The Real Change offices open at 8:30 a.m. most weekdays, giving vendors who like an early start a chance to get in, buy papers and hit their posts before many people begin the traditional 9 to 5 work schedule.
Rhead — pronounced “red” — appeared at the door on a Friday right at opening, as she often does. She was waiting in line, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet to Christian music pumping through her earbuds loudly enough to make it difficult to get her attention from the circular table at the side of the room.
She is a hard woman to miss, clad in her namesake color from her patterned hair wrap and red-rimmed glasses to the chianti-colored Sketchers in which she so subtly danced. Rhead changed her name in the 1980s, and that’s what she goes by in her public-facing life — her last name is just that, she says: hers.
Rhead has been selling the Real Change paper since the 1990s, not long after moving north from California, where she’d lived in the state’s more populous regions of Los Angeles and Sacramento.
It’s been so long since she decided she was done with that part of the West Coast that she’s forgotten what drew her to Seattle in the first place, other than that it wasn’t California. She settled in the University District and set about making the city her home. One day, she happened upon someone selling the paper.
“We were just downtown, talking casually, and I asked, ‘What’s Real Change?’” she said. “He told me, and I thought I’d give it a try.”
That began a nearly two-decade long relationship with the organization where she has become a presence with staff, vendors and her customers. Together, they voted to make her one of the 2022 Vendors of the Year, for which she will be honored at a series of celebrations of Real Change’s 28 years as part of the fabric of Seattle and the region.
She’s consistently one of the paper’s top vendors, setting up outside a Safeway in West Seattle where she practices the fine art of connecting with consistent customers and enticing new ones to the product.
Every Real Change vendor has an approach, and Rhead’s is restrained, dignified. Let people have their space, and if they’re not interested, smile at them and let them go. Don’t be too wordy. She claims that the paper sells itself, but that belies the relationships she’s cultivated, which sometimes surprise even her. When she switched locations, Rhead said, long-time customers became concerned until they found her again.
“It made me feel really good. It made me feel like people were authentic and really cared,” she said. “They weren’t just buying a paper from me, but they were showing me love, too.”
Of course, Rhead does take a break from the paper from time to time to visit her home away from home: the island of Costa Rica. There she finds peace, tranquility and healing in a beautiful place surrounded by beautiful, authentic people.
Also, a hand puppet named Ricardo.
When she travels to Costa Rica, Rhead enters the world of clowning, a practice she discovered on her first trip years ago with a doctor who has a ministry in the area. She dresses mostly in red — of course — and dons a mask. She performs her act to the delight of elementary school children, incarcerated women or people enjoying themselves in a park, throwing in music, fun and even a balloon animal, on occasion. It’s about the joy of it.
When it comes to the audience, Rhead is agnostic — be they children or adults, her passion is bringing joy.
“It makes me happy, because you see the laughter of people and you see their emotions and all the stuff like that,” Rhead said. “It’s awesome.”
The warmth of the memory echoes in her voice, giving power to the word “awesome,” which comes out in a whisper.
Rhead has traveled to Costa Rica seven or eight times, never staying longer than the government’s regulations allow. She’d like to move there, and overstaying a tourist visa would make an already difficult process that much harder.
For now, though, Seattle is home and Real Change is her job, one that Rhead likes because she sets her hours and limits and, also, because she’s a fan of the product. It helps people, it reports what she considers real news and it doesn’t cater to what an audience may want to hear.
“I believe in the paper,” Rhead said. “I wouldn’t sell it if I didn’t believe in it.”
From her, that is high praise.
Read more of the Sept. 14-20, 2022 issue.