"I'm the hippest, the coolest, and the most laid back vendor you're ever gonna meet."
That's T.J.: Distinctive, charismatic and a character, to say the least.
"Everybody on this block knows me," he says proudly as we stand on the corner of First and Blanchard. "Go into any restaurant and mention my name -- they know me."
And that's the truth. As we walk down the street it seems like nearly everyone stops to greet T.J. -- restaurant owners, apartment dwellers, construction workers, you name it. He's made a name for himself in Belltown, and it shouldn't come as any surprise; his wit, frankness, and thoughtful demeanor make him hard to forget. Not to mention his sheer volume of jokes. "I was number 11 of 14 kids. That's why I talk so loud: So I wouldn't miss out!"
T.J. came to Belltown eight years ago from his hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. He started selling Real Change to pay for a room at the historic Lewiston Hotel, and he hasn't left the neighborhood since. Back then he was struggling to sell 25 papers a week. Now, he works the nighttime crowd and sells over 600 papers a month.
Our last stop is The Belltown Barber, where T.J. is a regular customer and friend. "T.J.'s just good-hearted," Dave, the owner, tells me as T.J. sits down to get a shave. "You know, he wouldn't hurt a fly... unless the fly swung first." And then comes the laughter.
To his customers and Belltown people, he says, "Thank you again, and keep supporting Real Change. It's a good cause, it's a good program and it's a good paper."
You can find T.J. selling near First and Blanchard from 4 p.m. - 2 a.m., Monday thru Saturday, so be sure to give him your support. Chances are, you'll get in a few good laughs, too. But be forewarned : If you dish it out, you'd better be willing to take it. Because he's good.