Real Change Vendor Shark has been selling the paper since 2015, when she found out about it during a stay at the Salvation Army’s William Booth shelter, in a transitional housing program. When she first started selling the paper, she set herself up at the King Street train station’s footbridge.
“I found myself calling out train times because it helped people,” she said. “That was my gimmick. That helped me make a living there.”
During the pandemic, Shark — who is disabled and at higher risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms — took a break. Now fully vaccinated and double-boosted, she’s back at it.
However, what she’s been doing for much longer than selling the paper is playing, streaming, eating, sleeping and breathing video games. She first began streaming gameplay when twitch.tv was still justin.tv, pre-Amazon acquisition.
These days, revenue from Real Change goes mostly toward that hobby, since her monthly disability payments don’t leave much extra for spending money.
“There’s no being able to spend money on yourself,” she said. “And that’s what this is for, Real Change. This money is for rent and bills first and then myself.”
Miserly types might say that modern gaming systems — Shark just got an Xbox Series X and hopes to save up enough to also get a PlayStation 5 — are a frivolous expense. If you’re a fiscal conservative, for example, you might believe that people on a tight budget should spend everything they’ve got on food, housing and health care. Reasonable people, however, know that fun is also an essential need. For Shark, that means gaming.
A word to the wise: Make sure you’ve got at least a half an hour free before you ask Shark what her favorite games are. To say that her knowledge of games is encyclopedic would be an understatement. She’s currently playing through the Yakuza series, but lists the classic Japanese role-playing game (JRPG) Earthbound as an all-time favorite (and the JRPG category in general).
She’s also a big fan of online card battle games, roguelike games (which feature procedurally generated, ever-changing environments), Mystical Ninja (which she describes as a way cooler, Japanese version of Legend of Zelda) and even offline games like Dungeons and Dragons. She has attended tons of anime and gaming conventions and is planning to do so again now that she’s less concerned about COVID-19.
There is no one favorite for Shark, but Final Fantasy XI, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) set in a sprawling scifi/fantasy universe, has been a constant presence in her life. Despite there being far newer editions of the Final Fantasy series, including a newer Final Fantasy MMORPG, she gets back into FFXI every holiday season.
She’s also got all sorts of opinions on multiplayer online battle arena esports, in case you need a refresher on who’s who in the League of Legends (LoL) professional circuit. Astralis, for example, has always sucked at LoL (despite having the world’s most successful Counter-Strike: Global Offensive team), and DRX, the world’s most successful LoL team, is hot garbage this year.
Thanks to her more unique experience of online gaming, she’s also got lots of opinions about why it’s so toxic. Being a gender-nonconforming person online, she said, is kind of a double-edged sword.
“It’s easier online because you don’t have as much of a fear of presenting yourself as someone that is different [from] what you were born with,” she said, noting that in a country with rampant gun violence, presenting as gender nonconforming in real life is often a terrifying prospect.
“That’s part of the good part of anonymity on the Internet,” Shark said. The bad part, of course, is rampant harassment, toxic language and toxic behavior, which people feel they can get away with because, after all, no one knows who you really are online.
“I get a lot of sexist treatment online, too, because of my identity,” she said. “I have people that care about me, but they’re in the minority as opposed to the people that just want me thrown off the internet or banned or whatever.”
Why are they like that? According to Shark, it’s not inherent to gaming, but rather bad parenting and bad online content moderation.
“I am someone that believes that if corporations were held accountable for monitoring online activity like that and actually doing something about it, the internet would be a better place for everyone,” she said.
That said, she’s still connected with wonderful people all over the world through gaming. She currently streams to a mostly international audience in Asia and Europe because active times there line up with her altered sleep schedule.
In fact, a connection made through online gaming was partly responsible for Shark’s move to Seattle back in 2014. Her journey with housing instability began back in Michigan in 2005 with an all-too-classic tale of an alcoholic stepdad who threw a then-teenaged Shark out on the street.
“It was Michigan winter. It was cold. I had to fend for myself really fast, and I actually did,” she said. She was working full-time and quickly found an apartment, which she kept for a couple of years.
Eventually, she became truly homeless. Thankfully, she eventually landed at a relative’s house, where she was able to stay while finishing her business administration degree at the University of Michigan. Dorms were out of the question — that housing was too expensive in the late aughts.
At the time, she had a job with Apple tech support, but the 60-hour weeks began to take a toll. Shark deals with severe sleep apnea, making it extremely hard to keep a normal sleep schedule. By that time, she’d moved to Tennessee, where she described the health care system as less than ideal.
“I wasn’t treated for it because I’m living in a state that has really bad health insurance, and finding a doctor for stuff like that to diagnose that and treat it was impossible at the time,” she said.
And that’s where gaming ties in. She decided to move here in part because a friend she’d met through Mass Effect 3’s co-op online multiplayer was willing to at least store her stuff. Regardless, when she arrived, she said, “I was put into a homeless situation immediately.”
She spent time in a number of shelters, including one of the more notoriously rough downtown shelters.
“That place was scary. I got robbed in the middle of the night when I was staying [there], and they even stole my glasses,” she said. Shark is extremely nearsighted, so no glasses meant not being able to see anything, even the numbers of bus routes at bus stops.
“I had to spend a week and a half literally walking the streets of Seattle being unable to see,” she said.
She also had a good chunk of her retro and modern game collection stolen at some point, as she wasn’t able to store it all with her friend from Mass Effect 3. There’s a good secondary market for games at places like Pink Gorilla, so if the games were rare enough or new enough, the thieves probably got some cold hard cash for their efforts.
“People were just having to steal that to make a living or whatever,” Shark said, reflecting on it. “I’m not going to judge them. That’s not for me to judge.”
Indeed, she’s always stayed positive, despite dealing with homelessness, hardship and online harassment. As Shark sees it, if other people are upset or acting out, that’s their problem.
“I always stay positive, despite people not being as happy as I am,” she said.
Read more of the Feb. 15-21, 2023 issue.