International Writers Magazine: Life in Hawaii
nearly two decades now Ive been spending a month or a month
and a half each summer in Hawaii. Being a teacher means that I have
plenty of free time during the months of July and August. Living
alone and without anything much by way of family, in turn, also
makes such excursions economically feasible. Every year, however,
it becomes more and more difficult to leave the Aloha State.
The thought of the
gray skies, drab colors and dour expressions back on the East coast
has recently begum bringing tears to my eyes, literally, as I board
the plane for that long flight back home. Unlike many of the diseases,
conditions, syndromes and labels that are so much a part of our vocabulary
these days thanks in no small part to the pharmaceutical companies
working in collusion with the medical establishment "tropical
depression" is something to whose reality I can readily attest.
As I grow older, it takes me longer and longer to recover from my sojourn
in the islands; both in terms of my affect as well as with regard to
the physical effects of fatigue and jet lag.
While Ive traveled extensively in Hawaii during my visits over
the past twenty years, Waikiki is the place I consider my "home
base." I love the crowds, the hustle and bustle and, quite honestly,
the romantic, even nostalgic atmosphere of the place. While in Waikiki,
I stay most times at a little condominium and hotel complex down toward
the end of Kalakaua Avenue across from the Diamond Head end of Kapiolani
Park. Its relatively quiet about the quietest spot in the
area and yet still within easy walking distance of all the action
that is so much a part of this beguiling place.
Something else that attracts me to Waikiki is the fact that its
still the haunt of all sorts of engaging and exotic characters, many
of whom are willing to pour out their lifes story at the slightest
provocation. The Pacific, of course, has always been noted as a place
where colorful castaways, artists, writers, ex-cons, rogues, renegades
and neer-do-wells of whatever stripe wash ashore. History and
literature are full of examples. Despite its increasingly upscale and
corporate façade, and if one knows where to look, Waikiki has,
even today, more than its share of interesting human flotsam and jetsam.
Perhaps no one more epitomizes the "type" of which I speak
than Jack Davis. There is, I submit, something both pathetic and, at
the same time, tragic about his story. Its a story, therefore,
that is illustrative on a multiplicity of levels. There was a time when
Jack could be seen every day on the beach in front of the Moana Surfrider
Hotel. He was there the first year I began coming to Oahu and something
about him made me certain that he had been a fixture on that fabled
stretch of sand for years before I ever laid eyes on him. I dont
even remember when it was that I actually first learned his name. I
can, however, tell you that it has been only during my past three or
four visits that I actually had an opportunity to speak with him.
Jack would stake out a spot on the sand of Waikiki Beach and, in an
elaborate and practiced ritual, he would plant a faded blue and white
sun umbrella emblazoned with the old Pepsi-Cola logo. (From the moment
I first watched him at work, I began thinking of him as the proto-member
of a new human species dubbed "Pepsi-Man"). Hed sit
under his umbrella in a beach chair and read. And woe and betide anyone
who got too close to his spot with their inflatable rafts, backpacks,
chairs or towels. For as long as I had been taking note of him, he wore
his long white hair in a ponytail. That, combined with his deep tan,
white beard and dark sunglasses gave him a genuinely patrician look.
Not even his old swim suit, weather-beaten shorts and sun washed tank
top detracted from his haughty demeanor.
Jack, it turned out, was nothing if not frugal. He apparently rode his
bike to the beach each morning from an apartment he occupied somewhere
off Ala Wai Boulevard. Sometimes when I was out walking or jogging,
Id watch him chain his simple but serviceable machine to a bike
rack located at the start of a walkway that ran between the Outrigger
Waikiki and the Moana. Hed mount the steps to the Moana, cross
the open-air lobby and then pass the old Banyan Veranda and make his
way to the waters edge where hed set up shop. On the way
hed filch the mornings Honolulu Advertiser from the hotels
rack and help himself to the free coffee the venerable old establishment
used to put out each morning for their early-rising guests.
I often wondered what "Pepsi-Man" did for a living, how he
supported himself or if he were retired
and if so, from what?
I sensed that there was a real story here just waiting to be told. Unfortunately,
Jack struck me as someone who would not welcome a stranger "chatting
him up." It was all too obvious that he conversed only with the
locals and with members of the Moana staff. He apparently felt that
only those who had "paid their dues" in the islands or who
had what he calculated in some arcane way was a genuinely Hawaiian pedigree
were worthy of his attention. The thought of a mere beachcomber with
such aristocratic ways often gave me a chuckle.
The truth is I never saw Jack do much of anything. Id watch him
day after day for weeks and then Id leave to return to the Mainland.
When next Id come back to the islands, there would be Jack in
his old spot, erecting his umbrella and reading. He was as predictable
and as reliable as the tides. The only deviation would come when, after
one of his sporadic swims, hed return to his little enclave and
find it surrounded by claim-jumpers. Usually a glower was all it took
for him clear the immediate area. He seemed to reserve a particularly
potent dose of venom for the hordes of Japanese tourists for whom "personal
space" was basically a foreign concept.
same scenario with only minor variation played itself
out year after year. Then, one day, back in 2004 or maybe 2005,
I was in the little coffee shop that is located at the very front
of the tower wing of the Moana. I was thoroughly enjoying myself,
drinking Kona coffee and reading as the trade winds blew gently
through the large open window where I sat and looked out on Kalakaua
Avenue. In a land where virtually every morning was beautiful
where, in fact, the beauty of the surroundings could be monotonous
this was an especially spectacular day.
The fronds of the royal palms that grew in front of the hotel rustled
dryly overhead and there was the faintest scent of ginger borne
on the breeze.
After a time, I
sensed someone standing next to my table and when I looked up I was
surprised to see "Pepsi-Man," in the flesh, staring at me
with a quizzical expression. I figured for sure that I was sitting in
his usual seat
even though I had never seen him in the place
and decided that, if so, I would move without argument.
Sans preamble, however, he reached down and tilted the cover of the
book that I was holding in my hands so that he could read the title.
"Somerset Maugham. Man, he could write. I loved his stories set
in the South Pacific and the Far East," Jack stated. "But
I dont read fiction anymore, gave it up years ago. I need things
I can use in my work, factual information."
"What kinds of things do you read, then?" I responded.
"Im Jack Davis, by the way," he told me before answering
my question. But, of course, by the time of our first conversation I
had already learned his name from one of my other acquaintances on the
island. "I read history and psychology mostly. Sometimes travel
essays, guys like Theroux for example; I find things that help me in
books like that."
It would be hard to overstate how stunned I was by having this man,
someone who, in all honesty, had assumed almost mythic proportion in
my imagination, speaking to me. I could only assume that he must have
seen me so often over the years if only sporadically and, certainly,
on the periphery of his "circle" that he now took me
for a regular, an habitué, as "one of us" and thus
as someone with whom it was appropriate to interact. I was so taken
aback that it took me a few seconds to get my bearings and to process
what he was saying.
"There are more than a few people these days," I remarked
after I had recovered, "who would argue that history and psychology
contain more fictional material than many novels or short stories. But,
if you dont mind me asking, what is it that you do that the kind
of reading you talk about helps you do it?"
Jacks expression at that point indicated that he thought my question
to be one of the most absurd he had ever heard. The condescension in
his voice was barely disguised. "I teach surfing, right out here
in front of the Moana. Plus I give some informal hiking and biking tours
of Waikiki and the surrounding area. Obviously, the psychology helps
me relate to my clients and the history makes it so I can talk about
the various things to be seen
the attractions, the architecture,
the flora and fauna. Ive also been studying Japanese."
It was all I could do to stop myself from laughing out loud. Here was,
ostensibly at least, one of the most irascible and arrogant individuals
I had ever seen and remember I had seen him in action for years
billing himself as some kind of modern-day "beach boy."
The thought of Jack Davis patiently explaining the fine points of surfing,
or talking about the history behind, say, the fabled Wizard Stones,
in faltering Japanese to a pack of giggling young Asian women was too
much for any sane mind to comprehend. I found myself wondering about,
and marveling at, the cocktail of medications this geezer must be taking
to effect such a radical change in his personality. My only defense
was to change the subject.
"Are you from here originally, Jack?"
"No. I used to be a nuclear physicist. I worked in a government
lab in California. I decided to simplify my life and came to Hawaii
in 1970. Ive been here ever since. Listen, I have to go, I have
a lesson to give in about fifteen minutes."
With that he made a fist, extended his thumb and pinky and gave the
whole thing a shake in the ubiquitous Hawaiian pantomime for "hang
loose." He turned and walked down the short staircase leading out
of the coffee shop and disappeared into the crowded lobby of the hotel.
Upon my return to Hawaii each summer since that initial encounter, Id
see Jack in his accustomed place on the beach; and damned if he didnt
have a few not many, but enough to justify his continuing to
ply his trade customers to whom he would give surfing instruction.
Wed chat briefly when we ran into one another in the coffee shop
or on the street.
While I admit to being somewhat gratified that he always seemed to remember
me, it should also be said that he was often gruff and anti-social.
I figured that, on those occasions, he must have forgotten to take his
I was shocked this past July when, my first day back on the beach, Jack
was nowhere to be found. I wondered over to the Aloha Beach Services
bungalow. If anyone knew what had happened to Jack it would be one of
the staff members there.
"Hey, Eddie," I said to an older Hawaiian man with a slight
paunch wearing the yellow and red striped shorts and red tank top that
constituted the ABS uniform, "wheres Jack Davis, I dont
see him in his usual spot?"
According to Eddie, someone whom I had gotten to know over the years
and also a person who knew pretty much everything that happened on the
beach between the old Natatorium and the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor, Jack
Davis was gone for good.
It seems that back in late March, Jack had been giving a surfing lesson
to a boy who was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. The childs
parents were watching from the shore. In an extremely rare, almost freak
occurrence in that stretch of water, the boy was attacked by a large
tiger shark. By all accounts the youngster kept his cool and, eventually,
beat the animal off with repeated blows to its head
but not before
a very sizeable chunk was bitten out of his arm. Those same accounts
also agree that, while the child was fighting for his life, Jack Davis
was paddling like mad for the safety of the beach, leaving his client
to fend completely for himself.
The young man lost a great deal of blood and required surgery to repair
the nerves and tendons in his mangled arm but, all in all, he got away
no thanks to Jack. It also came out in the papers
that Jack Davis was actually one John Davidson. He was indeed from California
and despite my incredulity when he mentioned this to me back
during our first conversation he actually had been a nuclear
physicist. Indeed, he had apparently been rolling in money owing to
a number of protocols and procedures he had designed during his time
working for the government.
More to the point, however, is the tale of how John Davidson (alias
Jack Davis) made his way to Hawaii. Reports also surfaced to the effect
that there had been a fire one night in the Davidson home in Marin County,
California. Jack climbed out a second-storey window and fled the scene
leaving a wife and infant who eventually perished in the burning structure.
Davidson later told authorities that he had simply gone to get help.
No one believed him but, of course, as he had nothing to do with starting
the fire and there was no way to prove that he was lying about his motives,
no charges were filed. Unable to "take the heat," John Davidson
changed his name and, like many others before him, headed off for Hawaii
the most remote island archipelago in the world.
Eddie went on to tell me that about two weeks or so after all of this
was hashed out in the papers, Jack Davis was found one morning by a
neighbor hanging from his lanai.
"Well" I said, after Eddie finished his story, "it makes
perfect sense. Old Jack must have been mortified. He took his own life
because he couldnt bear the shame."
"No, man, you still dont get it," Eddie said with a
sardonic laugh. "Jack was back here for at least a week after all
that shit came out about him. Didnt bother him at all, acted like
nothing had even happened. Said, let the parents sue me, all I
was doing was going for help. And where were the lifeguards anyhow?
No it turns out that around that same time, one of the companies Jack
had invested heavily in went bankrupt and he lost just about every penny
he had. What the hell was he gonna to do to support himself? He sure
as shit wasnt going to be giving surfing lessons again for awhile!"
Self-absorbed and selfish to the end, Jack Davis didnt have the
energy or the means to re-invent himself all over again. He could live
with the shame of his actions and the truth is he probably believed
the rationalizations he proffered but he was such a coward that
he just didnt have the moxie to face an uncertain future. Talk
about tropical depression! For quite some time Id been harboring
the dream of moving to Hawaii when I retired in four or five years.
The strange story of Jack Davis formerly "Pepsi-Man,"
and, before that, John Davidson made it clear that, before I
did, Id need to make sure that I checked and double-checked my
"baggage." You can run away from many things, but no matter
where you go, your character always comes along for the ride. You cant
run away from yourself.
© James C Clar
James C. Clar
“Excuse me sir, are you the caretaker here?”
My inquiry was met with the kind of deep silence that only the Japanese have truly mastered.
James C. Clar teaches and writes in upstate New York. His work has been
published in print as well as on the Internet. Most recently, his short
fiction has appeared in venues as diverse as the Taj Mahal Review, the
Magazine of Crime and Suspense, Powder Burn Flash, Everyday Fiction,
Antipodean Sci-Fi, Bewildering Stories, hackwriters, Orchard Press Mysteries
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