I was born in Crown Street Women’s Hospital in Surry Hills in 1953 – but it’s no longer there. My mother was a triplet and one of 19 children; my dad was an only child. I’m one of five: I had two elder sisters and one baby brother and a baby sister.

I’ve always lived in Sydney. I went to Newtown High School, only for two years unfortunately. I just had to get out and earn some money for Mum and Dad. We were a poor family; my father was the only worker. Life was pretty traumatic. We were more or less told to speak only when spoken to, and you got a big backhander if you did something wrong. You just learned to cope with things like that.

My favourite schoolteacher, a funny thing, he used to do the roll call, and he said “Robert stand up. I see here you’ve had the most days off in the whole class, but I notice you haven’t had one Wednesday off, sports day.” I said, “I come good during the week, sir.” I could run very fast. I also played football: first for the Alexandria Rovers, then the Newtown Police Boys and Newtown Hawks. It was sort of an outlet, to get out of the house. I played 19 years of rugby league, until 1979 when I snapped my ACL.

Nowadays, I’m a pretty good snooker player and I’ve been playing lawn bowls for 20 years. I got in the state playoff in Mona Vale in the second year I ever played. I was very proud. It’s all about getting your weight and your aim in line. I enjoy playing.

The first job I had was on the bone wagon when I was about 15. You’d go around the butcher shops and collect all the bones and fat and turn it into blood-and-bone fertiliser or dripping. That was my first job for about three years. I was a storeman and packer for a few years. And then I was a painter and docker for 30 years at Cockatoo Island, Garden Island, Goat Island…all along the waterfront. It was good pay and fresh air. When they got rid of the union in the early 90s a lot of people lost their jobs.

I’m a pretty good cook, so I started going for interviews, but I realised I’m over 40 and they don’t want me. So I started selling The Big Issue around 2001. I like getting out of the house and meeting people. And the income helps.

One of my happy times on pitch was when I was the vendor profile in Ed#149, back in 2002, and one of my regular customers bought a copy off me. Being a bit of a joker, I asked if she’d like my autograph. To my surprise she said, “Oh yes Robert, I would!” As I was signing, I said, “He must be famous as well,” pointing to a man near us who was also signing an autograph. My customer’s eyes nearly popped out. “That’s Keanu Reeves!” she said. “He’s in The Matrix.” Luckily, my customer had a camera on her, and Keanu said he’d be glad to have a photo taken with me.

It’s always nice when people say hello or smile, or just wave. I believe you should just treat people like you’d like to be treated yourself.

Robert sells The Big Issue at Redfern Station and Marrickville Rd, Marrickville, Sydney

Interview by Amy Hetherington
Photo by Michael Quelch

Published in ed#680