Terry Reed, likely Baltimore's best-known panhandler — the one with prosthetic arms and legs, who for years worked the traffic along President Street through all kinds of weather — is alive and doing much better than anyone thought he would.
He's in a nursing-rehabilitation center on the city's west side, where he went six months ago, after going through heroin detoxification at University of Maryland Hospital.
"I'm clean, Dan," he told me Thursday, a declaration confirmed by a social worker familiar with Reed's situation and, most of all, by his demeanor: clear, lucid and alert. He even smiles now.
"I gained some weight and I feel good," says Reed, who was born without legs below his knees and without forearms. "I'm staying on course and trying to become a productive member of society."
Like thousands of people — daily commuters, truck drivers or tourists — I'd seen Reed in the traffic on President Street for years. He was hard to miss, a thin man with a beard, chocolate-colored prosthetic legs, and wooden arms leading to hooks, with one of the hooks clutching a paper cup for donations from motorists.
In December 2011, I walked up President Street, started talking to Reed and offered to buy him a Subway meal in nearby Market Place. He went along, gobbled up the sub, an incredible combination of meatballs and tuna fish, and told me a good deal about his life. He was 46 at the time.
After my first column about Reed appeared, I was swamped with phone calls, emails and social media comments about the man. So many people had wondered about him. So many were concerned. Several people said they observed a self-imposed rule against giving money to panhandlers — they assume them to be drug addicts or alcoholics or frauds — but easily broke that rule when they saw "that man from President Street."
Perhaps because my column about Reed appeared during the holiday season, a lot of the letters I received were profoundly empathetic, self-analytical, even philosophical. I saved them all, including one from a reader named Ricki Fluhr:
"Some days I give [Reed] money; some days I purposefully drive in the right-hand lane to avoid my other approach of giving a polite nod and mouthing, 'Sorry.' … Sometimes I give money to people who ask me directly and politely. Sometimes I find myself silently confronting the well-groomed, portly man who has asked outside Subway for years if 'anybody got a dollar.' Sometimes I become angry with the emaciated, foot-dragging redheaded woman who always seems to need bus fare, no matter which part of the city she's in.
"Then I think to myself: What I would do if I had a terrible addiction or mental illness that drove me to alienate every friend and family member capable of helping me, if I spent each day as nothing more than passing time until death, if I knew no hope, no resource, no possibility? … I wonder how I would act [in] Terry Reed's circumstances. If [my] weakness were a heroin addiction, how do I know I wouldn't be haunting that corner of President and Pratt?"
Some people offered to buy Reed a new wheelchair. Several had advice on where he could find treatment for his addiction. Many wanted to give him money if a fund could be established. I reported all of this to Reed at the time.
"I appreciated all that," he said the other day. "Some people really wanted to help me, but we got kind of broken up."
I'll say. After undergoing treatment for an infection in his left arm at Union Memorial Hospital, Reed checked himself out against medical advice. He walked away from an offer of drug treatment at a long-term care facility, too.
I lost touch with him.
Then, last year, he started showing up on President Street again, with the same outdated prosthetics on his lower arms and legs. He returned to panhandling and drugs, he says. It was disappointing to think of all the help he had been offered — by Health Care for the Homeless, among other agencies and individuals — and yet he was back on the street. He seemed like a lost cause.
But Terry Reed is doing better now.
"Last spring, I went to University and detoxed," Reed told me. "I'm sober. And I'm on the right track now. I have new prosthetics for my arms and I'm waiting on new ones for my legs. ... I want to go back to school. I want to help others who don't have arms or legs. I want to be a motivational speaker. I want to write my biography. I'm waiting on getting my own apartment and my new legs, and I'm going to keep pushing forward. I want to get to the next level."
As I said: Much better.
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.