The Grate Fisherman

by longformphilly

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Robin Clark | The Philadelphia Inquirer | October 1992

Poor as he is, Albert Reagan doesn’t rely on charity.

He counts on something more dependable: clumsiness.

Every time you fumble for change in Center City – at the bus stop, the parking meter, the newsstand – Reagan is there in spirit, hoping that a coin will slip free and go PINGing into one of those black holes in the sidewalk.

Reagan is a grate fisherman, an urban mariner. Lost coins are his catch.

On a good day, a few hours spent hunched or kneeling over utility grates may yield him $2 or $3 in nickels, dimes and quarters. He reels the coins to the surface with a gooey wad of chewing gum wrapped around a fishing weight and suspended from a long string.

It’s no fortune. But when you’re 85 years old and trying to survive in the Big City on $247 a month from Social Security, it helps.

“I call it food money. The street people who hold out their cups make more money than me. Dollar bills,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “I just don’t have it in me to ask people for money.

“I get along,” he says. “I’m not hungry. I stopped drinking and smoking years ago, and I don’t fool around with females, so I don’t get excited about anything anymore. I don’t burn up much energy. “

Reagan’s energy, which is impressive, is spent mainly on his morning rounds.

Market, Chestnut, Locust, Broad . . . Every day it isn’t raining, he follows the same early-morning route from the boarding house he calls home, shuffling along with his head bowed, shoulders hunched and hands clasped behind as he peers down the dark holes of urban architecture looking for the glint of money.

The sight of a coin lights up his leprechaun’s face, making his pale blue eyes shine like new dimes under the brim of his cap.

“It’s all in the eyes,” he says, tapping a stubby finger against his temple. And, even at his age, Reagan’s eyes are still keen enough to see down a 15-foot hole littered with bottle caps, drinking straws, cigarette butts, gum wrappers – all manner of rubbish – and spot a single coin glittering dully in the dirt.

“Other people, they can’t see it because they don’t need it enough,” Reagan says. “Me, I see everything. “

Writer bio: Robin Clark, born and raised in North Carolina, wrote for The Charlotte Observer and San Francisco Examiner before joining the Inquirer in 1983. He was the Inky’s western U.S. correspondent in 1995 when he died in a car accident during a break from the O.J. Simpson trial. He was 40.

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