When Mary enters The Contributor office, it lights up. She greets us with a huge hello and a puppy under her arm. She tells us how she’s feeling and how great her customers are to her. If there’s a new vendor in the office, Mary offers them advice on how to be a great seller.
Last year, Back Down South Films released a video about Mary that’s been viewed more than a 1,000 times and been shared across the Internet. She’s been selling The Contributor since 2013 and has built a loyal customer base in Bellevue where she sells most of her papers. I sat down to ask her a few more questions about The Contributor and life in Nashville.
What do you like about selling The Contributor?
Being my own business woman. I love it. And the kids. Oh my god, the kids excite me when I see them.
Were you a businesswoman before this?
I used to own a daycare, but it was nothing like this.
How is it different?
Well, with me doing the paper I still deal with a lot of stuff out there, but with a child you have to be aware of what’s going on, make sure it has food. I have to make sure I have papers as well, but I had to be on point at the daycare. The least little thing could go wrong and a child could get hurt. In other ways, it’s the same though. I’ve got to have everything I need now like papers. It’s about keeping everything you need to keep that customer — or that child — happy.
I know we’ve interviewed you a lot over the years, but what’s going on now?
Since I’ve been doing the paper, the paper keeps me clean and keeps me sober. It keeps me focused. People care about me, you know, whether they buy a paper or not. They say “Mary B., I love you!” They can tell when I’m sick. They became my family. They took me in when they didn’t have to.
I was doing drugs off and on for 20 years or better. I’ve been clean three years or better now. I got clean about two months after I started selling the paper. My customers believed in me when I didn’t even believe in myself. That’s why I wear the color pink, it’s the color of faith. You have to have faith in the unknown and they had faith in me. They didn’t know who I was.
What does Nashville need to do to end homelessness?
They are building all these high-rises, but why not build a semi-high-rise for the homeless? Let them work, and charge them $10 a week or so for 30 days. Maybe they do community service or something and then they could move into more permanent housing. That right there would give someone a start and get them on their feet. Whatever money I was making when I was homeless was for a hotel room and food and after that you’re not making anything unless you have loyal customers.
How long have you been in Nashville?
Since about 2008-2009. Got out of prison and came straight here. I could have gone home, but I chose to do something different. I’m glad I didn’t go home. Living in Nashville has taught me a lot about being homeless. I didn’t know anything about it before. It taught me how to live on the streets with small means. How to appreciate the smallest little thing. Appreciate somebody that just gives you a hygiene pack. I’ve always been grateful for anything anyone’s given me. Someone’s something old is new to me anyway.
What do you appreciate now?
My home. It’s still so good to have a home to go to. When I get home I don’t go out or anything. Nobody comes to my house except my case managers. I’m a homebody and I love it. I come home and look at the stuff that belongs to me and nobody else. I love looking in my refrigerator and getting something to eat instead of wondering what I’m going to eat today.
Tell me more about your customers.
When I see my customers I get excited, especially when I haven’t seen them in awhile. I have one customer that’s 3 years old and I saw her being born into the world. She always brings me a gift, so I brought her a gift today. When the kids come through and tell me it’s their birthday, nine times out of 10, I have bubbles or suckers in my bag. It’s just a little way to show my appreciation. During Christmas time, I give everyone a Christmas card. I hand sign every one of them. On Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, 4th of July, most of major holidays I put signs up. A lot of people don’t have someone to say Happy Father’s Day or Happy Mother’s Day to them. I’m hoping it will make someone’s day, make someone smile.
I’m blessed. I’m very blessed. Some people are not as fortunate as me. When I see someone not as fortunate as me, I realize how blessed I am. It’s my customers who made it possible. They believe in me. For me to be able to share my story in a video, I think someday it might help somebody.
Where does your energy come from?
It’s got to come from above because some days I don’t have it. I’ve got rheumatoid arthritis and you know I’ve been sick for the last month. But when that car comes through or that first child that rolls down the window and says, “I love you Miss Mary,” or a child tells me a knock knock joke that doesn’t make no sense, I’ll laugh like there’s no tomorrow.