Artist Blog

Dateline: Paradise -- Dawn Over Starbuck's, Waikiki:

December, 2005

The trade winds have picked up and the Pacific is taking on weight, providing a line of distinction from the sky we could call the horizon and clarifying what it is out there in the dark that has a water-splashing sound as morning comes to Honolulu. Water is splashing and fizzing and foaming in the form of lattes, on the other hand, inside the December air-conditioned-condensing plate glass windows behind me as I face the traffic picking up on Kalakaua Avenue, while city buses with their own air-conditioned-condensing plate glass turn towards Kapiolani Park, and grocery and beer trucks beeping backing up while making deliveries to one of three ABC convenience stores on this block conveniently drown out, if momentarily, strains of "Hotel California" and "Little Surfer Girl" cascading from the upstairs and open-balconied Lulu's (24-hour breakfast, lunch and dinner). Tour buses making their 6:15 and 6:30 pickups from the Aston Waikiki and the Park Shore and the Queen Kapiolani are launching from their moorings, aiming to take out Pearl Harbor, the Dole Plantation and the North Shore all in one day (back to your room by 4:45) while a man in big rubber boots and a Hawaiian shirt aims his black hose at all the nuances of the concrete patio around me, washing out a few pigeons in the process and (I wish) the guy who's shown me the bandage on his leg every time in the last three days he's asked me for a quarter to get over to Queen's Hospital, seeing that he's been wounded (to use his phrase). At least the Germans at the next table I can't understand much, unlike my neighbor at the hotel who, whenever I am in the john in the morning, I hear on his cellphone loud and clear to several other timezones negotiating some kind of deal that he needs to be faxed about. Taxed is what the joggers have been doing out here, though, coming past in a steady stream of sweat on their torsos glinting now in the sun as it ascends over Diamond Head (which allows one guy in particular to check out his look in the windows), while waves of beach-headed surfers are beginning to swell, negotiating the red and yellow of the Kuhio crosswalk with Hibiscus-yellow-and-red boards the vague shape of palm fronds that are, since we are in Paradise, waving overhead. Ahh, Waikiki.

No Starbuck's Left Behind is our motto this trip, and Wes and I have found them aplenty here, not to mention in other parts of Honolulu. And, as strange as it is here in 80º weather and you are out on the beach distracted by some guy's pecs and here comes Doris Day on some loudspeaker singing about silver bells and sleigh rides in the snow, we do think about a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. This has been an early Christmas present, ten days on Waikiki. Our hotel has weekly rates and a ton of Japanese tourists, and we go up to the roof deck at sunset for a couple of beers and have a view of three slices of the Pacific darkening in the dusk between massive slabs of balconied hotels lighting up for the evening. In addition to taking photos on the beach I have begun to do some drawings as well, realizing quite quickly that palm trees and Diamond Head are rather dependable and stable subjects compared to lounging vacationers, not to mention the volleyballers who, if you are not paying attention, can easily send a ball into the side of your head.

Back in Colorado the high will be 17 tomorrow and Christmas definitely would seem more plausible, especially with a tree up. It's funny how you get used to doing or having something like Christmas a certain way, whereas here in Honolulu I would just as soon skip it. But then I am thinking of all the warm places (growing daily) where Christmas has always been warm, like Australia where it comes in summer (and does it ever snow in Bethlehem? Pennsylvania, yes). So who am I to say what "feels like" Christmas? When I first saw Hawaii just a couple of years ago, I didn't quite know what to expect. Or, rather, I knew that Honolulu has freeways and shopping malls, but having read about the Hawaii of the 1940's (WWII) and the 1960's (Joan Didion), I still couldn't picture it until the plane landed and I said "Oh." Not that I couldn't have looked in books, it just didn't quite register until I was here. And then when you are here, some of it looks like the brochures -- beautiful beaches, even deserted ones on Oahu and Molokai where we were the only two people walking in the surf for a mile or two under massive green fluted hills; or the snorkeling where you are literally in a world of coral you've never seen before, and swimming with schools of fish that, in one bay on Maui, had created a wall or a cloud of sorts, they were so tightly packed together in a big ball.

But what I'm saying is that there are these other Hawaiis out there, the same time that you think you're in Hawaii already. Like on the middle of Molokai where it is flat red dirt, and Native-blooded Hawaiians are able to claim so many acres of homestead and wouldn't mind seceding from the U.S. while they're at it. Or like the run-down neighborhood between the University of Hawaii and Waikiki, a 1950's enclave of jumbled crappy apartment buildings with quaint glass-louvered windows and old furniture out on the lawn next to junk cars, which is still a step up from the public housing units you pass on the city bus to downtown, public housing that could just as well be in Chicago (almost). Or, in a different way, like the Hawaii some World War 2 veterans must live in when they visit Pearl Harbor -- men whose indelible memories do not match the spiffed-up and becalmed harbor today with its tour groups of Americans and Japanese alike, whether headed to the Arizona Memorial where only a bit of sunken metal still protrudes from the waves, or else to the Battleship Missouri on whose deck the Japanese signed their surrender in 1945; these memories are so indelible that some men who were on the Arizona on December 7, 1941, and who survived, have been coming back since the 1970's to be buried with their shipmates. Or, lastly, the Hawaii of the other regular homeless guy at the Starbuck's on Waikiki, a friendly-enough guy maybe in his 30's with scruffy blonde hair and beard conveniently a-la-Van Gogh, who one day walks up and asks if I'd like to buy a drawing. I guess I'd noticed him with pens and such, but before his words had really registered I'd said no thanks, only to watch him go inside and ask a few other people the same thing and when they too declined, he threw the drawing into the trash. I went and fished the thing out, a scribble in heavy ballpoint of nothing much that I could see, except for a list of words down one side. At that point I wanted to pay him for it, but he had crossed the street and when I got there he was sitting on a park bench screaming up into the sky. I felt bad for both of us, but I kept going and kept the drawing too. So when a few days later, on our last evening before our flight home, watching the sunset over the Pacific and the palm trees swaying and the torchbearers running in orange sarongs along Kalakaua lighting the tiki torches, he walks up and asks if I'd like to buy some jewelry he's made, that he needs a couple of bucks for a beer. I couldn't say no at that point, especially since I was standing there with a bottle of beer in my hand, but I said I didn't want any jewelry, that I had the drawing from a couple days back. He looked at me and said, "Oh, did you like it then?" and I said "Yeah, keep doin' 'em," and I gave him the couple of bucks and he left.

So I'm sitting here writing this, and I'm looking at his drawing. First the backside-- the top of a box for Hawaiian Host Macadamia Nuts. What catches my eye is under the logo where it says in tiny type "Hawaii's Gift to the World." And I remember other, but similar, language to describe this time of the year as I turn it over and look at the drawing again, and now I can begin to make out a moon and stars, some trees, a figure in maybe a hat, an animal or two. It may not look like much, but my bet is that not only is it an image of this guy's other Hawaii, it's also a rendition of something I'd like to wish for you, friend, something I'm also betting surrounds us already, if only we realize how to tilt it in the light and look: Paradise. Merry. And Happy.

Jack Balas

Essay © Jack Balas