The denizens of the University District Safeway got the news the same way they always did: from a chair on the sidewalk.
On May 6, two dozen white roses sat on a metal folding chair in front of the store entrance. Someone had affixed a paper sign that said “We miss you Ed” using purple labels from the store’s produce department.
“What’s with the flowers?” Ron Zei asked a Safeway cashier.
The news of Real Change vendor Ed McClain’s death was reported on social media, websites and newspapers, reaching Ed’s current and past customers from Seattle to Tallahassee, Fla.
But for Zei and many others, word came by way of the makeshift memorial friends and customers had set up in the spot where Ed used to sit morning and night, selling hundreds of papers every week and greeting everyone who walked by.
“Real Change? Have a good day, sir.”
Last week, customers were greeted with silence as they passed through the sliding doors.
“Man, I miss seeing him,” Zei said, staring at the chair.
Herman Hutchinson, a teacher at Kennedy Catholic High School in Burien, moved away from the University District a few years ago but would return to the Safeway at 4731 Brooklyn Ave. NE to shop and talk with Ed. They would go get a drink and talk politics at a nearby bar.
“He’d bring me food; I’d buy him a bottle of Evan Williams [whiskey].”
Ed’s presence changed the neighborhood through “osmosis,” Hutchinson said.
“Whether he intended it or not, he was able to make a kind of community that had him as the focal point,” he said.
Hutchinson said Ed was part of the University of Washington experience: “In your four years here, you have to buy a Real Change from Ed.”
For Zei, who lives two blocks away, Ed was a support through hard times. When Zei was behind on his electricity bills a few years ago, Ed gave him $30 to get by. Zei said he later repaid Ed $40 for the help.
People who worked in the area said Ed kept the block safe with his presence.
“It’s quiet without him,” said Jessica Owens, who works at Weaving Works across the street and has known McClain since she was 10 years old.
“I don’t know if it’s the right kind of quiet. It’s disconcerting.”
Safeway store manager Bob Stapleton said Ed’s spot was inviolable.
“He owned the street,” Stapleton said. “If there’s people panhandling and looking for stuff up and down the street, when Ed showed up, they all cleared out. It was Ed’s show.”