My late-night walks usually skirt the downtown/Chinatown area. It’s just not the best place to be at night, especially for someone who wants solitude and some semblance of quietude. It isn’t nearly as rough or dangerous as it used to be; in fact, I can think of a lot of neighborhoods where I’d feel less safe walking around. At least there’s a police station right at the corner of Hotel and Nuuanu, and there are cops all over the place.
Plus, these past two decades, a kind of gentrification has spread, beginning on Bethel Street across the theater, working its way down Hotel Street toward the Chinatown part of Chinatown, so that the stretch of once-seedy, once-crumbly spaces that used to be strip clubs and porno shops are now bars I’m too old to feel comfortable in.
Seriously, that stretch of Hotel between Bethel and Smith? It was so sleazy in the Eighties! I used to catch a bus home from there when I was twelve, and I learned a lot of stuff my parents didn’t know I was learning.
So that’s where I headed the other night, planning to walk right through on my way to Kapahulu, where I’d maybe get a cheap snack and ride the bus back home. It’s about six and a half miles, and it’s been my routine lately, six nights a week, although I try to vary the route to keep it interesting.
I had a few extra quarters in my pocket (not an everyday occurrence) and have been collecting photos of neighborhood liquor stores, and I had one in mind, on Hotel between Smith and Mauna Kea. The gentrification is still oozing its way westward on that block (but it is oozing, if you haven’t been down there lately). I was pleased to find a 20-oz. bottle of Diet Pepsi for only $1.77, at least a dime less expensive than in most places. That’s a big dime, I tell you.
There was a woman ahead of me at the cash register. She was a thin, young Chinese woman, asking the proprietor for directions somewhere. I politely didn’t pay any attention, but then a line was building up behind me, and it seemed to me that this Chinese woman was having trouble communicating with the Korean owner. I could hear that the owner was trying to explain how South King Street is over that way. She pointed.
The people who made decisions about how our fine city would be laid out once upon a time were idiots. Major streets running east and west have “north” and “south” designations. North Hotel. South Hotel. North Vineyard. South Vineyard. North Beretania. South Beretania. Which doesn’t make any sense, because yeah: the streets go east and west. And the spine in this weird book of streets is Nuuanu Avenue, a storied and important street which was singled out for some reason as the origin. Stand on Nuuanu and look north, and the addresses begin in single digits on your left for North King, North Beretania, North whatever, and they also begin in single digits on your right for Sourth King, South Beretania, and South whatever.
Even though this part of town is a lot safer than it was, it’s not a place I’d advise a young woman to be wandering around alone, especially when she didn’t know where she was going. So I stepped forward and said, “What are you trying to find?”
She showed me her smartphone. It had a low-numbered address for North King. I didn’t recognize the address, but I knew where it had to be. Then I saw that a few lines up, there was the name of a dance studio.
The dance studio is in the unlikeliest of places. You could walk right past it every day for a year and never know it existed. It’s on the second floor of an old building, above tailors, tiny restaurants, and importers, and the only sign is in a second-story window, completely invisible from the ground outside because of the awning. You have to be across the street and looking up to see the sign.
I’ve been across the street many times these past couple of years. I knew exactly where it was. So I said, “I’ll take you there.” She smiled and said thank you.
We stepped out, squeezing past cans of Spam and several guys I’m pretty sure weren’t living on Hotel Street but on Hotel Street. A couple of them each had a 12-oz. can of Steel Reserve and a single dollar bill. I’m filing that away for future use. That’s a rather potent brand of malt liquor, popular among the indigent and I suppose many of my neighbors for the bang it delivers for the (apparently literal) buck.
As I led her to the nearby corner at Mauna Kea and then toward King, she said, “I’ve never been here at night. Everything’s different.”
“You have to be careful around here at night,” I said. “Please don’t come by yourself next time!”
We chit-chatted as we walked. I asked her if she was in a dance class. She asked me if I lived around there. I told her that it’s not super dangerous, but she should still be careful. She told me that she needed wifi for her maps app to work, and she couldn’t find any down there.
Hotel Street has diurnal and nocturnal lives, at least before you get to the Mauna Kea intersection. King is practically dead after seven in the evening, and it was getting close to nine. Not only were all the storefronts locked up (really, really locked up), but the sidewalk was dark and damp, and it didn’t look like anyone had any real reason to be there. I knew we were getting close, even though I didn’t know exactly how we were supposed to get to the second floor.
I stepped out into the street so I could look up, over the awning, and there it was, yellow lights coming out of a couple of upstairs windows. I led her a few doors down, pointed to a window on which was painted the address she’d been looking for.
“I’m not sure how we get in, so we may have to look around,” I said.
I saw a double door that looked in the dark like it opened into a foyer, rather than into a store. It didn’t look welcoming or even open, but when I tried the doorknob, the door swung open.
“Aha,” I said.
“Ah!” she nearly echoed.
I closed the door behind her, and led her halfway up a narrow stair. There was a landing midway up, and a small sandwich-board sign that said TANGO on it, and some other words I didn’t get a look at.
“Here we are,” I said. “Have a great class. And please don’t go home alone!”
“I won’t. I’ll ask someone from the class if I can go with them when we leave.”
I thought the best thing would be to walk her all the way to the studio, but it didn’t seem necessary, and I didn’t feel like having to say hi to anyone. She was safely at her destination. She thanked me, a hand stretched toward me, palm facing the floor, almost like a gesture of casual friendship. I waved and wished her a good evening.
I continued my walk. By the time I got to the park behind city hall, I was in tears. This is how I’m going to do my part, I kept thinking. Not with marches or anger or fear, but with kindness. Somehow, in my strange, broken soul, I’ve turned acts of kindness into my weapon against whatever happened two Tuesdays ago.
“Take that,” I kept thinking, trying psychically to project my small act of goodwill and my refusal to embrace fear in the direction of those people who don’t see something beautiful about a Korean woman selling twelve-ounce cans of Steel Reserve for a buck each to guys who will get their only pleasure of the night from them, or a Chinese woman looking for a dance studio above a Vietnamese restaurant, or a middle-aged half-Japanese loner counting steps on a phone app. I pleaded, “What are you so afraid of?”
I’m still working a lot of stuff out, as I keep saying. Whatever my response, it will not be hateful, angry, or fearful.
Okay, maybe it will be angry. Those tears were tears of anger, not at a man or a voter or a state, but at a failure. My failure. Our failure.