Algia Benjamin might just be the world’s longest-serving street paper vendor. He has been selling Spare Change News, one of America’s oldest street papers, on the sidewalks of Boston for 22 years. The 53-year-old started the job just three months after the paper was founded.
As INSP’s #VendorWeek global celebration of street paper vendors kicked off Feb. 2, the veteran vendor told us his story and what he loves about his job.
Alabama in the early 1960s wasn’t the easiest place for an African-American woman to raise 10 children, but Algia’s mother did just that until they left for Boston in 1966.
Growing up during the Civil Rights movement when segregation was still in place, Algia remembered his mother being so afraid that she sometimes felt reluctant to take them on trips. As he pointed out, those were the days when a black man couldn’t pass a white woman on the sidewalk without being expected to move aside. It’s no surprise his mother is the person he most admires in life.
“My mother had 10 children and held it all together,” he said. “She made sure we had a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.”
The example Algia received from his mother is what inspires him to offer the same support to his 14-year-old daughter. Knowing that the stress of financial insecurity can prevent people from enjoying life, he wants his daughter to be free of that worry. So he works seven days a week selling Spare Change News.
He said, “If people don’t have that financial burden, people are able to focus on happiness more.”
On a freezing Tuesday afternoon, Algia stood outside CVS pharmacy in Porter Square. Whereas other vendors prefer to stay warm by selling their papers in train stations, Algia likes it outside. The perks of working as a vendor include meeting lots of people. He sees about 40 people regularly in Porter Square and many of them have become friends and acquaintances, especially the ones who stop for a chat.
Sometimes, Algia feels “like a street psychologist. I value being able to communicate well. People talk to me about everything under the sun.”
Algia is keen to talk about the recent events in Ferguson, Mo., where communities came together to protest the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white policeman. He is no stranger to racial profiling: A few weeks ago, when he was returning from his mother’s house in Cambridge, he was stopped by a police officer who said he matched the description of a recent suspect. Algia, at times, feels wary of the officers who are meant to protect. Countless African-American men throughout the nation could tell a similar story, he said.
On a more hopeful note, Algia is pleased by how “all communities, all people who’ve experienced discrimination,” came together to protest the legal system’s treatment of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, who died in Staten Island, N.Y., after he was placed in a stranglehold by a white police officer.
Although he doesn’t have “heroes,” there are some men Algia looks up to: The philosopher Cornel West (Algia sat in on one of his classes), Henry Louis Gates (Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University) and sociologist Julius Wilson.
“I’m fascinated by African-American people who’ve achieved the impossible,” he said. “People who’ve become professors.”
Algia’s wisdom comes from a mixture of study and hard-earned experience, but he also derives understanding from the Hope Fellowship Church on Beech Street in Cambridge. Since he spends a lot of the week working, he said it’s helpful to be reminded of what’s most important in life.
Algia loves his job as a street paper vendor and said he’s happiest “when I open my eyes in the morning and I can look out and see the sun shining upon my face. God has given me another day — another day to become a better person.”