By: Perle Besserman
They should have known they weren’t the gentrifying type. At least the wife should have known, having tried it once before, moving to a still seedy Williamsburg from a chic brownstone flat in Gramercy Park, at the fraying end of her first marriage, when Brooklyn was just coming into its own. Growing up in Prague, the husband had never thought about gentrification. In Europe, old neighborhoods and old cities stayed old. Yes, after 1989 there’d been some refurbishing, hipsters occupying ugly Soviet-style apartments scattered around the city, just before capitalism blew the known world apart, making everything and everyone unrecognizable, and inner city real estate prohibitively expensive. But he’d moved to the States by then. And met her, an American, at the Bishop Museum Planetarium, while vacationing in Honolulu, and they’d settled together on Oahu soon after. Smitten with the romantic perfection of the island—its brilliant weather, golden light, hula moon, and Plumeria-scented air—as much as with each other, they’d taken whatever jobs would keep them living there. He, as a draftsman in the firm of a well-known Japanese-American architect, she, as a legal advisor, in the HR department of the university.
Years went by, and they were suddenly older, less adventurous, earning more money and, as their magical island grew seedy around the edges and they could no longer rely on the dreamy beachside walks that had sustained them through the insistent, coarsening ugliness of their green and golden city, they had, albeit reluctantly, exchanged their quiet, middle class apartment near the university for the newly gentrified luxury of a mammoth glass and steel tower in an area they had disdained even as it was being built. An industrial wasteland consisting primarily of auto repair shops and warehouses storing items of dubious provenance, the neighborhood was known for its alarmingly fragile infrastructure, overflowing sewers and, after even the scantest rainfall, its flooded unpaved streets. Despite its proximity to the city’s largest homeless encampment, the neighborhood’s beachside location had turned it into a developers’ dream as a potential playground for wealthy global investors from as far away as Russia and Brazil, China, Korea, and Japan. In the frantic rush to buy, little attention was paid to the hurried, shabby construction and low-quality building materials; penthouses ranging from as high as thirty-five million dollars and lower floor apartments going for no less than two million were snatched up from the plans even before the groundwork began. Once the towers were up, a number of absentee owners chose to keep their properties empty or, deigning to visit for two weeks at Christmas, left their Maseratis to languish in the vast, multi-leveled parking garages. To the chagrin of full-time residents, the high turnover of occupants in these buildings indicated that a sizable portion of investors were no-shows who had only purchased apartments either for re-sale and a quick profit or for the sporadic visits of guests and family members game enough to navigate the city’s gridlocked streets and traffic-choked freeways.
The husband and wife had laughed when their realtor suggested they were “a perfect fit” for the new neighborhood, as she showed them the first of the few available rental apartments in one of the high-end buildings clustered around the limited, but growing, green spaces lining the three-block span of expensive restaurants, chic mini malls, and a new Whole Foods. The developers, urban planners, and architects (including the firm where the husband worked) were alternately praised and lambasted by the local media for either transforming a rubbish heap into an oasis, or, depending on your point of view, a conclave of steel and glass monstrosities, surrounded by vacant lots and ramshackle properties fronted by the chicken wire fences of the few remaining holdouts who refused to sell, despite the, at first monthly, and now daily, harangues of the developers, councilmembers, contractors, politicians, and neighborhood boards convinced that what the city needed was a true urban hub. What better way to lure businesses, tourists, shoppers, and locals to the vibrant new neighborhood while simultaneously eliminating the metastatic blight of the homeless encampment?
The husband and wife enjoyed visiting the spacious homes of friends in the suburbs but preferred the anonymity and comfort of city apartment buildings, where mail and packages were collected, corridors and lobbies, swimming pools and rec areas were cleaned, and repairs conducted by a helpful, mostly friendly maintenance staff. Contented apartment dwellers, neither of them had expressed any interest in buying a single-family home. The wise realtor had picked this up from the afternoon they’d met, in the penthouse of one of the earliest luxury towers to go up in the newly developing area. The husband, who enjoyed reading about the activities of his firm’s clients and competitors in the Real Estate section of the local newspaper, had suggested they “go out and check around.“ Eager to participate in her husband’s professional interests, the wife readily assented, which was how, on that fateful Sunday afternoon, they’d unknowingly embarked on the least expected real estate venture of their lives to date.
“Checking out” two million-dollar condos was one thing; buying one was out of the question. The wise realtor—who had made a quick mental note of the couple’s body language and pointed questions—gleaned this, too. Biding her time until they were standing in the middle of a gigantic living room with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vast expanse of what the wife said was “the bluest blue Pacific” she’d ever seen—the realtor casually informed them that this particular apartment was not for sale, but for rent, and within their budget. At the wife’s urging, the husband, now equally enchanted by the stunning ocean view, filled out an application on the spot. Discovering a few months after moving into their luxurious apartment that, contrary to their expectations, they and the gentrifying proto-urban hub were, as the wise realtor had observed, “a perfect fit.” Well, almost, if they ate out less and traveled only once a year instead of twice.
Especially appealing was the newest addition at their corner, a vast green children’s playground scattered with benches and diagonal walking paths leading to a boutique-lined street interspersed with a sprinkling of new cafés. It took less than a year to notice, however, that, in addition to the dog walkers, families with kids, and mostly young women on their way to the new Yoga center across the street, the expanding green space around their building in particular had begun attracting skateboarders. And not just in twos and threes, but in gangs. Teenagers and even young men in their twenties, who, in the husband’s opinion, were too old for skateboards, roared through the playground paths at all hours but seemed to prefer testing their skills between eleven o’clock and midnight. Gathering at the paved entrance to the playground, the skateboarders descended on the neighborhood, seemingly from nowhere, for the single purpose of creating bedlam.
One night in particular, awakened by the boom box blare of the unsettlingly repetitive refrain: Baby, don’t you cry for me! It’s an illusion, the husband looked out the window and saw six or seven skateboarders clustered around a playground bench drinking beer. Occasionally one or two would break away from the group, using the empty neighboring benches and light poles to perform a series of gravity-defying skateboarding tricks and maneuvers, inevitably provoking their peers to outdo them. As their daredevil antics increased, so, too, did the loud falls, crashes, and screams of the contestants.
Returning from the window, the husband telephoned the night concierge in the lobby and informed him about the ruckus in the park.
Having been alerted a few minutes before by another resident, the concierge assured the husband that the matter was already taken care of, the police were due to arrive within five minutes. And so it happened, that, at least on that first occasion, the skateboarders were dispersed and peace was returned to the neighborhood.
Several weeks went by without incident. Then, surprisingly, the husband received a telephone call from the landlord, who, bypassing the property management company that handled all correspondence relating to the apartment, invited the couple to dinner at his beach-side home that Saturday evening. The landlord, Mr. Jordan Xavier, told the husband that he’d been impressed by the background check he’d run on receiving the couple’s application to lease the apartment and wished to get to know them better. That, at least as the husband saw it, was the ostensible reason for the invitation. Mr. Jordan Xavier’s underlying motive would, he was sure, be revealed during their upcoming dinner conversation. For the husband’s professional experience had taught him that there was always an underlying motive for wanting to meet with anyone in Hawai’i who might be of use, but with whom you otherwise shared no social, political, or financial interests, or who didn’t surf, sail, golf, or belong to a country club. None of which appertained to Mr. Jordan Xavier’s tenants—as he would have easily gleaned from their background check.
A somewhat awkward pause ensued, after which the husband had accepted the invitation and was about to end the call when the landlord added that he’d owned the apartment for ten years and had left it unoccupied in the hope of one day leaving it to his daughter. It was only after his wife died, and the daughter married and left Hawai’i that he’d finally decided to lease it out. Doubtful that he would find a tenant responsible enough to trust the apartment to, he’d been happily surprised at the couple’s application. All this information was delivered in a choppy, singsong rush, making it impossible for the husband to discern whether the accent was Asian or a Hawaiian mixture of Portuguese and local pidgin, and whether the speaker was elderly or middle-aged. The surprise invitation had caught the husband in the midst of brooding over his finances—having just returned from a meeting with his accountant and learned that he owed twenty-five-thousand-dollars more in state taxes than he’d initially estimated. Sharing the unpleasant news with his wife over a glass of wine at a Waikiki Beach Bar had plunged them back into the tense, ongoing discussion they’d been having about the prospect of leaving Hawai’i for a less expensive, less tourist-centered place to live. They loved the climate, they agreed; but the perpetual honeymoon that had drawn them to remain there no longer suited the realistic demands of their lives. Their jobs weren’t all that satisfactory, and they could probably earn a lot more and have a lot more left to spend on housing if they moved to a place like Nevada, as so many Hawai’i residents were doing.
As it turned out, they were the only guests at Mr. Jordan Xavier’s dinner. And there was no underlying motive for the invitation, except perhaps that their host was lonely and had enjoyed little social life since becoming a widower. The beach-side house, was a 1930s mansion, oddly empty of furniture and occupied only by the ninety-year-old landlord, a Singaporean Chinese developer of vast wealth, and his soft-footed Filipina cook and housekeeper, Manola, who, after serving a passable fish curry and lychee sorbet dessert, disappeared into the kitchen, only emerging once more to serve oolong tea in a glass canister.
Except for the lazy beat of the waves against the shore beyond the vaulted dining room, there was no other sound but that of their host shamelessly boasting about his construction projects throughout the Asia-Pacific region, including a property on Macau that he’d won at a high-stakes poker game in the 1960s, his post-Vietnam War ventures in the rebuilding of Hanoi, and the endowing of a business school in his name affiliated with Singapore National University. Mr. Jordan Xavier needed little more than a smile and an admiring nod or two from the wife, which she graciously offered him at just the right pauses in his ongoing monologue, and an occasional question or observation about an architectural detail having to do with building construction from the husband. Nothing more was required. What each had quietly hoped might turn out to be an opportunity for broadening their horizons in some offbeat fashion (a request to sail Mr. Jordan Xavier’s yacht from Honolulu to Tahiti—the wife; or an appointment as site manager for his next building project in Kuala Lumpur—the husband) nothing grand or large or terribly meaningful happened that evening. Clearly, Mr. Jordan Xavier’s curiosity about his tenants had been satisfied, and he evinced no further interest in seeing them again.
They returned to their apartment at nine-thirty, watched three episodes of an ongoing Swedish crime series on Netflix, and went to bed. At precisely midnight, the skateboarders struck again.
Another melee ensued. Another call down to the night concierge in the lobby was made; this time, after a long wait during which bottles were broken and the prospect of serious violence threatened. Now it was the wife who went to look out and assess the situation. To her great annoyance, no neighboring heads appeared at the windows, and despite the concierge’s assurances, the promised police car did not appear. Frustrated, the wife turned on her husband. Why had he ever brought them to live in such a dodgy neighborhood in the first place? Hadn’t he been aware of the increasing violent assaults on tourists reported on the local nightly news, the psychotic derelicts shitting at the corner bus stop and laying siege to the park across the street, their stereophonic bellowing echoing through the open windows of the apartment?
When upset, the wife would reflexively return to the coarse language of her New York origins—for which she would later apologize, attributing her “nastiness” to being jolted out of a pleasant dream in which she was nine again, and roller-skating along the Battery in Manhattan, her ponytail whipping the wind behind her. The husband accepted her apology, and, for a time, the subject was closed.
As it turned out, the police did not respond to the concierge’s calls, that night, or any night thereafter. Weeks later, following an extended melee, during which, judging from the decreasing shouts and crashes, the wife assumed that the marauders were too drunk to continue their antics, the skateboarders dispersed—apparently for good. However, by then, the husband, silently upbraiding himself for failing to deter his high-strung wife from her exaggerated perception of the neighborhood’s degenerating slide into chaos, began searching real estate websites for a more amenable place to live.
Imperceptibly, further evidence of the couple’s shared discontent came trickling through the carefully erected barriers of their declining enchantment with the islands. Despite their sincere efforts to suppress them, hints of boredom and annoyance with Hawai’i for not providing a more “meaningful” and/or “interesting” life emerged when least expected: at a favorite café, where they were drinking chai after a movie; at a Chinatown art gallery reception, at an “Aloha Friday” wine-tasting festival in the Botanic Gardens . . .
And then came the Whole Foods episode.
Determined to enjoy the advantages of living in the city—and the convenience of walking on Saturdays to the newly opened branch of Whole Foods only three blocks from their apartment rather than driving to the one located in a suburban mall, the husband had invested in a pricey wheeled shopping trolley. The fact that she had picked it out, and that it was purple, appealed to the wife. She even looked forward to what had become an onerous weekly task prompting arguments over their preferred routes to the mall (he, the freeway, and she, the streets), the inevitably jammed parking lot, and the aggressive, selfie-snapping tourists crowding the mango and papaya stands. Both agreed it was a relief not having to make a mad rush to the car and brave the traffic in a bad mood early on a Saturday morning.
The first few leisurely Saturday marketing strolls were a novelty—which, unfortunately, wore off soon enough for the wife, who complained of the “wind tunnel” created by the towers marking their three-block trek to the new Whole Foods. To mollify her, the husband took charge of wheeling the shopping trolley to and from their apartment building, loading the bags into it and, once the marketing was done, unloading it himself. All the wife had to do was mind the shopping trolley while the husband strode the aisles depositing groceries and produce into his cart. What they hadn’t counted on were the rhythmic disparities between them that emerged on these Saturday shopping trips. He, moving speedily along while, ostensibly following behind him, she (a health-conscious vegetarian, who, in addition to avoiding processed foods, had recently considered “going vegan”) stopped to study the ingredients lists of packaged goods for sodium and sugar levels. It was on one such occasion that the couple lost sight of each other.
Standing in the produce section, and realizing that her husband was no longer in view, the wife panicked. Parking the shopping trolley in front of the mushroom bin, she went in search of him. First, in the nearby vitamin aisle, then gradually moving further afield through the cosmetics section of the “Body Shop,” until, circling twice around the bakery and frozen foods section, and finding herself at the end of a long queue at the cash register, she concluded that it was, 1) impossible for him to have vanished, and, 2) unlikely that he had left without her. Maybe he was searching for her, too . . . outside on the terrace café . . . or . . . maybe he was still in the produce department and she’d missed him.
She was backtracking her path from the cash register queue to the mushroom bin, when she heard a commotion. Hurrying toward the noise, which was somewhere to her left, in the direction of the produce department, the wife realized that she was no longer holding on to the handle of the shopping trolley, that there was an empty space between her and the purple wheeled bag.
Adding to the confusion, people were shouting. And running toward the produce department alongside her. A security guard, a tall man with an armful of tattoos, barreled through the crowd. Above the shouts she could now make out the recognizably familiar, but seldom-heard raised voice of her soft-spoken husband hollering.
“DROP IT! DROP IT NOW!”
Rounding a display of strawberries piled high at the entrance to the produce department, the wife was confronted by the distressing sight of her husband engaged in a struggle with one of the teenaged skateboarders, who’d apparently returned to the neighborhood, and specifically to Whole Foods, brazenly, in the middle of the day, with the intention of stealing something, which, in this case, turned out to be her unguarded purple shopping trolley—and now the object of a fierce tugging match between them. With its front wheels in the stubborn grip of her husband, and the skateboarder, equally stubbornly grasping the wheels at the rear, clearly, neither was of a mind to let go. Finally, determined to break the stalemate, the tattooed security guard intervened. Grabbing the teenager by the collar of his tee shirt, he pushed him through the open front door and out into the street. Then returning to gently shoo the crowd of admirers gathered in the produce department, he raised his hand and, smiling broadly, gave them a “shaka.”
At the same time, having been posted as a lookout at the curb, the thief’s companion handed him his skateboard, and the two sped off toward the beach.
The husband and wife walked home in silence, the produce-packed purple bag between them signifying—no less than a raised white flag—the inescapable fact of their defeat and inevitable surrender. Though, to what, or to whom, they weren’t exactly sure.
Based in Hawai’I and spending part of the year in Melbourne, Australia, the author travels frequently throughout the U.S., Europe, Australia, Asia, and the Middle East, and has appeared on national and international radio and television and in two documentary films in connection with her work. Visit Perle on the Web at: www.perlebesserman.net.