“Everyone wants to know about my life”: Surprise’s celeb vendor Ruedi Kälin

Interview by Olivier Joliat 

I like standing in the limelight. I am constantly in the media – television, radio, newspapers. Everyone wants to know about my life. No problem, I’m glad to tell you. Many poor people withdraw or are ashamed of their poverty. I’m more the type of guy who says, ‘now more than ever!’ I guess I’ve had this attitude since the day I was born, when the doctor in Reinach, in the Basel region, declared, “He’s going to die on the train to Davos.”

Well, I’m 57 now and have been selling the street magazine Surprise in Zurich for the past fourteen years. Recently, I’ve also become a guide for the ‘Social City Tour’ founded by Surprise. The tours are always sold out. I show school classes or business people the city from our perspective, where we get food or the best spots in the park to sleep.

Ruedi Kaelin Photo by: Matthias Willi

Nowadays I have an apartment, but that was hard for me in the beginning. I still prefer to sleep under the stars in the summer. Once you have a home, you have to organise yourself better. That’s why I never had a bank account. I have an envelope system for my money, my own personal private banking. I don’t cut my hair either, because the thick wool at the back of my head is the best pillow. I never had problems with the police when I slept outside. Years ago, posters with my portrait on them were all over Zurich, advertising for a free newspaper. The advertising agency still gives me money at Christmastime. But I really love to advertise for the street magazine Surprise the most.

Thanks to Surprise, I can finally live a free and rather exclusive life. My sister is right when she says she has never seen me as happy as I appear to be on the Surprise photos. Being well known certainly helps me to sell the magazine. Hardly anyone sells as many as I do. Sometimes I even earn more in tips than in sales. But I don’t feel like a star. Not at all, I always look after the sales team, take on new people and show them the best tactics or motivate colleagues when things aren’t going so well. Surprise is like a second family to me.

I had to take on responsibility early in my own family. Fifteen days before my seventeenth birthday, my father shot himself. He just lost his will to live.

On that day, I was at a hockey tournament in Bern where, as an elite rookie, I was allowed to be goalkeeper for the Davos Hockey Club first string for the first time. We won. I even had a shutout. The other team didn’t manage to get one single goal past me and I got an offer from a Canadian professional team.

But on that day, my dream of a hockey career ended. Other things were more important. I was able to take over my father’s job and, as the oldest, took care of my pregnant mother and my sisters. Nothing much happened in my life. But when something did happen, it rocked my world.

At some point at work, I lost my head and disappeared; I simply vanished. They searched for me all over Switzerland. Everywhere except Ticino, where I was hiding. When I cooled down, I went back to Davos and kept my head above water by working as a cleaner, until I lost it again. Then I read a newspaper ad at the train station kiosk that said Züri Woche [Zurich Weekly] was looking for vendors. I got on a train, got the job and found an apartment on the same day. Despite all this luck, I didn’t like Zurich in the beginning. The city was much too noisy.

Today, Zurich is my second home. My heart, though, still belongs to Davos and their hockey club. People know me there, and there’s always a ticket for me at the ice stadium, even for the Spengler Cup. Club members tell that the team plays better when I’m there. The feeling is mutual. In the stadium, I can relax and fill up on energy for selling the magazine. When the club plays well, I sell even better. My statistics prove it. It’s the same after street sport tournaments. Since Surprise has a soccer league, I have been playing on the Zuri Lions sales team. We hardly ever win any more, but that doesn’t matter. I always go all out at the games.

Sports give me everything. I don’t need vacations. I couldn’t take more than four days off anyway, since the magazine is issued every two weeks and I have to deliver to my regular customers. In winter or summer, when there’s a three-week break until the next issue, I use the time to scout out new sales locations. After conquering Chur, Sargans and Landquart, my next goal is Klosters and Davos. The sales manager in Zurich says this won’t be easy, but he just wants to light my fire. He knows me so very well.

This interview is an extract from Standort Strasse – Menschen in Not nehmen das Heft in die Hand. Translated from German to English by Translators Without Borders/Ramey Rieger.