you know who’ve held the same job, or done the same anything, for 24 years? His vendor badge number was 133. To put that in perspective, the next vendor badge number that’ll be given out is 14,471. Robert’s badge number was so old, the current vendor-management system didn’t recognize it.
I met Robert sometime in early 2005, not long after I started working at Real Change as a staff reporter. This was back when the office was in Belltown. The space was maybe the width of a double-wide trailer and perhaps twice as long, and the desk where vendors bought their papers was just inside the front door. To reach my desk in the windowless editorial department, tucked near the rear of the office, I had to pass the vendor desk and walk through the vendor-services area, which could be packed with dozens of vendors. I didn’t mind. While working at Real Change gave me the opportunity to write, something I loved, and still love, to do, in truth one of my favorite parts of being at Real Change was connecting with vendors. So if I didn’t have a deadline hanging over my head, I concocted a reason to visit the vendor desk.
One day I was talking to a coworker operating the desk when the door opened. In walked Robert. He greeted my coworker, then turned to me and said, “Hi, how ya doing?”
“I’m pretty good,” I said, “how about you?” Robert nodded. Then he bought a few papers and left. Barely three minutes and the interaction was over.
I turned to my coworker. “Who was that?”
“Oh, that’s Robert. He’s so sweet. I just wish I knew how to say his last name.”
We both stared at the computer screen with his vendor info: Wotjkiewicz. Neither one of us could untangle that mashup of consonants and vowels. (I later learned that Wotjkiewicz, a Polish name, is pronounced: why-KAY-witz.)
That brief encounter left me with two visuals. The first: Robert looked both unkempt and dashing. His sweater was stained, and so were his pants, and all his clothing looked two sizes too big, but somehow he radiated a regal air, as if the clothes were a mere distraction from the person underneath. The second was his eyes. They were like two glistening sapphires, so large and hypnotic they could’ve been on display at the National Museum of Natural History, outshining all 45.5 karats of the Hope Diamond.
After that, I saw Robert every now and then, sometimes in the office, sometimes selling the paper on the street. When the office moved to Pioneer Square, I’d run into him when he came to get papers. These meetings were short, almost nonexistent, but I’m not exaggerating when I say every one of them left me with a smile. Once, we talked for almost five minutes, which was on par with running the table in a pool game because the odds of him speaking more than 20 words at a time were a million to one. Not that I took his brevity personally. I could sense a universe of feelings swirled inside Robert, but I also sensed words alone couldn’t completely explain the mystery of that universe.
While I’m talking about his universe, here’s a piece of it: Robert faced serious mental health struggles. A fair number of people do, of course, and it’s safe to say that many of them, maybe even all, experience stigma because of it. So when some folks encountered Robert, they didn’t know what to make of the man with the disheveled clothes and the shaggy brown hair pointing in every direction, the man who walked up to almost everyone he saw and said, “Hi, how ya doing?” Real Change case manager Ainsley remembers seeing Robert selling the paper one day on Rainier Avenue South. When Robert turned to bestow his customary greeting on two women walking toward him, the women, unsettled by his approach or his appearance or his greeting or maybe all of it, darted across the street to avoid him. Robert said “God bless” to them anyway, then went on to greet the next person he saw.
I’d seen similar reactions myself, because I lived in Columbia City for a while, and to catch the light rail, I walked past a Starbucks on Rainier, which is where Robert often sold Real Change. This meant I ran into him several times a month, though often I was in a rush, waiting for the light to change, watching people try not to stare too hard at Robert as they saw me talking to a man who looked … different.
I always wanted to ask Robert about this, how these looks, these reactions made him feel, but it seemed such a personal thing to ask. But opportunity arrives when you least expect it, and in the fall of 2014, opportunity came knocking: I got the chance to write a vendor profile of Robert. On one level this was no big deal. Just a short interview I’d turn into 600 words. But I was thrilled because this meant I’d get to hang out with Robert. We’d really get to talk.
We met at the Starbucks. I bought him a coffee and a croissant, which surprised him, as if he couldn’t believe I’d want to sit with him and spend $8 to do it. I’d imagined once again he’d be reticent, but no. Not this time. Robert put his cards on the table.
He grew up the second of three boys in Chicago, where his father drove trucks for a fruit company and his mother worked for a Singer sewing factory. Around the time he was 11, the whole family moved to Hollywood, Florida. There, he attended special education classes, but in junior high some “thing” he couldn’t quite define began to happen. This marked the start of his mental health struggles. He dropped out of school, got a GED and joined the U.S. Navy. Officials told him he had a “good IQ,” but after five weeks in the military, they deemed him unfit to serve.
This was in the ’70s, and he hitchhiked across the country, from the Southeast to the Midwest, from the Appalachians to the Rockies. Day labor supplied money, and motels and missions and sometimes the streets offered not-so-pleasant places to sleep. During this cross-country sojourn, his mental health shifted from steady to shaky. During the tough spells, he voluntarily checked into psychiatric hospitals, stays that spanned weeks to one occasion of several months. At some point, he’d check out.
After a stay at a facility in West Virginia, he traveled West and made a short stop in Portland before landing in Seattle in 1982. He was 24. New meds tipped him into depression, but, he said, “I wasn’t suicidal or nothing,” an important qualification because his father had committed suicide in 1979. In Western State Hospital, his medication was altered, and his mental health stabilized. He was released because “They said I was a low risk of dangers to others, and I wasn’t a danger to myself.”
He slept rough on the Seattle streets, but secured housing through the Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC). A long-withheld disability claim that came through in 1992 provided a lump sum of back payments, which he squirreled away. It wasn’t long after that he began to sell Real Change. In 2009, he landed a studio in a DESC-supported housing facility in Columbia City, which was why he was selling on Rainier, which is why I saw him several times a month. And after he told me all that — he thanked me, stood up, walked outside, turned the corner and was gone.
I bumped into him occasionally afterward, and he was always chipper. When I moved from Columbia City in 2018, I didn’t see him until I returned months later to visit some friends. Robert was in front of Starbucks. I pulled the car over to say hello. He didn’t talk long. Just a “Hi, how ya doing?” and then he was back to selling the paper.
The last time I saw him was in the fall of 2019. The maple trees on Rainier were orange and bold, and there was Robert, on the corner. Then it was winter and 2020 began, then coronavirus, then spring, then BLM protests, then summer – and then the news of his death. When I heard, a tightness gripped my gut and held it for a solid minute. When I thought it was gone, it returned for another round.
At that point, I didn’t know how he died. I remained ignorant for a week until I asked around. I called the medical examiner’s office to confirm. A representative said it was true: Robert died from asphyxia caused by choking on food. The death was ruled an accident.
In and of itself, asphyxia isn’t tragic. Someone could argue that neither is choking, or that it’s no more tragic than any other cause. But Robert died alone, and that to me is where the tragedy lies. In a sense, we all face death alone, but to touch so many people and then to die by yourself, with no one to help you or hold your hand and say goodbye? That’s the part that hurts the most.
Of course, there are countless beliefs about what happens when we die, and I’m not here to say one is better than another. But there are moments when my active thoughts are pushed aside by my imagination, and in this imaginal space there exists an alternate world where Robert is still alive. His clothes are still stained and his hair askew, but it doesn’t matter because when he sees people and says, “Hi, how ya doing?” everyone responds, everyone smiles and Robert nods and greets the next person, and the process continues till he tires and goes to sleep, and then he wakes up and does it all over again.
Everyone talks to him because everyone is nice in this alternate world, and even here, all the nice people agree on one thing: There’s only one Robert Wotjkiewicz.
Read more in the Aug. 12-18, 2020 issue.