Editor's Page: At the Bar

In this Best Bars issue, we rediscover what the town's taverns offer.

Photo: Linny Morris

You don’t ask for last names in a bar.

I’m in Sarento’s, Top of the “I,” the Ilikai, where Jack Lord stood on a lanai to stare down all the badness in the Islands. To my right are Dave and Jennifer, he of Seattle, born and raised; she of Hawaii, but living in Seattle. Body language alone tells me they’ve been together a long time, and will be together a long time more. Her parents are in their 90s, so she often comes home to the Islands and, when she does, she and Dave hit Sarento’s. I wonder why, briefly, since the place is nearly empty at 9:15 p.m. on a Wednesday night. Killer views notwithstanding, Sarento’s feels like a bar on the fade.

Mr. Magic, the bartender, an older local man who probably ought to be enjoying retirement, does card tricks and I get pulled into the magic even though I just sat down and placed an order. I’m an accomplice now, cutting the deck, amazed when a card I pulled earlier suddenly appears under Dave’s hand. Mr. Magic’s real first name is Bobby, but I never asked that, I overheard it.

“We’ve been coming here for years, watching his tricks,” Jennifer says.

Prosciutto-wrapped shrimp appetizer; hot, fresh bread; a Bombay Sapphire martini straight up with a twist, they all show up at my place.

A military guy—I know his first name, but I won’t tell you that much, and you’ll understand why—suddenly offers to buy the three of us drinks. It’s his way of buying the right to tell us the longest short story in the world about a woman who has a bizarre romantic obsession with him, subjecting him to a year of heavy flirting and jealous fits without ever actually being his girlfriend.

There’s another card trick. We finish the drinks Military Man bought us. Last call is coming at an early 10 p.m. Somehow, in all of this, and I don’t even remember now exactly how it happened, someone asked and I heard myself say, “Waipahu High School, ’86 grad.”

Mr. Magic, Bobby, suddenly says, in a way that seems to stop all other conversations at the bar, looking right at me. “Waipahu High School?”

Then he softly starts to sing,

“Midst the waving tassles…”

“Stands Waipahu High …” I sing in reply.

“Breezes from the mountain drift across the sky …” we sing together. And we sing the entire damn alma mater of Waipahu High School, getting louder and louder until we hit the song’s final, “Hail, Hail, HAIL!”

“Class of ’57,” Bobby says. “I’m 70!”

Mr. Magic shouldn’t even have to work, except, he’s wonderful, and his card tricks are amazing and why not work, why not astound people with his two-of-hearts magic? I know before he tells me that he attended the old campus, the wooden, Territorial buildings that were replaced later by a new, concrete high school campus further down Farrington Highway. I walked the same classrooms he walked, only by then, the early ’80s, the old high school was my intermediate school, and now the old classrooms we both remember are long gone, lost to termites and time.

The Ilikai feels almost gone, in a way, faded. On the way out, Jennifer tells me she worked as a flower girl in the nightclub scene of the ’80s. “This place was pumping back then!”

It should be pumping now. People past, say, 30, don’t seem to drink like they used to and this is indisputably good. No one needs the DUIs, the mayhem on the roads, the fights, the strife. We’re all moderate now, we don’t smoke, we eat sensibly and watch our cholesterol. But here’s the thing that teetotalers don’t understand about why bars work: In life, everyone is afraid. Before Prozac, Xanax and therapists, we had a drink or two, and then we weren’t so uptight anymore. We talked to people. We shared our stories. We sang, with strangers who weren’t really strangers after all, they were people, like Bobby, Mr. Magic, who had walked all the roads we are about to walk ourselves.

Go out. Be safe. Have fun. Sing.

 For more of Napier’s writing, see his “Off My Desk” blog.