Customers help vendor Curtis battle cancer, maintain housing

Oct 31 2016
Posted by: The Contributor
Customers help vendor Curtis battle cancer, maintain housing

By: Amelia Ferrell Knisely

In 2009, a homeless vendor revolutionized how The Contributor works, and shaped how the paper would expand to one day support hundreds of vendors.

Curtis, who grew up on a plantation in Arkansas, came to Nashville in ‘09 looking for a fresh start following a bad breakup and a difficult time in his life. He had worked in the foodservice industry at major universities, but his drug use made it difficult for him to stay employed.
He moved to Nashville for a clean, fresh start. A month later, he was selling The Contributor. Soon, he started selling the street paper to drivers in cars – something that hadn’t been done before, something that is now an integral part of The Contributor’s model.
His hard work selling on the corner of 8th Avenue South and Wedgewood paid off. He soon was the top-selling vendor. He got into permanent housing his first year selling and has maintained housing since that time.
Curtis continues to sell the paper at 8th and Wedgewood, but the 72-year-old is now battling bladder and bone cancer. If you ask him about his health, he doesn’t initially speak about the chemotherapy (he’s been in treatment for nearly a year) or pain. Rather, he immediately praises his customers for their unwavering support during this time.
We chose Curtis to be the Vendor Spotlight in this special issue not only because he changed how The Contributor is sold, but also because he is a testament to the community a vendor can foster through selling the paper.

What was your customers’ reaction to finding out  that you have cancer?
I immediately told my customers what was going on. They promised to support me in whatever way they could. I’ve had some ladies that would come pick me up and take me to my doctor’s appointments. I’ve had ladies and their husbands to bring groceries to my apartment when I couldn’t get out and work. I’ve had people that help me pay my rent, my utilities and phone bill so that they could keep in touch with me and know how I’m doing. I couldn’t have made it without my customers.

Your customers helped you pay for your surgeries. Tell me about that experience.
The doctor scheduled me for surgery and I told the doctor that I’d have to save up a certain (amount) of money. I told my customers I was trying to raise the money to pay for my surgery and people started giving me extra money for that. One gentleman in particular, his name was Mr. North, told me that if I couldn’t raise all of the money, to call him and let him know and he would pay the balance regardless of what it was – and he did so.

Your customers have really been such a big part of your life during your battle with cancer.
It’s been great. People stop me every day and ask me how I’m feeling and ask me if I’m in pain. A lady begged me this morning to let her take me home since I was in so much pain. But I told her, “I have to stay out here and sell these papers.”

You were the first vendor to sell to cars. What were drivers’ reactions to you when you started selling to them?
The reaction from drivers was 50 percent good. I had people spit at me and curse me out, but overall the reaction was extremely good. I’ve met some wonderful people.

What has your experience been like selling The Contributor?
It’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I’m telling you, I could have not made it without the support of my customers. I wouldn’t have been able to keep my apartment and I wouldn’t have been able to pay for my surgeries.

We’ve sold more than 6 million issues and you’ve been a huge part of that success.
It’s hard to believe. When I went out on 8th and Wedgewood, I was the first person to sell 800 copies in a month. I was the 37th person to sell The Contributor and I was number one (vendor) several times. I didn’t think it would get this big.

What motivates you to sell The Contributor?
Meeting so many nice people I meet every day. It’s a good paper to support. I myself just love standing out there waving and smiling at people and meeting people. I never ask for money, I’m just trying to sell The Contributor. I keep a smile on my face even when I’m in pain.

Anything else you want to add?
I want to thank the people who support me. I love them and I pray for them every day. I can’t name them all and some of them don’t want to be named.

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