I had somewhat of a unique upbringing – I was a show kid. My dad ran the go-karts. I was very young, so I had a ball. I was one of the rare show kids placed into school in early primary. Sideshow alleys travelled every couple of weeks, and I was in and out of a new school every fortnight. I was a little bit blasé about it all. I could have applied myself and done very well but being uprooted constantly for a couple of years – and again later in high school – affected my attitude towards it.
My dad passed away when I was very young, and my mum raised me solo. Losing him had an impact on my discipline, I think, as I never received harsh words parentally.
My favourite part of my childhood was my adolescence. I was a surfer in Ulladulla, on the south coast of New South Wales, and formed the town’s Junior Boardriders Club in the mid 70s.
My claim to fame came after my education, when I got my rigger ticket and became a class-one rigger. I worked on and around the waterfront of Sydney Harbour for 17 years.
I found myself broke and homeless in the early noughties. My mum had a house in Sydney, and I preferred to pay her over a real estate company, which made it hard for me to get a rental when she passed away in 2000. After three years on the streets, I was granted permanent housing at a bedsit in Millers Point.
Push came to shove economically, and I had no prospects of a job. I tried to upgrade my rigger ticket but discovered I wasn’t in the system, despite passing all my tests. I sort of got shunted out of my industry – I was in my late fifties and I wasn’t in a position to go back to tech.
I was still connected to the city’s homeless and knew many people selling The Big Issue. I thought, I might give this a go, and it proved to be a good choice. I’ve always remembered my first day. I was a bit nervous as you would be, but it took me just three minutes to make my first sale.
I’ve been a vendor for 15 years now. What I love most about selling The Big Issue is not only does it let you know who you are, it also lets you be who you are. It never ceases to amaze me how it always puts a spring in my step. You can wake up a little down in the mouth, but after you’ve made a few sales, it changes your spirit. I love the interaction with people, and I love thinking on my feet – it’s a big trait of mine.
It’s all come good now. I’ve got a job for life, I’ve got a house for life, and I’m not in debt. I’ve been transferred to a one‑bedroom flat in Lilyfield, right next to where I grew up. And I’ve fully embraced The Big Issue – it helps me eat every day, with enough to buy major items sometimes too.
You may be wondering who my favourite customer is, that’s easy – the next one. Perhaps that’s you!
Mitchell sells The Big Issue in Balmain and Druitt St, Sydney
Interview by Lilian Bernhardt
Photo by Michael Quelch