The Zero Mile Post marked the meeting of two railway lines and possibly the beginning of the city of Atlanta. Zero Mile is a series of sometimes fictionalized and sometimes real stories based on life in Atlanta, Georgia.
By Nicki Salcedo, contributor
The first time I met Missy Tippens, I was lost and a little sick. We were attending a writing convention in a large hotel. It was my first conference. I had no idea what I was doing or if I should be writing. At the end of a long day of workshops, I made it to my hotel room just as the two women next door arrived. They recognized me as one of the conference attendees and invited me into their room.
One of the women was Lindi Peterson. The other was Missy Tippens.
I’d been living in San Francisco and had recently returned to Atlanta. It was a real culture shock coming back to Georgia. Southern people are so nice. I’d forgotten this.
Missy and Lindi are quintessential Southern women. They were from small towns, they had families, and they wrote inspirational romance (code for Christian fiction). I was young and from the city and figuring out my writing future. They didn’t worry about race or age or politics or religion. Neither did I.
“Do you want to put your feet up?” I can’t remember who asked me, but they made a space for me to sit on one of the double beds. I was a stranger to them. They didn’t care.
Ordinary kindness is the best kindness. It results in a friendship. I’ve seen these ladies many times over the years, and I always think of that first night when they invited me to be their friend. They don’t know that. I was three months pregnant when they offered me a place to put up my feet. I’d been sick all day long. They didn’t know that. Some days when I want to quit writing, I think of those to women and how they were honest and encouraging. And I write some more. They don’t know that either.
* * *
Missy doesn’t post often on social media, so I took note when she shared a short video set in the Sweet Auburn district of Atlanta. It was a trailer for a documentary Missy’s son helped create. The first thing you hear is music. A resounding bass. Next you see a man roll in front of the scene riding a bicycle covered in yellow duct tape.
“Came From Nothing: The Story of Benjamin ‘Big Mouth Ben’ Graham” started as a classroom project, but it turned into something much more.
I sat down with Nick Tippens, a Digital Media master’s student, and Ali Yildirim, a History, Technology, and Society major to discuss their film, Atlanta, music, the unique paths to friendship.
Yildirim grew up just north of Atlanta in a suburban house filled with classical music. He liked rap.
Tippens was from even further out in Winder, Ga. Though perceived as homogenous, rural areas have their own rhythm.
“It’s a weird mix. Chicken farmers, black people, Hispanics, racial tolerance,” he says. The neighborhood was integrated. The kids in his high school lived in the same neighborhoods. Towns like Winder sometimes end up being less segregated than the larger urban areas because there is less self-segregation, especially in blue collar neighborhoods.
The Tippens family were season ticket holders to the Atlanta Falcons. The Georgia Dome was where Nick was first introduced to rap music. He loved it. The first CD he ever asked for was “Word of Mouf” by Ludacris because he’d heard it at the games.
Yildirim was also raised on rap music and had set his sights on Atlanta.
“If you like rap music you have a unique perspective about Atlanta. You grow up hearing so much music from Atlanta,” Yildirim says.
When Tippens left Georgia for college in North Carolina, he didn’t realize how culturally pervasive music is in this town, especially the closer you get to Metro Atlanta. He thought the songs popular in high school were popular everywhere. He learned that he heard music unique to Atlanta because he grew up in Georgia.
Both students ended up at Georgia Tech in the classroom of Nassim JafariNaimi, an Assistant Professor of Digital Media and the director of the Design and Social Interaction Studio which she established in 2013. The documentary was the final project for the studio course “Sweet Auburn: Birthplace of Ideas.”
“The students have to be careful,” she says. How do you examine a city, a culture, and experience without becoming a voyeur to it? But at the same time she is asking her students, trusting them, to become a part of that city that they do and don’t know.
Tippens and Yildirim did not know what the city would reveal until they walked down Auburn Avenue.
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A sign in front of Big Mouth Ben’s Convenience Store says “Come in and hear my story” and that’s what the two students did. Ben was not there on the initial visit, so they waited. A local homeless man was hanging out in the store and began to tell them Ben’s story. That’s the way a community works. Tippens and Yildirim heard the ‘legend’ of Big Mouth Ben before actually meeting him. When Ben arrived they got much more than a story. A friendship began.
The film chronicles the life of Benjamin “Big Mouth Ben” Graham, an entrepreneur and motivational entertainer who owns a convenience store on historic Auburn Avenue. Big Mouth Ben overcame almost two decades of addiction and homelessness. Eventually, he opened a store just two blocks from the same bridge under which he once slept.
That’s the official story of the documentary. I went in thinking the film was about addiction and recovery. I left thinking about the “us” and “we” of Atlanta and the world. Often hidden, because friendship, love, and music don’t make headline news.
If you ask Tippens and Yildirim, they’ll say something more personal about the film. “This is for Ben and Tanya.”
Tanya is Ben’s wife and partner who works in both the convenience store business and non-profit, Motivation Forward, Inc. Her part in the story unfolds in the documentary. The filmmakers speak of the couple as a unit. That’s part of the story.
Never once when discussing the film did Tippens or Yildirim say “I” or “me.” The “we” and “us” represented every variation of Nick, Ali, Ben, and Tanya. Even Professor JafariNaimi was often mentioned as a guiding advisor, providing both direction and encouragement.
I had to see the full documentary to understand how these different pieces of Atlanta came together to tell this story.
“Came From Nothing: The Story of Benjamin ‘Big Mouth Ben’ Graham” premiered at the APEX Museum on Auburn Avenue in May.
When the lights went down, the first thing I heard, felt, was music.
When the lights went up, the music was still echoing.
Bigmouth Ben is a rapper and storyteller. Ali Yildirim is a music producer. Nick Tippens lends his vocals to some of the songs on the soundtrack. Much of the story is told through music, a personalized narrative from Benjamin Graham.
I asked Tippens and Yildirim what they wanted viewers to take away from the film.
“I wish people could spend time with Ben and Tanya on Auburn in their store. It’s welcoming. They treat everyone like people. He sees the potential in people. He has an audience in mind for his rap music in his community,” says Tippens.
Yildirim adds, “They are willing to talk and be comfortable with strangers. They have a vision of how they see people and the world. It is motivational and uplifting. That’s what this documentary is supposed to do.”
Ben and Tanya are committed to helping the homeless in the neighborhood. The store is central to that effort. They provide free water, socks, and guidance to community resources. Every day Ben and Tanya build relationships with the people that hang out at the store. It could be tourists, homeless people, or even students from Georgia Tech.
At the end of the screening, Ben, Tanya, Nick, and Ali stood before the audience wearing “Came From Nothing” t-shirts. They look like a family. If you ask, they will say that they are. Friendship and love and trust come from nothing. Maybe it was the music more than the story that connected these people. Maybe it was the city. Atlanta never lets history destroy possibility. Friendships between strangers is one of those possible things.
* * *
People make connections in Atlanta by looking each other in the eyes. Friendships are relationships that come from nothing. At the end of the screening, I saw my friend Missy across the aisle from me. She sat with her family. She was smiling. That’s something. I felt the echoing of her pride. Family and unexpected friendships. Sometimes we need the reminder about perseverance, giving, and loving. That’s Ben and Tanya. That’s Ali and Nick. That’s really something.
The film “Came From Nothing: The Story of Benjamin ‘Big Mouth Ben’ Graham” has been screened twice at Fulton County Drug Court and is available on YouTube. The music video is here Came From Nothing (The Song) online. Nick Tippens appears in it and Ali Yildirim produced the beat for the song.
Nicki Salcedo knows the loops and the back roads of Atlanta. She is a novelist, blogger and working mom. Zero Mile stories appear on the Atlanta Loop on Wednesdays.