It became quite clear to me that life in a house in Hawaii was going to be different the first night I went out to dump the garbage. Shuffling through the flower petals that cushioned the front walk, I edged my way past beds of plumeria and finally found the garbage cans screened behind a line of yellow Allamandas. Having got rid of the refuse, I paused to look mauka—inland, or "toward the mountains" in Hawaii—and there were the jewel-lighted houses running up the slope called Wilhelmina Rise, a tilted runway of gleaming marcasite leading to some heavenly upstairs hall. Beyond, a similar rise called St. Louis Heights offered, despite its beer-and-pretzel name, a show of equal splendor under the velvet sky. It struck me then that in the 50th state, where the garbage collectors make their rounds with flowers tucked behind their ears, people think that other people live like this everywhere. If the islanders think of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn at all, they think of it as a stream where orchid petals float, not sewage.
From that first evening I began to reflect on this botanical garden that I had rented for a month as "the villa in Kahala." It was a phrase that didn't exactly lack class and it was great euphonically. We had arrived that afternoon and already had a fair notion of what Kahala was like. It is the elegant residential section of Honolulu, a sort of super suburb-on-the-sea. But the advantages over any other commuters' retreat were apparent at once: there were no railroad tracks and no station anywhere. The villa had a swimming pool, and by standing on the diving board and looking over the pink glow of a neighbor's oleander I could see the scow-shaped outline of Diamond Head, the lofty cape southeast of Honolulu. It was the first time I had seen it so close and the only time I had not seen it from a supine position on the sands at Waikiki or over the mint-and-pineapple-stick foliage of a mai tai served in a Waikiki bar. It was Diamond Head all right, but it looked different from the villa in Kahala.
There is no relation between the home life of Hawaii that I had now entered on, if only temporarily, and the rum-washed, luau-stuffed, package-tour version of Instant Hawaii served buffet-style in the palaces along the beach. The villa was only 15 minutes away from all that, but the distance couldn't really be reckoned in either minutes or miles. A breadfruit tree burgeoned over the lawn, destined to become in the weeks of our tenancy a sun umbrella for children's picnics and a jungle gym. Singapore plumeria bloomed like a blizzard in front of the neighbor's house across the street, and when the blossoms fell in the neighborhood the young sons who would be shoveling snow on the mainland were mobilized to gather up the petals.
Our first night it had been almost more than the family could bear to go inside to bed; it was more than anyone could bear the next morning to stay inside for breakfast. A bridge table was set up by the pool while a myna bird chirped from a roost on the telephone wire. My son Andy was dispatched up a spindly papaya tree to pick the first course. It was an exotic errand for a city-bred 7-year-old, and I wondered whether he would remember it as long as I remembered a hike up to Blueberry Mountain when I was an 11-year-old intermediate at summer camp. We had pitched our bedrolls in fields of blueberries on the cool summit of a Maine hill and had awakened in the morning with fruit within arm's reach. I was so enchanted by the experience I wrote a letter home without being told.
November 21, 1960
Although we were growing our own papaya and hoped before the summer was out to be able to produce a breadfruit that we could bake in the electric wall oven, we were not, after all, wholly self-sufficient, and we made frequent forays to the shopping center five blocks distant. Far from being a chore, going to the store in Hawaii was like taking in a modernistic tropical side show. There were the lady shoppers in their muumuus scurrying down the covered walks and the shoeless kids careening on their bikes around a giant plumeria tree that grows through a hole in the ceiling that shades the sidewalk. For 20¢ a stalk you could buy orange bird-of-paradise blooms looking like party favors that have just exploded, and once we filled a vase with an armful of orchids for 35¢.
Small boys from the mainland don't have to be persuaded to have their hair cut in Waialae-Kahala's five-chair barber shop, where every barber is a Japanese lady in a long white robe. But Garden City, a combination plant and pet shop where two flaring white orchids growing in a pot cost $2.95, was for me a giant floral frustration. Some of the world's most exotic blooms were being offered at giveaway prices but, no matter how tempting the bargain, how do you carry back to New York a tree fern seven feet high ($3.50), a lichee tree ($4.29) or five feet of frangipani for $4.95?
The supermarkets seemed larger than the ones at home. They carry not only the standard mainland labels but, depending upon the neighborhood they serve, they also stock masses of Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Philippine fare. The vegetable bins were full of the produce grown by Chinese and Japanese farmers—white-stem cabbage and mustard cabbage, chop-suey yams, lotus root called hasu in Japanese alongside an odd mutation of watercress called unchoy in Chinese. You could buy your own taro and pound it into poi or buy the poi all pounded and prepared, done up in plastic bags and stamped "PRESSURE-COOKED STRAINED POI—Produce of the Honolulu Poi Factory, 1603 Republican St., Honolulu."
Sending Father to the store soon proved an unreliable move, for there was the wonder of the Oriental canned-goods department to get lost in: tins of octopus, your choice broiled or baked; cellophane bags of dried squid; dried seaweed; dried dali dali; seasoned red cuttlefish; and persimmon leaves for the brewing of persimmon tea. Fried spotted fish is put up in cans by the Kwong Hang Heung and Fook Kee Canning Co. and imported from Hong Kong. It rested in stacks just opposite the tins of Maine sardines and Bumble Bee salmon. Gerber's oatmeal looked across at the jars of salted red Japanese plums. The shoyu sauce put up by Higeta and Co. and fetched all the way from Tokyo carries the compelling testimonial which reads in English, "Patronized by the Royal Household since 1616."
Those who drink foreign beers at home—Tuborg from Denmark, L√∂wenbr√§u from Germany—will find imported beers in high favor here, too, especially Swan Lager, fetched up from Perth, and San Miguel from the Philippines.
Many mainland ladies who come to Hawaii take courses in Oriental cookery. Cookbooks like Wiki Wiki Kau Kau (quick snackery) will tell you how to bake a breadfruit, make banana waffles or mix sake on the rocks (add vermouth and lemon juice). The Hawaiian Homemaker's Favorite Island Recipes goes through everything from pancit luglug (Filipino noodles) to pineapple spareribs to veal parmigiana √† la Oahu. However, some packagers aiming at the haole (Caucasian) market take no chances and lapse into long English-language discourses on their labels. One of these for shell soup I submit in its entirety:
The Shell Soup
One shell is for each person.
Put it in the soup bowl and pour hot water over.
Then after a little while the shell will open bobling for your eating.
Dried seaweed, dried shrimps, dried tangle, sweet rice cake, wheat cakes, monosodium glutamate.
But the wonders of the Hawaiian world are only a passing fascination to one who is 7 years old. "It's kinda boring," Andy said on the second day, kicking the dirt with a dirty blue sneaker. He missed Steve, his pal back home. So Andy and I walked the plumeria-perfumed streets of Kahala until we found Scotty, who was 6½, and then I walked back home alone and lay for a long time under the breadfruit tree.
Scotty came often after that. Like most Hawaiian kids, he disdained shoes. Andy quit wearing them the day he met Scotty. The two of them would munch tuna sandwiches smeared with yellow mustard, their feet dangling in the pool.
The merest ripple of water in a backyard pool in Hawaii reacts on pool-less neighbor children like unveiling an unmarried prince in front of a Gabor. The first splash in our tank would send Rocky, an older boy who lived next door, scampering into the branches of a tree that grew in his yard and overlooked ours. There he would sit, mopping the perspiration of the August afternoon from his brow, looking at the kids cooling themselves in our pool. "Now, you have to be hardhearted about this problem," my landlord had briefed me, "or you'll be playing lifeguard to all the brats in the neighborhood." I could stand Rocky's forlorn look just so long, perhaps eight minutes, and then he was invited into the pool, too. By the time he was in his suit and ringing our front doorbell his place in the tree had been taken by his sister, who is called Jolly. By the time Jolly got invited there was a new face in the tree. It belonged to Jumpy, to whom Jolly, standing on the diving board, was giving the scram signal with her hand behind her back. "Don't pay any attention to her," said Jolly, speaking of her small sister. But shortly the front doorbell rang, and there stood Jumpy in her bathing suit and carrying a towel. She looked up at me from her height of three feet and said, "Is my sister here?" I recalled my landlord's briefing and took a deep breath to answer, but by that time she had fled around my feet and was in the pool, too. The door was scarcely shut before there came a scratching on it and there was Sebastian, the cocker spaniel belonging to Rocky, Jolly and Jumpy.
I never saw anyone deliver milk, but they did ring our bell selling guava juice—a bright lavender belly wash that comes in waxed containers just like milk and is highly favored by Hawaiian kids. The mailman comes in the forenoon, just in time to spoil the rest of the day, arriving on a motorcycle, carrying the special deliveries dispatched from the office in New York. I was standing out front anxiously waiting for him the first couple of days, but by the end of the second week the notices from New York lay moldering unwanted in the mailbox until the sun had fled and the nightly show had started mauka on Wilhelmina Rise.
The most fearsome of the morning visitors was the Japanese I found on our lawn one day, head wrapped in a bandana, trousers rolled up, wearing an angry scowl and flashing an enormous machete. He looked like a diehard Imperial soldier who had just been flushed from a cave on Guam, but he was, in fact, the gardener hired by my landlord and payable, during my tenure, by me. Although he dropped his machete at my approach, his expression remained unflinchingly fierce. "I have contract fix garden every week," he said. "Fine," I said, the word coming from a head I had expected by this time to be rolling under the plumeria. "Before you go, would you mind gathering up those petals in the rock garden along the entranceway?" "Not in contract," he said and strode off. That night I had a call from the landlord in which he patiently asked me, as one explains to a 6-year-old why it isn't sporting to put a girl's pigtails in the inkwell, not to have any more conversations with the gardener. "Orientals can be quite strange by our standards," he said. "You have to be very careful what you say. They are very proud. And even at $1.50 an hour they are very hard to get. I had to talk the fellow out of quitting. He'll be all right now, but maybe it would be better if you would let me talk to him and I will pay him. You pay me back."
This Kamikaze of the cabbage patch was for us only the beginning of a touch-and-go relationship with the domestic hired help of Hawaii. Fifty dollars a week for a maid-of-all-work is the going price, and even at that a classified ad inserted in a local Waikiki beach paper produced a scarce, if variegated, crop. A bottled blonde of many summers, ablaze with rhinestone bracelets, a young Spanish girl expecting her eighth child within three weeks, and an ancient Japanese granddame, too tired to cook or clean house, briefly graced our house.
Two weeks passed, and then Nora Kawamura phoned. I have forgotten who told her we needed help. "I'm your new maid," she said cheerfully. "Just back from Europe. I be there 5 o'clock." Nora was a jewel. She embroidered the pineapple for breakfast. She toured the Oriental shelves of the supermarkets with me, brewed saimin, served salads of lotus root rubbed with ginger. When cocktail guests were due she would ask "What you want I make for pupu?" In Hawaiian, pupus are little shells or beads, but in recherché island circles the word is used for canapés, and one packager of cocktail-sized frankfurters puts them out under the label of Pu Pu Pups.
With Nora in command of the villa in Kahala, we accepted invitations around the island. We drove up to Aina Haina, which means "tell of the land," and had dinner with friends by the side of their white-and-turquoise pool while fishermen worked offshore with kerosene lanterns, gliding softly by like tranquilized fireflies. One night when a brief half moon was making cutouts of the clouds and laying them against a midnight-blue sky, we rode over the Pali to a dinner party on the Windward Side. The car radio, tuned to the Japanese language station, twanged nasally with the music of Nippon. With the hulking black silhouettes of the Koolau Range rising on all sides, the strange music filling the air and the moon playing in the clouds, we felt we were riding on the far side of Saturn. Then we came down to the flat-lands of Kaneohe, and the announcer came on spewing a Japanese commercial on the glories of owning a Pontiac. The words were all Japanese but the numbers were in English. "Everybody talk pidgin, so we like to hear numbers in English," was Nora's rather laconic explanation the next morning.
Hawaiian dinner parties are almost always out of doors, almost always a buffet of curry, sukiyaki or Chinese dishes. Minimum and silk lounging pajamas were the dress for ladies, and aloha shirts for men. There was a detachment from world affairs in the dinner party conversations, which revolved about the ruination of the island by the tourist interests and the problems of having a swimmingpool. Men in Hawaii talk about pools the way women in suburbia talk about their children. "I'm using half chlorine and half ammonium sulphate in my pool now," is a good after-coffee opening gambit along Black Point Road. "You only have to put it in once a week. With plain chlorine I was dumping the stuff in every day. Chlorine is just synthesized by sunlight."
Getting your own maid may be difficult in Hawaii but entertaining is what they used to call in college a pipe. The Japanese run the catering services, and they will produce waitresses and cooks no matter what kind of food you serve. Japanese help will willingly dish out Chinese dim sum, which is a half-moon-shaped rice noodle stuffed with pork and water chestnut, or char siu bow, which is red pork stuffed in big doughy rolls. Or they can whip up a poi supper of chicken lau laus wrapped in taro leaf and cooked in coconut milk; lomi-lomi salmon; pineapple; haupia; and maybe coconut cake, just like Liliuokalani used to make. Inexperienced visitors subjected to a barrage of Honolulu entertaining might come away with the notion that every home is equipped with its own built-in Japanese butler. Basically, however, there are only two free-lance butlers working the Kahala homes, and they are named Ernest and Yoni. They arrive on call, immaculate and white-coated, and if they have seen you before you'll get your favorite prescription at the bar without asking.
There were days when we all packed into a rented car and went rolling around the road that hugs the shore line, down past Kaiwi Channel, where the surf leaps up the rock face and falls back like white poodle puppies jumping in a pet shop window. We kept a bulletin board in the little grass shack in Kahala, and on it we posted the daily events guide put out by the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. We never took the Bird Walk to Manoa Falls or the Mauka Hike with the Hawaiian Trail and Mountain Club, and for that matter we passed over the Oahu Prison Tour offered each Wednesday at 9, but we did drive up old Nuuanu Avenue one night, far off the tourist beat, to see the incredible Bon (festival) dances staged by the Japanese community. There in the temple yards teams in bright kimonos dipped and shuffled in the traditional, 1,300-year-old postures while flutes shrilled in the late August night and the booming of the giant drum rocked the deep summer stillness. In tabi socks and broad straw skimmers topped with a pink dusting of fake cherry blossoms they came to take the little mincing steps under the swaying lanterns while other teams, waiting their turn, queued up at the refreshment stand and drank soda pop. My son Andy found them, as he said, "disorganized," but I was transported to an ancient inland village of old Japan, at least until I heard a Japanese father call to his 3-year-old son, dressed as he was in a tiny kimono and a baseball cap, and discovered that these honorable descendants of the Sun Goddess and the Emperor Jimmu had named the lad Morris.
We were with the Chinese Buddhists the day they celebrated Dragon Boat Day in Ala Moana Park within view of the Tahitian Lanai, a restaurant which serves hot pastrami on pumpernickel with potato salad garni. Under a tent oil lamps flickered, candles flamed and heavy incense sweetened the air while a priest in a red kimono and a black mortarboard sang singsong prayers from an accordion-pleated prayer book. Joss sticks were burned on a table laden with fruits and flowers, rice cakes and grapes and a whole glazed duck, all offered to ancestors living in the hereafter. Whole wardrobes of brilliantly colored ceremonial robes imported from Hong Kong hung on racks to clothe the departed. Food for the souls was sprinkled with tea and with whisky. Gongs rang. And, finally, two beautiful paper boats, one a dragon, the other a phoenix painstakingly pasted with colored paper, were brought to the water's edge and set afire. Paper money was burned to give the souls currency to travel on, and paper cups with burning candles were set afloat and pushed out from shore to light the way of the departed ones in the world beyond. It was a moving sight and I raised my camera. The Buddhist I saw through the view-finder sending a candle to the hereafter proved to be my own. Andy had joined the Chinese children whose special job it was to send the lighted cups out to sea.
The last day came finally and the last sunset. We were spending the final few nights in the Halekulani Hotel so our landlord and his family could move back in their house. The room was piled high with shorts and shirts and damp bathing suits, all to be stuffed into the suitcases.
We heard the guitars out on the Hau Terrace, at the Pacific's edge, and we left the packing and went to tell Hawaii goodby. I asked the hostess for a table for three, but she looked at me and shook her head and said, "I'm sorry, sir, but we wear shoes here for the cocktail hour." I had gotten quite out of the habit. By the same time next day we were in Hollywood, having landed like the compleat tourist in a welter of coconut hats, flowers and ukuleles. Andy was standing there in the hotel lobby looking up the marble cliff to the top of the registration desk. "Excuse me, sir," he said to the room clerk. "Do you give ukulele lessons here?"
HOW TO RENT A HOUSE IN HAWAII
For anyone who wants to set up temporary housekeeping in Hawaii, houses in Kahala or in Waialae-Kahala, Aina Haina, Wailupe or Windward Oahu, near the beach or on it, rent from $250 to $1,200 a month. Summer, when many Hawaiians go to the mainland on their vacations, is the best time for renting. One way to find a house is to advertise in the newspapers: the Advertiser or the Star-Bulletin. Another is to write one of these Honolulu agents: Earl Thacker, 2400 Kalakaua Ave.; Louise Rogers, 2122 Kalakaua Ave.; the Bishop Trust Co., 141 South King St.; or the Hawaiian Trust Co., 1010 Richards St. There are hundreds of cooperative housekeeping apartments which can be rented from their absentee owners.