Art Contreras

I worked in the Homeless Center in Kansas City, Missouri, in the late 1980s. I wrote this piece shortly after I left as director there. Although the story is true, I have changed the names of the two men involved.

Pappy poked his head in the doorway. “Hey Em’lie. Got a guy here I want ya t’ meet. If I can git him in there, that is.”

I waved them in from behind my desk in the Homeless Center, a day drop-in center that primarily served street people. Pappy, about forty years old, had been living on the streets for years, and I’d know him since I’d begun working at the Center a few months previously.

A moment later a man stepped into the room, glancing cautiously at me. From across the office I could smell smoke that clung to him from the morning’s campfire. He wore a plaid wool coat, torn at the cuffs and pockets, and filthy from years of hard work and cooking over a fire. He carried a red knit cap in his hand.

“Go on in,” laughed Pappy as he nudged his friend from behind. “She ain’t gonna bite ya.”

Impatient, Pappy hopped in front of the man and hurried over to my desk, his usual grin on his face. “Em’lie, this is Art. And he needs food stamps quick, before he starves to death. Look at him. Skinnier ’n me! He’d a prob’ly froze last night, but we took him into our camp.”

Pappy’s camp, which he shared with another man, was down near the river and the railroad tracks, just a short walk from the market area and downtown. Men, and some women, hopped on trains and stowed away in empty boxcars to travel across the country, just like in the stories I’d heard as a child. Because quite a few people hopped off trains that stopped near the city’s market area, camps had developed along the tracks between there and the river.

I spoke to Art, welcomed him, and asked him to sit down. His brown eyes glanced over at me warily, but he took a seat. Over the next half hour, I helped art fill out the necessary forms, but it was Pappy who prodded him to put real names and addresses on the lines. “Go on, man. She ain’t gonna call your momma. She just gotta have it for the form. You know how these office folks are – can’t stand the line not filled in. But she’s okay, man. Really. Ain’t ya, Em’lie?”

While carefully filling out the forms and answering my questions, Art told me he’d been riding the rails, working odd jobs along the way from California to Kansas City. He’d left after an angry divorce, like many of the homeless men I worked with. He’d left to go on the road “for a little while,” but as in many cases, a little while had turned into years.

Art stopped in to visit me each month, to prove he was still in town, so he could collect his food stamps. He didn’t have to. He only had to visit the food stamp office, but I think he wanted an excuse to talk. He had grown more comfortable with me, and even came into the office without Pappy. He’d stayed in Pappy’s camp, and the two of them had become close, working odd jobs together now and again, sharing coffee in the mornings and cheap wine in the evenings.

One day Art strolled into the office. It wasn’t even food stamp time. He came in smiling, looking me in the eye, and sat down. For a minute he didn’t speak, just moved his eyes around my dingy office, across the file cabinets, over piles of papers, lingered on photos of my trips to Mexico and Guatemala. He stretched out his long legs and settled in.

“You actually like us guys, don’t you.”

He was looking at me sideways, pretending to look out the front window. Although it was a warm spring day, he still wore his wool coat, open and hanging limply off his shoulders and small frame. His cap was stuffed into a pocket.

“Well, yeah,” I replied. “I really do. Guess I can identify in some ways.”

He smiled his slow smile, then began to talk about his wife, his divorce, and his troubles with alcohol. “Don’t know which came first, the problems with the wife or the problems with the alcohol. Anyway, guess I’m down  to just one problem now.”

Art declined my offer to help him get into a rehab program. “Wouldn’t do any good,” he said, looking at his hands in his lap. “Not now.”

I asked him what was hardest about living on the streets, and what he missed the most. “A shower. There’s never a place to get clean. Guess I’m a bum, but I really don’t like to look like one. Shower and a washer. Sure would like to get clean.”

A few months later, early on a Sunday morning, my phone rang at home. I heard a sobbing sound, someone trying to talk through it. “He’s dead, Em’lie. Art’s dead. Had a heart attack.”

I told Pappy to stay where he was, and I drove to the market to meet him. We sat, talked about Art, and cried for an hour. “How we gonna bury him, Em’lie? He’s gotta have a decent funeral. He deserves that much.”

The police department refused to call Art’s mother in California. Not their job. It was the first time I’d had to call a woman to tell her that her son had died.

I spent the next few days making arrangements for a donated casket, a free burial plot, a free engraved tombstone, and raising money for Art’s mother to get to Kansas City for the funeral. One of the Center’s homeless volunteers arranged for cars and a small bus to drive Art’s street friends to the cemetery. The local paper and three TV stations covered the story from the initial search for a burial plot through the end of the funeral.

A group of Viet Nam veterans asked me what they could do to help. “Get me a shower for this place,” I said.

About a year after Art’s death, the vets carved out a little room in the back of the Center and installed a shower, washer, and dryer. Today, a little scrap of paper tacked over the doorway reads “The Art Contreras Memorial Shower.”