Every morning, a man with deep brown eyes and a stack of magazines in his hands stands on the corner of Adams and Wells Streets. His deep, husky voice greets the rushing office-goers and floats above the financial district of Chicago where he sells StreetWise magazine every day.Carlos Marcado is one of 200 active StreetWise vendors scattered around downtown and North Side of Chicago who sell the magazine daily. Like most of his co-workers, Marcado used to be at risk of homelessness and struggled to make enough money to cover the necessities but found help at StreetWise, a social service organization that provides its vendors with employment, housing stability and financial assistance.
Born in Bronx, N.Y., Marcado is now 56. He wears a big clock on his chest and a warm smile on his face.
“I’m a hustler,” says he referring to his long history of street gigs.
Marcado says he used to work as a delivery driver for the Chicago Tribune before he took on odd jobs and then started selling the Chicago Sun-Times in 1998. After quitting the job at Sun-Times he says he ended up in Wilson Men’s Hotel in Uptown, where he learned about StreetWise from one of the tenants.
Marcado’s career at StreetWise started in May 2013, says Gregory Pritchett, director of distribution at StreetWise, who gave Marcado the first bunch of free StreetWise magazines to sell on his first day.
Marcado says he now has to “present himself as a salesman.” A clean shaven man in new Nike shoes, he carries a backpack full of latest StreetWise issues and a light snack that he eats on his 9 a.m. break after the foot traffic around the congested corner slows down.
“A lot of people ask me: ‘Are you homeless?’” I say ‘no’. And they wonder: ‘I thought you have to be homeless to sell the paper [StreetWise].’’’
He compares StreetWise to the movie “The Natural” that is based on Bernard Malamud’s novel about Roy Hobbs, a farm boy who aspired to become a prominent baseball player. “This is something like this,” Marcado says. “As soon as you touch it — it changes your life.”
According to Executive Director James LoBianco, StreetWise is a social service organization that focuses on three main areas of service provision: workforce development, housing stability and financial literacy.
LoBianco says the average length of time for a participant in StreetWise magazine vendor program is between nine months and three years. But for Marcado StreetWise is a whole new career.
“This is it for me,” he says. “I get tired when I get on a bus. I just want to go to sleep and go to work in the morning. I can do this for the rest of my life as long as I can stay here.”
With StreetWise, Marcado sees another chance in life. He proudly displays his badge number 9551 – a legal proof of employment every StreetWise vendor gets after they go through an orientation.
“He is a very hard worker,” says Pritchett, who also used to be homeless and who started at StreetWise as a vendor. “I’ve been very impressed by how he has been consistent with this.”
“We have active sellers, good standing [sellers] and superstars,” he explains. “Where I put Carlos is good standing. And that’s pretty good being his first year.”
Marcado says he has already built a stable clientele for the last three months he has been working for StreetWise, the oldest operating street paper in North America, according to LoBianco.
A few blocks away, Susan Fisher, another StreetWise vendor sells the magazine in front of the Union Station.
“StreetWise, StreetWise! Have a nice day and a safe trip home guys!” she screams her selling slogan every 10 seconds, hoping to sell the publication to a commuter.
“It’s all about patience,” says Fisher, who has been selling StreetWise for the last 20 years. “You’ve got to build up your little corner and start having regular customers and it will pay off in the end.”
Among them is Susan Lersch, a Chicago resident who has been buying StreetWise since it was a black-and-white newspaper.
“I buy StreetWise because it’s a good vehicle to keep Chicagoans informed about the challenges of homelessness in our city,” she says. “It’s a great alternative to begging in the street that allows the vendor and the customer to feel that there is respect given and value offered.”
But StreetWise vendors can also aggravate some. Marcado says his loud voice has already annoyed people on the upper floors of the nearby office building.
“I was told that I’m so loud, even up to the 10th floor they can hear [me],” he says laughing. “They told me to pipe down and be quiet. I got an email from them on the third floor.”
Marcado says his voice sometimes gets rough and harsh from being on the street and yelling out one single word for 12 hours a day.
He calls his unfurnished South Chicago apartment a “nice shack” and says he wants to move to Lakeview, away from the cruddy old place, as the job at StreetWise made him more hopeful for his future. Brand-new clothes, furniture and a new apartment are some of his main aspirations.
Marcado’s shift starts at 6 a.m., when he gets to the corner with Walgreens and Starbucks. It’s a golden-type location with high foot traffic, according to Pritchett who monitors on-duty StreetWise vendors as a part of his job.
As Marcado stands on the corner in the middle of a recent afternoon, a slouchy man in a worn-out leather jacket stops by and starts leaning toward Marcado.
“You have got 50 cents?” he asks in a hoarse voice.
“No,” Marcado says.
“Just 50 cents!” begs the man, protruding the dry hand.
“Just 50 cents? That’s what we have got to do for living. We have got to spend 50 cents,” murmurs Marcado, as he starts fishing for change in his pocket.
“Here,” he gives a man a bunch of coins.
“Thank you, I will see you later!”
“You have got to deal with it all the time,” he says as the man’s silhouette dissolves in a mosaic-like mass of passers-by.
“StreetWise helps guys out, but those who are really sick like him – you can’t help him out. It takes wanting to change,” Marcado says.
“I get people who tell me how much they are going to do and how well they are going to do,” says Pritchett. “I listen to them, but I’m more about the actions and Marcado has definitely excelled.”
“We are our own boss, we buy the paper for 90 cents and sell it for $2. We make $1.10 out of it,” Marcado explains.
A high-risk asthmatic, Marcado says he has been receiving disability checks since 1995. And while the government checks he says he receives provide some support, he says they still don’t cover his clothing and food. Although the job at StreetWise allowed him to buy much-needed basics and put some money aside, Marcado still lives in fear of becoming homeless as he heavily relies on the disability money that covers most of his rent, he says.
“I can become homeless any time but I’ve got the experience,” he says. When I was 21 in ’79, I started taking care of horses and it was good. I was just partying all the time, just drinking. Trying to win races and that was it.
“When you go through it [homelessness] the first time — you are scared. It’s like the whole world ended on you,” he recalls.
But after being on the streets a few times, Marcado says he gave up drinking and smoking marijuana. And his StreetWise badge helps to keep the police away.
“I’ve been arrested twice because I was in the middle of street,” says Marcado, recalling the times when he says he was charged for disorderly conduct while selling another newspaper.
Marcado says the progress at work has already allowed him to start making some investments.
Recently, as it nears 6 o’clock, Marcado starts wrapping up. He puts his backpack on, counts the profits and casts a last glance on the street. It’s now more quiet but still bursting with intermittent sounds of the rattling CTA train and panhandlers shaking up change in plastic cups.
“I bought insurance for myself for burial,” he says. “I’m paying $50 a month. My asthma is under control when I’m on medication but I’ve been in a coma many times and it can happen again. I can go out and may not wake up.”
Like many StreetWise vendors, Marcado has been through hardships and homelessness but was able to pull himself by the bootstraps and start a new chapter in his life with the help of StreetWise. As Pritchett says, Marcado is now developing weekend locations in Greek Town and Wicker Park.
“Today is Friday, I’ve got to watch my ‘Shark Tank,’ ” Marcado says. “I love that show because they are self-men – I’m a self-man. They want to make money – I’m like that too. I learn from them.”
To view a video documentary
about Carlos, please visit the
StreetWise YouTube page at
Daria Sokolova is a young journalist and a recent graduate of Roosevelt University. Her main areas of expertise include social issues, contemporary art, photography and graphic design. She is an inductee of Franklin Honors Society at Roosevelt University and a recipient of Phi Theta Kappa Scholarship.