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Folks You Meet at Zippy’s

Growing old over the decades: Alone, with loved ones, with the friends who outlast the loved ones.


(page 2 of 3)

Janet and George

Janet and George Yamamoto, 81 and 83, sit in a booth, eating silently at Zippy’s Makiki. They’ve been coming to Zippy’s for 25 years because “It’s the only place!” says George. 


Janet and George have been married for 61 years. I ask what’s the secret to a long marriage. “No other choice,” says Janet. “We’re both quiet, we don’t argue. We don’t talk, that’s how we get along.” 


Dennis, Ken and Jimmy

from left to right: dennis chai, ken onishi, jimmy wong.


At the Kāne‘ohe Zippy’s, three old friends convene six mornings a week to solve the problems of the city, county, state and world. They usually do this in about an hour. Jimmy Wong, 72, a former House and Senate legislator, corrects me: The Zippy’s we’re sitting in is in He‘eia, not Kāne‘ohe. The three grew up in He‘eia: Jimmy and Dennis Chai, 72, have been friends since kindergarten, and Dennis and Ken Onishi, 85, met at nearby St. Ann’s church. 


Monday through Saturday, they arrive after church and order green tea and cornbread. They always sit by the window, which frames the Ko‘olau mountains, Zippy’s parking lot and Supergeeks in the strip mall across the way.



“Here, we have this beautiful view and we pay a very small price for this kind of location,” says Ken, a former insurance agent. “This is one of the few places that has this ambiance. Why do people sit over there and look at one another when they can sit and look at one another and look at that?” 


Among the topics of their daily discussions: 


  • Na‘i Aupuni, a new organization formed to facilitate Native Hawaiian nation building. Jimmy is 12.5 percent Hawaiian, Dennis 25 percent, and Ken: “Mine is, when you lift the cup up like that”—he points at his glass of ice water—“you see the drips on the outside, that’s mine.” 


  • A woman who sleeps at the bus stop across from Zippy’s passes by the window. “How do you solve that problem, homelessness?” Jimmy asks. He envisions a Windward equivalent of the Institute for Human Services shelter in ‘Iwilei. 


  • The upcoming 175th anniversary of St. Ann’s church, which Jimmy informs me is where King Kamehameha III spent his final month. 


  • “What is trust?” Dennis asks. Ken asks, “How do you trust people? When I look back, a lot of my failures and mistakes were: I didn’t know how to trust people.”


  • Dennis used to be a health and phys ed professor at UH Mānoa, so the three discuss obesity. Dennis admits he’s been retired for a while so he hasn’t kept up with the most recent literature. But the conclusion is always the same: diet and exercise. Ken and Jimmy  ride their bikes to Zippy’s.


  • “Behind every great man, there’s a woman,” says Ken. “And for every downfall, there’s two. Look at Tiger Woods. Look at President Clinton. He got into a ‘situation.’ But he had a good woman who accepted his shortcomings. One of the greatest display of greatness by Hillary is the act of forgiving. When she forgave her husband for the particular situation that he got himself into, life was able to rebuild. Nations and relationships are of that nature when people can forgive or nations can forgive. That’s one of the qualities of individuals that you respect tremendously in people: When they’re able to forgive.” All three men are married.


  • “We want to make the Windward county separate from the Honolulu,” Jimmy says. Instead of Windward residents paying taxes for rail, he proposes a Windward county that charges the rest of the island for using its water. 


  • “You don’t miss the water until the well runs dry,” says Ken. “We’re raised here, so we know everything pretty much about the community. When we see things change that shouldn’t change—if you can get people in Kāne‘ohe to understand that Kāne‘ohe has so much history—we talk about how we can get people to appreciate it now, before it’s too late.”


  •  From the window, we recognize the Stairway to Heaven. “We used to climb it,” says Jimmy. “We did it when we were kids, when the steps were wooden. We stayed up there all night.”



Ken: “At the end, we get something out of the meeting, whether it’s personal or business or spiritual. There’s a good feeling after this.”


Jimmy: “We’re enjoying growing old together.”


Dennis: “Being able to express yourself.”


Jimmy: “We reminisce a lot, and we always say, if we knew then what we know now, life would be different. That’s one of the good things about having a group like this. It keeps your mind active.”


Ken: “You see what this window does, it opens up history. It opens up ideas. It’s a window of opportunity.”


Jimmy: “See the chickens and pigeons? When we were growing up, there were no chickens and pigeons, now they’re everywhere.”


Ken: “Here in Kāne‘ohe, for the price of a cup of coffee (or tea), look at the view we have.”


Jimmy: “Just remember, you’re sitting in He‘eia.”

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