One month ago, I read in the Journal of an incident where a homeless man was beaten to the verge of death in the doorway of a downtown Albuquerque coffee shop late on a Sunday night. The article didn’t name the homeless man, but referred to him as “well-known” and stated that he had been in the downtown area for several years.
This troubled me deeply at the time – first, because it is a horrible thing; second, because it is an increasingly common thing in Albuquerque, which is my physical, emotional, and spiritual home; and third, because I am on a first-name basis with two of the "well-known" homeless men in downtown Albuquerque, and I worried that it might be one of them.
The two men I know are Angelo and William Aaron Henderson, who goes by Aaron. Angelo is much older, well known in the city. He moves between downtown and Nob Hill with the bar crowds, selling cheap roses. He’s done it for years - as long as I’ve been drinking in bars. They made a little documentary about him. I’ve bought many roses from him, feeling wonderful about myself the first time, then less and less wonderful about myself with every passing purchase, as it became clearer and clearer that there was nothing whimsical about his task. Angelo has always been a very friendly guy, but he has started to tire in recent years. You can hear it in his voice when he makes his pitch. The world is slowly erasing him, before his own eyes.
Aaron is different. He is relatively young, and gives the inevitable impression of serious intelligence and serious mental illness. I know him better than I know Angelo, which isn’t saying much – he spends many of his mornings patrolling the block where I work. I have had many conversations with him, and bought him many cups of coffee. Aaron is from Arizona. He is named after his grandfather. He came to New Mexico with a girlfriend, and was living with her family, but they kicked him out. He smokes pot constantly from an improvised pipe, which does nothing to slow or slur his rapid-fire speech, and hints at struggles with heavier addictions. He has always been lucid in my conversations with him, making very cogent points about many things, but I have also seen him from a distance - wandering and raving.
When I first met Aaron, he looked relatively healthy, bearded, good color in his face. In recent months, he looked doomed. He had lost or possibly shaved off his beard and eyebrows, and dental abscesses had left the muscles in the right side of his face weakened and slack. He spoke of being resigned to fate. He had contacted the local social service agencies about free housing, and told me that he was on the verge of receiving it, but simultaneously indicated that there was some final step he needed to complete but could not.
The office for the relevant agency was less than one hundred yards from the sidewalk where I discussed this with him on multiple occasions. I left those conversations convinced that someday soon I would walk over to that office with Aaron and tell them that I was a lawyer and this was a travesty and give them what for and get him into housing, where he would find stability and turn his life around and survive the street – and I would feel just the right amount of pride in my small but meaningful contribution to secular humanism.
Of course, as many times as I had bought Aaron coffee and stood and talked with him about his life and his problems, I had avoided him – seen him from a distance and walked another way, because I was in a hurry or because I was in an impatient mood, because I had no cash to give him and felt bad about it, or because I had cash to give him but wanted to keep it. And, of course, despite my many self-righteous daydreams about it, I never took that thirty-second walk with Aaron over to the housing office, where a small but meaningful contribution to secular humanism could have been attempted.
It was Aaron who was beaten to the verge of death in that coffee shop doorway, of course – as these things go. I read it in the Journal yesterday. They called him William Henderson, but they had his picture: eighteen years old, when he still lived in Arizona, young and healthy. After the beating, the doctors placed him in a medically-induced coma. The news in the Journal was that the police had arrested two suspects: a fifteen year-old and an eighteen year-old, whom I shall not name because I do not want to make them points of fixation for the hate and the disgust and the sorrow that I feel rising in my heart. I don’t want to saddle them with my projected self-loathing, either. That should stay where it belongs. Maybe, next time, it will prompt me to do something real.
“It’s not like he was ever a bad person,” the Journal quoted his estranged mother as musing. “He could never hang onto reality.” Hard to blame him, in a way, for dropping this reality like it was a red-hot coal. It’s not like I was ever a bad person, either, but sometimes it’s tempting.
The coffee shop where Aaron was beaten to the verge of death was a place called Deep Space. It was a quiet place, and I liked it. It’s closed now, a month later – strange coincidence, perhaps, or strange casualty of an act of random and senseless violence that maybe could have been prevented, with a little effort. Its closure and the memory of what the space used to be will stick in my mind as a small memorial for Aaron Henderson, which, in a way, means they did more for him than I ever did.