Early Friday morning, Oct. 13, patrons leaving Wired, a coffee house on Robinson Street, found Arthur "Art" MacDonald, 57, unconscious behind the Boys & Girls Club. MacDonald had suffered a stroke beneath the facility's steps where he regularly slept. At 1 a.m., John Carter, who befriended MacDonald more than 10 years ago, received a phone call from VCU Medical Center informing him that his friend was not expected to recover.
The following morning, Carter posted a sign by The Eatery in Carytown to let the community know that MacDonald had been hospitalized. As word spread, merchants and residents sent supportive wishes and tokens of encouragement to the well-known Richmonder.
MacDonald was born March 16, 1949, in Concord, Mass., and was raised in nearby Lexington by his aunt and uncle. A veteran of the Air Force, he worked as a medic, and came to Richmond from Gordonsville in 1984 to work at a printing company. About 15 years ago he lost his job and home, his friends say, leading him to the streets.
But he was no beggar. "He never said, 'Give something to me,'" says Ming Chan, the Eatery's owner. "He paid for everything."
"I've known Art for six or seven years," says Kevin Koch, an acquaintance of MacDonald's. "He never asked for anything. Every once in a while, he would ask for a cigarette. But more than once, I asked him for one. He usually gave me two or three. It'll be strange not seeing him out here."
Years living on the street had taken a toll on MacDonald's spirit. Although he was generally personable, Carter says, "He was a little miffed by people and politics sometimes."
Jay Leavitt, manager of Plan 9 in Carytown, saw MacDonald's duality. He regularly stood outside the retail store Leavitt has managed for nearly two years. After confronting MacDonald about behavior he believed would hinder security and discourage shopping, Leavitt says: "He tore me up about his rights. We didn't acknowledge each other for a long time after that. But as time went on, we softened in our relationship."
Carytown is accustomed to seeing Leavitt sweep the sidewalks nightly in front of Plan 9 and World of Mirth. MacDonald eventually began to help. "There were times he pointed out things in the store, if something had fallen," Leavitt says. "He was very observant."
Carter concurs: "He was very smart. He read all the papers."
Leavitt senses MacDonald's absence: "I already feel it. Just a sadness."
"God puts people in your heart and you just care about them," Carter says. "He filled up a void in my life." The pair frequently ate together. MacDonald loved ice cream and fried chicken. If it were pizza, he preferred Papa John's.
"Sometimes he had more money in his pocket than I did, and then he liked to eat steak and eggs," Carter says. "One time, he stayed at my house for a few days. I came home and he had vacuumed, dusted, wiped the kitchen counters and cleaned the linoleum floor because he said he couldn't stand it anymore," he says, chuckling. "He had a great deal of pain from the separation of the family."
In Florida, Christopher MacDonald, Art's son, recently intensified a six-year search to find his father to share the news that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were expecting their first child, a girl, in January. After Art MacDonald's death, Carter called a phone number MacDonald had given him.
And that's how Tuesday night, Oct. 17, Christopher learned his father had died hours earlier in Richmond. "The last time anyone in my family has heard from Arthur was probably late '87," he says. He's talking to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to learn if the government will cover burial expenses.
"There's just been a nice outpouring of support from the Richmond community," says Christopher, who makes a request: "If people have photographs of my dad or anything, any stories or thoughts about him, please get in touch. I have all these memories of my dad and am just trying to reconcile that with the present. It's kind of like a big gap of what I know." Christopher MacDonald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. S