They call it houseless, never homeless. Their caseworkers call them “street-dependent youth,” formally, though few things are ever formal in Waikiki. They are as unassuming as the place they bring to life each afternoon: the Youth Outreach Project, which sits at Waikiki’s edge, past the tourist strip’s lavish resorts, a low white house with a broken screen door at the back of an unpaved Dollar Rent-A-Car parking lot.
On afternoons like this one they gather around its front doorstep, chattering loudly, poking their fingers through the window slats to accuse the clock inside of slowing down.
“We been heah for good half howah now,” a gruff voice drifts in, its pidgin lilt half pleading, half harassing the staff inside.
“Yeah, whachu cookin?” a younger voice follows, a girl. Then a crackly pubescent boy: “Bettah not be chili again. We have dat twice week-before-last.”
The big hand clicks over to the 12, and the girl inside crosses the cramped living room, squeezing between two sofas and an oversized Salvation Army coffee table. She tugs at the straps of her orange bikini top before unbolting the lock. The crowd outside yanks the broken screen door out of the way with genuine urgency to get inside, grab a plate, get started on a shower and hustle for the washing machine. They obediently peel the bandanas off their heads at the door and heap plastic plates with piles of steamed rice, chili and donated day-old Safeway bakery goods. They toss their stuffed backpacks onto the growing pile beneath the phone message board, where a neon yellow sign declares, “I will leave my street business on the street.”
I watch the bags pile up like this every afternoon, usually while leaning against the door frame in the office doorway, where I can catch a hello and a smile as each kid comes in. I work here, surrounded each afternoon by kids whose police records are longer and more impressive than their school transcripts. But I can let down my guard as I walk in the door.
I’m the new girl here, on staff for a three-month summer. The orange-bikini girl has watched this scene unfold countless times more than I have. She calls herself Abcde, which rhymes with “rhapsody.” Today she mirrors my stance across the room against the kitchen doorway, lost in thought. She hovers near the food protectively, like a mother conscious of her own cooking, ducking back into the kitchen to stir a thick layer of orange grease back into the chili before it obscures the meat entirely. This year will be her third at YO!. By the time the other kids arrive each day, she’s already been cooking and cleaning for two hours as part of YO!’s job training program.
Abcde cooks, but she rarely eats. It’s a matter of speculation among staff members, who attribute her lack of appetite to everything from crystal meth to a boyfriend who can afford to buy her better food. She has a noticeable overbite and slightly wide-set eyes. Her genuine, toothy smile is set into cheeks marked with barely-visible acne scars, and it suggests an impishness behind her quiet moments. Her coarse, shoulder-length hair looks as though it’s been colored and recolored several times, but now it’s back to a simple reddish-brown in a knot tossed up on the back of her head. She shows up at the door most days in one of two brightly colored bikini tops and a sarong — common attire along the Waikiki strip where she spends her days. She’s tan, but several shades lighter than her Marquesan heritage suggests. She chalks that up to her Caucasian father, and a grandmother whom she claims lives in east Los Angeles and comes to visit her once or twice a year, “when she feels sorry for me living on the street.”
Today her tan glistens from the kitchen heat. She eyes the three couches in the living area warily, where four older boys are wolfing down chili doused in soy sauce. It graffitis their lips almost as obnoxiously as the blue Kool-Aid darkens their tongues. A girl in a fake red leather skirt wanders in from the small health clinic in the backyard, rubbing her tricep absentmindedly. Their lunchtime conversation turns lazily to “The Maury Show” — specifically, whether the three girls featured today for beating their boyfriends would qualify as “ho’s.”
“Uh-uh,” the tallest boy insists. He raises what seem to be permanently half-closed eyes to the window to glance hazily down the street toward Kalakau’a Avenue, Waikiki’s main thoroughfare. “Wouldn’t last three minutes out there.” He peels his lanky frame up off the couch (he’s seven foot one) to pile his plate again.
Abcde watches him from behind the makeshift counter with a combination of aloofness and respect, some of which comes from his having twenty inches on her. He digs in for another spoonful of rice and meets her incinerating gaze with his sleepy one.
“Shut up, Kaleo,” she quips quickly. “Not like you know what it’s like. You ain’t a girl.”
He smoothes his goatee in long, calculated strokes, looking from her to the greasy heap on his plate and back. Five or six strokes later, he shrugs and breaks her gaze, turning back to the couch with his food. Kaleo is known at YO! for never being all the way there, usually either tripped out on some combination of street drugs or struggling in vain against the Valium he takes seven or eight times a day for psychiatric issues. To an outsider, his life functions as though coated in a layer of thick white glue; how he perceives it is anyone’s guess. It lends him the personality of a seer, something of an oracle who may wax prophetic at any moment, though he may take half an hour to acknowledge a question and no one knows when to take him seriously if he does. His displays of self-centeredness roil Abcde. She heads for the small gravel yard as her face starts to turn red from clenching her jaw at him.
Abcde likes to think that she takes nothing from no one. At 20, she is still well within the age group YO! serves, but seems older than many of the kids around her. She holds to a quiet reserve, thinking longer before she speaks, though when she does she holds nothing back. Her confidence sets her apart from her peers, but at times it makes her seem almost untouchable. How much of that is effortless and how much of it she constructs as a street defense is anyone’s guess.
Andrew, a tall, gangly staffer whom the kids affectionately call Drew-dawg, appears behind her in the doorway to the yard, shielding his eyes from the sun.
“Abs, you get your phone message?” he asks Abcde, who slowly swings her wide eyes his way and shakes her head no, her mind clearly somewhere else. “Mr. Lu, I think. Caseworker. Said you called.”
He turns sideways in the doorway so he can be heard in both the house and the yard, and raises his voice. “Ey, food stamp applications? Anybody? We got more food stamp applications this morning –” No answer. “Food? Anybody need food stamps?” A few kids at the table outside finally shake their heads no. “All right, when you all wanna eat somethin’ other than chili, you know where I’m at,” he quips.
Maybe half a minute later, Abcde tunes back in. “Yeah, I want some,” she says, darting into the office from the yard. She raises her voice so Andrew can hear her over in the house. “Mr. Lu, he leave a number?” She picks up the office phone.
“Nope. Said you’d have it already.”
She clicks the phone back down. “Guess he don’t know me so well, then.” Turning away, she wriggles her way back out into the sun. On her way she stoops to retrieve a mango from the concrete where it has fallen from a tree overhead, fingering the soft bruise from the impact. Then she focuses back on Andrew. “So I can get Ellie’s food stamps too, right, since she don’t want none?”
* * *
A week later I get to work late, just after the house has opened. The red-skirted girl is leaning against my usual door frame, and she welcomes me with a neutral nod. I head for the office and learn from Andrew’s frustration that Abcde hasn’t shown up for work. YO! hires three of its kids for a job-training program called YO! Works, with positions that rotate among the most responsible ones every six months or so. Of the current trio, Abcde is the most dependable, though far from perfect. She starts on time and finishes her tasks quickly, and always wants her cash right after she’s done. But recently she’s been arriving late and leaving early, armed with long, complicated stories about Grandma, who wants her to spend less time at YO!. She flaunts her new cell phone without shame: Grandma bought it for her, “so she can keep track of me all the time.” Andrew is suspicious, but every time he presses her for details her stories grow more elaborate.
I head for the kitchen to start on lunch and make up for lost time, but find Ali’i already there. He couldn’t be more in his element that afternoon, hovering over a simmering pot of Shoyu Chicken in YO!’s kitchen as six of “his” kids scamper about him, salivating in anticipation. The recipe is a favorite among kids at the House, though it’s not much more than chicken marinated in a sugary soy sauce that Hawaiians call shoyu. The kids gather at the doorway to the tiny kitchen and in the adjoining living room, since it’s a struggle to fit more than two people in the 8-by-10 cooking space at once. Several of them sing along with the little house radio, which does its best to fill the room with a pop-sounding song. Ali’i wants to know why Nelly Furtado, the singer whom the kids mention, is SO HOT. They laugh at him, chatter loudly, ask to help stir, wonder whether he’ll be out to visit them later tonight. He laughs with them, more than his share, and listens much more than he speaks.
The kids usually arrive ravenous on Mondays, eager to let loose about their weekends. The most common reports: who slept where, who smoked what, who fought whom, who made up and got back together. Ali’i listens to each for as long as she talks, asking open-ended questions, full of genuine concern. They regard him in return with a nearly universal reverence and appreciation. It’s a trust he’s earned and kindled in thousands of hours he’s spent wandering Waikiki’s streets late at night in a well-worn Youth Outreach Staff shirt. He finds them in their territory, lends an ear, hands out condoms and snacks, mediates disputes, and generally makes sure his kids are holding up all right. He’s been father, confidante, brother, chauffeur, and chef for them, fitting expertly into whatever role each allows him to play in their lives.
He’s kept an eye on Abcde for almost two years now, and his instinct sours when she mentions Grandma. “What grandmother can afford to fly to Hawaii to ‘visit’ her granddaughter on the street for two weeks, stay in Waikiki hotels, buy her a cell phone, but not pay her rent somewhere or take her back to L.A.?” He doesn’t like her latest kick with irresponsibility, not showing up for work. His instinct says there’s more happening there than she wants to let on — probably, he wagers, that ‘Grandma’ is a new dealer she’s found, or the new pimp on the strip. I shudder, and wonder what could be so secret that Abcde won’t tell even Ali’i.
Drop-in hours begin, and Abcde shows up, stepping in from the sun and wiping the glisten from her temples with the edge of her sarong. She reaches back instinctively to keep the screen door from slamming. There’s a pink Post-It stuck to the message board with her name, another message from Mr. Lu, this one with a number. She cocks her head slightly as she lifts it off and reads it, tosses a glance toward the phone, then crumples it between three fingers and stuffs it in her bag.
In the office she picks up the phone, pauses, then lets the receiver dangle aimlessly from one hand by its kinked cord as she eyes the crumpled paper in the other. Her head cocks slightly to the right as she dials the buttons with her middle finger, and she flops down in one of the program director’s cushy swivel chairs, fiddling with a paper clip in her free hand. She bolts upright when someone answers.
“Uh, hi, Mister Lu? It’s Abs — uh, it’s Leihulu. McMillen.” Pause. “Yeah, I’m at YO!’s today.” She listens more, and her face falls. “No — no, I don’t have a phone.” The voice at the other end changes tone. “No, see it’s kind of hard for me to get in touch with people because I’m homel– — houseless.”
He talks in her ear; she looks at the floor. “I’m looking. Jobs don’t just appear for people like me, you know. Yeah, you do know, that’s your job,” she snaps. When she hangs up several minutes later her shoulders collapse and she melts back into the chair.
Abcde knows that if she worked for a real-world employer, she would have been fired after two weeks for being late. But the YO! family preaches tolerance and second chances. By the book, YO! Works workers are allowed six months in the program to find real-world work; they should be actively looking for a job at the beginning and secure in one by the end, so someone else can move into their position. By the book, they’re out if they show up late three times. But if anyone had judged many of these staffers purely by the book, few would ever have made it here. Ali’i might be back working the late-night security shift at Wal-Mart; Andrew might be back in Philly, from which he fled because his options felt so limited. Instead the staff weighs options and ends up in a realistic quandary: take Abcde’s job away, and without that extra income she’ll likely yield to pressure from “Grandma” and stop coming to YO! entirely. Take Sefo’s job away, and give him one more angry impulse to take out on Nikki, his girlfriend in the red leather skirt. What good, Andrew often wonders aloud, does that do any of us?
Most of the YO! staffers agree that the kids respond better to positive support than they do to hard-line discipline; many of them left home in the first place to escape the rules and regulations imposed on them by society or family, sets of laws they couldn’t or wouldn’t fit into their lives. Instead they’ve adopted the law of the street — and as Kaleo will point out in his clearer moments, anyone who claims that the law of the street is that there is no law, hasn’t been there. YO!’s efforts to draw them back toward the ideas of mutual respect, trust, and delayed gratification, among others, clash constantly with a street culture than deems such characteristics signs of weakness.
Kaleo, in particular, is familiar with that weakness: he’s been at YO! since Day One in 1990. His handprint is one of seven slapped in smeary, reddish brown paint onto the front door, where YO!’s first clients left their mark one hot, Hawaiian afternoon. The drip lines run all the way to the ground. Written in the center with two purplish fingertips is the declaration, “YO HOWSE.” Each year one of the new staffers starts up a campaign to repaint the door as a house bonding activity, only to discover the disdain of the older members who remember the people behind the palms. For kids whose concept of continuity is shaky at best, the door offers a kind of adoptable history. They walk in and YO!’s past becomes their past. Now, in the summer of 2001, there are eleven years of kids like them, people who have left their mark where someone cares to remember.
There’s no question that Kaleo has made that mark. No one forgets Kaleo, except maybe Kaleo himself, in his moments of drugged delirium. In eleven years, he rose to the top of a street culture dominated by forceful personalities, and then opted out. Now, at 22, he lies low. He plays the point man skillfully, inconspicuously, from behind a face that rarely conveys emotional response. He watches drama play out from a distance, while reclining on a park bench or coaxing life from a dying hand-rolled cigarette. He uses several names — besides Kaleo, Julio is the one YO! hears most often. He is YO!’s oldest client, one who by the book should have “aged out” to join the adult shelter a year ago.
Perhaps it is this distance that allows him to see most clearly the dynamics of Waikiki street life. No one is surprised one lazy afternoon when he correctly predicts a police bust at YO!, suggesting early on that one of the younger boys might want to “get da hell out before bad shit come ‘dis way.” But the boy is a newcomer to YO!, and doesn’t heed the advice. An hour later, I’m in the kitchen drying the dishes that Abcde and Nikki wash as two car doors slam in sync in the street outside. We peer through broken Venetian blinds at two brown cars with odd-sized antennas that have pulled up across the street. A big Samoan man emerges from one car to meet a shorter, lighter-skinned Asian man from the other.
Nikki lets out half a laugh. “Always thinkin’ they blend in,” she shakes her head, eyes fixed on the scene outside. “As if all the other cops in this town ain’t white. Who they think we are, stupid? Every undercover in this fuckin’ town is hapa,” referring to the Asian man’s apparently mixed-race heritage. “Spot ‘um in a second.”
The shorter man makes his way to the door. Andrew will wager later that he’s a rookie because he doesn’t knock. YO! has a tacit agreement with most of the Honolulu police force that the house is a haven; officers knock and wait at the door for staffers to come outside, away from the rest of the kids. So when the hapa cop strolls up to the door and waltzes in without any semblance of respect for their House, the kids are immediately agitated. A few rise to their feet. A younger boy averts his eyes and nudges one of the girls, who slips quickly out to the office to get Ali’i. The cop scans the room in a determined effort to look calm, a rookie smirk on his face.
Ali’i emerges from the office, and this unfamiliar power dynamic seems to shift back in YO!’s favor. He crosses the room to confront hapa, but not before the little man spots his target napping on the couch. He’s the same one Kaleo tried to warn, a stocky kid whom YO! has seen just two or three times before he arrived for lunch today. He appears entirely unsurprised at being hauled up off the couch by a plainclothes policeman and told to step outside, but the rest of YO! is clearly rattled. It’s blatant disrespect for their house, and an unsettling reminder of their vulnerability.
Ellie, a younger girl leaning against the doorway to the yard, looks especially shaken. “Thought that kind of thing didn’t happen at YO!’s,” she says, her hand on her tummy. Her dark brown skin, even darker on her arms, disappears underneath a tight-fitting white ribbed top and shorter-than-short denim shorts. Her clothes fit her small frame well, which isn’t always true at YO!, and she’s forgone the trademark Hawaiian slippahs (inexpensive, unadorned plastic flip-flops, in every color) for black platform sandals with two straps. Her face looks young, like the rest of her: engaging bright eyes across a flat nose, and lips she keeps closed for most of her smiles.
She shoots a defiant look across the room at her boyfriend, who has draped himself across the couch just vacated by the sleeping boy. “Ponce,” she yells, her teenage cackle intentionally just a little too loud for the distance it has to travel. “That gonna be you ‘f you don’t stop stealin’ so much.”
“AHH, leave me ‘lone, Ellie,” he mumbles, stretching out the syllables of her name with the typical carelessness of a 15-year-old boy. She scrunches her nose at him, mouthing his words back in mockery, and then retreats to the yard, where she sticks out her tongue in his direction. She turns to Kaleo, playing her damsel-in-distress card for practice as she often does with him and with Andrew, the two big-brother figures in her life. “Julio, you warn him, yeah? You know Waikiki.”
Kaleo pats her head with an arm so long its effect is almost comic. His eyes wake and his shoulders straighten. “Shit, man — I AM WAIKIKI!” he bellows. “I LIVE this place! NOTHING goes down without me, NOTHING!”
The outburst earns him a look from the girls sitting with Ellie in the yard, and not much else — YO! is used to Kaleo’s ups and downs. Ellie nods, satisfied with this display of intimidation, and peers back into the house to gauge Ponce’s reaction. He squares his shoulders and puts on his thugged-out face, then scans the room quickly. When he thinks no one else will notice, he grabs his backpack from the pile and takes his pride with him out the front door.
Ellie shows up at the door each day with Ponce in tow. Once there they rarely interact, except to bicker with and one-up each other. Next year they’ll both be ninth-graders at Mililani High, his second try, her first. He’s a scrawny kid, shorter and darker than she is; his gang is all older boys, less twiggy and farther from 15-year-old awkwardness. He’s the last one picked for basketball teams in YO!’s backyard games, and the last one you’d pick out as a father-to-be.
Ellie is the ambivalent owner of YO!’s newest unofficial title: youngest pregnant girl. She earned it two weeks after graduating from eighth grade, and has never spoken more than four words about it at a time: Does she want the baby? “I don’t know.” What does Ponce think? “He doesn’t care.” Does she like being pregnant? “It’s not so bad.” What’s good about it? “People buy you food.” Sometimes, on particularly hot, still days like today when the trade winds aren’t blowing, she’ll sit on the couch and pull her shirt up to expose her stomach, still flat, and play absentmindedly with her belly button ring. Other days she’ll flop down next to Frecia, a hugely pregnant surfer from Maui and YO!’s most beloved female staffer, and lay her head on Frecia’s shoulder while gossiping with Abcde. She steals more than her share of glances at Frecia’s stomach, and asks every now and then “how big mine is.”
We’ve decided at our staff meeting the week before that Ellie doesn’t know what being pregnant is. She has a few role models — Frecia, and Vanessa, a five-foot-tall mother-to-be whose stomach is so disproportionately big that everyone (except the ultrasound) is sure she’ll have twins in two weeks. But other than a quick question here and there or a dismissive answer to my inquiries about how she’s doing, nothing about Ellie’s life has changed at all. Ali’i worries out loud about her drinking and spending so much time with Ponce, who, according to Ali’i’s people in the street world, is being recruited as a drug runner.
“Ellie’s a party girl,” he muses one morning as we sort through bakery donations together. “Fifteen. Not gonna give up a good time for any baby.” He shakes his head, his eyes half closed in a grandmotherly way that catches me off-guard; I wonder if this one upsets him more than the rest. He spends extra time with her each afternoon now, trying to plant a seed of self-reflection, carefully, quietly.
“One thing about these kids is, gotta let them come to you,” he offers. “Ellie need a bus pass from you, you ask her about how she’s feeling while you get it for her. You try to snag her, get her to sit down, ‘cept with Ellie that no work so good, kay?” Ali’i’s pidgin only surfaces when he wants it to, and I adjust my lilt accordingly, letting him draw me into the Hawaiian family. “So you get at her, careful, slow-like, ask her those questions like they’re any other. You wait long enough, she’ll come ’round. Thing is, under all that makeup, girl’s just dyin’ for a big sistah like you.”
Ponce drags in behind Ellie about a week after Kaleo’s outburst, looking as though he’s been awake for three days, a not-uncommon phenomenon among YO!’s kids who smoke crystal meth. His pupils shoot red flames outward across the whites of his eyes. He flings his body down on the couch, laughing softly, his backpack still on his back. Ellie is red-faced, if out of tears, and obviously on her last nerve with him.
“Ellie,” he grunts, trying to toss his floppy black curls out of his eyes as he laughs. “Ellie, come, come here.” He motions towards his lap with his head. She won’t look at him.
“Come here Ellie, I wanna touch your tummy.” He grins like a child after dessert.
She hurls her backpack at his feet as hard as her skinny arms will allow. She seeks refuge with Abcde outside, under the canopy tent set up in the backyard to shield kids from the mid-afternoon sun without forcing them inside. He keeps laughing. Not at her, not at him, not at anything, really, he just laughs.
Once outside, she grabs Abcde’s shoulder and stands right up next to her chair, waiting impatiently for the older girl to finish her conversation. She shakes Abcde’s shoulder with the urgency of a tattletale kindergartener. Abcde finally turns, and Ellie breaches her four-word limit about her tummy for the first time in two months.
“He said he doesn’t want it,” she blurts quickly, as if confessing her explanation for his odd behavior, her frustration, their entire messed-up relationship. She waits for an answer from her confessor, her eyes downcast, defeated yet relieved.
Abcde is not the sympathetic type. She’s the kind of friend who takes Ellie’s hand from her shoulder and tells her that Ponce is a f***ed-up little s*** of a boy who doesn’t know what the f*** he’s doing, that he’s already screwed with her life enough and she shouldn’t let him give her any more crap, and that she doesn’t need his a** or anything related to it. Ellie sits and nods, looking wishy-washy and young. Two hours later, she’s bringing him another plate of food as she returns to her place in his lap. She makes it through the afternoon without touching her stomach, but she won’t let him near it, either. Abcde throws them a half-disapproving, half-sympathetic glance from behind the food counter, then heads into the office as if she’s seen enough.
Abcde’s been there. Maybe half the girls at YO! have been there, pregnant at one time or another, despite the efforts of a new nurse who chases them down every six weeks with a Depo-Provera syringe in hand. They’re generally quiet about their past, though when asked about it, most don’t apologize. To speak to the choices they’ve made, though, I only ever see three YO! girls arrive with toddler in tow. The rest make great one-time babysitters, but are eager to hand over their charges at closing time.
Ellie hasn’t been there. Being pregnant means attention, distinction, people to ask her how she’s feeling. It means a place to sleep most nights and first pick at the clothing donations each month. Until today, it meant Ponce would stick around a little longer. But now he’s high for the first time in several weeks, tripped out from smoking enough ice three days ago to keep him awake for the next three, and his maniacal cackling is enough to startle even Kaleo. Ellie leaves with Abcde that night, ducking out the front door while Ponce is distracted with his laundry so he can’t yank her back. Ellie eases the screen door closed so their exit won’t attract attention, but Abcde won’t have any running away. She stops on the top stair, throws Ellie a stern look as she spins around, swings the door wide open and slams it shut with a flourish. The exchange needs no words. They leave together, in the direction of the beach, Ellie’s left hand on her backpack strap and right hand on her abdomen’s edge.
I don’t see Ellie again for two weeks after I watch her walk off toward the water. We ask about her and Ponce, but get many shoulder-shrugs back in return. Waikiki is a small place, and we know they know about them. But as Ali’i said, you don’t push it — you get what you get each day, and each day it’s a little more. In the meantime, Ali’i and I spend mornings discussing Ellie, Nikki, abusive boyfriends, and what it might take to convince them that they don’t need their men.
Since I’m the new staffer, there’s plenty of history to Nikki and Sefo’s relationship that I don’t know. What I know is concrete: how hard it is to get her into another room without him following. How he wants a baby, and how he won’t even let her alone long enough to see the nurse for birth control (“I can’t exactly meet her in the bathroom with a syringe,” the nurse says, frustrated.) I’ve seen Sefo explode at Nikki one minute, tearing at his hair and whatever is close at hand, and beg Ali’i for anger management counselling the next. But I don’t know how they started, what keeps her around, how often he hits her, or how much she stands up for herself.
Maybe it’s not my place to know. “Big sister” relationships are hard-earned here. That’s a lot of trust to be built in my three summer months. But there’s something powerless about being involved in their drama without understanding it — and I am involved, if only because I cook with Nikki and braid her hair once in a while. It’s taken Ali’i three years to inch into their confidence, and even he knows he probably doesn’t have the whole story. He looks for them every night he’s out on outreach, and if he doesn’t find them he’ll often stay out an extra hour hoping they’ll turn up. He manages to be the advocate for both sides of their tumultuous pairing without compromising the trust of either one. The balance is vulnerable, he says, especially lately.
While Ellie is away, Nikki and Abcde discover during YO! Works that the radio is missing from its usual place on the table near the front door. Abcde pulls at Ali’i’s huge arm, urging him up from his office chair into the living room to see. “Told you we shoulda locked that thing,” she shakes her head, aloof, its disappearance validating her judgment. Then to Andrew, who’s still sitting in the office: “Drew-dawg, you know I don’t work too good without music.” Nikki eyes me with a hopeful smirk.
“Ah, so we’ll get to hear you singin’ for us, then, Abs,” Andrew offers from the other room, not taking the bait.
Nikki shakes her head, hard, the way she does when she has something she wants heard. “Some people got nothin’ better to do than jack an old-a** radio from their own house,” she scolds, half in disbelief, half entirely unsurprised. “No respect for YO!’s, an’ da kine” — her familiar pidgin phrase, roughly equivalent to “and all that,” breaks up her thought as I try to etch it on my mind — “people used to respect it here.”
Later, I hear fragments of a melody I vaguely recognize drifting into the office from the kitchen, where Abcde is stirring black beans over the stove and Nikki is opening bulk-sized cans of stewed tomatoes. The notes are syncopated with the tink-tink of the spoon against the sides of the metal pan; some of the words are more hummed than sung.
“Though my love is rare,
Though my love is true,
I’m like a bird, I only fly away
I don’t know where my home is
I don’t know where my soul is.”
I think it’s Abcde at first, because she says she can’t work without music, but I realize the tone is too husky and Nikki must be the one singing. Ali’i shakes his head and smiles wistfully, turning his head back down to his paperwork.
“I think of the kids whenever I hear that song, you know?” he muses. “They think she’s so beautiful, Nelly whoever — so pretty an’ da kine, that’s why they say they like her. But you know what? They like her ’cause she’s the only one singin’ about them.”
Ellie comes back the next week, alone. She’s sporting a new-looking bright pink tank top, and shrugs off questions about Ponce the same way her friends have been shrugging off questions about her.
“YO! Works need any volunteers today?” she asks, pitching her voice high and sweet, hoping I’ll give her some task that will justify her being in the house before drop-in hours have begun. I offer her laundry duty; she trots off toward the bathroom to gather up towels.
The afternoon is a still one, and it wears on slowly; the Hawaiian trade winds have abandoned the islands these last few days. I am stirring chicken breasts through a thick, brown sauce in an enormous blackened pot, star