Folks You Meet at Zippy’s
Growing old over the decades: Alone, with loved ones, with the friends who outlast the loved ones.
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Kathleen and Clifford
PHOTOS: ELYSE BUTLER MALLAMS
Tsum Tsum game.
This is what I learn from Clifford Fukuji, 71: which Zippy’s have Wi-Fi (Makiki, where I meet him, does not, but Kāhala, where he sees his brother every Wednesday, does); how to set up my phone as a mobile hot spot (for when I’m at a Wi-Fi-less Zippy’s); that I need to sign up for Amazon Prime for free shipping and free streaming movies; that T-Mobile is the best carrier if you travel a lot because it offers free international data and texts; and how to play the hottest new app, Tsum Tsum, a puzzle game by Disney that’s a lot like Tetris, but way cuter.
Clifford and his wife, Kathleen, 66, both have their iPads out. Kathleen is deleting photos on hers to make room for an upcoming Hokkaido trip, and Clifford is buying a small leaf blower on Amazon. We spend 15 minutes playing Tsum Tsum. Kathleen averages 600,000 points a game, and Clifford a million, even though in the beginning he refused to play, saying it was a game for wāhine. He’s excited that, today, he won a new character, Elsa from Frozen.
Clifford and Kathleen are fluent in the latest technology, but when it comes to Zippy’s, they’re set in their ways. They come to Zippy’s Makiki every Sunday at 6 a.m., and only when server Rosa Doyle is working. “She knows what we want. You get a new waitress, you have to explain the whole nine yards,” Clifford says. The whole nine yards consists of: one Portuguese bean soup meal for Clifford and one à la carte for Kathleen, a takeout container so they can take half the rice home, two large glasses of water, one coffee for Clifford and one cup of hot water for Kathleen. If it’s a special occasion, though, like Easter, they’ll order full breakfasts. Clifford will get the corned beef hash with eggs over easy and Kathleen likes the mushroom-and-choi-sum omelet, a new item at Zippy’s.
server rosa doyle, who has worked for zippy’s for 34 years.
They’ve been coming to Zippy’s Makiki since it opened in 1975. They used to go to Yum Yum Tree and Magic Chef, but since they closed, Zippy’s “is the only game in town” for the retirees who like to eat at 6 a.m., according to Clifford. Big City Diner doesn’t open until 7. “When you’re retired, there’s no such thing as a weekend. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, my alarm is always set for 4 a.m.,” he says.
Clifford’s career still shows up in his current habits. He used to maintain personal equipment in the Hawai‘i Air National Guard. His iPad stylus and pen (which he uses to sketch the different levels and pay grades in the military to me) is labeled with his initials. He says his initials are even on the table we’re sitting at. When I look under it to check, he laughs at my naivete. At home, he labels every can and every box in the pantry with “where we got it from and date of installation.”
He and Kathleen have been married for 47 years. “You marry a woman smarter than you,” says Clifford. “She has a lot of smarts, I have a lot of common sense. That’s the secret. And you have to have a lot of humor.”
walter eto (in foreground) has made zippy’s makiki part of his morning routine, five days a week, for the past 35 years.
Walter Eto, 87, tells me, “I don’t like talking.”
We end up talking for two hours. Zippy’s Makiki has been part of Walter’s morning routine for 35 years, but he only comes the days Rosa works. “Because she’s nice to everybody,” he says.
Walter used to check into Zippy’s for lunch, too, when he installed gas appliances for the gas company. Back then, all the Zippy’s employees called Walter mean. “He’s not mean,” says Rosa, who has worked for Zippy’s for 34 years. “His time was limited.” She says he’s not a “socialized type of person. But when you get to know him, he opens up. That’s the kind of person he is.”
Five days a week, Walter arrives at 6 a.m. and sits in the same booth, third row from the entrance, two from the window. It’s the coolest, he says, when the AC breaks down. Fifteen years ago, it used to break down a lot. When he sits down, he puts out the exact change for his breakfast so he can leave as soon as he is done eating. He’s been eating the same breakfast for more than 30 years: a veggie omelet, no yolk, extra green onion, extra round onion and hash browns. He takes the cap off the black pepper shaker so he can pour the pepper on his omelet and potatoes, and then shakes so much Tabasco on that it forms tiny rivulets. He drinks coffee through a straw because his wrist is still weak from a few years ago, when he slipped on the street and broke it.
Thirty-three years ago, when Walter was 54, his doctor told him he’d be lucky if he lived five more years. He was diabetic, had high cholesterol and high blood pressure. That’s when he started eating egg-white omelets every day and walking everywhere. “No matter how lazy I feel or sick, I come here,” he says. “So I know I’m going to walk for 15 minutes.”
He has always arrived at Zippy’s alone. He is the oldest of the regulars at Makiki. “There used to be more,” he says. And he used to have more friends, but most passed away, “a lot of them younger than me,” he says. He’s met new people, new regulars, at Zippy’s, but when asked what he knows about Josh, who’s been coming for five years, he says, “I just know that he comes.” (When he sees Clifford and Kathleen, they remind him that they won’t see him next week because they’ll be in Hokkaido. Clifford says, “He gets disappointed if we don’t show up and we don’t tell him. It ruins his day.”)
“I can’t say I’m unhappy,” Walter says. “But if I had a good wife I’d be happier.” He was married once: “Biggest mistake of my life.” And that’s all he’ll say about that. Is it too late for him to remarry? “I’m too old, I’ve been with myself too long, I don’t think I can be with someone else. I have enough to do because I don’t depend on anyone else.”
Among his daily activities are buying a roast chicken and stir frying it with frozen vegetables and brown rice, and walking to Don Quijote for groceries. He’s also been watching K-dramas for 20 years, long enough to recognize when the subtitles don’t match what’s being said on screen: “They might be fooling other people, but not me!”
After we finish talking, he asks me to come eat with him again. Not for an interview. Not for a photograph. Just to talk again. You know my schedule, he says.