ATLANTA - Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue has played a part in the highest and lowest points of Benjamin Graham’s life, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
The street that’s best known as the birthplace of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. is where Graham lived under a bridge with other homeless as he struggled with depression and a 17-year drug addiction.
And it’s where he turned his life around in 2011, and today is the proud owner of Big Mouth Ben’s Convenience Store, selling souvenirs, sodas and sundries.
Graham gives credit for his transformation to God and his wife Tanya.
“I finally had that spiritual awakening, that conversation with God,” he recalled. “I said: ‘There has to be more than this.”
A native of North Carolina, Graham spent the first few years of his life being raised by his grandmother while his mom went to college. After the death of his grandmother and a sexual assault that he kept secret for 30 years, he moved to Atlanta to live with his mother, a stickler for good grades.
“She’d get on us if we got Cs,” said Graham, a 1986 graduate of Avondale High School.
To afford tuition at the University of Georgia, he held down five part-time jobs, including one as DJ at a local radio station. But he soon began facing bouts of depression and ended up leaving school.
What followed, he said, was a series of bad decisions, a downward spiral into homelessness and a crack cocaine addiction, and then tragedy. While working as a day laborer, the garbage truck in which Graham was riding collided with a dump truck. He spent weeks in intensive care with a broken pelvis and other injuries and left the hospital in a wheelchair.
Now, what would he do? He mustered the strength to revive an entrepreneurial spirit he first displayed when he was 6 – going around his hometown in North Carolina with his little red wagon, picking up discarded soda cans and earning his first $2.
This time, Graham decided to convert his wheelchair into a mobile mini-mart, selling sodas, chips and other snacks. He also advertised for local businesses and pitched them with the slogan: “If you want to sell it, let me tell it. – Bigmouth Ben.”
By 2006, he was ready to grow his business. He could cover more ground by bicycle and stocked his merchandise in a basket on the front and a cooler on the back. One of his customers at the time was the Atlanta Police Department’s Tyrone “Ty” Dennis.
Dennis remembers Graham at the time as “a functioning addict” and “one of the homeless guys who slept under the bridge.”
“He was never one who acted crazy, but you could tell he had his struggles,” said Dennis, now an APD detective.
Graham said he lived under the Auburn Avenue bridge for four or five years and contemplated suicide once. He finally hit bottom after being arrested on six drug charges and ordered to drug treatment court.
Graham went into a dual treatment program for his addiction and his mental problems.
“That saved my life,” he said. “I started moving forward.”
Around that time, Graham reunited after 24 years with his college sweetheart, Tanya. The two married in 2015.
Graham has been running the convenience store about a block from the national memorial to King since 2015 and is always looking for ways to boost foot traffic. The area’s homeless are welcome in the store and are offered free sodas, snacks and something off a rack of donated clothes.
A mobile shower for the homeless is brought in on weekends. And last year, Graham started selling vouchers redeemable in his store to people who want to help the homeless.
He has published a book about his life and founded the nonprofit Motivation Forward Inc. with his wife to provide peer support to addicts and the mentally ill. He also sits on the board of Partners for a Home, an organization that helps the homeless and mentally ill.
A bicycle wrapped entirely in bright yellow tape sits outside his store. A sign on it invites passersby to come inside to hear about Graham’s journey from being homeless on Auburn Avenue to being a businessman on Auburn Avenue.
He cries sometimes as he shares his story.
“My story is not pretty but it’s beautiful,” Graham said. “I was once under a bridge wearing mismatched shoes and, now, I’m in Publix buying balloons.”
APD’s Dennis said Graham is “the epitome of what can happen to somebody in that life when they’re given an opportunity to get their life back.”
“He went through hell and got his life together – so everything he’s got now is well-deserved.”
This story was written by Nancy Badertscher for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.