The Alamo is only 2 blocks up from the Quick Stop, but it looks like it should be abandoned. We pulled into the space in front of door 201, and I told myself not to be nervous about parking the truck there. Michael’s brother cracked the door so he could see us before he opened it the rest of the way, and we stepped inside the dark room.
The girlfriend and the daughter were asleep on the bed with only the light of a television set illuminating their faces. The room was clean because it was empty except, for a pile of clothes in the corner, and I tried to process what it would mean to live in a hotel. Unlike my situation, they don’t have to worry about taking showers and going to the bathroom, but they do have to worry about paying that weekly bill. On the floor I could see the blankets where my friend probably sleeps, and I watched as his brother opened the fridge to retrieve one of the two bottles of water. There was a quart of milk on the second shelf, but other than that it was empty. He handed me the water before he asked me where I was from.
After telling them a little about my hometown, I asked him a dangerous question. “How do you pay for this room?” Both of the boys stiffened defensively, but he answered with authority. “I do whatever I have to do to provide for that little girl. She’s my world. But I’m always looking for new ways to do it the right way. I need a GED, but for the time being….” His voice trailed off as he walked across the room to retrieve something from the nightstand next to the bed. “I’m going to try to learn how to make these…” he said as he handed me a flower that had been twisted from the leaves of a palm tree. It was beautifully made. “I can sell them to the tourists in the parks for a couple bucks. If I sell more than 100 of them a week, I can probably pay the bill here and afford some food without having to do anything criminal,” he explained.
Looking at the beautiful flower, I tried to imagine the likelihood of creating and selling 100 of these each week, while providing for and protecting a family. It would be so much easier to sell drugs. No wonder people get caught up in the sick cycle of street life; this is so hard. I thought my head was going to explode.
When Michael’s brother pulled a cigarette out of his shirt pocket, he asked if we could move the conversation outside for a bit. He didn’t want to smoke around his daughter. We stepped out of the room into the chilly evening air and once outside, they began to be a little more honest with me than I had expected. They discussed the contrast between fear and trust. Michael’s brother explained… “I am amazed that you are willing to trust us enough to start talking to Michael at the gas station. To let him in your truck! To come inside the hotel room. Normally, we are more likely to stick a gun in your face and take your money than look you in the eye. But because you are willing to trust, so are we. Greet trust with trust.”
When I said goodbye for the night, Michael asked me what I was doing the next day. I told him that it was going to be a long day, because I needed to collect 125 food items to reach my goal for the week. I explained that I go find a nice neighborhood and collect stuff, and then I take it to the shelter or the soup kitchen and donate it. “It’s just like Robin Hood, but without the stealing.” I said. He laughed and told me he knew a neighborhood we could go to, and maybe I would get done faster with some help. I stared at him. No one had ever offered to help before. I explained again. “I knock on doors. It’s not that fun. People tell me ‘no’ a lot.” I said. He shrugged. “I don’t care. I’m not afraid of people telling me no. What else am I gonna do all day? I’ll just be hangin out, tryin to get a couple bucks… but what you’re doin might actually do somebody some good.”
I couldn’t argue with that. “Then I’ll pick you up at 10.”
(Photo: Shay Kelley/Project 50/50)