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The International Writers Magazine: Life in Hawaii: From Our Archives

Tropical Depression
James C Clar

For over two decades now I’ve 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 I’ve 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. It’s 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 it’s still the haunt of all sorts of engaging and exotic characters, many of whom are willing to pour out their life’s 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 ne’er-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. It’s 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 don’t 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"). He’d 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, I’d 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. He’d mount the steps to the Moana, cross the open-air lobby and then pass the old Banyan Veranda and make his way to the water’s edge where he’d set up shop. On the way he’d filch the morning’s Honolulu Advertiser from the hotel’s 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. I’d watch him day after day for weeks and then I’d leave to return to the Mainland. When next I’d 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, he’d 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.

This 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 before … 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 don’t 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.
"I’m 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 don’t mind me asking, what is it that you do that the kind of reading you talk about helps you do it?"

Jack’s 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. I’ve 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. I’ve 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, I’d see Jack in his accustomed place on the beach; and damned if he didn’t have a few – not many, but enough to justify his continuing to ply his trade – customers to whom he would give surfing instruction. We’d 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 medicine.
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, "where’s Jack Davis, I don’t 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 child’s 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 fairly cheaply … 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 couldn’t bear the shame."
"No, man, you still don’t 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. Didn’t 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 wasn’t going to be giving surfing lessons again for awhile!"

Self-absorbed and selfish to the end, Jack Davis didn’t 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 didn’t have the moxie to face an uncertain future. Talk about tropical depression! For quite some time I’d 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, I’d 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 can’t run away from yourself.

© James C Clar October 2008

Mr. Kuroda

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 and FlashShot.

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