Other stories filed under PROFILES
“If you want to sell it, let me tell it.”
Atlanta business owner inspires others with a story of hope and redemption
January 31, 2018
Just off Auburn Avenue, there’s a bright yellow bicycle outside a convenience store with a sign that says, “I went from being homeless on Auburn Ave. to a business owner on Auburn Ave. Come inside and ask me my story.”
Inside the store is the average stock of candy and soda. On the left wall, a series of photos, varying from a mugshot to a photo with the Atlanta mayor, are lined up below black and white Civil Rights Era prints.
The owner of the store, Benjamin Graham or “Bigmouthben,” is the man in the photos. His career ranges from owning and running the convenience store to motivational speaking, rapping in the genre of “hope hop” and writing books about his life story.
“If you had told me when I was graduating from high school as an honor roll student that I would end up sleeping under a bridge one day, I would’ve laughed at you,” Graham said.
Graham grew up in North Carolina with his grandmother, where his love for entrepreneurship began. He saw that companies paid money for old glass soda bottles, so he made his first two dollars by collecting bottles and selling them.
While he was in high school, his grandmother passed away from a heart attack and he moved to Atlanta, where his mother was studying at Clark College.
“Mom was the valedictorian in school so she didn’t play when it came to school and grades,” Graham said.
With the encouragement of his mother, he graduated at the top of his class and attended the University of Georgia. However, his high school successes in the marching band and in academics were soon replaced with struggles of mental illness.
As a young man with a newfound sense of freedom, Graham started partying as a coping mechanism for childhood trauma. He grew up with an abusive grandfather who beat his grandmother every time he got drunk. Along with trauma from his grandfather, when Graham was 6, he was molested in the woods while he was collecting soda bottles and accidentally walked onto a man’s property.
“I apologized for trespassing, but he wouldn’t let me leave,” Graham said. “He pulled me farther into the woods, and at 6 years old I was molested. He said if I told anybody, especially my grandmother, he would kill us.”
Unaware of the extent of his childhood trauma, Graham coped with his depression by staying busy and drinking but excused it as typical college behavior.
“I would party more, and I would get sloppy drunk,” he said. “I didn’t know I was trying to erase those woods in North Carolina.”
While Graham spent much of college partying, he also got into the music scene and started rapping. He released an album and opened for De La Soul on their tour. His college sweetheart, Tanya Graham, dated him on and off for nearly two years during this time.
“Ben was a popular guy at the time,” she said. “He was DJing at frat parties and radio stations. He was very active and personable just like he is now.”
Because he was positive his rap career was going to take off, he quit school and went to Atlanta in 1990.
Although his music career didn’t turn out, his entrepreneurial nature urged him to start a mail order business. After his business picked up, he moved to Buckhead.
“[My mother] wasn’t too proud that I quit school, but when she knew that I was finally good in business she was proud again,” Graham said.
Once the internet started gaining popularity, Graham decided not to move his business online. Once he started losing his customers to the internet, he asked someone to teach him how to deal drugs to maintain his lavish lifestyle.
“Three months later, I got busted,” Graham said. “It was a year later when through that spiritual void of childhood traumas and mental illness that I took my first hit of crack cocaine.”
After this experience, Graham heavily abused the drug. His drug habit increased to $18,000 a month, and his weight dropped from 200 to 130 pounds.
“The last time my mom saw me, I had on a suit and tie,” Graham said. “When I started doing drugs, I stayed away from her for a year, and she would see me again with a shirt I had on for two weeks, wandering the streets.”
Graham stayed at his mother’s house for a little while but eventually left to live on the streets. In 2000, Graham took a job working on the back of a garbage truck. One day, the driver was backing out of a cul-de-sac and accidentally backed Graham into another truck. His entire pelvis was crushed.
“I heard the bones crush,” Graham said. “Through determination, prayer and God, I started to get the strength to walk again.”
He started selling sodas and chips on his wheelchair.
“I said, ‘I’m Bigmouthben, if you want to sell it, let me tell it,’”Graham said. “People would put their flyers on my wheelchair like a billboard.”
After he was stable enough to start walking, he decided to move his wheelchair business onto a bicycle so he could get around faster. He was still living under Jackson Street Bridge, just two blocks from his current storefront when he had a revelation about his life.
“I finally had that spiritual awakening,” he said. “God told me, ‘I promise to love you wherever you want to be. If you want to be under the bridge, I’ll love you under the bridge. If you want to go to prison, I’ll love you there, but it’s up to you where you want to be loved.’”
Graham finally went through a rehab program successfully. His mother wanted him to speak at his rehab graduation, but when she finally came down from North Carolina to see him graduate, she had a heart attack and passed away two days before his graduation.
Graham kept moving forward.
He reconnected with his college sweetheart, Tanya, after nearly 24 years of being apart. They were both in Atlanta for a few years and found each other through social media.
“When we went on our first date, I told her everything I had been through in the first thirty minutes,” Graham said. “She got up and said she had to use the restroom, and I thought she went out the back door.”
For Tanya though, Graham’s openness is what made her fall for him in the first place.
“I love that he’s open about what his struggles were,” Tanya said. “Whether people look down on him or not, he’s open in saying, ‘I made this mistake. Here’s what I can tell you about it to keep you from making that mistake.’”
Now, Tanya helps Graham with scheduling and organizing his motivational speaking events and his rap career. Graham plans to keep inspiring people with the bright yellow bicycle and the “Dreams Ahead, Proceed with Determination,” sign he keeps next to it.
“Even if we don’t go through something, we have a family member or someone we love that are going through something,” Graham said. “By sharing my story, it gives other people hope that recovery is possible, and lets people know that if you become determined enough that whatever life throws at you, you can overcome it.”
Photos courtesy of Lorin Dent