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Reggie, the Memphis Bum

Updated on November 17, 2010

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.


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    • Rosie2010 profile image

      Rosie Rose 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Wow! What a story! And great story telling. We have a lot of panhandlers in downtown Toronto. I just ignore them most of the time. But once in while I still get taken by them, like the man who didn't look like a bum but was panhandling to buy food.. I passed by him but came back to ask what he wanted and he said pizza. I said ok and he asked if he could have root beer too. He got it. At least, Reggie is not doing anything illegal. Good hub. I'm a fan now.

      Happy Thanksgiving!


    • Coming of Age profile image

      Coming of Age 6 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      Hi Fenixfan,

      Great article, but there is one thing that does not seem to add up, and maybe you don't know the answer, but here goes...Doesn't the Tennessee state parole board assign a parlole officer to each parolees case when they are released from prison? Furthermore, aren't the conditions of parole restrictive to the places a parolee may live, and insist that they find gainful employment?

      In my own state parolees are often placed in halfway houses, unless they have family that has been pre-approved for having their relative parolee to live with them. If the family moves away the parolee must either obtain a transfer, or resign themselves to a halfway house environment. Additionally each parolee must find gainful employment as a condition of parol, and they receive monies (small amount) from the state until they have found a job. Those monies are supposed to be used for dietary needs to help support the halfway house, and for personal items, although there have been news stories indicating that the monies aften go for less wholesome activities.

      Many night warehouse jobs, loading and unloading ramps, and packing plants hire unskilled parolees. Parolees are often also helped with GED's, community college, and trade school programs to encourage a better life and attempt to keep the recidivism rates low. I have never heard of a state that just lets convicts run amuck when they are released from prison.

      How much money did you give Reggie for sharing his "story" with you?

      At any rate it's a great article, and makes the point about giving money away to someone who may in-fact be making an actual living at panhandling. I wonder if the economy has affected that "career" choice as much it has others?

      Did you give us the answer to the question; how does a bum know if your'e a tourist or not??

    • sueroy333 profile image

      Susan Mills 6 years ago from Indiana

      This was a very interesting article on many levels.

      It pointed out how the mistakes we make as a young person can continue to affect us far into the future. I wish there were a way people with criminal convictions wouldn't be written off of the job market. I think it says a lot about Reggie that he didn't turn back to crime when conventional businesses wouldn't hire him.

      I think he was very creative.

      Also, your piece shows the other side. The side where Reggie learned begging for money is the easiest and quickest way of getting it. It says a lot for our society that he earned as much or more money per day from begging than from his hard work and talent.

      Thank you for your insights into a world that most of us know so little about.

    • Christopher Price profile image

      Christopher Price 6 years ago from Vermont, USA

      Reggie is a survivor. Autism is a matter of degrees, with various levels and symptoms from mild to severe.

      It is a pity Reggie's skills and talents haven't found a more conventional outlet, but his inventive and addaptive methods are all too often under-valued in regular work situations.

      People often choose the security of a thankless job of drugery for a life of uncertainly. I don't think I could do what Reggie does.

    • profile image

      charmgirl 6 years ago

      Reggie certainly knows how to survive- and that's what it's all about really. Great story

    • BobbiRant profile image

      BobbiRant 6 years ago from New York

      This brought tears to my eyes. So talented, so sad, such a hard cold world we live in at times. I've been to TN, Savannah in West Tennessee and Nashville, but not Memphis. Great hub.

    • libby101a profile image

      libby101a 6 years ago from KY

      Wow! It's sad! There was this guy, dressed in bum clothes once that came up to my car and ask me for some money to buy something to eat... he said he hadn't eaten in a few days. I told him I would go to the McDonalds across the street and buy him a meal... he insisted I just give him the money. I insisted I just buy him some food.. in the end he went to another car! He just wanted money!

      I've seen a documentary on this... some people make hundreds of dollars a day and dress like bums because it's like a nurse putting on her uniform... it's their uniform! LOL! It's crazy! I don't care to feed anyone if they're hungry, but I'm not handing a bum my hard earned money for them to not work!

      Good Hub Jesse! Voted up!!!

    • Fenixfan profile image

      Jesse 6 years ago from Mississippi

      Reggie is, believe it or not, very gifted. He has very good conversation control and can sell you on anything. He is dedicated to his job though. He will be out there in rain or snow.

    • bcatgray profile image

      bcatgray 6 years ago from United States of America

      OMG! I know Reggie. Well, not "know" him, but have come across him several times while cruising around downtown. If he's making that much money doing what he does, TAX FREE, I'm sure of, then why am I busting my butt to write blogs and sell items on Craigslist?????