"Tracey Williams" Acrylic on Canvas by Kolton Hallwirth
Being from Memphis, Tracey “Melvin” Williams has barbequed just about anything you could think of. Chicken. Mixed vegetables. Neck bones. Boston butt, rubbed with mustard and brown sugar, so tender you could “pull the bone straight out.” He’s even barbequed a squirrel.
“Ms. Pearl, down the street — she asked me since I was grilling, would I put this squirrel on? I’m like ‘OK, why not?’”
The youngest of 21 children, Melvin got his talent for cooking from his mother, who told him, “You may never get married, so [you] need to learn how to cook.” He’s been making mouths water ever since — almost 33 years. In that time, Melvin has cooked in hotels, chain and private restaurants, and bars, from Memphis to Mississippi. In 2010 he left Memphis for Nashville and found a job as a chef at a TGI Friday’s. But his hours were cut back when the restaurant was damaged in the massive floods of that year, and he had to look for other work. That was when he had his first experience selling a street newspaper.
“The Contributor” in Nashville is the only street newspaper in the United States that has a higher annual circulation than Real Change. For about a year, Melvin did well selling the paper there, and he became familiar with similar organizations in other cities. When he came out to Seattle in 2011, he knew he would have something to turn to if he was unable to find steady work in a kitchen. By October of last year, Melvin was selling Real Change full-time.
Like he did in Nashville, Melvin sells most of his papers from the curbside to passing vehicles. His beagle-terrier, Gwynnie, is his constant companion. When he’s done selling, he and Gwynnie hop into his 1999 Saturn and drive to his parking spot in Lake City to settle in for the night [“The lot is full”, RC, May 22]. “I won’t sleep in the mission ‘cause [Gwynnie] can’t go in. So I sleep in the car with her.”
Most of the income he earns selling Real Change goes to supporting his four children. His oldest daughter lives in Seattle and works at FareStart, but the youngest three are still in Memphis. Right now, he doesn’t have much time for anything other than selling the paper and sleeping, but if he had the money, he would open up his own barbeque stand. “I’d invest in myself. I’m good at what I do. I’m good at cooking, I’m good with people. And I’m good at selling Real Change.”
And selling the paper, splitting his time between the Westwood Village Target and the Starbucks in Lake City, has been good to him — although it’s not always easy.
“You know, it’s amazing: Sometimes people walk by me and look at me like dirt. When I was in Lake City one day a guy told me to get a real job. I said, ‘There’s a lot of things I could be doing to get money. I could be breaking into your house, selling you dope, robbing you, killing somebody. But I’m standing here selling the paper.’ He looked at me, drove off. Next day he came back and gave me $20. And since then he’s been a regular customer.”