Longtime Contributor vendor Curtis Allen passed away May 26 at the age of 73 following a battle with cancer.
If you spent anytime at Eighth and Wedgwood over the past eight years, chances are you knew Curtis. When I think of him, I remember a man with a bright smile, strong shoulders and dark sunglasses waving, dancing and walking up and down the sidewalk selling papers. I remember a man who embodied strength, selling papers even after being diagnosed with stage four cancer. And more than anything, I remember a man who loved his customers and whose customers loved him.
Curtis was smart and professional. A real businessman. He worked hard. Like, incredibly hard. At everything he did. When Curtis began selling papers in the summer of 2009, he revolutionized our model. Instead of sticking to pedestrian areas downtown, Curtis went to Eighth and Wedgwood and sold directly to cars. That decision, along with 12- to 14-hour work days, propelled Curtis to the top of the sales list and changed how our vendors sold the paper. He held on to his sales territory for eight years — longer than any other vendor in our history.
“My memory is that Curtis has always been a quiet seller who took to the job and treated it like a job,” said Tom Wills in a vendor spotlight on Curtis from 2016. Wills is a founder of The Contributor and former director of vending. “Mainly, he was a leader and he was some- body who was a pioneer. He was the first vendor to unlock the potential of what The Contributor could be and what relationships could be formed with the community.”
And boy did Curtis form relationships. Andrew Krinks, The Contributor’s first editor and a regular customer of Curtis’s, described Curtis as a minister to his customers.
“He received much from his customers — including a new set of teeth — but he probably gave more than he received,” said Krinks in a Face- book post reflecting on Curtis’s life. “Curtis was one of the first vendors who impacted his customers enough that they would call us worried when he wasn't at his spot for a few days. We will never know the number of people he reached in such a way.”
One special customer was Joan Wilson. She bought papers from Curtis on her way to work since 2009. One morning early on, Wilson was having a hard time in her life. Curtis asked how she was doing, and she told him she wasn’t doing so well. Curtis leaned into her window, took her hand and said, “Joan, I pray for you every day.”
That kindness and thoughtfulness stuck with Wilson and she began a friendship with Curtis that lasted until the end of his life. They ate meals together, bought supplies when he first got into his own place and had long conversations. Wilson helped Curtis schedule cancer treatments, helped get him into hospice care and was able to take him on one last fishing trip about a month before he passed. “Eight years ago when I rolled down my window for the first time, I didn’t know the Lord had a plan for my life and that Curtis would touch my life the way he did,” Wilson said. “I saw him be gracious, thankful and he was honest. He wasn’t afraid to be honest. It’s easy to hide behind what looks good.”
In 2016, after being diagnosed with cancer, Curtis told me he was ready to talk. We’d been hounding him to do a vendor spotlight for the paper, but he was never interested. When he told me it was time, I dropped everything I had to do that day, grabbed my tape recorder and started listening. Curtis grew up on a plantation in Arkansas picking cot- ton, faced racism throughout his life and never stopped working. He held several jobs, experienced love and loss, beat a drug addiction, slept under bridges and owned houses.
It’s hard to sum up Curtis’ life in a few paragraphs. Every time I talked to him I learned something new. It feels like he lived a hundred different lives, all drastically different than mine. But he was open and easy to talk to. That’s a sentiment that’s been expressed to me by a lot of people who knew Curtis. I think there was something in his soul that made people trust him im- mediately and want to know him.
Curtis lived an extraordinary life. One that could have turned out a million different ways. I know I feel lucky that I got to know him for part of it. And I know Eighth and Wedgwood will never be quite the same.