by Terry Messman
In a powerful scene in the film Dogtown Redemption, Hayok Kay is using a map to find Lot 104, grave seven, in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. She feels lost in the midst of all the gravestones, lost in more ways than one.
Her longtime lover and best friend, Fred Griffing III, has died and is now buried somewhere in the large cemetery.
Miss Kay and Fred Griffing were a homeless couple who lived in a car together, and when she lost both her love and her vehicle, she is reduced to sleeping on the streets of Emeryville — even after she is hospitalized with cancer and dumped out to face the end of her life.
Searching for the kindred soul who shared her life, walking past countless grave markers, Miss Kay said, “I was wondering why it’s taking him so long you know, and I tried to call the hospital. They didn’t answer the fucking phone. He had liver failure and kidney failure and then the next day he went to sleep and then he never woke up.”
She starts weeping. “You’re here!” she says, and keeps crying. She finally finds his tiny grave marker, all that is left of what once was her life. She caresses the gravestone soothingly, as if to comfort it. Finally she lays down on top of his grave, prostrate with grief, and it seems as if she will never rise again.
She says: “Without Fred it’s not the same anymore. I don’t need this life. I hate it.”
Few films tell the truth about life and death so piercingly and with such remarkable sensitivity.
Stand By Me
Every December, St. Mary’s Center in Oakland holds a memorial service for homeless people who have died over the past year. Along with prayers and songs, people are invited to bring flowers and call out the names of loved ones who have died.
Miss Kay is shown in the film at the memorial, remembering the man she shared her life with. When the memorial ends, there is a very quiet moment that probably went unnoticed and unheard by those attending the service at the time.
In a trembling and broken voice, Miss Kay sings the Ben E. King soul anthem, “Stand By Me.”
Standing off by herself, alone with her thoughts, she begins to sing in a very soft voice: “Darling, darling, stand by me.”
And then she weeps. She weeps at the thought that her darling has died homeless on the street and will never stand with her again.
She sings, and her song forces us to see the staggering extent of her loss, the impact of this brutal assault on a dear heart.
She sings, and it breaks our hearts to realize she is still praying for her darling to “stand by me” — even though he is gone.
It is a song for Fred, a song for their lives together. And now, for those who have seen Dogtown Redemption, it is a song for Miss Kay.
“When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we’ll see.
No, I won’t be afraid. No I won’t be afraid.
Just as long as you stand — stand by me.
So darlin’, darlin’, stand by me,
Oh stand by me.”
It is a song for Miss Kay, and it is also a song for all of us. Her life, with its peak moments of joy and its downward slide into death, tells us something beyond words about the human condition.
When this woman weeps for Fred, and when she tenderly caresses his gravestone, she has given us as pure and piercing a portrait of love as we shall see.
“And a sword will pierce your own heart also, so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”
A Timeless Parable
It is like watching a timeless parable unfold to see the passage of Miss Kay from her youthful days as the pretty and high-spirited drummer of the punk-rock polka band Polkacide, to her final days as a homeless recycler stranded and alone on the streets of the East Bay.
The film tells the truth of her final days, as Miss Kay is systematically broken down by grief and trauma, torn apart by the hardships of life on the street, and shattered by the loss of her best friend.
Finally, the homeless woman is stricken with cancer, hospitalized, dumped from the hospital back out on the streets, and ends up sleeping at the CVS pharmacy in Emeryville where she suffers a savage assault that ends her life.
We have come to know Miss Kay by that point in the film. So when we are confronted with her brutal murder, it strikes very deeply. The humanity of the film is heartbreaking.
Caring and Generous
Hayok Kay was well-liked and respected in her community of homeless recyclers in Oakland. She was also a troubled soul who had become grief-stricken over the deaths of her father and her longtime lover. Her health was failing and she had turned to drinking heavily.
Yet her many friends on the street found her to be sweet and caring and very generous. Amir Soltani, co-director of Dogtown Redemption, was so moved by her spirit and her heart that he continually tried to protect her and preserve her life, ultimately in vain.
“There was something about Miss Kay that was like an empress,” Amir said. “She was a very, very generous woman towards the other recyclers. It was a very endearing quality of hers. She cared about them. She genuinely cared about people. She would get a little money and share it. There was that generosity of spirit that was really moving. I felt her in my heart.
“In a way, she was the most innocent of the people that we followed, the most innocent and vulnerable. It was frightening how vulnerable she was.”
Her quality of innocence and her generosity towards others made the filmmaker feel protective. He began taking her to doctor’s appointments, and visiting her in the hospital. “She got sick a whole bunch of times while we were filming her, and you couldn’t let go of her,” he said. “You just couldn’t let go of her. It was a combination of her dignity and her resilience.”
Because of a growing concern over the toll taken on her by homelessness, Amir Soltani and Zachary Stickney, the associate producer of the film, brought her to the winter shelter at St. Mary’s Center.
My wife Ellen Danchik works at St. Mary’s Center, a center for homeless seniors in Oakland. Ellen met Miss Kay on November 30, 2012, and did the initial intake when she applied to enter St. Mary’s winter shelter. Miss Kay was always accompanied by Amir and Zachary whenever they brought her to St. Mary’s or picked her up to take her to medical appointments.
When Ellen told me how loving and caring and helpful they always were to Miss Kay, I grew to respect Amir and Zach. I especially appreciated that they refused to abide by the neutral, hands-off approach of objective journalism and instead became personally involved in helping and advocating for Miss Kay.
Ellen said, “When I saw the way Amir treated Miss Kay, I would have thought she was part of his family. He treated her like she was his aunt. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought they were related.
“He always kept very closely in touch with her. He would take phone calls from her at any time, and constantly checked in with her, like you would with a relative. He kept up with her life and always knew when her next doctor’s appointment was. It was impressive to me that Miss Kay had such nice friends helping her.”
Like Amir, Ellen was immediately drawn to Miss Kay. “I liked her a lot,” she said. “She seemed really cool, like an old hippie, and I felt a kindred spirit with her. I knew that she was a musician and she talked about so many different kinds of work, and she had lived in so many places. She was born in Korea and had lived in Japan, and later became a musician in the Bay Area. She seemed like such an adventurous, free spirit.”
Women Are Vulnerable on the Street
Like so many of Miss Kay’s friends and supporters, Ellen also felt protective. “She was homeless and I always want to help people get off the streets and into our shelter,” Ellen said. “Especially homeless seniors and women, because they are more vulnerable. It’s very dangerous for women to be homeless on the streets. Women can be attacked or beaten or robbed and raped. She was a very small woman and especially vulnerable.”
The news of Miss Kay’s brutal assault left Ellen shaken. “I was really sad that it had happened to her and I felt really bad that she never found housing,” Ellen said.
“It just made me feel horrible that it had happened and it shows how vulnerable homeless women are on the streets. It was so close to us. It happened at CVS, less than a mile away from St. Mary’s.”
To Jason Witt, a homeless recycler who knew her well, Miss Kay was a big-hearted friend. “She was a great person,” he said. “She was a talented musician and she was a loving person. Even if she sometimes flipped out and got mad and yelled, she was still a very loving person.”
Jason also knew Fred Griffing well, and he had great respect for the lives they led and their artistic creativity.
“Fred, her boyfriend, was a friend of mine,” said Jason. “He was a good guy and he was an artist too. He was a good painter. If someone is able to do art while they’re on the street, that’s a very hard thing to do. That in itself is very much something we should all respect — and also the fact that they were together and that they stayed together through it all.”
Jason’s own struggles with homelessness and illness enabled him to understand the challenges Miss Kay faced.
“She had a very hard life — a really, really hard life. A lot of abuse was dished out to her by society.
“There’s no reason for someone to get hurt like Miss Kay was hurt — ever. This is a woman with cancer, pushing that shopping cart just to provide food for herself, still living on the streets. It seems like there should have been something better for her. It was really hard to hear the news that she had a collision with the streets.”
A Terrible Loss
For Amir, who had spent seven years filming Kay and the small community of recyclers in Oakland, it was a terrible loss.
“It was absolutely devastating,” he said. “It was the one thing I dreaded the most. Every time you’d leave her on the street, you never knew if you’d reconnect with her. We had stopped filming, basically. Then we learned Miss Kay had pancreatitis, and we discovered she had cancer, and started taking her to her cancer treatments.”
At that time, Miss Kay was sleeping in front of the CVS pharmacy in Emeryville. The doctors had done a biopsy that confirmed cancer and needed to do more tests, so Amir went to find her at the pharmacy to tell her to drink water.
She wasn’t there.
“I went back again and again and couldn’t find her,” he said. “They told me she had been assaulted and then I found her in Highland Hospital. Her face was purple. It broke all of our hearts, not just mine.”
She died of that assault, kicked to death by a man named Christopher Flores as she was lying in her sleeping bag.
Hundreds of homeless people have been assaulted and even killed on the streets, but in most media reports, they are little more than crime statistics.
The great achievement of Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush is that their film has given us such a sensitive understanding of Miss Kay in all her humanity and individuality. As a result this death is not just another accident statistic. It happens to someone we know and care about, so we are made aware of the terrible injustice of allowing people to languish in poverty and die on the streets of this nation.
No Sanctuary in Her Dying Days
In the case of Miss Kay, neither the hospitals nor the nonprofit service providers could offer her sanctuary in her final days. It is as if the whole society abandoned her onto the streets even when she was sick unto death. A tiny senior homeless woman, weakened by cancer, was murdered in our midst.
Amir said, “It’s kind of like the question really becomes: Who killed her? What killed her? It’s not just the act of violence that killed someone. It’s the whole context that also kills them.”
Jason Witt had known Miss Kay for years. And like her, he also knows full well how intolerant our society has become towards homeless people.
“Instead of looking at her as a problem,” he said, “and trying to figure out how we could make her a different person, we should have figured out how we could have made a difference for her so that she was happier during the day.”
How would we do that? I asked.
“Maybe the laws need to change,” he said. “Maybe sanctions against the homeless need to be lifted. Maybe districts in the city need to open their arms to people on the streets. We need to change.”
As a journalist, Amir Soltani became aware of the way homeless people and recyclers are maligned and stereotyped by the public, city officials and the media.
“ I don’t think that the way that poor people like Miss Kay are portrayed by other writers is necessarily objective,” he said. “When someone is called a scavenger or a pest or a criminal, an addict or homeless, I know what words can do. All these words, they block our ability to see people as they are and for who they are. And if you want to see people as they are, you need to walk the walk with them.”
Near the end of the film, Miss Kay is reduced to sleeping on the streets of Emeryville. She is in near despair as she looks at the loss of her loved ones.
She asks a heartbreaking question. “I think it’s ‘cause my daddy’s dead, Fred’s dead and I don’t have a family and children and I think that’s what’s destroying me. What have I done to deserve this?”