Donald Duncan has never stayed in one place very long, and yet two things have endured: his hopeful outlook on life and his endearing Tennessee twang.
Raised in Greene County, Tennessee, with his four sisters, he has since lived in Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, California, Texas, Arizona and Washington.
After leaving home at the age of 18 and spending time in the southeastern U.S. for a few years, Duncan got a job with a traveling circus.
“It was an atmosphere that I wasn’t used to, being around elephants, camels, big — giant! — cats, and it was kind of like, whoa! Shell shock,” he said.
He wore many hats throughout his circus career, first working as a caretaker for the animals, then as a prop hand for the acrobatic stunts and, finally, as a clown with an act of his own. Not everyone liked the clown act.
“One guy came in and he said, ‘Man, get away from me, I hate clowns,’” he said.
Duncan made him a deal: He offered to pay for the man’s ticket if he could keep from laughing during his act. Before the end of the show, he had won his bet.
Although Duncan’s early life wasn’t the easiest, there were a few bright spots, such as his many memories at the Smokey Valley Truck Stop, a diner in Olive Hill, Kentucky.
A smile plays on his lips and his eyes leave my face as he recalls his favorite dishes, handmade by the woman who owned it: biscuits and gravy (“Not the normal kind, she had a kick to it.”) and cranberry salad (“Out of this world!”), all made with ingredients straight from her garden.
After he had lived in Houston, Texas, for six or seven months working at a car auction, a man asked if Duncan could do a delivery to Phoenix, Arizona. Upon arriving in Phoenix, the man said that he would buy Duncan a one-way ticket to anywhere in the United States.
He chose San Francisco, California.
“When I got there, I was having fun doing my little hippie thing. I was smoking weed and my little cigarettes and going up to Haight-Ashbury and sleeping in the park,” he said. “And I got into doing recycling. You know, pushing around a shopping cart, digging in dumpsters. That was pretty fun.”
Two months in, he met Richard Smith, whose profile was published by Real Change just last month. Duncan calls Smith by his middle name, David.
So began a faithful friendship of 17 years and counting.
One day, they went to San Francisco’s business district together, each on the other side of the street, a foreshadowing of a kind for their future in Seattle. People kept passing Duncan up to give money to Smith, who was selling papers with Street Sheet of San Francisco. Duncan asked him how he got started.
“[He said] you go to the office, get your papers and you go stand over on the street corner and act a fool,” he said. “I said okay, I’m gonna be brave.”
It wasn’t long before he gave up. Not having gotten much business, he felt defeated. He gave his 10 free papers to Smith, who did his best to encourage him to keep going. You have to stay in one spot for a while in order for people to get to know you, he counseled Duncan.
“I need to give this a chance,” Duncan said. “That’s where I screwed up, I didn’t give it a chance…I needed to let it work.”
The two, along with Smith’s wife, eventually decided to make the move to Seattle.
They decided to start working with Real Change in November 2021, which brings us to the present day.
Duncan has a raccoon friend he’s named “Rocky,” as well as what he describes as a wolf who sleeps by his tent, acting as a protector of sorts through the night.
In the near future, he hopes to acquire a storage unit so that he can move with greater flexibility — carrying all of his possessions throughout the day is quite challenging. In the more distant future, he hopes to go to Scotland or Ireland.
Duncan carries himself with a thoughtful quietness that melts away in the tide of stories lying just beneath the surface; he shares his life in a way that is both warm and insightful.
“Every day you wake up is a blessing,” he said. “Every day that you open your eyes to see the next sunset is a blessing … Take everything you can and respect it to its full potential.”
During his years with the traveling circus, Duncan traveled through at least 11 states, and his resilient and adventurous spirit has carried him to all corners of the country in the decades since.
Seattle is simply lucky to have him in this chapter of his life.
Taija PerryCook is a student journalist attending the University of Washington, Seattle. Find her on Twitter @taijalynne.
Donald Duncan sells Real Change every day on the corner of Broadway and Thomas on Capitol Hill. His badge number for Venmo payments is 14564.
Read more of the Dec. 14-20, 2022 issue.