The Real Change Vendors' 2010 Christmas party was a big success, except for one blemish: We received the news that Fred Spruitenburg, vendor #6671, had died. We still don't know all the details.
Fred hadn't been in the office to pick up papers since October, but that didn't set off alarms. We knew he'd had a long history doing every kind of work imaginable. He'd been a truck driver, worked in canneries, in fields, all kinds of factories, "you name it." While he always said he loved selling Real Change newspapers, we also knew that he occasionally found other work.
But not this time. We learned that Fred had contracted pneumonia from sleeping outdoors, and passed away in November. He was 61. What we don't know is why he was sleeping outdoors. The last we heard, he had found housing. Fred had been a vendor almost as long as I've been in the office selling papers to vendors. I started on the desk in January 2001; Fred started selling almost exactly three months later. Remember Seattle's Ash Wednesday Earthquake of 2001? Fred was looking for work in California when he'd seen reports of it in the news and he came here expecting to find ample clean-up work. Within the month he was selling Real Change newspapers instead.
He improved my day every time he came in on weekends to buy papers from me. First he'd want to see Sid Vicious, the cat. He'd say "Where's my buddy?" Then he'd talk about the news with me, share a poem or two that he'd read, or a passage from a book. If the office cleared while he was there, I'd get the benefit of a joke that couldn't be repeated most anywhere. And once in a while, if my guard was down, he sneak in a song before I could stop him.
In a small office where tempers regularly flared from overcrowding, Fred was always a calming presence. His steadiness seemed to come from taking in everything around him. He was philosophical just starting out in life, I guess, and added to it by paying attention to everything, and reading as much as he could. He knew that most fights are just about silly things, that if people just knew what was really going on, they'd do something constructive about it. And he himself was always ready to help out in the office, when any help was needed, whether he would be compensated for it or not.
He was one of the finest individuals we have known.
Fred Spruitenburg was Vendor of the Week for the November 5, 2008 issue. You can find the article online, complete with a sample of Fred's singing, at:
He's also featured in Jonathan Raban's New York Times column in March of that year: