What to eat in Hawaii. A typical meal is the plate lunch. This is a serving of meat and two sides, plain white rice and macaroni salad. The mac salad is a cold dish of elbow noodles, chopped veggies added stingily, and scoops of mayonnaise. The meat portion is popularly chicken katsu, which is breaded, deep-fried rib meat with the bones taken out, in strips but somehow still connected. Your misc chicken cast-offs also go into a top-notch katsu. These cuts of meat are imported from Asia frozen and still contain all the tendons and gristle that let you know in an awkward chew that you’re eating an animal, like for real. Katsu lacks the elegance of the pink Play-Doh that is the uncooked McRib.
Other portions of meat in the Hawaiian plate lunch include hamburger, a hamburger patty, sitting in the big cubicle of the thrice-divided white clamshell styrofoam box. The Loco Moco is the hamburger with eggs and brown gravy. Then there is the beef, which is a mystery on par with the sudden shock of transcendent back pain came from. I never ordered it. Another is the shredded pork. Codename: Kalua pork. Specialty: Impresario.
Most box lunches are ordered to-go from fast-food eateries called Drive-Ins, although they have a small seating area. These are the cheapest all around. You can find the plate lunch for five bucks or less. The slightly more upscale places, your Zippy’s for example, the Frisch’s Big Boy of Hawaii, will offer fish, usually Mahi-Mahi, spice-rubbed and grilled.
Another good cheap food is 7-Eleven sushi. They sell sushi in the 7-Elevenses in Hawaii. A fist-sized roll of imitation crab is $1.50. Eight pieces of California roll will be like four bucks. The most popular Hawaiian sushi is Spam. It’s a slice of Spam on a rounded, inch-high poker chip of white rice. This is like 50 cents. It sits cling-wrapped in stacks on the counter right by the register, alongside the hard-boiled eggs. These are for when the impulse strikes, as you’re checking out, having passed on the gum and candy bars, to pop a hard-boiled egg in your mouth and savor the oysterish outside and powder-packed yellow inside. Regardless of the what-for, it’s common knowledge Hawaiians love Spam. They love it from the can, they love it in their fried rice, they love it on the grill.
At convenience stores you can also get your manapua, a steamed bun with meat filling. Some people go down on one knee for them, but this was one food my foreign throat upended. It’s a white bun, bigger than your hand. Because it’s steamed the dough tastes wet, as in watery. If you’ve ever put sandwich bread in water, it’s not that soggy, but it is like Corn Pops left too long in milk. The filling in the hollow middle of the bun can uncharitably be called meat gloop. Pro-tip: Never order these at a Filipino restaurant unless you’re used to it. Impressively, the meat there’s a lower quality than the Drive-In chicken katsu. The manapua I ordered, on the Fort St mall, had neck bones in it. There’s nothing to kindle a love of paleontology in you like pulling round, perfect vertebrae from out your own mouth.
As an often unemployed, often hungry Honolulu resident, I’d urge you not to overlook Sam’s Club. Do overlook how it’s evil, until you complete your purchase and your belly’s full. You don’t have to be a member to walk into the food court, where a slice of pepperoni pizza and a drink, or a hot dog and a drink, is only like two bucks. This kudzu-esque Walton spawn is conveniently located on Oahu near the Ala Moana Mall, the place to kill-by-entertainment the best part of yourself by watching free hula with tourists from Japan on a weekend afternoon. The mall is conveniently located near the Ala Moana beach park, where anthropologists study the interaction of the Oakley-wearing Segway cops with the flocks of Hawaiian homeless who clump together ‘neath the trees when the sun goes down.
But if for example your student loan check just came, and you are flush, treat yourself to the hot foods section of your Times or Foodland, your local grocer. For 10 bucks you can get a bento box, a Japanese plate lunch. It is a piece of grilled fish with rice and Japanese vegetables, both or either cooked and pickled. It’s of higher quality than your Drive-In counterpart, and while you might get the occasional fish bone in between your teeth, they do a good job of taking out the spine.
Impressions of Kaneohe. I lived in Kaneohe only a few months, just as I’d lived in Kalihi only a few months before. Hawaiian real estate is greatly difficult for the unsupported person.
I found the apartment in Kaneohe via the classifieds and had as much luck with the embedded roommate from this method as you would expect. But I had entered what I did not yet know, but realized deep-down was to be, my last semester, and I had to have a place to live to make it to its end, even if this meant moving across the island.
Kaneohe, going south to north, is on the other side of the mountains so strong in my memory. It is a valley town, under the Pali where the Oahan warriors leapt to their deaths rather than submit to the invader Kamehameha I. Today the town is built up with shopping grids, as is everything. Its dominant color is green, not least for the awe-ful views of the mountains’ face, covered in the vegetation tinged with yellow that makes the verdant green look bright. Storms in the valley were spectacular. At night the lightning illuminated the mountain crags in flashes of magnesium, revealing what had appeared a moment before a Nietzschean void to be giant masses slumbering, leaning out above, protecting us. In the sun whenever it was raining yonder but not right overhead, cheery rainbows wavered frequently.
To ride the bus from Honolulu over the mountains to Kaneohe took an hour and I did it every day. As I discussed before the buses had on their fronts racks between their headlights with spaces for two bikes. After dark the buses to Kaneohe ran only once an hour, and Siddhartha’s patience would have been tested if the two bike slots were already taken when the bus arrived, so I began to ride my bike farther down to bus stops nearer and nearer the beginning of its route at Ala Moana Mall. How much time I wasted there. The only people who come to Hawaii to hang out at the mall are the Japanese and me.
Of Kaneohe I recall a botanical garden at the end of my street. Sometimes for a change I’d walk there, under the strong sun, and if the gate at the end of the cul-de-sac was locked, I’d stand and wait for them to open. There were campsites on the garden land, where for a permit and a fee a local family could hop 10 kids in the back of a pickup truck with a tent and stay there for the night, grilling out on park-provided grills and singing songs, the deep men’s voices carrying like foghorns in the bay. For the lone sojourner there was less to do. I remember no signs etched with a description of rare species. There were no trails, only a one lane road which ended at an information hut that was always closed. There were picnic tables, and I’d take my journal there, but the wind came off the mountains like a charging horse, and I had to press my forearm against the pages to hold them from curling up and flipping, and this meant hunching over, and I could not remain comfortable long.
The semester ended, and rather down I decided that my academic aspirations were to join it in the nothing-space of stopped activity. Never have I felt like such a failure as I did leaving Hawaii, less for the ivory tower, which only appealed to me in bursts, and more for the general lack of any impact that I had upon the culture as a whole. Like an ordinary human I touched only people that I met. A kind friend drove from the city one morning before his job to cart my boxes to the continental shipping store. They would race me to the mainland, and lose. But my friend couldn’t take me to the airport. The thought of riding in a cab, of being sent away alone, was more depressing still.
It was my second to last day, and I was in Manoa where the university is. I’d ridden rather far off campus to the town post office, to mail off the paper final breaths that I would breathe upon that storied isle. This office was a place to which I’d never been before. As I walked up to it who should come out the smoked glass doors but an acquaintance of mine, a friend of my aforementioned friend, with whom in my time I’d only spent a couple afternoons. We chatted for a minute. How strange it was that he would be at this post office when his apartment was downtown. I felt it was a synchronicity. I asked what he was doing tomorrow, knowing that he worked from home. He earned his living running pornographic websites. Would he mind driving out to Kaneohe to take me to the airport? He would not. And so the next morning a friendly handshake and well wishes eased the painful separation from the place I had not left since I moved there, and I was sent off.
It is a place I only visited once, for less than an hour, but should I be so fortunate to retire wherever I want, it will be there. It is Tantalus, Honolulu, a road that winds up Round Top Mountain behind the city proper. It is a beautiful, narrow road with lush tropical foliage that is itself beautiful scenery. Up there the air has that clean smell that is wet leaves. It is normally misty, a dainty droplet rain that can’t decide whether it wants to fall.
To understand the appeal of this rainforest to a years-long resident of central Honolulu you must understand that for four-fifths of the year the city is sunny and hot. That is the reason real estate developers a hundred years ago terraformed Waikiki marsh into Waikiki beach. They drained the land to make it dry, dug the Ala Wai canal to divert the water, brought great barges full of sand from the beaches of Australia, to dump on the shore, and create the wedding photo backdrop that we know today.
And so it is to live in the city mere miles from Waikiki is to live on concrete and asphalt, like the back wall of a ceramic oven, where the buildings are the sides, and it collects a relentless heat. And come September the tradewinds stop blowing and it is misery. The wind reverses and drags with it a humidity familiar to Southeast Asia. The tradewinds are the only thing keeping Hawaii from being Vietnam. The Leeward wind is sticky, unendurable. When it arrives the people leave their unairconditioned homes for the library, and all its chairs are taken upon opening. They ride the city buses aimlessly, just to sit and be cooled off.
I didn’t learn of Tantalus’ vibe until my first return to Honolulu, after I’d left school. I was staying with a friend, and a friend of his invited us to visit some friends on Tantalus. The locals of Honolulu are so well connected they make it a small town. So we drove the SUV to the back of the city, away from the ocean, and at the foot of the mountain began to make our way up the winding road. We stopped on the way at a turn-off to explore the woods on foot. Leaving your vehicle unattended at a place like this is a good way to get it broken into, but the local boys had other goals that day.
The house at which we were the guests was small, not much more than a double-wide trailer, but with a full live-in basement. It sat in the canopy looking white and level off the slanted mountain road. Inside we were introduced to the guy who lived there, and then another, and to even more. Five or six guys were living in this house. They were mainlanders originally but now only in appearance, and their quiet Hawaiian stoicism allowed no bit of who they used to be to show. There weren’t friends before they moved in together. They just disliked the city life. They were willing to live on top of each other to be on Tantalus, where their numbers were required to afford the rent on a double-wide like this.
We sat in the living room, most of us on the floor. The conversation of the group I was tuning out. I was listening to the outside. The rain was thudding calmly on the broad banana leaves. It would stop and a few minutes later start again. It gave everything the pallor of a hush. Birds were squeaking to their friends. It was the type of setting that made all the entertainment that I loved feel like it wounded me and I didn’t want it anymore. The clouds though full and puffy just gave the mildest hint of fog. The sun had beat them there but there they settled, on the mountain, uncowed, leaving the city to the sun. On Tantalus nothing was photographically overexposed. I could look out the window at the wet brown bark, my eyes resting open without sunglasses on. The tension in the corners of my eyes had pulled the tension from my shoulders like a thread when it had gone back to get a tan and wait for me. I felt supported by the island, as though Dali crutches were underneath my arms. I felt my wishes all come back to me.
I boxed up a little sliver of my mind and left it there.
Locals New Years Eve, Honolulu. What I didn’t know then but what I’d find out in Brazil is that many warm countries shoot off fireworks on New Years Eve. It’s not an official display sync’d to a radio station. The common people do it.
In Honolulu they don’t wait until midnight. They begin when it gets dark and they are enthusiastic. Parts of the expressway are coated in fog from the fireworks in the neighborhoods. It was a smoky gray fog, sticking around stubbornly in spite of the winter tradewinds.
My roommate at the time was a local guy, a high school Japanese teacher. He was gay. He was in the closet but it was the type of closet that only exists for the self. He didn’t censor his intonation or behavior. He had some gay flamboyance, so everyone could tell. But he knew that we knew. I knew because he had a friend visit from Japan and when they came from the airport they went straight to his bedroom and turned the music way up. He’d never played loud music before. I left the apartment, as much to give them privacy as to escape the bad pop music, so I missed the confirmation, the post-coital glow, though talking to the friend later, in his limited English, he had the mannerisms I expected. How stereotypes do have us navigate the world. My roommate’s students knew he was gay. They gave him gifts of Armani Exchange at Christmas and at the end of the year. His public school was in a rather well off area. I met some of them when he brought them home. And as I’d find out New Years Eve, his family knew too. But not the one of us talked about it. It was plain he didn’t want to. So all of us around him carried on.
Lou, my roommate, invited me to his family’s for New Years Eve. I in turn invited a couple of the Frenchies. Arnaud had a car, a shitty red hatchback, manual drive, with the kind of doors you had to slam to get them shut, and one of the seatbelts didn’t work. In other words it was a typical Hawaiian car. I had verbal directions to Lou’s family’s place. It was either in the Nuuanu-Punchbowl or Liliha-Kapalama neighborhood, I can’t remember. But it was on the mountain side of the expressway, where the locals live.
It was already dark when we left. Getting there meant looking for landmarks, “You should see a Jack in the Box on your left.” Lou was supposed to come out of the house and wait for us by the street so we’d know. We got our wires crossed and drove past the house. The neighborhood street had a row of parallel parkers on each side, and our car going down the middle, hatchback though it was, was not enough to allow another car coming toward us to go past without one of us moving over. Arnaud pulled the wheel of the car to left and right, driving slow and stopping quick. This wasn’t for other cars, though, because we were the only ones driving. Everyone else was in their backyards celebrating. Or they were in the street. A lot of kids and adults were letting off fireworks in the street, tubes on plastic stands standing up pumping booms like cannon fire. Firework smog made it impossible to read the house numbers, the street signs. Everything was seen in flashes of white, exploding all around. Loud bang to this side, and now behind us. We craned our necks inside the car to look up and see the colored ones go off. And the kids and adults in the streets craned their necks at us. They stopped momentarily and stared. Our sort wasn’t common there. I felt like an interrupter. Although we just wanted to watch the fireworks like everyone else, I was aware that it felt like a tourist enterprise, a safari. No one shot bottle rockets at our car, but I was relieved when I saw Lou.
He directed us to pull into the driveway. It was dirt and the car bobbed in the ruts. We crawled behind his walking pace. The driveway ended at a compound of three or four houses near one another sitting in a U. It wasn’t visible from the road. Lou told us his family owned all of them and lived there together. Grandma and her kids. I got the feeling it wasn’t one married family per house, that it was more crowded than that. The middle of the perimeter of houses was dirt, with patches of grass resistant to the sun and non-chalant about the rain. There was a tree and a couple picnic tables.
No grand introduction came from Lou. Local men talking quietly to themselves, standing around with longneck beers, kept on doing so. Kids ran around wrapped up in their kid things. One of Lou’s aunts offered us food. They had a buffet of a few hot dishes, pulled pork, deep friend wings. But also they had poi. I’d never had poi. It’s a root vegetable turned into a pudding. It’s unquestionably purple. I took the big spoon sitting in it and put a dollop on my plate. “How is it?” she asked. “It’s good,” I said with the frozen smile on my face that is not a smile at all. My emotions felt worse than the taste. There was no way I could eat it. I had to let it go to waste, and if no one saw me throw it out without touching it again, it was still rude.
Lou introduced me to Grandma. “I’m his roommate,” I told her, shaking her hand. “Oh,” she said. “Oh!” She got the warmest smile on her face. She was wearing tinted eyeglasses and she wouldn’t let go of my hand. We stood there holding hands. I smiled. It was weird but I felt good in her warmth, even as she continued to hold onto my hand much longer than she should. Then Lou looked away. “Tch,” he said, looking disgusted. Is he embarrassed of her? I thought. Then I realized why. She was holding my hand because to her, I was a member of the family. I was Lou’s roommate, which meant I was his boyfriend.
What could I do, I couldn’t disillusion Grandma, so I let it go when he pulled us apart with a “That’s enough, Grandma.” But later when I approached a couple of the guys standing around drinking, relatives of Lou’s, the first thing I said was, “I invited my girlfriend but she had to work tonight.” “Where does she work?” one of them asked. He was smiling. I told him the coffee chain and which hotel it was in. All the guys were smiling. They didn’t believe me. At the time I was the type of breeder who was accepting enough to live with a gay guy but not accepting enough to be thought of one myself. I pointed out my friends Arnaud and Aline to the guys. “They’re from France,” I said. The guys were interested. I called my friends over, thus changing the subject.
The kids were setting off small fireworks in the dirt. But most of what we did was look up at the bursts in jade and red going off over the rooftops, sounding close and far away. I asked the guys for a beer. This would have been rude where I’m from. The guys hadn’t offered one, and maybe that meant they didn’t want to share, but it was Hawaii and aloha, and we were the guests, so I felt comfortable to ask for me and Arnaud. Aline was off talking somewhere else. They gave them to us. We said thanks. We stood there with them, beside one of the houses, standing guys, occasionally lifting our bottles for a swallow. France as a subject dwindled in a minute. No one felt the need to keep a conversation going so it was mostly silence. It was homelike.
Then it was time. The family motioned to us. The kids were running on the driveway up ahead, their arms full of fireworks. They started setting them on the street, open mouths facing up. The adults arrived and set theirs up. I couldn’t see the pavement for the covering. Then they blew the whole street up. There was so much white light flashing in my eyes. The dark inverse of that was pulsing on my retinas. They fought each other in my eyes.
Bus confrontation on the bus. It was sunny and hot. The sky was blue but it was so bright it was like a ski-slope white out, with the light reflecting off concrete stairs, facades, chrome, and everything. Low Pacific clouds were fat and lazy, gathering over the mountains behind the city and way out at sea, like the ringed crater atop Diamondhead, and the sunlight poured down on us. It was hot and I was sweating. It was so hot the air was almost scratchy. Just standing in the sun gave me an itchy feeling on my forearms, on the back of my neck. My face was hot yet clammy, with dense layers of sweat on my derma, the outermost of which had hardened and congealed under the oven light, as sweat continued to run out of my pores, forming a liquid middle, like a pudding pie. Wiping it left brown streaks on my face. How uncomfortable it was.
The poor like me have to walk around outside. But I didn’t have the melanin-saturated skin, the advantage that regulated my temperature, to help. I should have stayed up north near the ice where my blue eyes would have been a bonus in the 20-hour black of winter, and my skin could pull the vitamins from that weak light, instead of where I was, on the Pacific island of Oahu, where all was bright and white and blinding me, making me helpless, a target for predators.
I was waiting for the bus. Near the central library, it was a common stop for a dozen different routes. There were a couple benches under an enclosure, made of what we used to call smoking glass, that is, stained brown, three sides, an abbreviated roof, and an open front. Or perhaps the enclosure was acrylic. Regardless, there were four times as many people as could fit into the shade, which wasn’t much from the angle of the sun. There was a gnarled tree nearby with more bark than leaves, growing spindly like veins at wind-blown angles, that another three people found comfort under. I, being in the prime of my life, and an obvious outsider, wanting to make up for history, so to speak, left the best spots for the elderly. Unlike some others I observed.
My bus arrived. It was an articulated bus. These buses are like the lengths of two normal buses, front to back, with a joint in the middle, that lets them execute right-angle turns. There are two benches of facing seats on the joint itself, incidentally, and the way it pivots on sharp turns makes sitting there fun, like a carnival, or it would, if your knees weren’t so close to the knees of the people facing you, making you a bottleneck for people passing to the back of the bus.
So we lined up to get on. I had my wallet out and open to my student ID with its semester bus-pass sticker clearly visible. I had rules for my behavior. One was to walk up slowly to the door when the bus arrived, giving women and the elderly space to line up first. What a shining example of the good-hearted ha’ole I made. I wasn’t like the businessmen who overthrew your queen and destroyed your kingdom, I said to the locals with every friendly nod.
I was lifting my leg to the bottom step of the bus when a man cut in front of me. He did it quick and without care, walking fast into my personal space and jostling me. He was short and thickly muscled. His black hair went past his shoulders. His brow was set in a combination of concentration and anger and his eyes it seemed were closed. He pushed past a lady on the stairs, squeezing her against the short stairwell of the bus. She didn’t protest or make a sound. In the wake of his air I caught the scent. He was drunk. He’d struck my shoulder with his and boy was I indignant.
The two people ahead of me showed the driver their passes and went around him as he leaned on the money machine, talking or perhaps grunting at the driver to let him on. At the top of the stairs I couldn’t help myself. I was determined. I body-checked him against the rail, like he’d done me. It wasn’t full speed hockey-style, but it was enough to make him move. It was like a rap on the knuckles from my jeweled cane as I held a scented hanky to my face.
I found a seat in the back of the bus, past the articulated joint, a two-seater facing the front with both seats open. I had another rule: when I sat in an open two-seater, I always took the seat by the window. I wasn’t one of those who sat on the aisle, leaving the window seat free, ignoring everyone getting on board, daring them to sit beside me. Oh no. I was a paragon of virtue in this foreign land, respectful, courteous, and kind. A real boy scout, no oppressor, no rich land-grabber I. I wouldn’t even put my backpack on the empty aisle seat like everybody else did with their packages. It went right between my legs on the floor. See how open this aisle seat is? I seemed to say. Clearly I am good and not like the others. Pray sit yourself down beside me.
The stewing in my head was settling. I’d gotten him back. I took my hat off, wiped my brow. I began the wait for the time it took sitting still for a person to cool down from the heat. Then I noticed: here he came. Nearly falling forward, grabbing the backs of seat and catching himself on the poles, not from the bus now in motion, but from his inebriation. I couldn’t believe it when he fell into the open seat beside me.
I turned away. I wasn’t going to move. This was my seat. I had my earbuds in and turned them up. He was saying something. I couldn’t hear him. Then he hit me. He hit me with his leg against my leg. I whirled on him with a loathsome look. He was breaking all the rules! “Are you gonna talk to me now?” he said. I spit out a sigh and stood up to move. But he wouldn’t move his legs. He locked them, knees against the seat back in front of him. I hesitated, and then stepped over him. He lifted his knees to make the stepping over harder. I walked down the aisle, just past the pivot joint, where I sat on a bench seat parallel to the bus side, facing the windows opposite.
I was down only a moment when he reappeared. The bench seats were three-seaters, mine and the one across and facing me. He didn’t sit beside me. This time he plopped down in the middle open seat between two older women opposite me. He was following me around the bus! I was equally scared and disgusted. I didn’t know what to do. Why didn’t the driver do something? The drunk was slurring something at me. I couldn’t hear him for my headphones. But he wasn’t going to make me move again. I was a full-grown primate. This was my spot.
The tension broke when he suddenly passed out. His chin drooped, his head hung forward, and he slumped. It swung back and forth in time with the bus. The women beside him leapt up and moved. The looks on their faces surprised me. They were directed at me! As though I were the cause of this! It wasn’t my fault there was a violent stalker on the bus. It was the driver’s fault! I didn’t remember in the moment that I had caused this, by body-checking him back, trying to restore my rule-bound honor, sir, instead of doing what the other passengers did, just letting it go.
I did the same as the women. I immediately jumped up and moved seats too. I returned to the back of the bus and took another seat facing the front. The ride continued.
Then, just as suddenly as he had passed out, he woke up. He looked around. I wasn’t there. No one was there. Everyone around had changed seats away from him. He was alone. In desperation he got to his feet. He moved to a new seat too. He took the open aisle seat beside someone in the front section. He must have felt some pre-Cambrian embarrassment because even from the back of the bus I could see him smiling, turning on the charm, making nice with his seatmate. His seatmate responded conversationally. I watched him gesturing. He turned his head in profile and smiled. Maybe the seatmate didn’t know what had gone on behind him because he hadn’t seen it. Or maybe he knew more than I did.
When the drunk passed out again, head lolling back against the seat handle, his seatmate didn’t move. The air of danger was diffused. No one moved again.
This is our one-year anniversary issue. We are 1! The Brasilia Review launched July of last year, we published six bi-monthly issues of prose and poetry, and now we’re beaming to present issue 7, which will carry us into our second year. Please feel welcome to submit to issue 8 and join us.
Here in Brasilia, a better breeze has pushed the heat away. The World Cup has only one week more. Neymar suffered a UFC injury in the last match and while Brazil has made it to the final four, they will likely go no further. Sports are very interesting, said The Onion once. For us here it marks the end of fireworks in the day.
In this issue, Steve Brockbank puts new eyes to a couple common moments and refreshes them. R.A. Casilao has the resolved sigh that growing apart means. Shane Kowalski takes a concept and gets it exactly right. Colin James Torre tells a story within a story of a haunting film that does not exist. And in an excerpt from her colonial adventure book, Sevvina X traces young Maria, leader of orphans, bane of shopkeeps, and boxing champ of boys.
Lukas Isenhart’s mind outruns the plane he flies in. David Jibson has the vision of the end of an era, before such things were measured. And Russ Paladin, making his second appearance in the review, sees his daughter grow a certain way because of chance.
Designer Nayrb Wasylycia knows that when you look out the door and see ice, your sky will be a field of grain in sun.
At the time 48 million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Ala Wai canal, I was living in a Korean section of the Ala Moana-Kakaako neighborhood in Honolulu. My apartment there was unaffected by the spill but I spent time in Waikiki, which was.
It was March and Honolulu, as far as easing out of winter goes, was on Hawaiian time. There were days of hundred-percent cloud cover, which produced rain but forbid the rainbows. The tradewinds still whipped up strong to January levels. At these times stepping outside in the middle of the city surrounded and shadowed by buildings, cranes, and fences, is like taking a wind bath. I’d feel cleansed in a New Age yet somehow tangible way. I kept the slats on the louvers open and let the rain blow into my room. It wasn’t cold but merely cool, a bit more than the water from the cold water tap, which on Oahu was never very.
The Ala Wai canal sits a half mile from the ocean and runs parallel to it. It separates the working class McCully-Moili’ili neighborhood from the weed-dealing hookers, the tourist paradise, of Waikiki. A golf course alongside the canal provides a further buffer. The canal was built early last century to divert potable water from the southern wetlands. The land dried, the rice fields were no more. For people who see dollar signs everywhere, it took not even a glance to know the land was now primed. And if this land was sunnier, received less rain, and had calmer ocean waves than other parts of the island, let’s shrug it off. Our corporate friends have our best interests at heart.
Boston transplants and friends of mine Justin and Alaine had an apartment in Waikiki that faced the canal. It was a high rise, about 10 stories up, and offered a view of the dark green mountains behind the city. Nearer was the golf course, its fairways bright and so coarse, unnatural. Its yellow-tinted sand traps didn’t match the grains of any natural beach. In front of that was the Ala Wai canal. From their balcony we watched the crew teams rowing, sync’d up like a high school clique, going with the current for speed or against it to build strength. There were cyclists and joggers on the path beside, and people sitting on park benches, looking at the water, or contemplating golf.
But when the sewage spilled that stopped. Some were as oblivious as a golfer, but the rowers, the joggers, the park bench ponderers, those were gone. The crew teams were forbidden to go on the water. The rest were driven away by the smell. And Justin and Alaine, whose stove was on their balcony, hated going outside to cook. They kept the sliding glass door closed.
Signs went up along the canal and all over Waikiki: Don’t go in — it is so dangerous. Whole beaches closed. The canal drained into the ocean, and the high-tide waves flicked sewage way up on the sand. Beaches are a litter box normally, bacterial Edens surpassed only by the seats at the movies. Not that we should care. Mythbusters said every toothbrush in the bathroom has particles of poo in the bristles, from the air, so let’s not get crazy and keep our toothbrushes in the top dresser drawer. But raw sewage, well. Best head to Walmart where it’s cool.
In the middle of the night, while the sewage flowed and touched the open air, a man named Oliver was drinking. He got into a fight. Someone he knew pummeled open cuts into his face. Then either he fell into the boat harbor, or was pushed, right where the canal meets the sea. He climbed out like Andy Dufresne and stumbled home. The next day he woke up and salved his hangover with more drinking. He went about his day. It was around that evening when he began feeling ill. He went to the hospital. They treated him for the injuries he got in the fight and they discharged him.
Two days later he went back. His leg was swollen and discolored. He was having pain. Tests showed he was in deep shit. Bacteria from the sewage had bored right through his open wounds. They amputated his leg. This did nothing for him. The bacteria Zerg-rushed his organs. A few days later he was dead.
They closed the beaches for ten days. While the city repaired the busted main, the sewage went on flowing. From my friends’ apartment I could see floaties in the canal, diapers, wads of toilet paper. But I didn’t visit them but once during those days. For me it was the time when I discovered TCM. I was growing to appreciate old movies. I needed something to latch onto, and they did for me what they did for people who were my age when they made them. I needed something to distract me from environmental catastrophe, and they did that too. As I age they don’t quite work that way anymore.
People who lived on their boats in the harbor where Oliver fell checked into hotels. There were surfers, though, who ignored the signs. These were the guys who went into the ocean there at Ft. DeRussy every day. They weren’t the sort who’d let a little poo change the path that they were on. These guys didn’t wear surfguards. Their chests were immune to board rash. When they got out of the water, their only concession to the signs was the bar of soap they used under the public showers.
SA Szary over at The Inner Condition kindly asked me to contribute. My first column is here. What I write there is and will be different from my blog. The Inner Condition is a fine publication with lots of good writing so I recommend following it if you don’t already.
Btw I’m also grateful that many of you are enjoying my Hawaiian memoir. That’ll probably keep going on my regular blog here for a while.
This is about the time I went on an illegal hike on Oahu. Arnaud had friends visiting from France and wanted to show them something special. So one morning a group of us drove two cars up Kamehameha Hwy to the northeast of the island.
Sacred Falls is a waterfall in a state forest reserve. It falls skinny off a mountain and collects in a natural pool. It was closed to the public and had been for some years. Some hikers had gone swimming there when suddenly, an avalanche. Rocks hurtled down and killed them. Locals said it was because the falls were holy, and foreigners were getting their foreignness into the water, so the gods were angry and bludgeoned them with a beer pong kill-shot. So the state closed Sacred Falls without saying if the reason was god or erosion.
Our group was as multinational as any in Hawaii. There were the Frenchies including Arnaud and Aline, Kesh from Singapore, Pedro from Puerto Rico, and a couple Americans including Ryan and myself. Only Ryan had been to Sacred Falls before, sneaky camping with his then girlfriend there one night.
The drive up the windward coast was long, the highway a two-lane road as windy as the coast, slowed further by tourists in their rental cars. We bypassed the kayaking hub of Kailua-Lanikai and continued up past the macadamia nut farm and the creepy campus of BYUH, where the girls had curfews and couldn’t swear or wear skirts. Spotting some chickens pecking dumbly on the shoulder of the road, I yelled out, “Stop! Lunch!” Pedro laughed. We did stop at the big hand-painted billboard calling for Hawaiian sovereignty from the US. I asked the guys to take a picture of me under it. Pedro got upset, said no. “Why not? It’s here,” I said. I thought it was another landmark, a site like any mountain lookout on the island. And something in me wanted to show the group I was not intimidated by it. But Pedro ignored me. Looking at it quietly, all he said was, “That’s awesome.”
We parked the cars on a residential street and walked under the eyes of bros on a lanai toward the woods. We wore backpacks with dry clothes, towels, and food. Kesh brought his acoustic guitar, worn on his back in a soft case with shoulder straps. This being Hawaii, Arnaud and a couple others thought slippers (flip-flops) were sufficient for a hike.
Because the falls had been closed some years, the old trail was overgrown. There were no signs, no obvious entrance. We wandered half an hour or more. I got frustrated and bored. Finally Ryan found the rudiments of a trail. “I think this is it,” he said. We followed. On the way he stopped and crouched. “Have you seen this plant?” he asked. He flicked these small green leaves growing on a stem. The leaves closed in on themselves, like a venus fly-trap taking a bite. I was impressed more than the others. “How did you know about that?” I asked. “From when I came here with my ex,” he softly said.
The trail ended at something surprising: a dirt road. It had been cut through a field. Wild grass grew tall on either side. It was well maintained. “We have to be quiet now,” Ryan said. “This is a forest service road. They have trucks driving on it. We don’t want to get caught. If a truck comes, run into the trees.” Nervous now we walked down the road. With no canopy the sun was like a fever prying through my skin. After some tense minutes Ryan found the continuation of the old trail. We were back into the trees.
"Watch out for wild boars," Pedro said. "If you see one, pick a tree and climb it, fast." "Wild boars?" I laughed. "They have tusks," Pedro said. "Tusks?" I laughed. "They’ll mess you up," Pedro said. "They will," everyone joined in. "They’re pigs right? How big are they?" I asked. But the group had no time for my ignorance. "Man I ain’t climbing no tree," I said to no one.
The hike took about two hours. The terrain was uneven but relatively flat as we were passing through a valley. Then, in the distance, a faint rush. The trees were thinning out, the trail becoming rocks. One more bend and we could see it, Sacred Falls.
The valley terminated in a chain of sheer black cliffs. They’d been split by millennia of water. The horseshoe walls enclosed us on three sides. Approaching the pool was like stepping in a giant’s diorama, the blue sky for a lid. The cliffs were mean, at 89 degrees, and though it was early afternoon they had us in shadow. Despite the clinging vines, there could be no climbing these cliffs, not without a pickax, not without pro gear.
The water fell in white, the way it does when it thinks it isn’t being seen. It was not so wide. It would be a single strand of hair on Iguacu. It was tall though, crane-your-neck tall. The natural pool looked black, from the dark volcanic rock that embowled it. The water fell cleanly in without making mist.
We set down our stuff. The boys stripped down to our trunks. My shoes off, I walked like a toddler and cut my foot on the rocks. “Is it safe for me to get in?” I asked. “This water is the cleanest in Hawaii,” Pedro said. “The rocks are porous,” Arnaud said. “They filter everything.” “Not if something died in it,” I thought. I made the mistake of dipping in my toes. That water was cold, mountain cold, the iceberg chunk at the museum display of the Titanic -cold. Some guys were getting out when I finally worked up the nerve to jump in.
I started swimming, swimming for my life. My skin was in shock. I moved as fast as I could to get warm. I whooped and they did too. Our voices echoed, amplified and tossed toward the ocean by the cliffs. As with meditation my thoughts began to drop away. But this was from the cold. I focused, kept it in my mind: make it to the falls. I swam. My chest was feeling tight as though my heart muscle objected. But I made it. The falls hit my shoulders like a Turkish spa attendant. They washed the hair right off my scalp. I wasn’t under very long. Now my chest was really tight. I swam back and carefully climbed the rocks out.
The girls waited until all us guys were out to get in. We ate and Kesh took out the guitar. I teased him for lugging it through the jungle. The others’ silence let me know how I should behave. Pedro wasn’t impressed with my Beatles covers. He played something salsa. Kesh knew some songs in French that went over best.
As we were hiking out a helicopter, small and black, appeared overhead. I checked the guys, ready to run. But they figured it was a tour over the island. It had no governmental markings, and since the falls were closed that was ostensibly the only way to see them.
On the hike back Arnaud broke the front latch on one of his slippers. He was struggling, barefoot was not an option. The trail was coated in broken bits of twigs that seemed to all stand up. Arnaud found one like a wishbone. He pushed the broken toe peg through the sole and held it in place on the bottom with the twig. It held a while and then popped out. It was slower going, but we made it free.
The world we knew was there to oppress us. Cars went by fast in either way. We heard distant music, other voices, buses, and machines. We didn’t want it to be over. The ocean was across the road. It was not a proper beach, just some rocks and ground where the high tide brought it almost to the cars. I went in to my shoulders and we all jumped.
Occasionally I rode the bus out of Kalihi, the Filipino neighborhood in Honolulu where I lived. One day I was waiting at the stop. It must have been mid-morning. It was a cloudy day, the tradewinds skiing down the mountain, hitting moguls, blowing my hair around. I had all my weight on one leg from the slant of the ground. Paying attention was not what I was doing. I had my earbuds in.
A young woman appeared on my right. She began to talk to me. She wore light grey sweatpants and a grey hoodie. I seem to recall she had another sweatshirt, in a dirty white, on top of the hoodie, as her clothes were kind of puffy. She was late teens, early 20s, and she had a baby in her arms, who was bundled in a blanket. I took my earbuds out.
"Are you looking for a girlfriend?" she asked.
Surprised, I laughed for a second. But I realized there was something in her voice. It was the way she said the words. It was like a tape played at half-speed but without lowering the pitch. She was a little slow.
"Oh um I have one," I said.
"I’m looking for a boyfriend."
I couldn’t think of what to say to fill the pause.
"I have one but I don’t like him anymore. He doesn’t treat us right."
She proffered the baby to me. I looked over the bunched omega bordering its little sleeping face. I saw. It was a little slow too.
"I have a two year old," she said. "That one isn’t his. Both of them are home right now." She gestured toward her house. "He doesn’t help out. A lot of times I don’t know when he’s coming home."
"Oh I’m sorry to hear that." I said this truthfully, but I consciously left out the lilt that would convey sympathy too strongly and invite a conversation.
"Are you sure you’re not looking? I’m a good girlfriend. I can do everything."
Those last words of hers put me at maximum embarrassment. This poured concrete on top of their heart-breakingness.
"No thank you," I said gratefully, but quickly added a perfunctory, "I’m good."
"Well if you do, my name is _________."
Instead of telling her mine, I checked for the bus. It wasn’t there.
She said something more and took her baby home. I didn’t follow with my eyes. I walked back and forth thinking about what happened. What was her emotion during the whole thing? Except for some annoyance in her voice about her boyfriend, I detected none. But it didn’t feel like she suppressed it. Was I the new guy she saw in the neighborhood? Did her instinct to improve her lot make her so direct?
In fact I had ended a problematic relationship a month or two before. I boarded the bus as though it were an escalator. Somebody wanted me.
Kalihi is a Filipino neighborhood. It runs up a mountainside on the west end of Honolulu. I lived there for a time, when the real estate was bouncing me around. It favors landlords there.
By now I had a bicycle, but relied on the bus as well. A reason was my roommate’s house, far up on the mountain. It was steep, a ride of one and one-half miles. Leaving the house in the morning, in the mauka air, I’d ride to Manoa, the other side of the city, where the university is. I’d fly down the mountain on my bike, to Nuuanu and Beretania St, where the lights on the working girls were yellow, not red. The long stretch of Beretania is relatively flat, until University Ave, which is uphill, to greet me like a leaning father after I was just about worn out. It was a 10-mile ride, dodging cars, and people clustered by the bus, with books on my back, in the oceanic heat, so that by the time I reached the school I’d be drenched in sweat. I’d go straight into the coldest building in Hawaii: the university library. There in a one-man bathroom I’d lock the door and change my T-shirt. I always brought a dry one in my pack. But before I could put it on, there was my sopping form. I looked like I’d just been rolled in the break at Sandy Beach. So it was handsful of paper towels for me. I’d pull them down one after the other, the roller sounding like a clockwork factory machine. And I’d soak towel after towel. I arrived an hour before class to take care of this. Then I’d go to the rare books part of the library and sit there with some old tome until I stopped sweating, because even in the frigid air the sweat continued. These books were hard-backed and oversized like an atlas, last opened when Francis of Assisi was talking to the squirrels, and the binding cracked and flaked as I tiredly carefully let the pages fall. After I put them back, I swept the flakes into my hand and dropped them in the trash.
The return home was difficult. My roommate’s house I remind you was up the mountainside. I’d bike across town to the base and wait there for the bus. It was not a busy route, and buses came once every half an hour, dwindling to every hour until they stopped, at 9:30 pm. 9:30 was in effect my curfew. Waiting could be disappointing. The bike racks on the bus’s front only fit two bikes. If two bike riders were on the bus, and it was the last bus, I was out of luck. Then I’d have to kill myself pedaling, standing up in first gear, slower than I walk, for that distance, that 19th round-trip mile of the day, up. And my street, a side street off the main street — no chance. It was just too steep. I never once rode my bike up the street I lived on. It had to be more than 45 degrees. But it happened to me, being shit out of luck, waiting for the last bus only to see that its bike rack was full. After getting burned a couple times, I caught on. I traded safety for convenience and rode past my stop to a sketchy stop at the beginning of the bus’s route. It meant putting on my city face while I waited, holding non-chalantly to a mode of transportation people loved to steal. But nothing ever happened to me there. At that stop I’d be the first cyclist on, and the longer bus ride along the unscenic dilipidated scenic route was the trade-off.
I should mention that Kalihi isn’t safe. It’s no favela, but it doesn’t attract the landed gentry either. I found this out first-hand once when I decided to walk to the grocery store at the bottom of the mountain. It was light out when I left. I walked downhill quickly without problem. I requested a brown paper bag at the checkout, stacking among my other goods the soy milk and ice cream. Such contradictions make us human. Then I started trudging back. By then it had gotten dark. Nobody was around. Every set of headlights shining on me was surprised at the haole walking after dark. I passed a dirty storefront. The guys hanging out across the street got quiet. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead. A minute later there was a car coming up beside me. It was slowing down. I thought the worst thing I could do was run. Not that I’d get very far, carrying groceries uphill and still halfway to go. I gripped the bag lumps tighter. Then I caught a break. A second car was coming up behind. The first car accelerated for it, going on ahead, and I wanted to sigh. But it was dark and I was tense. A couple minutes passed. I came around a bend and there it was. The car — it had to be the same one, though I hadn’t looked at it to be sure — was in the opposite lane now. It was completely stopped ahead. It faced me with its headlights on. There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t turn around and walk back down the mountain. That would tell them toy with me longer. I didn’t think about the bus and didn’t know when it would come. So I lifted the bag of groceries up to sit on my left shoulder. This blocked my face from them. My horse’s blinders gave me just the confidence it took to go. I walked steadily. I could see the light from the headlights on the blacktop. It was getting brighter. Beyond that there only was the sidewalk straight ahead, and whatever monsters dancing on my right. I was just about to hear the doors. I was hoping for another car to come and make it move again. I was about to be rushed and beaten for my wallet. Then the abrasions in the street relaxed in their night shadow. I was by them. They didn’t even yell at me or honk the horn.
I got home full of lightning and on edge. I yelled to my roommate what had taken place. He dismissed it. I was stunned.
There is no better way to learn the culture of a foreign place than to ride its bus. The metro will not work. Everyone down there had to pay. You must be outside in the air where anything can happen, with street noise and pedestrians, with garbage trucks and suicidal cyclists, and the homeless taking up the whole bus stop bench while your fellows stand away from the enclosure in the insistent sun.
There is no subway in Honolulu. There used to be streetcars, but these were all removed. There is only TheBus.
I moved to Honolulu to get re-educated. I’d found my school, and my first apartment, and began learning the routes, the lines, all the letters and the numbers, of the bus. It was necessary. I’d never own a car there, nor a scooter, and wouldn’t buy a bike until like one year into my stay, so I rode the bus, a lot.
The bus stop that took me to school was on Beretania St, the one-way multi-lane that runs into the central business district. This stop was placed strategically before an old folks home. It had a rectangle of grass along the sidewalk. This is rare in central Honolulu, which is a lot of low buildings and heat-reflecting concrete. Rarer still is that this grass was indigenous Hawaiian. It feels spongy underfoot and is endangered there. Some try to preserve it. Other grasses are invasive species. They cover most of the island, like kudzu does the American South. I once saw at this stop an old man in that rectangle of grass. He wore dress slacks and a button-down patternless shirt. He was on his hands and knees. He probably lived in the old folks home. He was pulling up patches of invasive grass by the roots and throwing it away. I asked him about it, and he told me the preceding.
The bus stop was a few blocks from my apartment. I walked the long way around exactly twice before I figured out I could cut through the Korean church’s parking lot. The lot was fenced by a thin-linked chain strung between two knee-high yellow poles, the kind with smooth sides and broken concrete tops. The chain dipped in the middle in a friendly Jesus smile. It was stepped over with ease. One time I’d see the church pastor in the lot. It must have been a Sunday. He was good-bying the congregants. He wore a bright blue Hawaiian shirt. Hawaiian shirts are professional dress in Hawaii. Bankers wear them in the CBD. I was dressed the opposite. I tried to catch his eye, to smile about my trespassing. He ignored me. I wasn’t in their community. It wasn’t hostile. I was invisible.
Back to another glorious time. Imagine my excitement. The first day of school, again! A fresh start in a new place! A new direction in life! I made the walk from my apartment, crossing the busy King St (Beretania’s twin, headed the opposite way), reaching the stop too early. My backpack was full and heavy with the thick hardback textbooks for the whole day’s classes. This backpack would wear out in one semester, as the stitching from the straps unravelled gradually.
The bus arrived. I was not the only one, nor the only seeming student. There were nurses, given away by their unbranded white sneakers, and professional women in business dress, as Hawaiian shirts were only for the men. It was taking a while to get on the bus. I looked over. The big sepia windows showed people shoulder to shoulder in the aisles. The bus was packed. But I had class. I had it timed out. I had to get on.
I did. I made it up the steps but could not reach the “Do not stand in front of this line” line. I was beside the coin machine, by the driver.
I was embarrassed. My pack was too big for the space. I knew it was bothering people. The bus lurched and we all lurched.
"Ow! Dammit, brah!"
A man beside me yelled. I realized, more embarrassed, that he was yelling at me. He was a local. He was dressed casual like me, a dark blue T-shirt, shorts past his knees, and slippers, though I wore socks and branded sneakers. He had black hair to his delts and a thick mustache. He wore sunglasses. He was muscular, hard, like a laborer. He said some more things angrily.
I looked down. It was my water bottle, on the bus floor. I’d stuck it in the mesh pouch on the side of my backpack before I left. I crouched to pick it up, trying to find room to do so, trying to keep my balance on the moving bus, whose driver’s goal was seemingly to beat the record time between two stops. I looked in the yeller’s face and forced an affable smile.
"It popped out," I said.
"Yeah, on my foot!"
It was a challenge. He was tense. The only thing I could think to do, to diffuse it, was to laugh. So I forced a laugh, out loud, and turned away, holding the handrail a little harder. He complained some more, but the edge was gone from his voice, and with more people squeezing on at every stop we were separated.
The swimming hopes and expectations for this day, for this new life, drowned inside my head. I was trying to see between people out the window, although I didn’t know how I’d recognize my stop. Somebody else dinged it. I saw the students getting off and followed them. I had made it, among the skyscrapers, the mountains not so far off at my back, and Chinatown between me and the ocean, broken-hearted by reality.