There are so many homeless people in Albuquerque. One could say that’s an indication of just how many sad and broken lives there are in this part of the desert southwest. On the other hand, such numbers can also be understood as so many great opportunities to meet really amazing people and to hear the sacred stories of sisters and brothers who have lived at the harder edges of life.
I was driving down Central Avenue (Route 66) last Wednesday on my way back to the Franciscan Friary. I saw a young guy standing on the median holding his cardboard sign. Because of the way he was turned, I could not read his sign. My “ADHD” brain is constantly hungry for details. So, I impulsively made a U-turn and drove back , parking about a block away in the BioPark parking lot.
Mindful of the traffic, I walked over to the median and introduced myself, “Hi, my name is Greg.” The young man was shirtless and had the kind of dull tan that happens when people spend long hours in the sun without the benefit of sun-block or suntan lotion. He was wearing military-type fatigue pants and heavy black boots. He wore large, green-rimmed sunglasses and a kerchief wrapped around his head. “My name is Alex,” he said, smiling. “I couldn’t read your sign,” I told him, “so I drove back around.” He lifted up his piece of cardboard to show me the words, “LEAKY STOMACH DISEASE.” That conversation was the beginning.
After a long time talking while standing in the brutal mid-day sun, Alex told me he needed to get to the Main library downtown in order to charge his phone. I offered to drive him. Once there, we found a table by a window, he plugged in his phone and we continued our conversation. We talked about everything.
His name is Alex Bueno. He’s 31 years old and originally from Denver. His father was murdered when he was 14 and his mother has never been around much due to alcohol and drug problems. So, Child Protective Services and Case Managers from Foster Care tried to get involved in his life. But Alex experienced too many difficulties with that “system.” So he’s pretty much been on his own since his mid-teens. He told me his plans are to get to Dallas where he believes he can find work.
After charging his phone, I offered to take him to “Sprouts,” a local food market known for fresh vegetables and fruits and lots of organic foods. Because of the “leaky stomach disease,” Alex has to be careful about what he eats. We loaded up the cart with a variety of foods, as well as a few herbal oils and vitamins, and I paid the bill. I then asked if he would like to go to the Franciscan Friary to see where I am living. “You really are a priest, then, aren’t you?” “Yes, I am,” I told him. He said, “I think you’re more like a brother to me than a father.” “I take that as a compliment,” was my response.
Later that evening, I drove Alex back to the area where we met. I walked with him about 2 miles through the woods near the Rio Grande to get to the place where he had his tent hidden in a dense area, way off any of the walking paths. While at the Friary, I had offered him the sleeping back that I had used to sleep in during my drive from Delaware to New Mexico. He was grateful to receive it, saying that the early mornings near the river get quite chilly.
I also gave him a book that I had picked up in Louisville, “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” by Michael Pollan. Before leaving him for the night, I asked if I might take his picture, standing next to his tent. He agreed, holding up the book as I snapped a pic with my smartphone.
I prayed a blessing for him and thanked him for being such a good person. I told him it was so wonderful for me to meet someone as good and trusting as Alex. He said, “We’ll stay in touch, right?” as I began to walk away. “Oh yes,” I said, “We’ll stay in touch.”
And we did. We emailed and called each other over the next 5 days. Basically, we shared the kind of stuff that any friends would share: ‘what’s going on,’ ‘how’s your day been,’ ‘are you doing alright?’ The weekend was quite busy for me, with masses and confessions and quinceaneras at the parish. I was also dealing with a cold and sore throat. I told Alex that I probably wouldn’t be free to get back to see him until after the morning mass on Monday. He wrote and said that his hope was to leave for Dallas on Monday. I assumed he intended to hitchhike.
On Saturday afternoon, I went online and got some information about bus and train travel. I wrote Alex and told him that there are 5 busses that go from Albuquerque to Dallas each weekday. A one-way ticket is around 150 dollars. I wrote, “I can cover that for you, if you want.” He wrote back, “Wow. That would be great.” We made plans meet at the downtown Alvarado Travel Center after mass on Monday.
I got there around 10:30 a.m. and even though the place wasn’t very crowded, I could not find him. Finally, I called him on the phone. He had been anticipating that I would arrive by way of Central Avenue, where he was waiting. A two block walk and we spotted each other, then went together into the bus station.
Alex presented his ID card to the woman at the counter. She said, “You’re in luck. The next bus to Dallas leaves in 15 minutes.” “Perfect timing,” I said.
There was a well dressed man waiting in line behind us. My “ADHD” brain had shifted into its “entertaining” mode. “Yes,” I said rather loudly, “My son is headed off to Dallas… He’s starting Medical School.” Alex did not look at all like anyone who was headed off to any kind of school. He looked like the homeless person that he is. He hands and arms were filthy and his clothes were a mess. I realized that the wearing the bandana had more to do with a need to wash his hair and less to do with being a fashion statement.
Not understanding my ‘unique’ sense of humor, Alex innocently said, “Are there a lot of medical schools in Dallas?” I said, “You are so smart, I think you could become a doctor in any field you choose.” He then flashed a broad smile, indicating that he agreed with the truth of what I had said. He is that smart. He is certainly capable of earning a doctorate.
After purchasing his ticket, we stood over by Gate 1, which we had been told was where the Dallas-bound bus would board. We made small talk for a bit. I gave him a hundred dollars. He said, “I don’t understand you.” I said, “What do you mean? You’re the one who’s hard to figure. I look at a person like you Alex and I think about all the difficulties and struggles of life that have come your way… and yet, you’re one of the finest people I’ve ever met. Because of all that you’ve experienced, you have every right to be angry and nasty, even full of hatred. But you’re not. Quite the opposite. You take care of yourself. You see goodness in each day and in the people that come your way. You stand in the middle of the road, hoping that somebody will give you some money. And as soon as you see a woman or another young person out on the street trying to make some money, you give some of your money to them! That’s amazing!”
I told him, “Alex, I am so blessed to have a friend like you. What a great life! People like me can just stop and talk to a homeless guy on Route 66 and the two of them can become friends. How awesome is that? I am so blessed.”
With a bit of his typical “spark” no longer in his voice, Alex said, “You are the only one who ever stopped to talk to me.” His face showed a sadness I had not seen before. “Well,” I said, trying to “fix” what had been my exaggerated image of reality, “I stopped because I sensed that you are a good person. And I’m so glad that I did. Because you are a wonderful person. And we’re going to stay connected, right?” “Yeah, sure,” he responded, but there was no conviction in what he said.
Then, very honestly, almost apologetically, I said, “Alex, I don’t know why other people don’t stop. There’s a brokenness is our world and it’s grown out of people thinking that we aren’t connected…that we are not all brothers and sisters. But I truly believe that we are. You are a child of God, just as good and just holy and just as wonderful as anybody else on this planet. I treated you the way I would want someone to treat me. And you responded in such a wonderful way to me. You are such a gift. And I am so blessed to know you. You are my friend. And we will stay connected. You hear me?” Smiling, he said, “Yes, I hear you.”
We hugged each other there in the bus station. In that embrace, I said to him, “Thank you. Thank you Alex.” And he whispered to me, “I’ll be keeping you in my special prayers.”
As we ended our embrace, I put on my sunglasses because I felt I was about to cry. “Blessings my friend,” I hollered out, loud enough that it could have been heard as a blessing for everyone in the bus station. Turning to make my exit, I belted out even louder, “Thank you Alex. Thank you my friend!”
I pushed open the front door of the bus station and walked with remarkable gratitude into the dazzling light of Albuquerque.