My name is Mike, and I’ve been a Spare Change News vendor at Whole Foods Market on Prospect Street in Central Square, Cambridge for over six years. This past October, I visited a friend in Portland, Oregon. One day, while in downtown Portland, I came out of a 7 Eleven Store and saw a blue-suited gentleman with a newspaper in his hand. I had a hunch that he might be selling papers, so I couldn’t resist the urge to go over to him and ask about the blue suit and paper. As you can imagine, it’s not often you see a homeless vendor in a suit.
When I approached the gentleman, I felt a strange, yet good vibe coming from him. I quickly realized he was selling a local street newspaper called Street Roots. I introduced myself as a vendor of a street newspaper in Cambridge, Massachusetts, called Spare Change News. He gave me a big smile and a firm handshake and said, “Hi, my name is Marlon.” Right away, I knew that in addition to being an expert in selling the paper, Marlon was an expert in selling himself.
I gave Marlon a dollar for the paper and asked him if I could interview him for a human interest article in Spare Change News. He was very gracious and agreed to the interview. The next morning, I met Marlon at the Street Roots office so we could talk in private before he started his shift for the day. Upon arrival, I found myself in a quaint office with space for the vendors to sit and talk, rest and pick up their papers for the day. Street Roots had a nice front desk and a very laid-back attitude.
I waited no more than a few minutes before Marlon strode into the office with that same big smile and air of confidence I recognized from the day before. We greeted each other and sat down in the back of the office to start the interview.
Mike: Marlon, what brought you to Portland?
Marlon: Well, I was homeless in San Francisco, trying to write poetry and journalistic articles for some of the papers there. I was also selling San Francisco’s street newspaper called Street Sheet. But after a while, it just felt like I needed a change. I heard Portland was a progressive city, so I moved here about four years ago.
Mike: That was around 2011. How did you survive when you got to Portland?
Marlon: First thing I did upon arrival in Portland was check out the shelter situation. I found that they are subpar and really not safe. Luckily, I have with me a foldable tent to use in case I can’t get into a shelter. If I have to, I go into the woods nearby and pitch the tent. Since Portland has a lot of woods, I’ve managed to stay in a tent for the last four years.
Mike: That’s amazing. So tell me, what got you into selling the Street Roots paper?
Marlon: First, I applied for Social Security, not really expecting to get it. To my surprise, though, it came through for me in 2013. Recognizing that I really needed to get out among the people in Portland, I went to the Street Roots’ office and asked if I could sell the paper. They were super nice and got me started right away. I’ve been doing it ever since.
Mike: What’s your motivation to get out of the tent early in the morning to sell the paper?
Marlon: It’s not always easy since the weather here can be rainy for long stretches of time. But that doesn’t hold me back because I believe in what the paper stands for. I have a great sense of commitment to doing it every day; I’m not just selling a paper, but I’m a beacon of hope to other homeless people. I believe my actions demonstrate that they, too, can be seen as contributing members of the community.
Mike: It seems like you really enjoy what you’re doing. But what does the paper do for you?
Marlon: For me, the experience is more than just picking up the paper and selling it. Street Roots offers writing workshops for the vendors, there are community events that we attend throughout the city, and most of all, the paper allows me to spread my wings and write my poetry and human interest stories.
Mike: What caught my attention when we first met was the blue suit that you wear. Why wear the blue suit when selling a homeless newspaper?
Marlon: It shows everyone that you don’t have to look down and out to be homeless. It also projects that no matter what, I take great pride in my appearance and have respect for myself. Some people don’t get the suit thing but most of my supporters do and seem to understand where I’m coming from. People won’t respect what I’m trying to do if I don’t project a commitment to myself and the paper. That’s why I wear the suit.
Mike: I agree totally with that, but explain to everyone how you became successful as a vendor.
Marlon: As you well know, Mike, success as a vendor takes time and commitment to one location. I have to cultivate my clientele by greeting them with a friendly smile and positive attitude no matter how I feel. After a while, I get to know my supporters by face or name, and in turn, they get to know who I am.
Mike: You’re so right, Marlon, that’s the way to be when you sell the paper. By committing to one location, you truly end up becoming a fixture in the community. And the positive attitude certainly adds hope and happiness to people’s days. From what I’ve found, your supporters begin to look forward to seeing you there with a friendly smile, kind words and good vibes. Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about you?
Marlon: Yes, Mike, there is. It also helps to find the right location to sell the paper. I sell in front of a big financial institution where there is plenty of foot traffic. It’s kind of funny, but who would have known that the blue suit would fit right in where I’m selling the paper?
Mike: Thank you, Marlon, for a wonderful talk, and when it comes to that good vibe you mentioned, you have a great one yourself. It’s been great to get to know you.
I left my chat with Marlon reflecting on how similar our values and commitment to street newspapers are. Even 3,000 miles away, there exists the same understanding of the importance of street newspapers. In a way, this was not surprising to me as most street newspaper vendors have a sense of pride in their work. Through selling, vendors learn to interact with the community around them, and in turn, both the community and vendors have the opportunity to learn from each other.
For me, the biggest lesson is that it’s up to all of us to better serve the community around us. If we approach each day as an opportunity to show kindness, compassion and love, and if we use these attributes in all that we do, we’ll be pleasantly surprised by the reaction we receive from others. All of this is a blessing forever.
Mike Thistle is a vendor and a writer for Spare Change News.