Voices from the Streets: A Story of the Vendor

With the holiday season upon us, I’ve been having thoughts about the many years I’ve been working as a Spare Change News vendor. I started working for the paper in March 1993 in the Porter Square area and I stayed there for about one year.

That was the time of the Big Dig. I had heard that free computer classes were being funded by the Big Dig and I arranged to take the three-month course.

The course ran from March to June and gave me skills I never would have had otherwise. Because of that computer course, I was ready to step in when Spare Change News needed an editor.

Spare Change News was broke and my only pay for being an editor was 100 papers per week. I stayed on as editor from September 1994 through March 1, 1996, when I decided to go back to selling the papers for personal reasons. I found a spot that I liked in Central Square.

For many years, I sold in front of the bank on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Temple Street. Ironically, the bank is now a Bank of America, but while I was there, it changed hands at least three times. Each time it changed, the new manager would come out and give me a hard time about my spot.

I politely explained that I had been selling papers in that spot since March 1996 and I had many regular customers who stopped by to chat and buy the papers and buy my books. I had a little stand next to me that I would set up with books I had written, but I never hawked the books; I only hawked Spare Change News.

I was writing in every issue of Spare Change News and my selling line was: “Buy a copy of Spare Change from one of its writers.” I had to say the words fast, and sometimes, I got some funny looks, but people would slow down and look at my rack of books and then buy a paper.

Now and then, someone would say to me, “Why don’t you get a job?” and I would say, “This is a job and if you don’t think so, why don’t you try doing it for an hour or two? Would you like a free back issue to see what we are about?”

Many times, they would take the free back issue and then come back later and buy the new issue. I picked up many customers that way. When I first started selling there, it was not a big money spot, but within a year, I was doing quite well and the people that bought the papers and read my column would come back to buy my books.

I sold well over 1,000 books in my “office” on Massachusetts Avenue. Sometimes, I see my books on Amazon and I get quite a kick out of it. My writings have been published in other countries, in street papers and in magazines. One of my short stories won first prize in a contest that was run in StreetWise, a street paper in Chicago.

I called my spot “my office” because customers would stop and chat with me about various things I wrote about. I had taken counseling courses in colleges that I attended and people would come to me with their problems. I always felt that selling Spare Change News was not just about the money; it was about enlightening and helping people, myself included.

One woman who had been a regular customer came up to me crying one day and I put down my papers and we talked for some time. Her son had just passed away from an overdose of heroin and she had read my columns about heroin and recovery and was asking for help for herself.

I referred her to support groups and spent an hour or so just chatting. While we talked, customers came by and would pick a paper up and lay a dollar on top of the pile. I’ve seen this woman, who I will keep anonymous, in other places and she’s also helped at Spare Change News as a volunteer.

Being a vendor was one of the most life-changing events for me and I feel it helped me develop as a caring individual. There are times I miss going out regularly from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at my office on the corner.

I remember one young man who bought the new issue as soon as it came out. After being a customer for a while, he asked if there was something he could do to help our organization. I referred him to our executive director and this man became a board member for several years.

I was also a member of the Spare Change Speaker’s Bureau and spoke at many college classes. One of the professors at one of these engagements asked if she could do anything for the paper. She had been the editor of a street paper in another part of the country and had a great deal of experience with organizations such as ours.

To make a long story short, she became a board member too. There she met the young man (who was still my customer) and they began to date. Eventually they were married. My wife, Mary Esther, and I attended their wedding and had a wonderful time.

They are still together and have a beautiful family. She still teaches at the college and it feels really great to take part in life in such a way that brings happiness to others. You never know what kind of effect you can have on the world when you sell Spare Change News.

I wish you all well and I feel that I am fortunate to be a part of the Homeless Empowerment Project. We do more for the world than just sell newspapers. May your lives be full of good experiences and may you enjoy not only the holiday season but also every day of your life.

As humans we can change the world for the better. Another vendor now sells in what was my spot and he sometimes sells more papers than any other vendor. His name is Hamid and he works hard at his job, just as I did. Peace to all of you.

Marc D. Goldfinger is a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Empowerment Project, which publishes Spare Change news. Formerly homeless, he serves as the paper's poetry editor.

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