My Honolulu: The Magic of Magic Island During the Pandemic
When the crowds disappeared, we discovered a new community of regulars and anything-but-regular encounters at Ala Moana Beach Park.
We need to slow things down… I thought to myself as I sped through a left turn from Beretania Street onto Pensacola and shot through a series of green lights. The roads were clear. Rachel, my wife, excitedly gripped the bar on the passenger side as we headed to Ala Moana Beach Park. In the trunk a cheap new Weber grill and charcoal chimney rattled. We were fleeing the apartment where we had been holed-up for months, where the only view from our lānai was destruction as a renovation crew tore down structures, bulldozed planters, and razed concrete on the recreation deck below. Jackhammers and drills resonated through the molars of the building and right into mine while, inside, layers upon layers of emails, text messages, Teams chats, mid-meeting Zoom threads, and multiple news alerts chimed incessantly. COVID-19 tore across the news and every new detail seemed to bring it closer to our doorstep.
I had always felt that being near the water brought some perspective and calm. Ala Moana Beach Park was just a few minutes away, and easy to get to. During the mid-summer of 2020—with the usual crowds absent and parts of the park eerily empty—you could easily find prime parking there. This would be the thing to do on weekends. No monitors. No devices. No news. Just us!
No Time For Thyme
I won’t regale you with tales of marinades or photos of a hyper-styled salad tussled just so. Our barbecues were pretty simple—basic really: olive oil, salt, pepper, lemon, garlic and time. Not thyme—that would be a portal into insanity. A full day’s menu would simply be okra, a few bulbs of garlic in olive oil, skewered tomatoes, mushrooms and sausage with salmon in foil, or wings seasoned with salt and pepper. We’d apply heat, and let time play out. No fuss.
I would watch Rachel take in deep breaths and exhale in contentment, then open her eyes and let them drift off to whatever it was that caught her attention. These days, the park was empty, so she’d see a few cardinals, their little heads like paintbrushes dipped in red, fighting over a piece of bread. The leaves of the banyan would rattle, and we’d breathe the outside air. There’d be a little charcoal smoke, a little wood smoke, and oh, that sea breeze. If time were a clothesline, these items would hang idly from it on pins.
This would become our spot once every week or so. And over the span of weeks, we started inviting people to meet us. An old friend, Bob, who also worked remotely and took the same precautions as we did, became a regular. He introduced us to a grilled aburaage and natto pouch. We’d sit 6 feet apart and imagine the wind as a current between us, blowing our breath away. Bob is a web developer, but on these days, he never took out his smartphone. We were on the same wavelength trying to unplug. We challenged each other to call out a minute as we conversed. Often, we would call it only to find five minutes had gone by.
With so much time, the lulls in conversation were free to sprawl, providing us luxury to sit and take in our surroundings. That’s when we began to notice things.
One day, we saw a woman walking oddly. At first, I thought her knees were hyperextended, like a bird’s, but then I saw her arms were hyperextended as well. She was wearing a sun hat, so I couldn’t tell which side was front. She had black hair and wore sunglasses and a black mask. She didn’t turn her head to see over her shoulder so it took a moment to realize she was walking backward, like a speed walker, without any of the usual crowds to get in her way. Then moments later, having disappeared behind a tree, she emerged walking forward. It was as if she had, like a palindrome, inverted time. She would do this for hours, walking forward then backward. I tried to catch the precise time she’d reverse course but was never able to. We would see her every week.
Other characters emerged. A man threw a football 30 yards to no one. Then ran to fetch the ball to return to the same spot and throw it again. I assumed there was an invisible target—a dotted outline of someone in his head catching the ball—and half expected the ball to disappear, as if he had finally hit his target in another dimension.
Another man set up an elaborate tent for him and his companion nearby, one Frank Gehry would have approved of, and surrounded himself with items straight out of a stylish Spoon & Tamago catalog: designer thermos, small coffee table, a laptop. He would talk to his friend and expound at length in Japanese, uninterrupted. Bob dubbed him the professor. Rachel wondered why the other person never spoke. From my limited knowledge of the language, it sounded like he was pondering the state of the world. A philosopher. Over time, his tent expanded and was anchored to nearby palm trees and stakes in the ground. Deep within it, you could see him working in a little office with the same designerlike setup, only this time with the addition of a translucent organizer, cooler, portable stove and a pot.
The center of the park, it seemed, was reserved for people with urgent business to discuss on their mobile phones. They would pace in a tight circle, gesturing emphatically with one hand as if they were trying to diffuse a crisis or close a deal, their tight circles holding the gravitational orbit of their worlds in place. It’s strange how this central area attracted these folks. We conjectured scenarios—a struggling business owner trying to retain a client, an opportunistic entrepreneur arguing with his backstabbing partner, an embattled matriarch resolving a crisis, or an arms dealer who had just lost track of a shipment. Out in the open, they could talk as loudly as they wanted with no one else around to hear them except the poor soul on the other line, and of course, us, struggling to eavesdrop and speculating on their business.
More pleasant to listen to were the musicians. Guitar players sat around a large pot and strummed as soup simmered on a giant propane burner. Drum circles popped up. One day a pair of DJs set up turntables and speakers in front of the lagoon and took over the entire park, their only audience a pair of swimmers in the water and a few people scattered about on the sand. Another day, a man came out with a drum set and loudspeakers and started playing along to ’80s and ’90s R&B. He was clearly a professional, and you could see the joy it brought him to see a few beachgoers start recording. “I can’t play at my apartment, I’d always have the cops at my door,” he shouted to his small audience. He was owning the place.
Yoga teachers, cosplayers, sword handlers, Sunday painters, beanbag tossers, friendly dog walkers—we started writing it all down for a set of people-watching Bingo cards. There was the occasional “social dog” who came around sniffing for table scraps and affection. There was the recycling lady who came by every two or three hours to collect empty cans. And while the sight of someone asleep at the wheel wouldn’t usually make you say “aah,” it does when it’s a toddler passed out in a remote-controlled Barbie Hummer driven by her parents as they head home. Occasionally a police car would jump the curb on the parking lot and speed across the grass, not because of the Barbie Hummer, but probably because things seemed a bit too quiet at the far end of the park. Normally, there would be people scattering to get out of the way. But these days, there’s no one to scatter. And soon we’d have a few darker encounters of our own.
One Saturday, as we finished up grilling some chicken wings, a man asked us if it was safe to swim without a mask on. We thought it was fine as long as he kept his distance from other swimmers. It was an odd question to ask, as if he were new to the rules of the pandemic.
He dove into the water and came back out 15 minutes later.
“Ah the water was great,” he told us. “It’s been so long since I went swimming. It’s such a healing thing, the salt water. I’ve had it tough. It’s been a rough year. I just lost my son to COVID. I got COVID myself.” We stood up and kept the wind at our backs and expressed our condolences as he told us his story. Recently released from prison, he said he had to endure poor safety conditions. He started putting toothpaste up his nose as a form of rebellion so that when he was tested, the prison workers would get a big glob of toothpaste. Screw them, that’s why, he said. He tested positive. He says he was released, went into quarantine and made it through. We offered him some food and he declined. “Oh no no! I’m good. I gotta meet with some friends,” he said and ran off. It was getting dark at that point, and so we packed up and left.
Another day we were approached by a man in a blue cap wearing earbuds, and a mask. “Can I tell you a story?” he asked. “Sure,” we said. But he had no story to tell and was barely coherent. What did he want? I offered him some food. He refused. He took off his mask to speak and I asked him to put his mask back on. He did. I wondered if his earbuds were really connected to anything, or if the cord was simply tucked into an empty pocket. “This is my tree. When you go, leave your food that you don’t eat and I’ll come back and take it, OK?” We could do that. In fact, we could do that sooner than later. “Here, take this bento. It’s unopened. We have to leave anyway,” I said.
“Oh, no, please sit, sit down,” he replied. “Is this your wife?” This is where things went sideways and no matter how many times I replay this scenario, I can’t figure out what the best course of action would have been. By the time we were halfway across the park, he was screaming at us, cursing us for sitting under his tree. In normal times, this would have created a scene. On that day, there was no one else around.
These characters stood out in sharp relief during the early days of the pandemic as they freely claimed the spaces around them. But now that these spaces are accommodating larger groups, the shimmering emptiness between them is starting to fill in. A recent trip down there showed that the crowds were back. The reverse walker would have difficulty in this space. The drummer would have a hard time finding the kind of prime parking that allowed him to set up right outside his car and face the beach. And if he was able to do it, I bet the crowd wouldn’t be as appreciative. The lone quarterback would eventually hit someone in the back of the head without a flesh-and-blood receiver to carve out a space to target. The sunset casts more silhouettes. Things are looking a bit more normal, and the few colorful characters are becoming harder to spot.
That’s what I’ll remember. Yes, there was hardship. Yes, anxiety and stress were constant guests. Yes, the news relentlessly barked out hourly developments. There were bright spots—our loving families and our love for each other helped us through. My wife and I were fortunate to be employed through it all. We found ways to celebrate the holidays. All of this will be housed in memory within the framework of these weekend days—our increasingly weathered grill’s shadow slowly stretching along the grass, and my beautifully serene wife sitting contentedly, pointing out the magical regulars as they appeared.