If you regularly walk through Harvard Square, you’ll recognize Michael: he’s sold SPARE CHANGE NEWS outside the Church Street exit of Harvard station for nearly sixteen years. In the winter he wears a bright red coat and a warm smile.
He always seems to have a good word for everyone, but not everyone makes him welcome. Michael tells me he has been ”pushed at, spat at and told to get off the block.” Once, several years ago, a passerby contacted the police claiming they recognized Michael’s face from the television show America’s Most Wanted. I don’t understand why Michael’s presence on the street selling SPARE CHANGE NEWS would cause people to behave offensively, but he tells me he is philosophical about other people’s bad behavior.
This has not always been the case and this has had significant consequences for him in the past. SPARE CHANGE NEWS vendors are affiliated with the newspaper and, as such, are required to maintain excellent standards of behavior. Any complaints made regarding vendors’ behavior are taken seriously. When Michael responded aggressively to abusive passersby he received several warnings before being suspended for nearly a year.
It has been many years since any complaints have been made about Michael, and the improvements in his behavior were celebrated with a ‘most improved vendor’ certificate.
Michael started selling SPARE CHANGE NEWS because he was homeless: having fled an abusive relationship, he found himself with neither a home nor an income. Now he shares a rented apartment with his partner, but during our interview for this article Michael repeatedly checked his phone and confessed that he was very anxious about his current housing situation.
Michael has been driven to make a formal complaint about the condition of his rented property: there are rats, the area around the property is neglected and the apartment leaks. The landlord has responded by threatening to evict him. Michael is worried about being able to find a new property that will be affordable for him and his partner, both of whom are disabled, and finding a landlord who will be willing to let them keep their dog.
Although Michael sells papers in Harvard Square, he currently lives on the North Shore, and his commute can take up to an hour and a half. He does not see the length of his commute as remarkable, pointing out that the distance to his workplace is no further than the distance many other workers travel.
Michael demonstrates a truly remarkable commitment to his work. During the summer of 2013, his health began to deteriorate. Already classed as disabled due to emphysema and a variety of other medical conditions, he developed a new set of symptoms: a sense of pressure in his jaw, a tightness in his back which prevented him from walking and a tingly sensation across his face. Despite feeling very ill, he tried to continue working and only visited his doctor when his partner insisted. The doctor instantly admitted Michael to the emergency room at the local hospital and, within 24 hours, Michael had major heart surgery.
Within days Michael had returned to Harvard Square to sell papers and would have continued to do so if his doctor had not telephoned him and insisted he return home to recuperate. Looking back, Michael realizes how fortunate he is to still be alive.
There have been times over the past 16 years when Michael has made relatively good money selling SPARE CHANGE NEWS, but a recent drop in sales means he is now unlikely to make more than $60 for up to 12 hours of work—on a good day. This money is, Michael tells me, nearly enough to stop him and his partner falling into debt. The lion’s share of their Social Security payments are eaten up by rent, and there is rarely enough money left each month to make ends meet.
Ideally, Michael would like to return to his previous career in catering, but he worries about the effects that working in that environment might have upon his health. Ironically, if Michael worked full-time he might also find himself even worse off as he would lose his Medicare and his social security.
Michael has seen a lot over the past 16 years of selling the paper: some of his favorite regular customers have died and others have moved on to new places. That Michael is still here— most improved vendor, heart surgery survivor— is a tribute to his determination and hard work.