What is there to say about 2021? In many ways, it showed us who we are.
Hundreds of thousands of people died of an illness for which we now have a vaccine. Many more were pushed to the brink, fearing for vulnerable loved ones, the safety of young children, their own housing.
A white supremacist insurrection threatened — and severely damaged — our already imperfect democracy, revealing to many what marginalized groups had long known about the fragility of our system and the violence of those who would hold onto power, regardless of the cost.
There were a few dim spots.
It was also another year in which people came together in teams of mutual aid to help people within their communities. Unprecedented federal aid flowed into states, mobilizing efforts to improve the response to homelessness for the first time in recent memory. A bunch of people were stuck at home, so meme culture hit new heights.
Not exactly an equivalent exchange.
Real Change vendors felt that, too. On a Wednesday as vendors came in to pick up the newest issue of the paper, we chatted with folks about their experience of 2021 and their hopes for 2022. Several declined straight away — they weren’t feeling hopeful for the coming year, which is understandable.
Below is a snapshot of vendor reactions to the year that passed and the year that comes. Real Change is all about finding the common humanity between vendors and the people who support them. Perhaps something in here will ring true to you.
Willie Jones shakes off COVID
Like a lot of people, Willie Jones had a rough 2021.
Jones is one of Real Change’s best-known vendors with his ready smile and easily recognizable collection of jackets, which he decorates himself using patches of his own design. He used to sell at the Denny and Aurora intersection by the former Pink Elephant Car Wash, pitching to waiting drivers, but has since had to switch locations. The move impacted his sales.
He also caught the coronavirus, which made him sick for nearly a month. But Jones has had other, more severe illnesses in his day and was blasé about his bout with COVID-19.
“I mean, I was sick, I’m not going to lie, but I’ve had worse,” he said.
That’s one way to look at it.
One thing about Jones is that he is relentlessly cheerful when you talk to him one-on-one, even in the face of adversity. Still, he’s keeping his hopes and expectations for 2022 measured. He wants to get back to where he used to be, hitting the sales numbers that he used to hit. He’s maintained his sobriety, which he’s held onto for nearly 14 years.
That makes him particularly sensitive to drugs and alcohol, however, and their presence on the streets of Seattle. He hopes that Mayor Bruce Harrell and the new City Council will do something about it.
Jones took a break at the end of 2021, but he plans to be back out at Denny and Stewart, selling the paper and building up his client base.
“Just tell them I’m glad to be back,” Jones said. “I miss a lot of people, you know. I know I haven’t been out there. 2021… it wasn’t a happy new year, so there was no sense being out there on the New Year. But I still have to give 2022 my best.”
Ron Woolms makes it through okay
Ron Woolms takes life day by day. He’s not always had an easy time of it — in a vendor profile from 2018, he describes the hardships of losing loved ones, of becoming homeless and eventually finding his way to Seattle.
But things are looking up. Customers were generous during the holiday season, and he’s rosy on his prospects for 2022.
“I’m excited about my opportunities here,” Woolms said. “I’m continuing with my living situation, working on that.”
He currently lives with his sister, but that is temporary. His goal is to get a place of his own, preferably in Seattle.
The past year was tough. Sales dropped as the coronavirus spread through Seattle. With businesses shuttered and many people working from home, foot traffic throughout the city dropped. Those who were still out were standoffish, unsure of direct contact with strangers, which is pretty much the Real Change model: building community through personal interaction.
“They were a little nervous about all of that, and they didn’t really want to talk so much,” Woolms said. “But I had my regulars, so it was okay.”
Woolms likes to talk with people, although he says he didn’t before. He was making enough money and didn’t want to bother anybody. He had friends, but spent a lot of his time fishing outside of Forks, Washington, for Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. He cooks them or gives them away, if he catches too many for just himself.
He used to go more often, before he became homeless. He likes the challenge so he doesn’t use bait, instead trying to trick them.
Woolms plans to go into 2022 the way he usually lives: being polite to those he meets and trying to make their days better, especially if they look like they’re feeling down. He’s pretty good at it and gets good responses, he said.
“I think I’m helping people and still helping myself, as well,” Woolms said.
Matthew Wilson is making plans
The end of 2021 was a mixed bag for Matthew Wilson. The snow and the ice were difficult for Wilson — who is a motorized wheelchair user — to traverse, and he worried about people outside because he’s seen people get stuck out overnight and even lose limbs.
“I didn’t want to be one of them,” Wilson said.
On the other hand, he was able to stay safe in his housing with a heater to keep him warm. And he said making new friends brought him joy. He recounted meeting Roger and Holly — “They were so cool, man” — and their little dog, Loki. Wilson travels with a signature tote bag attached to the back of his chair. Inside he carries a bag of Beggin Strips, rippled treats that resemble bacon in look and smell, so Loki probably got something out of the interaction, too.
Wilson has plans for 2022. He’s been mulling over an invention since 2000 that he says would produce free electricity. An ambitious goal — some would say impossible — and Wilson was coy about the details of his idea.
“Well, now, if I told you, I’d have to shoot you,” he said. Real Change didn’t press the issue.
He wants his readers to know he thinks that they’re a great bunch of people.
“They love the paper. We love them,” Wilson said. “And I’m hoping they have a beautiful New Year and none of them get sick. So, I keep praying for them so they’re in good shape.”
Magdalena Walker is grateful for health
Magdalena Walker was careful. She got the flu shot. She got the first and second coronavirus shots; then she got the booster. But she still got very, very sick in 2021. She went to the hospital, thinking she had coronavirus despite the vaccine, but they told her it was just a cold.
Walker toughed it out.
“I just ate soup in a can, and I’m doing good,” she said.
Walker’s biggest hope for 2022 is that the coronavirus pandemic ends. She wants to have fun with her friend, who she met up with on a weekly basis to visit casinos, listen to music and get a drink. The lady — like a lot of people right now — wants to blow off some steam.
“It gives me anxiety because work, home, clean, cook, go sell the paper and come home. It’s very boring,” she said, ticking through her daily routine in the age of the pandemic. “But what can we do? At least we are healthy. It’s protection for everybody.”
Jewel thinks positive
Jewel, who sells in the University District, was one of the few people walking out of the past year and into the next one with good vibes only.
“It was a hell of a year,” Jewel said, her voice energized and emphatic. “It was very good, very positive…. There’s good and bad in every year, but for me, 2021 was very good.”
2021 was a year of accomplishment for Jewel. She’s seen some things out on the street while selling Real Change, sure, but for the most part her experiences with people have been positive, and people appreciate her as a vendor and for her kindness.
Sure, there are snobby people, too, but that’s not what Jewel chooses to focus on. Positivity is what she wants to carry into the New Year.
COVID is still out there, though she thinks the media has blown it up through fearmongering, and she’s aware of the even more infectious Omicron variant, but positivity is where the healing has to start, she said.
“You think positive and that’s a start,” Jewel said, holding her hands six inches apart in front of her each time she hit the word positive, then releasing them. “It may not be the way. It may not be the 100-percent, out-of-the-forest solution, but it’s a start.”
Living in fear and despair isn’t going to make it any better, she said.
If she has any resolutions for the coming year, it’s to continue having positive experiences and stay away from negative people. She certainly doesn’t plan to be one. One thing she wants to communicate to people?
“You are loved and you are lovable,” Jewel said.
D. Nichols is choosing to look forward
For D. Nichols, 2021 was a year of change. The weather, Seattle politics, the people, the health situation — very little stayed stable over the past year.
“It allowed me to reevaluate myself,” Nichols said. “It was very complex for me.”
Nichols has lived in Seattle since 1964; it’s the city where she was born and raised.
“I’ve seen Seattle go up, but I’ve also seen it go right down,” Nichols said.
It was an emotional year. Nichols felt depressed, at times, and anxious about things. She was concerned by the proliferation of homeless encampments over the past year and what she considered “political chaos.”
“I think the community is divided, and I think our city has to interact more on a level, from the highest to the lowest,” Nichols said.
In 2022, Nichols wants to focus on her goals. She’s choosing not to look back on past relationships that were uncomfortable or unenlightening, instead choosing to look forward and grow spiritually. She wants to see the community come together and have its voice heard by people in power.
On that note, Nichols has advice for people in power: Go out into the community. Go out into individual neighborhoods and find out what’s going on.
She also believes 2022 will be a year of change, too.
“It will be a change. That will be growth. There will be happiness, there will be love and achievement, and most of all, there will be togetherness against this pandemic that we are in,” she said.
Ashley Archibald is the editor of Real Change News.
Read more of the Jan. 12-18, 2022 issue.