The Real Change Portrait Project


Shelley Cohen

"Shelley Cohen" Mixed Media by Jon Williams
There are smiles, and then there’s Shelly Cohen’s smile: a rubber-cheeked beamer, it rivals the grins of comic greats like Red Skelton or Sid Caesar. And just like them, Shelly knows his way around a punch line. Shelly is 59. “And that’s 59 years young,” he says. “The young is important.” Born and raised in Seattle — “And I have the webbed feet to prove it” — Shelly attended Roosevelt High and played percussion. It was a skill he carried over from junior high, where he played the bass drum. He admits that was a bit of stretch for him, because he was a small kid. “I played the bass drum laying flat,” he says of junior high, “so I could see over it.” He’s proud to say he went to Seattle Community College for 20 years — and never got a degree. That’s because he wasn’t a student. “I was a percussionist in the symphonic band.” Along with the joy he felt playing the drum, his parents provided a childhood marked with sweet memories. Two stand out: His whole family drove across the country in 1964 to attend the World’s Fair in New York City, which he loved. His family even took a side trip to the Bahamas. “We didn’t drive there,” he says. He also enjoyed his bar mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ritual for 13-year-old boys. His dog, Katan (Hebrew for small), escaped the pen, and the tiny animal gorged on goodies provided by bar mitzvah attendees. “She had a pretty rough night,” he says, with a lift of his eyebrows. These days, as in the past, Shelly says he’s always had a nice rapport with people. He’s honed it over the years through Network TwentyOne, the training company that supports people who work for the direct-marketing firm Amway. It even helps him engage people in his part-time job as a crossing guard at Northeast 125th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast. Shelly says it’s a dangerous intersection, even for someone dressed in his fluorescent gear, so he has a mission that supersedes talking to people: “Keep everyone safe.” Along with being a crossing guard, Shelly used to work as a home care aide, but that job fell through. He’d met some vendors over the years and, when the price of the paper increased to $2, Shelly realized he could make $1.40 on each issue he sold. He began selling at the QFC on Northeast Northgate Way and Roosevelt Way Northeast in early June; by July, he was selling more than 600 papers a month. All of those customers, he says, translate into a lot of smiles: “They tell me my smile improves their day.” But even smiles can’t mask a challenging reality. Shelly has Type 1 diabetes, a condition where the body doesn’t produce insulin, which means he has to monitor his glucose levels. Sometimes, if the level is too high, he has to leave his selling post. But when he’s there, customers offer him food and warm drinks. Those interactions, the smiles, the jokes, the laughs — they’ve provided something Shelly never expected. “Much to my pleasant surprise,” he says, “it has made my life a lot better.” No matter how people view him, Shelly says his customers shouldn’t look at him with pity. Unlike some vendors, he has housing, and Shelly says he wouldn’t get upset if some of his regular customers decided to support other vendors who are homeless. “Because that’s giving,” he says. Speaking of giving, Shelly would like to offer his customers a smile when he sells them this issue featuring his profile. He’ll have to work fast. This paper goes on sale Dec. 24. On Thurs., Dec. 26, Shelly flies to see a good friend in Akron, Ohio, and won’t return until Jan. 3. Having a profile in this issue also means his photo will be in the paper that’s sold on Christmas Day. That realization leads Shelly to chuckle. “Oy, gevalt.”

Artist: Jon Williams
Jon's Bio here

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