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West of Then: A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey past Paradise

West of Then: A Mother, a Daughter, and a Journey past Paradise

by Tara Bray Smith

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At the center of West of Then is Karen Morgan — island flower, fifth-generation haole (white) Hawaiian, Mayflower descendant — now living on the streets of downtown Honolulu. Despite her recklessness, Karen inspires fierce loyalty and love in her three daughters. When she goes missing in the spring of 2002, Tara, the eldest, sets out to find and


At the center of West of Then is Karen Morgan — island flower, fifth-generation haole (white) Hawaiian, Mayflower descendant — now living on the streets of downtown Honolulu. Despite her recklessness, Karen inspires fierce loyalty and love in her three daughters. When she goes missing in the spring of 2002, Tara, the eldest, sets out to find and hopefully save her mother. Her journey is about what you give up when you try to renounce your past, whether personal, familial, or historical, and what you gain when you confront it.
By turns tough and touching, Smith's modern detective story unravels the rich history of the fiftieth state and the realities of contemporary Hawaii — its sizable homeless population, its drug subculture — as well as its generous, diverse humanity and astonishing beauty. In this land of so many ghosts, the author's search for her mother becomes a reckoning with herself, her family, and with the meaning of home.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"West of Then is a daughter's memoir both appalling and inspiring....She does not write with a grievance, or with a need for moral vindication, but with the gravity of love."
— Susannah Moore, Vogue

"In a book that mingles a rainbow of intoxicating Hawaiian memories with the multigenerational story of her family's disintegration, Ms. Smith winds up capturing all the strain and anger and messiness of the trouble she faces."
— Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Tara Bray Smith's words lift off the page, hot and lucid, like the light of the islands she loves. Far, far more than a memoir, this is an anthem for hope and survival wrapped in startling, sometimes surprising poetry. Read this book and then keep it close to you; you'll want to read it again and again."
— Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight

"To read Smith is...a pleasure like that of reading Joan Didion."

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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5.70(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: The Bounty

Thanksgiving 2002 Honolulu

The first time I saw snow falling was on Thanksgiving. I was in the town of East Barnet, Vermont. It was 1987. I was seventeen. My ex-stepmother, Debbie, and I were the guests of two kindly gay innkeepers. We were in New England looking at colleges. I am from Hawaii. I had never seen snow before. And this wasn't even a real snow, the men informed me. This was a dusting.

"Won't stick." They shook their heads. "More pie, hon?"

It didn't matter. I walked outside and opened my mouth and tried to eat it. Debbie took a picture of me. I look ridiculous. My arms are outstretched. I am wearing yellow padded snowshoes and a stonewashed denim jacket my friend Kenji Nakano had brought me from Japan.

I felt exhilarated and disappointed both. Snow was supposed to do something. Cover you up, at least. This snow wasn't even cold.

A year later I went to college down the road from there — Dartmouth. I felt I was in a J. Crew catalog. I got a boyfriend within a month. Scott had a good sense of humor, especially when it came to misfortune, and he was smart, so his stories were good. At Collis Cafe we ate hummus and discussed our classes over flavored coffee. That fall he was taking a course in colonial New England history.

When the Pilgrims came, Scott informed me, they made a mistake about the weather in America. They thought that because their new home was on the same latitude as Spain, winters would be mild. Like what they were familiar with, but better. North America is much colder than Europe, however. The first winter most of the Pilgrims froze and died. Which was why, that second year, when the Indians came with maize and turkey, they celebrated Thanksgiving.

"Ain't that shit-out-of-luck."

Scott was from Texas. I'd been to Texas.

I always remembered this story. How sad, to be so disappointed by a place you thought would change everything.

Fourteen years later to the month, I am in a park in downtown Honolulu, waiting for my homeless mother to reappear from wherever she's gone off to. In 1988 I did not think this is where I would end up. Scott liked to think I'd end up in a suit and high heels, at an advertising job. I encouraged the fantasy by joining a sorority. He said I would be the best dancer at the Christmas party. This flattered and depressed me. My own projections were less precise. When I thought of what I'd be doing in 2002 I imagined the reflection of lights on dark windows. I would be in an apartment high off the ground. It would be dark outside and light inside. My hair would be up. That's as far as I got: apartment, hair up, the reflection of light on windows.

In 1988 my mother had just gotten out of rehab. Though I didn't know how things would turn out for her, I was hopeful. I am usually hopeful.

There were men in jumpsuits here this morning, men whose job it is to clean up this park. They came with hoses and rakes and garbage bags. They cleared out the dead leaves; they emptied the wastebaskets. They picked up the human trash: greasy paper bags, empty beer bottles, toilet paper and Styrofoam plate-lunch containers and cigarette butts and feces. By now, by midmorning, Triangle Park feels sparkly again. The wind sweeps down from the mountains, making the leaves shiver. The sun is on the grass. Near a building hung with Chinese signs a woman crosses the street. She's approaching a car that has stopped and is now idling, waiting for her.

Her name is Serena. She is blond, fiftyish, drug-addict lean. She wears a denim miniskirt and a pale pink tank top. A tattoo wilts down her left bicep. She turns her head to let the wind from the ocean clear the hair from her eyes — in Honolulu the trade winds are constant — and for a moment I can see her face in full: wide high cheeks, bright brown eyes. It could be a pretty face but for the missing teeth. They deflate her jaw, giving her the look of an old baby, elongated and tattooed.

In the past I have seen Serena from a distance and mistaken her for my mother because she is skinny like my mother is, has dyed hair like my mother does, and at times looks hollow and vacant the way I think my mother might look when she's high, though this is largely speculation, because ever since she relapsed four years ago Karen is memorable to my sisters and me mostly for her absence. So really Serena is what I picture my mother might be, or what she might become, a toothless hag, if she stays in Triangle Park any longer.

Karen Morgan gave me up twenty-five years ago, when I was seven. She was a heroin addict and couldn't take care of me. My father and my stepmother raised me, educated me, sent me to college. I don't know why I think my mother is my responsibility, but I do.

She has been beaten up, raped. She's been arrested; she's prostituted. Add to this the long-term effects of opiate addiction, heavy smoking, bouts with pneumonia, and the constant threat of disease — TB, staph, septicemia, hepatitis, and HIV — and perhaps you can understand why I am afraid my mother is going to die out here. I do not know whether this is a real fear or not. But people die on the street, and this is why I am here.

So I wait, look around. Everything is so close on an island. Walk seven or eight blocks makai, oceanward, and you're at Aloha Tower, once the tallest building in Hawaii. The steamships used to come in here, the Lurline and the Matsonia. Members of my own family ate baked Alaska and tomato aspic on those boats, four and a half days out from San Francisco. They bought lei from the lei sellers at the docks — pikake, plumeria, and double carnation, my great-grandmother's favorite. They threw coins off the decks. A half-dollar tossed might get six local boys to dive.

Two miles south is famously ruined Waikiki. A mile mauka, mountainward, is Nuuanu, the tony Honolulu suburb of gardenias and secret green pools and a queen's summer palace. My mother and her three siblings — Margaret, Gail, and Brewster — grew up in Nuuanu in a big house with its own Hawaiian name: Polihiwahiwa, "Nestling in the Bosom of the Hills."

To get from Polihiwahiwa to here you need only follow the Nuuanu Stream. It trickles by my mother's childhood home, ginger gracing its banks, flows through the Buddhist cemetery where Auntie Gail used to take me on walks, trolls inhabiting the underside of every bridge, and empties into Honolulu Harbor, just a few blocks away. Down here the bridges are wide enough for cars. Magenta bougainvillea lines the stream's stone banks and the water is slack, a dark bluish green.

On this side of the river — that's what the stream is called here, despite its modest size — is Chinatown, Honolulu's red-light district. On the other, Iwilei, where in the early 1900s Honolulu's prostitutes had their cribs. Somerset Maugham's Miss Sadie Thompson was imagined to have plied her trade here, in one of the one-room bungalows that lined these streets: remarkably clean, noted the observers of the day. Today the cottages are gone, but the whores remain. They've just moved down the block, to the river, where pimps stand along the banks talking into cell phones and johns prowl the bridges in SUVs. Though the names of the bars on Hotel Street allude to more innocent times — Hubba Hubba Live Nude, Smith's Union Bar, Hana Hou Lounge, which means, loosely, "Do It Again" — downtown bordering Chinatown has long been this way, seedy and sad, with bums and massage parlors and drug dealers in dark alleys. It's been this way since ships stuffed with Hawaiian sandalwood sailed for Canton back in the 1800s, when Fort Street really emptied into a fort — built of coral for Kamehameha, the chief who united these islands and became Hawaii's first king — and sailors sang:

Ship me somewhere west of 'Frisco,

Where the best is like the worst,

Where there ain't no ten commandments,

And a man can raise a thirst.

Foreigners started coming to Hawaii a few years after Cook. They wanted a paradise and here one was. They wanted prostitutes; those could be arranged. Booze, opium, marijuana, cocaine, crack, crystal meth (called batu here), Oxy — these would have to be brought in, but there were boats, then steamers, eventually container ships and airplanes. So Chinatown and Iwilei went on like this, a bit salty, a bit squalid, sometimes cleaned up, more often ignored.

But my mother is here now, and everything is different.

Serena laughs at the person in the idling car. Then she waves her arms as if to say "No goal," crouching on her bandy legs. When she leans past the car's tinted window I can't see her face so I don't watch Serena anymore.

A man sitting next to me on the grass offers me a bite of turkey. "Want some?" he says, and extends to me a plastic plate. "No," I say at first, then, "Okay."

His name is Ron. Ron is also fiftyish, also lean, with thinning brown hair and a waxy, deeply grooved face. Ron is from California, where, according to him, the cops aren't as mellow as they are in Hawaii, and being homeless is harder.

Ron has been living on and off the street for a decade. He's a heroin addict, though last year he got his use down to just once a month. "Once a month and I was good," Ron says. "I got my disability on the first and that was it." Lately, though, it's been "real bad." He spends his check the first week he gets it.

But here it is the day after the day of plenty and Ron's plate is loaded with leftover food: ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, and, because we are in Hawaii, macaroni salad, two scoop rice, a slice of fried Spam. Ron got the food from Central Intermediate, a school down the block in whose breezeways he sleeps. (In Honolulu even the janitors are kind. They come by, shake him gently in the morning.) Nights are spent at Central Intermediate; days here, at Triangle Park, or along Fort Street Mall, the street-turned-pedestrian-alley where the bums of Honolulu hang out, dozing, chatting, smoking, scheming.

Mark Twain wrote about Fort Street in the 1860s. It was made of crushed white coral, he noted; the low-roofed houses were charming. He remembered a lot of cats.

Ron's got nothing and yet he offers me some. I'm not hungry. I've already had my Thanksgiving. My sister Layla — she's twenty-four now — and I went to Aunt Gail's, in Lanikai, a pretty Honolulu suburb a half hour over the Pali. Lanikai means "Heavenly Ocean," though who knows if that's real; many names in Hawaii were made up by real-estate developers. Still, it's nice in Lanikai. Gail has three towheaded children and a psychiatrist husband and a big house near the beach. Michelle Pfeiffer lives down the road. Layla and I go to Gail's for holidays. If Lauren were here she'd have come, too.

My youngest sister moved away a year and a half ago, when she was seventeen, a junior in high school. Our mother didn't have a place for her to live anymore, so Lauren dropped out and stayed with Layla. Now she's in Houston, living with her father's family. If she were here today she'd make me laugh. Or she'd get me out of here, take me over to Doris Duke's, where she'd jump off the rocks first, calling up from the ocean for me to follow. Lauren is wild, like Mom. I am not, so we make a good pair. Sitting here alone, I miss her company. It's always easier to wait with others.

The fact that I'm outside in a park and it's sunny and food is being offered makes me want to eat it. I take a bit of the ham and half of a roll. "Thanks, Ron," I say, and he grins. He too has lost front teeth, though not as many as Serena.

"Plenty where that came from."

I sort of like Ron, despite everything.

Nate the Blade shuffles by, humping a backpack. I have heard some of Nate's story. He got his name because he threatened some dude with a knife, so a Fort Street bum with a sense of humor dubbed him Nate the Blade. He's a poet who went to Oxford, and he does appear rather sensitive, with his sparse mustache, and his rosebud mouth, and his days spent in the periodicals room of the state library down from 'Iolani Palace, reading.

When he was five, Nate will tell you, his father threw him out into the Minnesota cold without so much as a coat. Now he lives on the streets of sunny Honolulu. Funny how you can end up so far and yet so close to where you started.

Nate lifts a hand out of his pants pocket and waves, nods darkly.

Ron nods back, drags on his cigarette. He wears a sling on the arm he doesn't use for smoking. He got beaten up a week ago, he tells me. Someone mistook him for the guy who stole another guy's drugs. They beat the shit out of him, broke his collarbone, and knocked his front teeth out.

"And I wasn't even doing anything!" Ron shrugs. "Jeez!"

I nod. I'm sympathetic, though it's hard to imagine Ron really "doing anything" except what he's doing right now: sitting on his haunches in Triangle Park, smoking a cigarette, every so often cracking a joke, or going to look for food.

Brenda is out here, too, on a bench among the scant trees. Brenda is Hawaiian, and a man. She wears a cropped baby tee and silky polyester running shorts and has long fingernails and soft little girl-breasts. When Brenda laughs she covers her rotten teeth with her hands and shakes silently.

A woman comes up, pokes around the trash. Lank brown hair frames a ropy face. She wears a peasant skirt. She could be an old rocker chick — a Stevie Nicks type for whom the party has gone on too long — until she opens her mouth. Her teeth are worse than Brenda's. They are brown and they twist like roots. She asks another woman, who has just sat down next to me, whether there are any plastic cups in the bin.

"No. Check that one," this woman says, and waves to a can at the end of the park. An abandoned car sits there, stuck at one of the meters that line the curb.

The trashpicker nods and departs.

"At least I don't look like her," the lady next to me says.

She's wearing a pleated mauve skirt and a tweed jacket, this one. She's quite thin, early fifties, with dyed auburn hair, blue eyes, and intact teeth, though if you looked in back you'd see where they were cracked, chafing against her mouth, causing her words to come out sloppily. Her skinny legs — they used to be shapely, a dancer's legs — stack in front of her, crossed at the ankles. She's barefoot. Black pumps upturn at her side. She got the shoes, the rayon skirt, the tweed jacket too warm for Honolulu from a donations box, along with the Biore face wash and the sample-sized shampoo and moisturizer she pulls out of a duffel bag and tries to push on me in a confused attempt to give me something, even if it's the last thing she owns. A bandage wraps around the top foot, her right one, concealing a pus-filled abscess she insists is a spider bite, though I suspect it's from shooting up and I tell her so. She waves that top foot back and forth absentmindedly, like a girl. She is a girl, despite the wrinkles. She picks at the grass, digs at it with a stick. She burns the leaves that have fallen from the trees with a lighter, bringing the burning leaves to her nose to smell them because she smells, touches, tastes, needs to see, feel, wrack herself with everything. She was once beautiful. This was all once beautiful.

She's my mother. Ron is her husband, my new stepfather. They got married a year ago. They met at a shelter, or somewhere along Fort Street Mall. They knew each other for three weeks. Serena is one of my mother's best friends, though sometimes Karen will say "Aw, girlfriend!" to Brenda and give Brenda a high five, and sometimes she'll say Nate the Blade is her best friend, though I don't believe it.

Karen lives out here in Small Child Park. She sleeps in the breezeways of Central Intermediate with Ron. She eats at a mission called the River of Life.

In May of 2002 my mother called me in New York and told me she was sleeping in a park. Three weeks after that she disappeared. I came to Hawaii to find her. I left a nascent romance, friends that had become a family, an apartment, and a city that was beginning to feel like home to spend the fall of my thirty-second year looking for my mother among the lost people of downtown Honolulu. I left a life — nothing especially interesting, lights in dark windows, but my own.

Today is the day after Thanksgiving. I'm supposed to be thankful for everything, even sitting in this park. And I am grateful. My mother is here, sitting in front of me. And we're in Hawaii, and it's so lovely: warm, pleasant, tropical, full of aloha, welcoming, exotic, spiritual, natural, unspoiled, spoiled, so I-used-to-go-there-once-that-was-a-long-time-ago.

But I can't help it. I hate it here. I hate Brenda and Nate and Serena. I hate Ron. I hate the cigarette butts in the grass and the woman who digs through the trash. I hate this lady my mother has become.

"At least you don't look like her?"

"Yeah." Karen's pissed, suspicious, and probably high. She doesn't give a fuck what I'm saying.

I speak loud enough for her to hear.

"You will."

Copyright © 2004 by Tara Bray Smith

Meet the Author

Tara Bray Smith was born and raised in Hawaii. She now lives and writes in New York City. West of Then is her first book.

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