November 27, 2013
Vol: 27 No: 48

Vendor of the Week

Vendor Profile: Robert Smith

by: Mike Wold

Robert Smith sells Real Change in Kirkland.

Photo by: Jon Williams , Arts Editor

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A couple of years ago, Robert Smith went to Kirkland to sell Real Change. As a “stereotypical, big black guy” he was worried. 

“This is an upper-class environment. There’s not that many black people around. I was afraid they were going to call the police on me.” 

After he’d sold the paper for a couple of days, people were asking for the vendor who was usually there: “Where’s Ken?” 

“In the back of my mind I’m thinking Ken is a white guy.” 

The second week a slender black guy showed up. “I’m Ken.” Ken was shuttling back and forth from Oregon; sometimes they sold papers across the street from each other. “He had set up a foundation for me to be there to the point to where the race issue was just, ‘[Ken’s] a cool guy.  And we think you’re also cool.’”

Still, people were standoffish at first.  “Then all of a sudden, they started talking to me. They think I’m like one of them, [that] I’m financially what I’m not! I can’t shop in PCC.  I don’t have no car.” 

Robert is very conscious of the racial divide between him and his customers. “A lot of them don’t understand.  If I had an opportunity like what they have, I wouldn’t even be selling the paper.”

For the past nine years, Robert has been on and off the streets, starting in Las Vegas, where he grew up. His mother is dead and his dad, a Vietnam vet, is serving time in prison. Robert moved to Seattle four years ago but had a hard time finding a decent job. “A lot of jobs are just modern-day slavery. You got people working two or three jobs, making eight, nine dollars. You can’t survive off that.” 

Seeing how many mentally ill people were around him on the streets, he realized how fortunate he was. “These people really couldn’t fit into a work environment or a family environment.”  Being homeless “makes you count your blessings for the little things, just to wash, wash your teeth, take a shower.  When you’re homeless, these things are all taken away from you.”

Robert points out that the legislators and representatives who worry about crime aren’t dealing with the causes of the problem. “When a person’s desperate, that’s when the crime comes in.” 

Sometimes, when he doesn’t see a customer for a while, Robert worries that they stopped buying from him because he’s too outspoken or even because he doesn’t look down-and-out enough. “Sometimes I’ve got to be quiet, because I’m a very real person, and a lot of people don’t like to hear real things.”  Either way, he thinks people would be missing the point.

“The underlying point is to help somebody that’s less fortunate. You don’t go to church to hear the preacher. You go to church to hear the word. Just buy the paper.”



Robert, I'm so glad you told me about this interview. We are fortunate to have you in our city! I wish you the best. See you soon! Sincerely, Margie (that older lady in the old green Honda)

Margie Ostle | submitted on 12/11/2013, 10:39pm

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