Meditations of a Commuter - Stories

Hawaiin Beach

He was probably in his late fifties and stood about 4’ 11” tall with a goatee and chestnut hair that was thinning in the front. He could frequently be seen amidst a sea of tourists around the zoo, pushing a shopping cart that was brimming with countless plastic bags, stuffed with all of his worldly possessions. One day he even had an inflatable mattress tied on top of the bulging cart.

The first time I saw him he was hanging out at the gazebo on Kalakaua Boulevard across the street from the MacDonald’s at the corner of Kealohilani St. He was sitting at one of the tables that have chess boards painted on top and was talking loudly and enthusiastically in a high pitched voice with some tourists who were sitting with him. The tourists laughed politely while obviously squelching their feelings of discomfort. There was a large pile of change in front of him on the table that he was handling with soiled hands. It was 80 degrees that day but the sea breeze and shade of the roof made it extremely comfortable. The water glistened and the beach was filled with laughing children and their relaxed but watchful parents.

A few days later there were sporadic moments of gentle rainfall or lightly blowing mist through which the sun still shined. On that pleasantly damp day I saw him pushing his stuffed shopping cart toward Kapiolani Park, wearing a thick, bright yellow rubber raincoat with the hood pulled up and tied. It was the kind of raincoat that kids wore in the 50’s and 60’s during the brisk rainfalls of late summer and autumn back on the mainland. There was a spectacular rainbow just behind Waikiki where the hills begin to jut upward majestically. Some glittering teenage beauties, just back from the beach with wet hair and wrapped seductively in damp towels, looked at him with comical amusement.

Somebody’s son wore a yellow raincoat in paradise.

There was a handsome, but haggard bearded man in his mid-thirties sitting on a bench at the entrance of Fort DeRussy Park facing Kalakaua Boulevard. Behind him was the spacious park with the towering and shiny tourist hotels radiating down to street level. His shopping cart had a small American flag on the right side, while on the front there was a sign that read, “God Bless America”. He was sipping coffee from a small, white styrofoam cup, while intently watching the people walk through the park and up and down his patch of Kalakaua. Everyone knew he sold drugs.

Somebody’s son sold drugs in paradise.

Over by A’aka Park there was a guy in his late fifties standing on a traffic island by the stoplight. He carried only a small backpack but was wearing a hat that looked like a worn out Australian Akubra. He was holding a makeshift cardboard sign that read, “Vietnam Vet wants money for food.” I slipped him a couple of bucks as I past the light and he said, “God Bless You!” I hoped it was for food, but I had no way of knowing.

Someone’s son fought in a war he didn’t start and begged from drivers in paradise.

One Hawaiian man was always in a wheel chair by one of the beachside gazebos on Kalakaua. He was heavy-set and had one leg missing, amputated just below the knee. The stump looked very swollen and painful. He wore a dirty baseball hat and heavy clothes despite the warm and humid weather. I couldn’t even guess how old he was because he was always slumped over and seemed to be dozing. Crowds of tourists walked by, making sure they looked busy talking to each other so it didn’t seem like they were staring at him. Several groups of young, giggling Japanese teenage girls scampered by in their brightly colored bikinis. A retired couple enjoyed a moment in the shade, sipping their cold shakes from the Jack in the Box across the street.

Someone’s son was very ill in paradise.

He had longish, blond hair with hints of red and an extremely ruddy complexion, and might have been in his late thirties. Wearing only a pair of baggy, dark blue swimming trunks, he spoke loudly and angrily to himself as he walked. He was the sort of person with whom one would try to avoid making eye contact for fear of attracting his disconcerting attention. The tourists, with their tote bags and souvenirs, always cleared out of his way, while trying not to seem too obvious. Occasionally, he would abruptly stop somewhere on Kalakaua Boulevard and start arguing vociferously with his inner demons, making emphatic gesticulation to emphasis the seriousness of his points.

One day I was sitting in the shade on a ledge across the street from the entrance to the zoo. Sitting next to me on the ledge was a young family with two small girls. The mother and the smallest daughter went off to do something and the father and his older daughter stayed behind to finish their frozen ice desserts and enjoy the beautiful weather from the same shady spot. The father and his daughter were engaged in carefree banter, punctuated by occasional giggles and laughs. One could hear from their accent that they were probably from the south—perhaps somewhere from around Fort Worth or Dallas. As they continued their repartee the agitated man in blue swimming trunks began to approach from the direction of the beach, absorbed in his inner thoughts, and carrying with him a very worn, dirty beach towel. He must have been in the water because his feet were covered in sand that had stuck stubbornly to his feet. He stopped very near the father and daughter—though oblivious to their presence—and began to violently hit his feet with a dried palm branch that he had just found on a grassy spot near the ledge. He kept swatting at his feet while he mumbled incoherently and angrily to himself as he tried to brush the sand from his feet. After doing that for three minutes or so he threw down the palm branch and began to stamp his feet, one at a time repeatedly and vigorously on the hard, hot sidewalk. The little girl from Texas immediately huddled into her father’s protective arms, though he was also was taken aback by the obtrusive display. The tortured man clad in dark blue swimming trunks had no idea of the gentle domestic scene he was disturbing just to his right, as well as the many tourists who were coming from and going to the beach. In a few minutes, he again began swatting himself with the palm branch, punctuated by intermittent stomping until finally he stopped and walked off, too exhausted to continue, but still muttering as he went.

I was surprised that the father and daughter stayed in place, but the father probably thought it was safer to not attract the attention of the scary man. Gone were the girl’s carefree movements and child-like banter. An attractive young couple headed toward the beach with arms sensuously entwined, oblivious to what had just transpired.

Somebody’s son in dark blue swimming trunks was tormented in paradise.

He was a heavy-set white guy, perhaps in his late thirties or early forties, who tended to hang out near Fort DeRussy Park and was often seated on a bench where Kalakaua Boulevard meets Kuhio St. He had a large belly, wore a dark short-sleeve top, long dark pants with a belt and old, dirty tennis shoes without the laces. His shaggy hair and beard and heavy built gave him the look of smaller and more unkempt Hagrid from the Harry Potter movies. One day it seemed like he sat on that bench for most of the day, slipping water slowly from a large-size plastic Sprite bottle. When a very attractive woman walked by, laden with plastic shopping bags from trendy shops and chatting on her cell phone, his head never moved but his eyes definitely followed her.

A couple of times I saw him walking through Fort DeRussy Park, once with a small plastic bag from one of the local ABC stores. I presumed that Fort DeRussy Park was where he bedded down for the night. He looked like the kind of person you wouldn’t want to greet or make eye contact with, but often people who live on the streets try to project an unwelcoming presence and demeanor to deter any potential threat against them. He was always alone.

Someone’s son drank water from a Sprite bottle in paradise.

He must have been in his mid-seventies or older and was pushing a very overloaded and heavy-looking shopping cart, piled high with things. He was on the beach side of Kalakaua Boulevard heading away from the zoo. It seemed that pushing the shopping cart amidst the hoards of tourists was a major physical exertion, perhaps in part due to the fact that in the 81-degree heat of the intense afternoon sun he was wearing an unseasonably heavy overcoat and what appeared to be a winter hat. The coat came down nearly to his ankles. He was as much pushing the cart as he was leaning upon it for support. His progress was very slow and labored. A young toddler cried in the arms of her mother, obviously heading back to a hotel for a much needed afternoon nap.

Somebody’s son was pushing a heavy shopping cart in paradise.

All of the benches on the beach side of Kalakaua Boulevard were facing out toward the breathtaking ocean and beaches. Most likely in her early fifties, she sat on one of these bench in the little area containing the statue of Prince Kuhio, just down from Ohua St. and St. Augustine’s. She sat there with her plastic bags and a dirty backpack by her side. Her Asian facial features were surrounded by long, unclean, gray, straight hair that was shoulder length. Whenever I walked past this spot she was there, often alone just looking out at the surf but occasionally chatting quietly with some other now permanent tourist. Her feet were bare and covered with painful-looking sores.

Someone’s daughter sat facing the beautiful ocean in paradise.

Another regular in the Prince Kuhio area near Ohua St. was a Hawaiian lady in her mid to late fifties who always sat on a bench or stone ledge on the left side of the Prince Kuhio statue. She was always alone with her many colorful bags (one from Macy’s), as well as her large suitcase that had wheels on one corner and a pull handle that was not extended. She had a bright red bow in her dirty stringy hair, and wore a stylish, dirty red blouse, green pants and bright red casual shoes. Boredom and malaise were written across her face. Had she ever shopped at Macy’s?

Someone’s daughter wore a red blouse in paradise.

He walked very erect, and appeared to be a little over six feet tall. Likely in his late sixties, he was of trim built with a well kept short gray beard and thinning hair. He carried a small backpack and was dressed simply but very neatly. He had a certain composure and elegance in his gate as he entered Fort DeRussy Park from Ala Moana Boulevard. Dusk was just giving way to the cover of night, and I thought he might be walking through the park for a last look at the beach before returning to a modest motel. The elegant and regal Hilton Hawaiian Village on Kalia Street that towered over the park was quite near, though likely beyond his budget. His appearance and manner indicated a gentleman of some education and culture though he seemed a little tentative, perhaps because the park was starting to get dark. Early the next morning as I walked again through Fort DeRussy Park to the beach in the bright morning sun, I saw him sound asleep on the grass under a thin blanket about halfway between Kalakaua and Kalia, deep enough inside the park to minimize the intrusive night-time street lights and traffic noise.

Someone’s elegant son bedded down on the grass in paradise.

The young Hawaiian boy was rather chubby and wore red flowered beach shorts with no top or shoes. He could always be seen near the magnificent Banyan tree that graced the area near the main entrance of the zoo. Among the many large Indian Banyan trees in Kapiolani, Fort DeRussy and Ala Moana Parks, this ancient one was perhaps the largest and most impressive. So many of its vines had dug into the ground and turned hard that the tree’s circumference had become humongous, forming large crevices and chambers in which a person could easily stand and move. The first time I saw the chubby boy in red shorts he walked into one of these arboreal chambers and used it as a urinal. Not fifteen yards away, droves of families with excited young children were entering the main gate of the zoo. Just down the boulevard the proud statue of Princess Kapiolani presided. The boy was always with two older men who also seemed to live in the shade of this huge tree. They were usually trying to sleep on the grass during the day or, when awake during the day, just sitting silently on the benches in the shade of the tree. The boy didn’t look like the son of either older man.

Someone’s son lived around a magnificent tree in paradise.

He had to have been at least six feet eight inches tall and was so unbelievably thin that he almost looked like a skeleton encased in skin. He was wearing a non-descript top and a pair of worn out shorts that he had to pull up constantly as they quickly slid down his emaciated frame. His hair was short and closely cropped and his pitch-black skin made him stand out amidst the throng of tourists. He was frantically going through the trash bins around the police substation at Kalakaua and Uliniu in a desperate search for food or drink. This man had a look of utter despair and desperation that I had not yet seen on the streets. As he plowed his way nervously through the trash bins and took small sips from liquids left in plastic bottles, throngs of tourists walked by seemingly oblivious as they enjoyed another weather-perfect day in Waikiki. Occasionally a young child wanted to stop and watch, but an alert and protective parent would gently but firmly pull the child along.

Someone’s tall son was sipping beverages in paradise.

A husky Hawaiian was camping out just down from the police station on one of the narrow grassy strips between Kalakaua Boulevard and the beach itself. These grassy spots were in the shade of palm trees and tropical bushes, softer and more spacious than benches and narrow ledges. He had several large backpacks and bags and had built an impromptu tent with some blankets that were tied to the nearby trees and shrubs. He was always lying down. The only time I ever saw him standing was when two policemen came to speak with him, explaining to him quietly but demonstrably that squatting was illegal. A few hours later he was lying down again in the same spot—the only difference was that the makeshift blanket roof of his tent had been taken down. I suppose with nothing tied to the trees, he was officially considered another tourist just lounging in the lazy, warm weather.

Someone’s son posed as a tourist in paradise.

The woman had long jet-black hair and was wearing a number of long ragged tops and skirts. She sat on a folding chair and was completely slumped over, either uncomfortably asleep or depressed and awake. She had her shopping cart nearby, brimming over and piled high with backpacks, numerous plastic bags were hanging from every available space. I drove by that area at the back of Kapiolani Park on Leahi Avenue several times during the course of several days and she was always there in her lonely outpost, far from the glitter and endless energy of Kalakaua Boulevard. It seemed like she was waiting for someone who was no longer coming.

Someone’s daughter waited in paradise.

One gazebo on Kalakaua Boulevard was a magnet for chess players. From morning till dusk the regulars would be positioned at their tables taking on anyone who had a hankering to play. Homeless players would mingle with tourists and often get involved in impromptu games. One of the regular players was a guy in his fifties whose dark hair was combed back slickly in the style of the Fonz. He seemed to be there everyday and always involved in a game. He wore narrow, dark shades and a black leather jacket.

Someone’s son played chess in paradise.

He appeared to be a very intelligent, handsome young man in his early twenties but some of his attractive facial features were hidden behind a full curly beard and longish hair that had been sun bleached in spots from spending so much time in the sun. He had a couple of tiny tattoos adorning his intense face, one of some unknown design, the other a teardrop under his left eye. It was hard to tell if he was angry, frustrated or simply straining from concentrating on some inner torrent of thoughts and emotions. Perhaps it was a combination of all three. He was quite thin and had three layers of jerseys on, all very dirty. The sleeves on the green jersey were long, but one could see that his hands also had various tattoos. He had a small, clean gray backpack that had two slender straps, one over each shoulder. His fingernails were of varying lengths with deep pockets of dirt underneath each one. His strong hands also looked dry and unclean, untouched recently by water of any kind. He wore dirty blue shorts and was barefoot with white but soiled and torn medical tape wrapped around various parts of his feet and soles to provide protection from endless walking on concrete. His legs were absolutely filthy but underneath the grime one could see the faint outline of larger tattoos. He was standing by a green trash bin on Kalakaua Boulevard, a few blocks down from the International Market. He was eating the sugar out of the little packets that MacDonald’s puts out for coffee drinkers. He opened each packet meticulously, downed the contents in one smooth gulp, then carefully put the empty packets into the trash bin. While there he poked around for any cigarette butts that might have a few puffs left in them. After he left the trash bin he walked on with slow and deliberate steps in the direction of Fort DeRussy Park. Despite his filthy appearance he seemed to be a person of thoughtful intelligence but very focused and preoccupied with his own thoughts. He gradually disappeared into the endless crowds on Kalakaua and was gone.

Someone’s son ate sugar out of packets in paradise.