Folks You Meet at Zippy’s

Growing old over the decades: Alone, with loved ones, with the friends who outlast the loved ones.
Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams


I dream of growing old at Zippy’s. I used to think I would grow old there with my husband, in the same booth every day and eating the same thing every day: saimin and grilled cornbread for me, a chili-chicken mix plate for him, with three scoops rice, no mac salad. Even though women tend to outlive men, I believed that, somehow, on his diet of meat and rice, he would live longer. We would sit across from each other and eat, not talk—after half a century of being married, we would have already said all that needed to be said. Now, when I think about it, that would never have happened—that silence. The man I knew to be my husband will never run out of things to say. Even if it’s just to say that Zippy’s fried chicken is better than Popeyes’ when it’s fresh out of the fryer.


We divorced recently. So now my vision of an older me at Zippy’s is unclear. Will I be alone with a book? Will I be with another man? A second husband, or, hell, maybe even a third, one who does eat in silence? Or will I be there with girlfriends, longtime ones who have outlasted all the men in my life?


I can’t know the future. But I wanted to know what it might look like. So I started dropping into Zippy’s and meeting the seniors—the regulars, the ones the servers know by name, when they arrive, where they sit, what they eat, how long they’ve been coming. 


And then a funny thing happened. The servers started to get to know me, started to know when I would arrive and what I would order. Growing old at Zippy’s isn’t a far-off dream. It’s already happening. 


The Crochet Ladies 

“You been watching that fabulous neighbor? His legs are so long. I like that.” 


I like that, even in her 80s, a woman can still appreciate a set of fine legs. Even if they belong to a Korean drama actor on TV and not the actual neighbor. (I mean, honestly, who’s more likely to have hotter legs anyway?)


The crochet ladies gather at Zippy’s Koko Marina every Tuesday from 9 to 11 a.m. There are about 15 of them, ranging in age from the 60s to 80s—it’s hard to nail down the exact ages because, apparently, no matter how old we are, we still hate to see our ages in print. 


Amy Kajiwara started the club almost 20 years ago when she worked at Ben Franklin’s Koko Marina and taught crochet. When that crafts store closed, one of the women asked Zippy’s if they could meet there. Zippy’s told them: “Yes, come, the more people who come, the better for business.” (This may be part of the reason Koko Marina ranks as one of the top “senior stores,” locations with the most senior customers. The big four are Koko Marina, Kāhala, McCully and Makiki.)


They arrive with bags stuffed with yarn and ribbons and patterns. Around this time of year, they start planning the Zippy’s Christmas decorations. If you visited Zippy’s Koko Marina last Christmas, you might have noticed the crochet Santa Claus, the afghan with the Zippy’s logo and the Mele Kalikimaka decking the halls. 


The “crochet ladies” at zippy’s koko marina in 2006. 


Over coffee and malassadas, the women admire each other’s crochet projects—Misa Hironaga places a lei she just finished around my neck, Dolores de Lima is just starting a baby blanket, Amy Kajiwara drinks out of a bottle swaddled in a crochet warmer. 


Conversations spin off into remedies for some of old age’s ailments: Turmeric is good, but expensive, and when Ellen Yamanaka asked a Whole Foods employee for black cherry juice he told her, “If it’s for dementia or Alzheimer’s, then save your money, it doesn’t work.”


If there’s one lesson, though, it’s not about herbal treatments. It’s that a long life is an accumulation of near misses. Yesterday, Ellen had gone to Kāhala Mall to shop, but a passerby spilled coffee on her shirt. So, instead of shopping, she returned home to change. There, she found her sister, who had fallen and couldn’t call for help. Ellen had come home just in time to take her to the hospital. 


“So lucky,” Ellen says. So lucky, the crochet ladies agree.


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.”


Kathleen and Clifford



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.