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, 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 grave of the man who shared her life, walking past countless grave markers, she described Fred’s final days: “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 cries, as she finally finds his tiny grave marker, all that is left of what was once her life. She caresses the gravestone soothingly, as if to comfort it. Finally she lays down on 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 power and 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.
In the film, Miss Kay is shown at the memorial, honoring the man who shared her life. 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.” She weeps as she sings.
She sings, and it breaks our hearts to realize she is asking her darling to “stand by me” — even though he is gone forever. She sings, and her song forces us to see the staggering extent of her loss, the impact of this brutal assault on a sensitive heart.
It is a song for Fred, a song for their life together. It is a song of the soul that her spirit sings as she struggles, through tears and grief and absolute desolation, for something to hold onto.
“No, I won’t be afraid. I won’t be afraid.
Just as long as you stand—stand by me.
So darlin’, darlin’, stand by me.”
It is a song for Miss Kay — and it is also a song for all of us. Her life, with its moments of joy and its downward slide into homelessness and illness and 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.
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 Oakland.
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 that he continually tried to protect her, ultimately in vain.
“She was a very, very generous woman towards the other recyclers,” Amir said. “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.”
Amir 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.”
The Search for Shelter
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 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 they were to Miss Kay, I 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 her.
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.”
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, had lived in Japan, and later became a musician in the Bay Area. She seemed like such an adventurous, free spirit.”
Danger and Assault on the Street
Ellen felt protective towards her. “She was homeless and I always want to help people get off the streets and into a shelter. 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. If only St. Mary’s would have let her stay.”
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. “If someone is able to do art while they’re on the street, that’s a very hard thing to do,” he said. “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.”
Abandoned in Her Hour of Need
Jason’s own struggles with homelessness and illness enabled him to understand the challenges Miss Kay faced.
“She had a very 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.”
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 the time, Miss Kay was sleeping in front of CVS pharmacy in Emeryville. One day, Amir needed to find her for a doctor’s appointment. But 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 soon 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 Dogtown Redemption is that the film has given us such a sensitive understanding of Miss Kay in all her humanity. As a result, her 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.
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 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.”