The summer of 1969 I went over to Hawaii to drive a taxi. I still had a year left to graduate from college and this seemed like a romantic way to spend my vacation as well as to make a little money. I had read James Michener’s book Hawaii and found the opportunity to visit the islands enticing.
My friend Dannie Jaich had graduated the year before and had gone to Honolulu to find a teaching job. For some reason this never panned out for him and he ended up driving a cab. He invited me to join him there and promised to guide me through the process of qualifying as a driver myself. So, with my one-way airfare paid for, and about $50 in my wallet, I flew over.
Dannie was living in a run-down rental house in downtown Honolulu on Liliuokalani Street, not too far from Waikiki and the beach. Oahu then was just as you might imagine; colorful, warm, humid and covered with palm trees and tropical plants. There was also an exotic mix of ethnic groups; businessmen descended from indentured Japanese laborers, Polynesian “Primo Warriors” (named for the local beer), mixed race “Portugees”, American soldiers on leave from the war in Viet Nam, lily-white mainland secretaries seeking romance, handsome, brown-skinned “real Hawaiian” surfing instructors and a few college kids looking for adventure.
Dannie soon put me to studying a map of the city because, in order to obtain a taxi driver’s license, you had to pass a test based upon your knowledge of the city streets and pertinent rules and regulations. The one part of the exam that I remember now was that you were verbally given a hypothetical location where you picked up an ill client and you had to give the examiner the quickest route to the nearest hospital. The test was not easy, especially when you consider all the streets had Hawaiian names that I could neither pronounce nor easily distinguish, one from the other.
Our vehicles were rented from a fellow who charged $15/day for their use. We worked out of the Ilakai Hotel at the far northwest end of the Honolulu tourist area. This meant we waited in an off-site parking lot until they needed to replenish the 3-4 cabs that were stationed in front of the hotel. A good fare for us, where we could make a few bucks, would be to the airport, but too many times, after waiting for hours, we would get a client who just wanted to go to the International Market Place on Waikiki, a two dollar fare. As summer was the low tourist season, many days we would have to work 8 hours in order to make the funds to pay for the use of the cab. After that we would have to come up with the money to pay for gas and, yes, food. In many ways, this was some of the hardest work I have done.
As mentioned before, many of the streets had Hawaiian names and were difficult to distinguish between. I often had problems finding destinations. One memory that still makes me cringe is when I picked up an obviously in-a-hurry businessman at the Ilakai Hotel. He had an appointment in a few minutes at a hotel I had only heard of, but never had been to, although I felt I could find it. After wandering around for way too long, with a very agitated passenger in the back seat, I finally took him back to the nearest standing taxi I could find and admitted to him I could not find the hotel where his meeting was to be. The look on his face still haunts me.
One evening I remember was when the cab owner took Dannie and me, as well as several others of his drivers, out for drinks and a late breakfast on Waikiki (my first Eggs Benedict). We got pretty looped and he ended up racing his car at 120 mph (as I write this 120 mph seems impossible, but that is what I remember) down the main tourist thoroughfare at 2:00 am with a car full of quickly sobering passengers.
Sometimes I was really hungry. I remember one time at an all-you-can-eat buffet when I stuffed a pocket with scrambled eggs for later consumption. It doesn’t make sense now, as there must have been other more portable foods to carry out, but that’s what I did. And I remember eating them later.
Dannie, who was more bold than most, would propose a personalized Oahu Island tour to many of his passengers. For a set fee he would drive them around to the Northshore and back, showing them all the tourist spots and naming the flora and fauna that they saw. Now Dannie did not know their real names any more than I did, so he would just make up names like, Monkey Tree or Island Blue Birds. He encouraged me to offer these tours as well, but I was hesitant, not only did I not know any flowers’ names; I really did not know where the tourist spots were either. But I did propose it to one couple and when they did not readily accept, I was relieved. They said however, that they would think about it and asked for a telephone number where they could contact me. Much to my dismay a few days later they called to accept. I don’t remember much about the trip, but as uncomfortable as I was, I was able to fake my way through it. We did get up to the north side of the island and maybe saw some tourist sites, perhaps I named a few trees and birds. I did receive my fare and a tip but I didn’t try it again.
Other snap shot type memories that endure are:
– This was the year that Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon. It was a big event in Hawaii, as the return capsule was picked up in the waters just off shore. The triumphant astronauts came to Honolulu to be greeted by large and enthusiastic crowds. I did not see them in person, but remember watching the landing and return on a flickering, black and white TV in the dorm room of Carlyn Hanson, a student at the University of Hawaii that I was dating at the time.
– George Pena was a friend of Dannie’s and mine from high school. He had signed on with the Los Angeles Angels baseball organization and was with their triple A team in, I think, Palm Springs. His team came over to play the Hawaiian franchise and we of course went to see him. I don’t remember much about the game except for my introduction to Saimen which I really liked. This is typical Hawaiian baseball fare and is similar to Ramen noodles.
– Dropping someone off at a house where they had the 1969 College All Star Football team playing the previous year’s Super Bowl Champions (as they used to do) NY Jets on the television. I only saw a moment of the game, but the Joe Namath led pros won in a close one 26-24.
– Cutting Sam Rosseli’s hair, the first and only time I have done this. Sam was another friend from college, who had come over to join us to drive a cab that summer. Sam was a laid-back guy notable for having dated a well-known model, Cheryl Tiggs, before she became famous.
– I remember that black people were always conscientious about tipping.
– The local, year-round, full-time taxi drivers were understandably resentful of we “haoles” who had come over from the mainland to pick up the scant fares.
– I started reading Catch 22 and finished it only recently, close to 40 years later.
– And, I remember thinking that the ocean water was as warm as a bath.
So, after a full summer, exhausted, with an airline ticket in my hand, $15 dollars in my pocket and all debts paid (except for that traffic ticket for driving at dusk on Waikiki Blvd without my lights on that I did not believe I deserved) I headed home.
Thanks Dannie for inviting me. It was great fun.