Reggie, the Memphis Bum
Streets of Memphis, Tennessee
Several times I have traveled to Memphis to attend concerts or other events. Each time I am there I am always approached by several street performers or as I call them, Bums. It always seemed that the bums knew exactly who was a tourist and who was a local. Until lately I 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 now. 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. I know it surprised me, but this information comes straight from a street performer's mouth.
Reggie, the Memphis Bum
His name is Reggie and he has lived in Memphis, Tennessee his whole life. He began street performing when he was 23 years old after being imprisoned for 3 years due to 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 feed himself. He has no living family and lives alone in Memphis.
Reggie went to Memphis Central High School and was an outstanding football player while there. During his senior season he had several recruiters talking with him, but Reggie was unable to produce a high enough ACT score to attend those colleges. After hearing this, it was hard for me to believe because Reggie seemed very intelligent. He had just taken the wrong path in life, which hurt his future. 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. 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 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 the car that Reggie decided to swipe had a built in computer that was able to be traced by a satellite. 2 days later police showed up at Reggie's apartment 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. Frustrated, 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.
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 make enough money to live off of. Some taught 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 art tricks and humorous portraits. "It's amazing how many people will actually pay for ridiculous photos while they are on vacation, just for a souvenir", Reggie said.
Making money on the streets
After 1 month, Reggie was homeless, had lost 30lbs 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. He was able to develop a nice sized pamphlet and began selling them for $1 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 one quarter 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 250 people a day to give him 30 cents a piece. When I tallied that all together it came out to $75 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 is $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 save." At this point I was sick. I had looked at these people like 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. OK, 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 his name. Remember this story if you are ever asked to give a beggar 31 cents for a bag of chips. That beggar is probably making more than you are.