Every reporter gets letters, but the one in my inbox on April 8 was unlike any I'd received before.
It concerned Fred Christa, a homeless man I'd spoke to several times and occasionally quoted in stories. The email was from someone named Stephen Christa. Part of it read:
"[Fred] very well may be my father who I haven't seen or spoken to since 2011 or so and have been trying to keep up with since. This is a long shot but would you be able to find him and relay a message?"
Stephen, 24, had searched for Fred's name, something he'd done whenever he or his brother, Jonathan, went long stretches without hearing from their father. They live in Brookhaven, Mississippi, where Fred lived too until he and their mother split when the boys were young. After that, he wandered — working as a plumber in Louisiana and San Antonio, his hometown, then hitchhiking to New Mexico, Oklahoma and Arizona.
Previous Google searches yielded mug shots from Albuquerque, in which Fred was barely recognizable to his kids. This one brought up the stories I wrote, and a photo I tweeted of Fred bundled up on a cold day in late January.
I told Stephen I'd relay a message. He responded with a simple one:
"Just let him know he's loved."
'It Makes Me Want to Never Leave'
Fred mostly stays on Commerce Street, checking trash cans for food and asking for spare change. He sports a short ponytail and a graying beard to go with his rectangular glasses and ball cap.
Fred was a plumber for decades, but he eventually noticed small mistakes in his work. He'd walk to his truck to fetch a tool, then forget what he needed. He'd forget the name of his customer, or which room in the house needed work. He was diagnosed with dementia, a fact he unsuccessfully tried to hide from his boss.
"The customers were complaining some about me forgetting things. He called me in the office one day and said 'Fred, you're the best plumber I got ... but I gotta let you go,'" Fred said.
He sometimes has to ask people where he is, even on streets he's walked thousands of times. In addition to forgetfulness, Fred said he suffers from visual and auditory hallucinations.
Unable to support himself and out of touch with his family, he became homeless.
Fred's story is common among the homeless. Between 30 and 40 percent of homeless adults experience untreated mental illness, more than double the overall population.
For long stretches of Stephen's life, he didn't know where his father was, or if he was alive. He has few memories of Fred, but the two are similar.
They use the same giggle to deflect an awkward or self-aware moment. They both wear glasses. They both write poetry. They're wanderers at heart who value solitude. Stephen started studying his father's former trade, taking a job as a plumber's assistant. He's always felt a link with his dad — part of the reason he doesn't harbor any ill will toward him.
"He left pretty early. I never really got to know him or anything. But my entire life I've always just felt very warm toward him," Stephen said. "Some people would probably quickly feel abandoned and very negative about it all. But I ... just want to move past all that."
Developments in his own life spurred Stephen's renewed curiosity about his father. He recently got married, and he and his wife are expecting a child in October. It has made him reflect on the type of father he wants to be.
"It makes me want to never leave. Never give up, never let things get in the way, not like that. Try to be the best dad I could be," Stephen said.
He told me this a few days after I'd delivered his initial message to Fred. Standing on a sidewalk outside The County Line restaurant, I told Fred that the son he hadn't talked to in half a decade still loved him.
"Thank God for that. I was so worried that he was mad at me and hated me ... because I feel like such a worthless father," Fred said through sobs. "I'm so happy, I just can't stand it. I love my kids so much. And I miss them so bad."
I made him an offer: Since Fred doesn't have a phone, I could use mine to connect him with Stephen, if his son was open to the idea. Fred agreed, and asked me to give Stephen a message in the meantime:
"I love him with all my heart, and I can't wait to see him again."
A few days later, my phone buzzed with a response from Stephen. He was in. We arranged a time when I'd find his dad and he'd wait by the phone.
It was a typical San Antonio spring Saturday — breezy and hot, with tourists crowding the sidewalks. I pounded the pavement along Commerce Street, searching for Fred for several hours.
I found him standing on a bridge near the corner of Commerce and Losoya streets. I told him I'd been looking for him. He said he'd been looking for me too — he had my name written down on a card in his wallet so he wouldn't forget it.
I dialed Stephen and handed the phone to his father.
"Hey son," Fred said.
"Hey dad," Stephen replied.
They talked for 20 minutes about Stephen's marriage and the baby he's expecting. Fred apologized for not being there, Stephen said he'd always loved him. They learned about each other's lives. Stephen said he'd look into coming to San Antonio soon.
After the conversation, Fred said he was elated. He couldn't suppress a grin as I wrote mine and Stephen's number on the card in his wallet.
"What have you got going on now?" I asked Fred, handing him the card.
"Going to go try and get one more buck, go get some McDonald's," he said. We shook hands. He turned, and started walking east down Commerce Street.
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