Life of a Big Issue seller
We walk past him every day, we ignore him pathologically and we pretend we can’t hear his calls. He is the Big Issue vendor. Operating opposite Angel Station, Sora Robu tells Payam Edalat his story
Sora Robu, aged 49, has been selling the Big Issue since November last year. He found himself in this situation after leaving Romania, for what he thought would be a new and improved life.
Among the swarm of overcoats walking to and from the underground station at Angel and into the vast multi-million pound office complexes and restaurants stands Robu, a tall and slightly overweight man wearing a bright orange high-visibility jacket. Equipped with an umbrella and a stack of magazines, he is prepared for his 11-hour shift selling the Big Issue, come rain or shine. He carries his entire life in a rucksack that at bedtime becomes the pillow beneath his head.
It was a bitterly cold December day, the temperature was just above zero and walking toward the underground station I was deep in thought about getting to the comfort and warmth of my home. I suddenly heard, in broken English: “Big Issue, Big Issue, can I interest you in the Big Issue?” I approached Robu and was greeted with a smile. “Big Issue?” he asked, hoping I was a genuine customer and not a tourist asking for directions. He seemed a little wary when I told him I wanted to interview him. While we spoke, he would spontaneously shout “Big Issue” to potential customers. He was desperate to sell as many copies as he could.
The Big Issue, founded by Gordon Roddick and A. John Bird, celebrated its 21st birthday this September. Mr Bird was a former vagrant and was inspired by a similar newspaper called ‘Street News’ in New York. The Big Issue now has a weekly readership of almost 600,000. Its motto is “a hand up, not a hand out”, and from what I was learning about Robu, this seemed to be very fitting.
Originally from Romania, he had travelled here a year and a half ago intending to work as a welder, as he had done back at home. He based his decision on a promise his friend had made to support him in beginning a new and better life. After spending all of his money on a one-way flight to the UK, his so-called friend let him down and he became homeless. Throughout our interview, the only moment Robu seemed genuinely upset was when he told me that his friend abandoned him. “He changed his number, I have no address, and I never see him,” he says. “That is my good friend.”
Vendors buy the magazines at £1.25 and sell them for £2.50, generating a profit of £1.25. Robu tells me that, on a good day, he might sell up to ten copies of the magazine, but he says: “People say ‘it is too expensive, £3 is too much’ and it is a lot of money, for me anyway.”
Three pounds would just about cover the cost of a morning coffee, but for someone like Robu it is 30% of his average daily income.
Robu doesn’t have any family here and has never been married. Although I knew you had to be homeless to sell the Big Issue, it was still shocking to hear that he didn’t have a place he could call home. He says he sleeps “anywhere, sometimes in a church, sometimes on the street or in doorways and parks”. He refused to tell me the exact locations but did say the church, where he is a regular visitor, supplies him with clothes and something to eat.
He doesn’t read the magazines because he doesn’t know how to read, but he does enjoy looking at the pictures. He says: “I look at the celebrities and I think about what I would buy and do if I had money like them.”
Robu explains that he left Romania for London because he believed our country looked after its citizens. Twenty years ago he was injured in a work related accident and was left unable to work. The government provided him with the equivalent to £60 per month, but having to support his mother, he would often fall short. He feels as though his government has failed him, but he is still patriotic. He proudly states that Prince Charles “has property in Romania and William has gone there for holidays”. Even with the daily hardship he is faced with, he still enjoys living in London and says: “I like London very much, the people are good, but they are very busy and always walk fast. When I get bored, I like to just sit and watch people and imagine where they are going. For me life is not easy, but for some, living in London is paradise.”
For Robu this Christmas there will be no cozy Christmas dinner surrounded by friends and family, no presents under a Christmas tree, even the streets where he may sleep will be empty. When I ask him what he will be doing for Christmas, he jokes and says: “Being cold with no customers to sell my magazines to.” After standing with him for 25 minutes, I feel my fingers go numb. Which reminds me to ask him how he handles the cold. He tells me he is used to it as “Romania gets very cold” and if he had to, he would “work in ice”.
Throughout our interview, Robu had a smile on his face, but with everything he has gone through how can he keep smiling? “I smile all the time, why not, if all the time like this (makes grumpy face) who will be unhappy? Me! Why not, if you can smile, then do!”
Featured image © Ted Szukalski