by Lee Romney
She is the Korean toddler whose stepmother and birth mother quarrel on an airport tarmac over who will take her. Neither want her. The scar stays with her until her death.
She is the striking teenager in a lime green duster jacket and Madame Gres perfume, sneaking out at night to make the Tokyo club scene. Tiny. Wild. Troubled. With scars on her stomach from self-harm.
She is the San Francisco punk rock drummer with a red tule petticoat on her head. Her longtime love leaves her. She breaks. An outsider, she slips deeper into the world of outsiders.
She is the 4-foot-10-inch fireball pushing a shopping cart down East Bay streets, gentle and kind to those who win her trust, full of impatience and expletives for pretty much everyone else.
She has been homeless for too many years to count. She is barely surviving. She loves and loses, loves and loses. We see her, but we do not really see her.
In the end, she is the broken body in a Highland Hospital bed. Beaten in her sleeping bag at 2:28 a.m. last July outside the Emeryville CVS on San Pablo Avenue where she regularly bedded down. Shattered facial bones. Bleeding in her brain. A ventilator tube down her throat. A punctured lung. Cancer, too. She is 61.
A Deep, Incurable Sorrow
When Hayok Kay died on August 18, she was, like so many on the streets, typical and singular. Her demons were equal opportunity antagonists: addiction, mental illness, and a deep incurable sorrow.
Her story was hers alone. And, as it happens, we now know it.
Kay, who in her last months was called “Mimi” by friends both homeless and housed, is one of three subjects in Dogtown Redemption, a newly released documentary that for seven years tracked the lives of East Bay recyclers who frequented West Oakland’s Alliance Metals.
The film premieres May 16 on PBS, just as Alliance prepares to shutter after mounting tensions with neighbors and city officials.
Kay died after co-directors Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush finished filming. They had, over the years, become her lifeline, her solace and her friends. In the end, it was Soltani who agreed to serve as her surrogate at Highland’s intensive care unit.
She had suffered a major brain injury. Her chances of recovery were close to zero. The ventilator came out.
Kay was honored by name last December at an annual ceremony at St. Mary’s Center along with too many other homeless men and women who succumbed to illness, accident or violence in 2015.
In a nod to those whose stories we do not know, this is hers.
Seared in Her Memory
Kay’s father was a South Korean colonel who rose to prominence as an intelligence officer during the Korean War. He had a daughter and wanted a son. But his wife could bear no more children, so like many men of his era he took a mistress. She gave birth to Hayok.
The squabble on the tarmac was seared in her memory, her partner of a dozen years, Ward Abronski, recalled. Her birth mother faded from the picture. Little Hayok stayed with the family. They moved to Japan, where Kay’s father ran a large and bustling Tokyo coffee shop.
Huei Flowers met Kay as a young teen, when both girls were seeking admission to a prominent Catholic school. Flowers was attending an “inferior” Catholic institution, Kay an American school where she was getting into trouble.
For exam day, Flowers had been warned to wear her skirt long and act demure, but she was a rebel and she balked.
“As we were taking our test there was another girl who had major attitude,” Flowers, now the 62-year-old owner of a London-based film company, recalled in a recent interview. “Her skirt was so short that she couldn’t even sit on it.”
Neither girl made the cut. Kay transferred to Flowers’ school and their adventures began. With her perfect makeup, tiny skirts and flawless “mochi skin” complexion, Kay was a force. The pair often stayed out all night, then donned their uniforms to ride the 7:34 a.m. train to school 40 minutes away, where they would “sleep all day with our arms on our desks.”
Kay’s father “was completely blindly loving” towards Kay, Flowers remembers, but her relationship with her stepmother was fraught. And Kay was difficult to control. The family moved back to Korea, then to San Francisco, where her father and stepmother bought an apartment building near Coit Tower and, eventually, a coffee shop on Sutter and Divisadero streets.
Polkacide: Punk Rock Polka
Soon, Kay met Abronski, a musician who had left Harvard University to move west. By the mid-1970s, Abronski “decided that my brain was rotting, and Hayok wasn’t that happy either.” So he lined up scholarships and returned to Boston to finish his degree. Kay waitressed and made friends. With a major in Asian studies and interest in martial arts, Abronski had hoped to travel to Japan for further studies. But Kay wasn’t interested.
She had sacrificed for him, Abronski said, so he did the same for her. They returned to San Francisco in 1979 to work the family business. He bought her a starter drum kit. And soon they launched “Polkacide,” a punk rock polka band that was meant to be a one-night wonder but turned into a hit on the 1980s West Coast punk scene.
Kay was not a technically adept drummer, but “she had rock solid rhythm,” Abronski said, and an unparalleled sense of style. The band members numbered more than a dozen. Abronski played saxophone (he still plays with the band), and wore leather lederhosen — at times with sausage links protruding from his shorts.
Kay wore wildly colored scarves and adorned her head with petticoats. A cigarette dangled permanently from her lips. Footage in the documentary, provided by Abronski, shows a radiant Kay waving her drumsticks.
But she struggled, always.
“She had such a deep-seated fear of abandonment and a feeling of being unwanted and unloved,” said Abronski, 65. “I don’t think she was able to come to terms with that her entire life.”
She Wasn’t Born to Follow
Kay, he said, was loving and warm on the inside, tough and uncompromising on the outside. Her lack of tolerance for following rules, “was just amazing.”
“She was like that guy standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square,” he said. “‘Fuck you. I stand here.’ And that’s how she died.”
In the late 1980s, Abronski ended the relationship. He felt too entangled, too smothered. It nearly ruined them both. Abronski quit the band and turned to heroin for two years. He managed to “swim back.” Kay didn’t. She began using speed. She hallucinated that BART ticket machines and newspaper articles were talking to her about the relationship. She clanged pots and pans together at band practice and was edged out.
“I knew,” Abronski said, “that if she didn’t have someone to catch her, she wouldn’t get up.”
An Abiding Love
Emeryville Police Officer Jason Krimsky recalls first meeting Kay at an East Bay squat not long after. Soon, she began dating Fred Griffing III, whom she had met on the punk music scene. A painter from a family of artists with a degree from Sonoma State University, Griffing as a child was a natural history buff “with the patience of a saint” who doted on his menagerie of snakes and other reptiles, said his sister, Catherine Griffing-Morse.
But as he entered his teen years, he struggled, enduring hospitalizations for what was likely bipolar disorder, exacerbated by drug use.
Griffing and Kay shared an abiding love, but she was difficult and explosive, Griffing-Morse said. The pair used speed together. They drank. Her tantrums got Griffing evicted from his apartment. He moved to his art studio near Jack London Square but lost that place, too.
It was, his sister said, “the last time he had a permanent residence.”
The couple lived out of Griffing’s car. He painted, selling his works on the street and to an auction house on Telegraph Avenue. She hustled as a street recycler. The years stretched to about a decade.
“He never wanted to leave her because he protected her and he was worried about her,” his sister said. Griffing had dreams, to go live at an art colony, for one, but he always said “I can’t leave Hayok,” she recalled.
Not long after Soltani and Wimbush met Kay and Griffing, Griffing was hospitalized with a fast-moving infection after suffering acute stomach pains. He died within days.
Weeping on His Grave
Kay dissolved. An early scene in the documentary shows her weeping on his simple grave at Mountain View Cemetery. She was now alone on the streets, with no protection. She staked out a spot behind the Emeryville Office Depot, conveniently close to Alliance.
Kay had experienced her own string of hospitalizations — psychiatric holds along with multiple stays for bouts of pancreatitis triggered by her alcoholism. Stints at shelters ended badly, when she violated rules or was booted for self-harm.
Then, in early 2013, Kay met Al Smith, a new love who doted on her.
They moved to People’s Park. He got her a small drum. He made sure she ate. They fought often. He’d leave and return. In late 2014, he left and never came back. Kay learned early last year that he, too, had died, as a result of complications from Hepatitis C.
Kay moved back to Emeryville, this time sticking close to the CVS. She reinvented herself, telling her new community of friends to call her “Mimi.” She liked to sleep close to the sidewalk, under the bright store lights, where she felt safe.
Beaten in Her Sleeping Bag
Kay was in her sleeping bag in the early hours of July 6 when a scrawny man stumbled up. Christopher Flores, 37, had been drinking heavily. He had no history of violent crime. He had suffered a severe head injury at 19 when a gang member beat him with a tire iron in a Novato park. He struggled with seizures, took medication.
He later told police that he was approaching the shuttered CVS in hopes of buying some gum when Kay grabbed his ankles. “Fuck you,” she yelled. She threatened to kill him, he told officers. He tripped, got up, and started kicking.
He said he was afraid. He said he thought he would have to “learn to walk and talk” all over again. He said he was defending himself.
Krimsky, then the lead detective on the case, said Kay never got out of her sleeping bag. His theory: Flores tripped over Kay. He scared her. She scared him.
A patrolling officer saw Flores standing over Kay’s bundled frame. He said he had walked back to “apologize.” Blood spattered up the store window and pooled beneath her head. It covered Flores’ right shoe.
Flores now faces a murder charge. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for July in Alameda County Superior Court. His attorney has declined to discuss the case.
At the hospital, Soltani massaged Kay’s legs, stroked her hair, played her clips of Fred and Al so she could hear their voices. She was unresponsive, unable to track his finger when he asked her to try.
Curtis Trahan had considered himself a big brother to her. He took pride in preparing Mimi ribs and chicken on a small grill in the bushes behind the pharmacy — a spot since cleared when a new skate park opened. He had become her new protector.
Soltani brought him to Highland’s ICU to visit. “Mimi, Mimi, come on back to your big brother,” he begged. “I miss the laughter that we always had…. I love you with all my heart.”
On March 6, Trahan died, too. According to his death certificate, he was found unresponsive on a sidewalk at Telegraph and 37th Street. The cause is listed as acute alcohol intoxication. His occupation as cook. He was 47 and married.
A Last Memory
About three years ago, Flowers had found a youtube clip of the homeless Kay and Griffing that described them as “outsider artists.” She was horrified by her friend’s puffed complexion, her missing teeth, her swollen hands.
When she learned last winter of Kay’s death, she wept and wept.
But she prefers this memory: They are on the train to school on a spring day, the rhythm of the wheels lulling them. The windows are open. A gentle breeze is blowing. Kay is resting her head on Flowers’ shoulder and Flowers is resting her head on Kay’s head. Flowers feels a tugging, and another. Kay is attempting to tuck Flowers’ hair behind her own ear. She thinks it is her own hair.
“And we just laughed,” Flowers recalls. “It was so sweet. We just practically fell over laughing.”