Tuesday, May 7, 2013

No, thank YOU, sir - The Real Change guy and the really changed city

Have a great day, sir
Edwin McClain, the "Real Change, sir?" guy who stood sentry outside of the U District Safeway for nearly 20 years, has died. He was 69.

Here is a profile from the UW Daily on McClain.

Below is a slideshow and audio of Edwin McClain, including his signature pitch, from the UW Daily:

McClain hadn't been showing up at work to hawk his newspapers for some time. Walking into the store without him out front made me feel a little unsettled, so I would check to make sure I remembered my wallet. McClain and I both arrived in the U District in 1995, and in a way I depended on him to be there, in the same way I depend on drunken frat boys to holler on the Ave until 3 a.m. He was a part of the U District, and Seattle, that didn't change. Until it did.

If you are a man, he said, "Real Change, sir? Have a great day, sir."

If you are a woman, he said, "Real Change, madam/miss? Have a great day, madam/miss."

He said it to every person who happened past. If there was a group, he speeded his pitch. It was almost obsessive. It felt like he was shooting at targets, and couldn't let one go by without taking a shot. In a story by the UW Daily, McClain said he sold 500 papers a week. 

“This is my spot,” he told the paper. “Other people can sell papers when I’m not here, but once I come, they must leave.”

McClain had a prime location in front of Safeway -- a busy, cramped grocery store -- and was respected both by employees and the denizens of the University District. Likelier than not, he was here before you, and will remain after you leave.

It wasn't just the location that made him an icon, though, it was how he did his job: he never explicitly made you feel like a dick for not buying one of his papers, but that's how you felt. Maybe it was his directness, as we in Seattle are wary of directness. Mostly, I think, it was being called "sir" by an elderly black man.

He kept order on a chaotic strip of cement, just around the corner from Seattle's Hamsterdam. Nobody dare try to move in on that man's turf. (You wouldn't. Like hell you would.) He had a voice like a fog horn, he was big, and, again, he looked you right in the eye, something we aren't too comfortable with. McClain had a job to do, and did it. He wasn't a beggar. Sometimes he did his job wearing leather chaps and eating Chinese food out of a carton.

In his absence, a number of panhandlers have vied for the plum spot, some pathetic, some aggressive. A competitive flare up between beggars, including taunts and racial overtones, seemed to have the potential for fisticuffs. Lately it's been a soft-spoken young woman with fearless eyes who reads novels. She has excellent technique and appears to have staked out the spot.

The neighborhood won't be the same without him.

The U District is one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Seattle, and more than any other enclave, it is our city's port of entry for people from other parts of the state and the world.

People graduate, drop out, move to a different neighborhood with less noise and sleaze, and the cycle starts again. Old buildings and houses are torn down, new ones are thrown up in their place. It is constantly turning over. It is Seattle's test kitchen for change.

Seattle burned to the ground once, and built itself back up. It stands alone among American cities for its fetish for reinvention. It isn't the first city one thinks of for reinvention. The top of the list has to go to New York. But the Big Apple's reinventions are practical. There is nothing practical about tearing down the viaduct and replacing it with a tunnel that can carry less traffic, or a citizen-designed monorail, for that matter. Perhaps the only thing that is truly of Seattle is the rain. And if they could, Californians would put a stop to that too.

Since the Great Fire, Seattle has burned down and built itself back up on more occasions than Chicago has changed mayors. Newcomers, flush with cash, behave like Aztec kings, destroying the monuments and temples of the previous regime, ignoring into obscurity what they don't understand, completely changing the culture.

When the early settlers of what would become Seattle rendezvoused with David Denny at Alki Point in 1851, they were greeted with the words: "I wish you hadn't come."

Locals still mutter this under their breath when they see an Amazon.com employee on a titanium bicycle. 

There are some people, places, and things that don't change, but much of what is venerable to us are anachronisms to the tech yuppies (tuppies?) who have settled South Lake Union and are now calling the shots and buying Sounders jerseys.

It isn't that we resent newcomers for moving here, for bringing their money, or for making this place their home as well. It is how change happens here that is upsetting. It is the same phenomenon that made San Francisco uninhabitable for the middle and lower classes and is doing its work in smaller cities like Portland and New Orleans. First thing you notice is that children and the elderly start disappearing. I don't know what is creepier sometimes: gentrification or the specter of a nocturnal fiend that eats the young and the old.

For those of us whose family story is tied to the story of Seattle for the past 100 years -- the strikes, the wars, the deprivation, the celebrations, the painful but constant drive toward tolerance and diversity -- the disregard for what came before can be disheartening, as though these people from Connecticut and Michigan are tossing out our heirlooms. To them, all they know of Seattle is its "lifestyle." Dad, who doesn't know what a hipster is, often laments, "This isn't the town I grew up in. Seattle used to be ... (he struggles for the word) ... cool." Maybe this accounts for why we make landmarks out of the unextraordinary things that haven't changed, and use the city as our personal scrap book.

The impulse for plowing under what came before has been throbbing as of late, and like a Kurt Cobain noise guitar solo, it is confusing and a little obnoxious: there is a push against a proposal to allow more coal trains to run on Seattle's heavy rail lines, and a cabal of wealthy men wants to build an NBA stadium next to the port. Seattle is a town that owes it's very existence to the double blessing of the railroad and the sea. Transporting natural resources made us, not airplanes, computers, rock music, or trust funders. We are a port town, not Portland.

Leo Lassen is long gone. So is Dag's, the Rainier Brewery, Spanish peanuts at the Sodo Sears candy counter, and the Lusty Lady. If the proposal to run more coal trains fails, and if road access to the port is further clogged by a superfluous basketball stadium, it will be just another turning over. Losing McClain is, for obvious reasons, different. Like most of the people in this neighborhood, I did not know the man personally, but he came to mildew corner to start over, got knocked around, and then made a place for himself. It's a familiar story, it's my family story, and I like to hear it over and over.

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