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Stuck on the Street
Streetwise American widower Louis is no ordinary salesman
by BLANCHE CLARK
April 17, 2004
Louis is a street vendor for The Big Issue, which is celebrating its 200th issue. His turf includes Brunswick St, Fitzroy, Melbourne University and Parliament Station. Louis, who goes only by his first name, was born in Harlem in 1950, left the United States in 1974 to travel and ended up in Australia in 1983. After falling on hard times, he has been selling The Big Issue since its third edition.
Q: Where did you grow up?
Louis: I grew up in the South Bronx, in the equivalent of the housing commission projects, like you see in those rap videos. It was more of a mixed neighbourhood then; we had about four nationalities living around us. I went back in 2001, it looks totally different.
How many people in your family?
My mother was from Puerto Rico. My father from the South -- Virginia area. They met in New York City. I had two sisters -- one has passed away. My older sister lives in Brooklyn and she has a 22-year-old son, whom I met for the first time (in 2001). I've been away so long, since 1974. My father passed away 20 years ago, so I didn't see him again.
Was your intention to travel for a short period?
Yes. I was just going to see people I'd met in New York. One thing led to another -- I had some traumas -- and I kept going. I went to England first to see a girlfriend in Leicester. Then I worked around south Devon and saved money to travel to the Middle East, North Africa, Scandinavia and Europe for about 8 1/2 months. I worked briefly in London again, then decided to do the big overland trip to India. I stayed in India and Nepal for about 2 1/2 years.
I met a girl (Judith) in Nepal and we travelled together. We had a great time in Goa, as you do. Everyone can work that one out for themselves. She popped the question: "Will you marry me?" And I said: "Yes". She was from Australia and she is the greatest person I ever met. We got married in Bangkok. We travelled through Indonesia, Malaysia, and flew from Singapore to Melbourne. I came here for a few months, I didn't know if I wanted to stay. She (Judith) was an honours graduate of Melbourne University in arts. We went to Sydney for about two years. We lived on Campbell Parade, overlooking Bondi Beach. The flat was about $80,000 -- $110 a week and I wish that we had stuck it out and bought the place, because these days it's a million-dollar view.
Were you working up in Sydney?
I was trying to. I did a bartending course, but it was hard to get work. I did odd jobs such as house painting. Back in the US, the first job I had was as an optical laboratory technician. I didn't do that again until I moved to Melbourne in '83, just before Ash Wednesday, but I couldn't get much work. We lived in North Fitzroy, so I have been in and out of this area; that's why I like working around here.
What led you to The Big Issue?
I was living with my wife in a rooming house called The Regal in St Kilda. We'd had places before, but we got evicted because we were too poor to pay the rent.
Your wife wasn't working?
She was very sick. She had liver disease.
Was that from hepatitis?
Yeah. She was getting worse. The Big Issue started up at the soup kitchen down the road from the Regal Hotel. They started recruiting and that's how I got into it.
Would you say that was one of the lowest points of your life?
Yeah. My wife was getting sicker all the time. She would eat less, drink less and collapse in the street. She suffered tremendous pain all the time and her body functions were closing up.
Did she have anything to do with her family?
They were in Adelaide. She was in contact with them, but she was a strong-minded person who liked to do things on her own. She didn't want to worry them. She knew the writing was on the wall and I was in denial. I thought I'd join The Big Issue magazine because I wanted to buy her a set of dentures. I'd lost hers in hospital. I'd put them under some paper and they were taken away with the rubbish. Even though she'd been in the hospital a month, we thought she had about 15 years left. After I started selling the magazine, I was on the cover of the Christmas edition and two weeks later that edition had a report on the Victorian coroner's building and the edition after that she was in the coroner's building. She had a stroke.
How old was she?
Forty-two, just a baby. But by that time, she looked about 70. But she's still just a baby to me.
Did your involvement with The Big Issue help you get through that time?
They were a tremendous help. Susan, the distribution manager, got some people to accompany me to the funeral. Because I have nobody in this country, she (his wife) was the only person I knew. We were like two peas in a pod. Now my family is the people in the streets.
What are your interests?
I love music, books, but I don't have much time for reading these days. I listen to serials on Radio National.
Do you have a daily routine?
My best routine was when I wasn't listening to the radio and I was out there working all the time. I've taken a step back from that in the past year or so. I needed to spend time on my own. Lately, I've been missing my wife. I was becoming a bit anti-social; I'd given up the ghost for meeting more women, and just wanted to stay at home. When I'm home, I'm with her.
So you've never met another soul mate?
No, not like that. I've met some in the past, but it hasn't been fruitful. We don't like being called a fat bastard these days, so that's not working out. She's no great looker herself, so I don't know what she's on about. She knows who she is.
Many people who sell The Big Issue have been homeless. Have you ever been homeless?
I haven't lived in a box on the streets, but to be homeless doesn't mean you have to live in the gutter. To be homeless is about not having reasonable, stable accommodation. I was going through that with my wife, we had to move around. It's stressful. People don't realise that when you're living in some place like a private hotel, more than half the money you might get from an unemployment benefit goes on rent. After paying for rent and going to a soup kitchen to eat, you can't buy clothes, you can't buy cigarettes or anything like that. You can't do anything, just stay inside and do nothing all day.
Are you happy with your current digs?
I met the Minister for Housing at the launch of the 200th edition of The Big Issue at Flinders St and I told her my problems. Where I am living there are four buildings and two have been vacant for years because they are meant to renovate them and move us into larger premises and they haven't done this. I don't know what the holdup is. I told them I am desperate to get out of where I am. I've been there for five years and all my stuff is still in boxes. I live in fear of being evicted. I'm so traumatised by what has happened in the past, so I never take anything out of a box. I would love a place with a fridge.
Do you plan for the future or do you just take each day as it comes?
Right now, I am just planning to work hard. Last year was tough for me. Since September 11, it has been tough. I hope the economy picks up and people get the magazine more. Right now, the weather is fine. I haven't been out all summer, for about three months.
Does anyone check on you?
They (staff at The Big Issue) check on me. They know I'm going through a tough phase. But I'm coming out of it now. Things are looking up now. Spring and autumn are the best times to sell. Pretty soon it's going to be cold, so I need to get acclimatised.
The Big Issue was set up three years ago to give the homeless and unemployed the chance to earn an income. Vendors buy the magazine for $1.50 from the publishers and sell it to the public for $3. For more information, visit www.bigissue.org.au