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A Starbucks Eulogy

Annie Pau and I first met at the Farrington Highway Starbucks on the Waianae Coast of Oahu.I was working on a story for Al Jazeera and needed a Hawaiian who was willing to be interviewed about what life is like for thousands who can’t afford rent. Parts of Waianae resemble refugee camps, so it felt wrong, meeting with a homeless person inside the mother ship of gentrification.

But nothing else was open at 6am on Sunday near Lualualei Beach Park, where Annie and her husband, John, were living in a tent with their two dogs.  That beach is nicknamed “Sewers,” for the stench from a sewage treatment facility wafting across the road.

Hawaiian names are often derived from an event or legend. Sometimes they’re metaphors, other times they describe something literal.  But they always have meaning, although many have ended up on the sacrificial altar of tragic irony.  Given its name millennia before the sewage, Lualualei means, “Beloved one spared.”

When I arrived at Starbucks that morning, Sinatra’s voice crooned over the din of hissing spigots and grinding beans.  Those in need of stimulus lined up dutifully, awaiting their single soy this and double whipped that. And there was Annie, wearing frayed coveralls, perched uneasy on the corner of a sienna toned sofa, ready to bolt if the manager looked askance in her direction.  Though her life, her story began not far from here, she was incongruous in the newly built Starbucks narrative.

Annie had a short, shocking white mane, and skin so darkened by the sun she looked more black than brown. She rose when I approached and smiled apprehensively.  The last of her teeth sat side by side on the bottom front row, like two moviegoers staying behind to read all the credits. Somehow the lack of enamel took nothing away from the warmth of her smile.Her face was kind and expressive.  There was nothing hidden or deceitful about her.

People like Annie, ragged and anonymous, are insurgents in the war of politics and culture, their marginalized lives embodying resistance to assimilation.  To quote Hawaiian activist and folk-singer, Skippy Ioane, “ ‘Dem get democracy, us get survive.”

I asked her what she’d like to eat and drink and she declined, saying, with a tobacco-scorched voice, “When we’re done talking-story I’d like a large Coke from Burger King and a pack-a-smokes from Longs, if that’s okay.”  The most she’d let me buy her from Starbucks was a croissant for her husband.

Standing beside me at the register, she was flanked on the other side by a row of plastic “Ethos” water bottles, shipped from 2,500 miles away and destined to spend eternity in a Waianae landfill.  A placard in front boasted that a nickel of the dollar-eighty price goes to a clean water cause in a developing country. I guess it takes the other buck seventy-five to get that nickel from here to there.

We sat down at a table and I imbibed sweet Chai Latte and Annie’s fierceness. During the 40-minute drive to Starbucks, I’d prepared myself for meeting someone who was possibly drug addicted or a little crazy.No doubt a projection of what I figured I’d become if I lived on that razor’s edge. Annie was neither.However hopeless her situation appeared to be, she was what Hawaiians call koa, a warrior. She had righteous anger without being self-righteous and the courage to speak it.

Ask her about being homeless and she takes you and your paradigm to school: “You mean houseless. How can a Hawaiian be homeless in Hawaii?” she says. “Even if I have to sleep on the ground, Hawaii’s my home.”

I interviewed Annie twice and shared a meal with her several times, but rife with paradox and contrast, the Starbucks meeting is seared in my memory.

After the police swept everyone off Lualualei, she, her husband and their dogs relocated several more times, eventually ending up at the Haleiwa Boat Harbor on the North Shore.  That was where I saw her last.  She looked unwell, had a cut on her foot and wore a sock on it in a futile attempt to keep it clean.

She talked about wanting to find a house, but in the same breath refused to consider living in a homeless shelter because it would mean giving up the dogs. “And besides,” she said, “in the [homeless shelter] system, you go into lockdown… they gotta lock us up to help us?”

One night, 4 months later, Annie’s husband found her collapsed in the dirt outside their van.She’d suffered a stroke. This beloved one, spared none of the ravages of poverty, died the next day, in a nice, clean hospital bed.

Annie’s last name, Pau, it means done, finished, complete.  It also means consumed, destroyed.