I always thought I knew Ed McClain. He was one of our very early vendors and started selling in front of the Safeway back in 1995. In those days, Real Change was a lot smaller, so I got to know Ed. I saw him most every day.
He was still homeless at the time. Still addicted to drugs, living in a shelter. But selling the paper took Ed up in the world. And he moved to the Seal Motel, out on Aurora.
Ed came into the office one day, and I told him he’d sold 1,300 papers that month. This was back when we were publishing every other week. So Ed McClain was responsible for about 10 percent of our montly circulation of 14,000 to 15,000 papers.
He told me later he went back to his room at the Seal that night, and he asked himself, “What am I doing? I’m making all this money, and I’ve got two pairs of pants and two shirts to my name.”
And that’s when he put down crack for good.
He got a custodial job at the school across the street from the Safeway in the U District. He got up every morning at six and worked that job till noon. And then he’d go to work selling papers. He’d stay there, until eight or nine at night. And then he’d make a bank drop. And the next day, he’d get up and do it again.
Ed created some comforts for himself that most of us take for granted, but he never stopped working those long hours. He told me once that free time was not good for him. Long hours kept Ed on track.
Once Ed found success, he started giving back. He’d come into Real Change, buy his 600 papers for the week, and then he’d buy another 100 to donate to vendors who weren’t doing so well and needed the help. Every week.
Every holiday season, and sometimes just because, he would cook up feasts in his Lake City apartment, and he would bring them into the office. Seafood gumbo. Baked chicken. Two or three kinds of quiche and another two or three kinds of pie. Oxtail soup. Southern greens. Glazed carrots. Ribs. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Cornbread. He’d bring it in with a hand truck.
We were blessed by the bounty of Ed.
And over the years, Ed went from the hard guy who was all about Ed, to being the man he really was. A man who believed in work and the ability of anyone to succeed. Who was generous. And kind. And cared about people.
The man who, every time he came in for papers, would shout over his shoulder on his way out the door, to no one in particular, “Everybody have a great day and make a lot of money!”
Over the past few months, I’ve gotten to know Ed a little better.
When he said last November that he’d been given two months to live, I asked what I could do. And in typical Ed fashion, he said, “Nothing.” Then he laughed, maybe seeing my forlorn expression, and said, “Write me a great obituary.”
That’s when I realized that I really knew nothing about this guy. I mean, he told me stories, but these were pieces of his life. And so I spent time in his apartment toward the end, listening to him tell his story. I got to know Ed, and Ed, by Ed’s telling, was clearly a badass.
And I came to learn that Ed’s story, in many ways, is the story of race in America.
He told me about his father, Edward, who was a sharecropper from Hattiesburg, Miss. He went into the military in the late ’30s and found that, for a Black man, some things were worse than sharecropping. Like 6 million other African Americans from the South, his father traveled north with the Great Migration, back when Ed was a baby. His father worked in factories the rest of his life.
I got to know Ed, the smart Black kid from the South Side of Chicago, who hated school but loved a good fight. Who, even within the Black community, growing up in Chicago’s red-light district, was sometimes ridiculed and shunned because his skin was darker than other people’s.
Who bounced in and out of juvie from 13 on, until a murder rap landed him in prison at 16. Who discovered behind bars that he had a fine mind and a thirst for knowledge.
Who fought for an education and, when he was released from prison in the late ’60s, finished his bachelor’s in political science through one of the first young, gifted and Black scholarships in Illinois. Who learned, in his late-20s, that a college degree for a Black man with a federal prison record is no magic ticket.
Who decided the deck was stacked against him and turned again to crime. Who became an international drug dealer, known by his street name, “Jesus.” Who, inspired by a “Superfly,” ’70s sense of fashion, liked to wear a black mink Cossack hat and a big gold chain.
Who roamed Europe, speaking French, under the assumed identity of a Canadian named Ronald Conroy. Who finagled his way into classes at Le Cordon Bleu, the world’s premier French cooking institute in Paris. Who, in France in the early ’70s, learned that Black men were not feared and despised throughout the world and found that to be a revelation.
Whose only brother was murdered by a Chicago cop.
Who finally got nailed for international narcotics trafficking and went back inside for another 10 years.
Ed got freed from prison but not from his past, and he was dogged by trouble and addiction all the way into his late 50s. And then, finally, Ed found himself again, through work, community and caring about people.
Then, just as I thought I’d discovered the true Ed, Ed died.
As Ed’s community responded to his passing, I learned about this whole other side of Ed. The side that he didn’t tell me about.
The man who cared about the street kids and the crackheads and the prostitutes and even some of the panhandlers and tried to help them toward the light.
Who was always generous with his success and held court every day from his folding chair, dispensing hard-earned street wisdom and sometimes cash to those who needed it more than he did. Who firmly believed in everybody’s ability to change and transcend. Who believed in people and wanted to help them be better.
Ed, in a better world, could have been anything he wanted to be. And in the final chapters of his life, Ed found his way home to who he really was: a sweet, generous, brilliant man who, in his gruff, bad-ass way, had a barely concealed heart of gold.
Ed lit up his corner of the Ave with his gorgeous and true soul. And all of us at Real Change are honored to have known him.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Jon Williams has been an artist, photographer, designer and editor for many publications, including The Sacramento Bee, The Rocky Mountain News, The Los Angeles Daily New, The (Harrisburg, Pa.) Patriot-News and The Kitsap Sun. He is currently the Art Director at Real Change, and the founder of the Real Change portrait project. He lives in Poulsbo, WA.