I hated school. I hated discipline. At that time, you were allowed to leave school at 15, and on my 15th birthday I was like “see you later”! When I left school, I started off as a cabinet maker. But I didn’t have much of an education, so I got let go because I couldn’t do the trade. So I got into the tyre game, fitting tyres: car tyres, truck tyres, even aeroplane tyres. That was my profession.

I came to Sydney in 1950 when I was 15 months old. It was after the war. My parents emigrated from Yugoslavia and ended up in Austria, where I was born, and then Australia. My parents were Croatian, and alcohol was a big part of their culture. I didn’t like it much when I was younger. Once I left school and started working, I started going to pubs – I was a big boy and looked a lot older than I was. So that’s where it all started, and it just got worse and worse and worse, and I got into fights and got into trouble with the law.

I got on the merry-go-round, I got on the alcohol and on drugs – not heroin, thank god for that. I married a lady, and she was a heroin addict. She moved to Melbourne, and I went there like an idiot. And in the end, I had enough of it, so I ended up leaving. I got back to Sydney and back on the merry-go-round.

The Big Issue is the thing that saved me – I got off the merry-go-round. It saved my life for the simple fact I wasn’t broke. I wasn’t wanting for a cigarette, I wasn’t wanting for a cup of coffee, I wasn’t wanting for a feed or anything else. I was earning a little bit every day to keep my head above water.

I’ve been selling The Big Issue for 24 years – just a few months after it had been going in Sydney. I’d say I’d be the only original Sydney vendor left now. When I started at The Big Issue, I was homeless. I was on the streets. I used to work for 18 hours a day, and sleep on the train for six hours. But I wasn’t homeless for long. I do this to keep a roof over my head. If I wasn’t doing this, I wouldn’t be able to have that roof over my head. That to me, is a lifesaver.

Where I work at Bondi, I meet people from all over the world, from all walks of life. And now I’m pretty well known in the Eastern suburbs. I’ve become part of the community at Bondi, and Bondi’s arms are open to me.

There have been a lot of highlights in the last 20-odd years. I got tickets to go to the Olympics from one of my customers: I went and saw Cathy Freeman win her race. I can’t describe the feeling; it blew my mind out. Then I got tickets to go to the Paralympics with my mate. We saw the marathon, and this lady came in towards the end, she could barely move her feet but she’s done the full lap of the oval and she finished it off. That was the greatest moment of my life, even greater than Cathy Freeman winning her race.

Joe sells The Big Issue at Eastgate, Bondi Junction and Woolies Metro, Bondi Rd, Sydney

Interview by Amy Hetherington
Photo by Michael Quelch

Published in ed#688