Reggie, the Memphis Bum
Streets of Memphis, Tennessee
I have traveled to Memphis many times to attend concerts and various events. Each time I am there I am always approached by several street performers or as I call them, "Bums". Bums always seem to be able to pick out the tourists from the local people. Until recently, I had always wondered how they could figure out who was a tourist. I personally do not agree with the bum's way of life, but I can partially understand it, especially with the way the economy is gradually declining. Still, whenever I see a beggar or bum, I try to walk to opposite way as quickly as I can. What I am about to tell you may amaze you, but this information comes straight from a Memphis street bum's mouth.
Reggie, the Memphis Bum
His name is Reggie and he has lived in Memphis, Tennessee his entire life. He began performing on the streets when he was 23 years old, after being imprisoned for 3 years for car theft along with possession of Marijuana. His reason for becoming a street performer is simply because he could not find a job quickly enough to keep himself fed. He has no living family that he knows of and lives alone in Memphis.
Reggie went to Memphis Central High School and was an outstanding football player while there. During his senior season, several recruiters had their eyes on him, but Reggie was unable to produce grades required to attend those colleges. After hearing this, it was hard for me to believe because Reggie seemed very intelligent. It seemed as if Reggie had just taken the wrong path in life, which hurt his future potential. He then began to tell me that he has Autism. I was skeptical when I heard this, but the rest of his story added up. He claimed that Autism was actually the reason he began doing drugs. He felt inadequate from the other students and got mixed into the wrong crowd. After his mother passed away when he turned 19, Reggie was stuck working at a fast food restaurant. His mother had no form of insurance and Reggie was stuck trying to make payments on an apartment with only a minimum wage paying job while also having to deal with the grief of his mother dying. Before his mother died, Reggie claimed that he had not been using any drugs, but in desperation he began to sell them to try to make enough money to have food and shelter.
Without guidance, one night Reggie decided to steal a car that was parked in a paid parking lot near Beale Street. It just so happened that the car that Reggie decided to steal had a built in computer that was able to be traced by a satellite. Two days later, police showed up at Reggie's apartment with a warrant and put Reggie into the back of the police car. Reggie was charged with Grand Theft and possession of Marijuana. His sentence was originally 4 years, but was reduced to 3 years when he made parole.
When Reggie got out, he went to stay with his cousin in West Memphis. During this time he applied for many jobs, but had no success because of his criminal background. Feeling overwhelmed, one day Reggie went for a walk in Memphis after a job interview. He said that he was passing by Peabody Place when he noticed that guys were making money by drawing pictures, performing magic tricks and selling maps. Reggie thought to himself that this would require no interview or boss, so it was something he could try with no risk. The next week Reggie began to approach people, asking if they needed any help finding anything. He said he was not accepted very well by others because he was so straightforward, but still managed to earn $5 his first day, which was enough to buy him a sandwich.
Two weeks later his cousin's family moved to Texas, leaving Reggie behind in Memphis. Reggie was allowed to stay in the house for the remainder of the month, but knew he had to start making money quickly. He then began approaching the other street performers, asking them how they made enough money to sustain a living. Some of the street performers were kind enough to teach him basic tricks and the fundamentals of art and soon Reggie was able to incorporate these into his arsenal. Reggie was now making money by simple artistic drawings, magic tricks and humorous portraits. "It's amazing how many people will actually pay for ridiculous photos while they are on vacation just to have a souvenir", Reggie said.
Making money on the streets
After one month, Reggie was homeless, had lost 30 lbs, and was desperate. He was making around $20 a day, but that was barely enough to eat on and pay for his clothes to be cleaned. Desperate to make more money, Reggie went to the library and designed a map of Memphis and it's "hot spots". Since Reggie had grown up in Memphis, he also included reviews and ways to get discounts and best times to go to different attractions to avoid larger crowds. He was able to develop a nice sized pamphlet and began selling them for $1 each to tourists. He started out his first day with only 10 pamphlets and sold all of them to tourists. A week later Reggie was making $40 a day on average. He was now performing magic tricks, drawing portraits, offering tours and selling maps. The next thing Reggie told me about was something that I did not like about his profession. Reggie said that a big key to making money is simply asking for money. Whenever he was on his way to get something to eat or start a new walking route, he would ask each tourist he saw if he could borrow 31 cents for a bag of chips. Reggie said that, believe it or not, nearly half of the people he asked would shell out the 31 cents. "I probably ask around 1,000 people on average per day", said Reggie. It didn't register at the time, but when I calculated it out, that meant that Reggie got around 500 people a day to give him 31 cents a piece. When I tallied that all together it added up to $155 a day. This was without his sales of maps, portraits and magic tricks.
The conversation went several places, but I finally had to ask, "Reggie just how much money do you make per day doing this now"? With a smile, Reggie looked at me and said, "I'll put it this way". "The apartment I live in costs $600 per month. I have a $400 per month car payment and have both Satellite television and internet and I still have money left over each month to put into savings." At this point I was astonished. I had looked at these people as if they had no money. This was why they were begging, because they really needed it. When I asked Reggie why he still dresses the way he does, he asked me if I would ever give money to a guy that was wearing better clothes than myself. "Okay, good point", I thought. Then I asked why he still does this instead of getting a normal job. He then replied, "Can you think of a job where an autistic, convicted criminal can make between $100-$200 a day?" "No I guess I can't", I said.
Reggie still performs on the streets of Memphis and to my knowledge is probably making more money than I am per day. If you ever encounter a man performing self portraits in less than 60 seconds, be sure to ask him his name. Remember this story if you are ever asked to give a beggar 31 cents for a bag of chips. That beggar could be making more than you are on a daily basis.