Thursday, August 23, 2012

Where Have All the Trade Winds Gone?

Lembi had to get out. She’d been diagnosed with SAD (Sunlight Affective Disorder) and needed to remove herself from the gray canvas of southeast Ohio’s bleak winter months. The murk was killing her. She had a sister in exotic Hawaii, so she decided to move to the Aloha islands, live there, and study nursing. It all happened pretty quickly, and not without a sense of urgency and romance. Lembi’s regretful friends threw her a bon voyage party. I went, though I was only a nodding acquaintance. (I was good friends with a guy who had tried to sleep with her.)

I don’t remember much. I recall swaying back and forth in Lembi’s small kitchen, around three or so in the morning, clutching my umpteenth “Blue Hawaii,” listening again to Elvis Presley sing its praises, staring blankly into the synthetic aqua, wincing in the kitchen’s bad fluorescent lighting, wondering vaguely on the strange stirring of tropical desire.

~~

A passionate, if naive, dream saw my parents hula-ing in and out of the bamboo doors of the Hula Hut, the Polynesian restaurant at Georgia Avenue and Reedie Drive, bathed under amorous street lights less than a mile from our house in Wheaton, Maryland. I’d marvel at the restaurant when we drove by on afternoons, and fantasize about the lurid, exotic assignations that, by definition, had to be going on inside there during the evenings. I’d imagine my parents’ most “sophisticated” friends, and the likely limbo-ing and swaying and wife-swapping partaken of in the dark swirl of the restaurant’s torch-bathed floors and romantic booths. If there is ever an argument for Jung’s collective unconscious, then it might lie in the titillating sway that the faux palm trees and lurid island torches outside of the tiki restaurant held on me, when I was clearly too young and provincial to have been imprinted by popular culture’s already-waning flirtation with Polynesian kitsch. There was something in this civic attempt at lauding primal energies and exotica that ensnared me, sang deeply of luau rhythms frenzied to a froth by tribal drumming and mysterious tropical libations. I was unaware that the Beach Boys had recorded a song called “Luau,” but somehow I heard the song in my head.

Hula Hut, lost to the winds of nostalgia
Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by Polynesia—by North American Polynesia, that is, the giddy, national cuisine- and stylistic-trend of the nineteen forties and fifties. The actual Polynesia—the vast triangle of South Pacific islands helmed by Hawaii to the north, Easter Island to the east, and the Maori islands of New Zealand to the west—appeals to me only as kitsch, as the natural scenery duly transposed onto a tacky postcard, as the pure source of artificial flavoring. Most Americans’ introduction to Polynesia involved the Trader Vic’s chain of restaurants and lounges begun in the San Francisco Bay-area, which national sprawl corresponded to the mid-century zenith of American interest in everything Polynesian. Patrons enjoying the “South Pacific Flavor” at Trader Vic’s—or at its prototype, Don the Beachcomber, or at any of the later competitive chains, such as the Marriott Hotel’s Kona-Kai line—didn’t have to pore over Rand McNally to gain entrance: Polynesia existed more in their minds and in their hearts than on the map, and they needn’t have worried if “bongo-bongo soup” or “The Missionary’s Downfall” cocktail ever really existed in true Polynesia, a very far away place. This was key to the success of mid-century, pre-PC, Polynesian cuisine, potation, and decor: selling a memory of something that never existed.

Jane and Michael Stern, enthusiastically dedicated writers on American popular culture, include an entry on Polynesian Food in The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste. What the Sterns observe is that “reality” doesn’t matter in the realm of Polynesian atmosphere; what matters is the soft-around-the-edge glow purported to whisk diners and imbibers away from plebeian America. The Sterns write: “In the Polynesian lounges and dining rooms of the civilized world, authenticity is no more an issue that it was when Cecil B. De Mille made a movie: the point is not to slavishly copy reality but to create a magical experience that transcends reality.” And what if the magical experience echoes an existence that doesn’t exist? Don’t we sway to false memories, to the lure of a world that lives on only in our imaginations? I think fondly of those fifties and sixties Trader Vic’s or Kona-Kai patrons out for a urbane night of romance and South Sea delights; perhaps they believed they were living a history lesson, were immersing themselves with integrity, via their second or third Lunar Orchid cocktail, into exotic culture: what they were living was its cosmopolitan cousin, popular culture’s desire to document the world in candles, piped music, and ersatz decor. No natural ingredients added.

“Time was not kind to Polynesian food,” the Sterns lament. The tiki restaurant in my parents’ neighborhood was torn down decades ago; it was cleared to make room for a subway station and all manner of sprawling commerce and residential growth. Though Polynesia has become a favorite subject for the pop culture archivist, the irony-laden hipster, and the New Guinea scholar, the generational, authentic siren-song of the Wheaton tiki restaurant, forever silenced, will linger in my imagination as something—and some time—irretrievable.

~~

Brief history:

Circa 300 B.C., or earlier, seafarers from Samoa and Tonga discover and settle Cook Islands, Tahiti-nui, Tuamotus, and Hiva.

Circa 300 A.D., or earlier, voyagers from central or eastern Polynesia, possibly from Hiva, discover and settle Easter Island.

1961 A.D., the Beach Boys record “Luau,” a song celebrating the joy of backyard Hawaiian-theme parties.

~~

Through the beads, and to your left.

I live sixty miles west of Chicago. One notable characteristic of Chicagoland is the prevalence of vintage architecture (varying themes on Frank Lloyd Wright and his acolytes) and the dotting remnants of still-active vintage commerce. Amy and I were first nonplussed, and then sadly understanding at spotting legitimate Fondue cookware and foodstuff, not in our local Salvation Army thrift store where we expected to find it, dusty and misused and ripe for ironic deconstruction, but freshly-wrapped in our local Jewel supermarket. Ours is an area of the Midwest where satire seems to have missed certain pockets, finding the requisite attitude lacking: people still “fondue” around here, apparently, celebrating suburban promise of quick-and-exotic weekend social dining without a trace of retro-irony. It was fresh to experience such lack of guile. It was also a bit odd.

We were thrilled when we discovered the Hala Kahiki bar in the Chicago suburb of River Grove. It was described in a Polynesian fanzine as “a dream tiki bar,” and that’s exactly what I’d been looking for since my parents’ restaurant vanished so many years ago. We made the trip to the suburbs on a chilly March afternoon. The area was coming out of a massive snowstorm that had effectively debilitated all movement for days; that we could even drive to an “exotic paradise” under cover of gray was welcome. We spotted the bamboo-thatched exterior immediately, plopped as it was inside of a melting snow bank, across the street from a garden-apartment complex on one side and a forest preserve on the other. The bend in the Des Plaines River, sadly, was too far away from the bar to gurgle any sort of aloha to us. We would not have been able to hear anyway for the twice-a-minute jumbo jets roaring feet above our heads on their way to O’Hare Airport.

We entered Hala Kahiki from the chill. Even the bamboo-covered walls and leopard-skin ottoman in the small foyer could not prepare me for the light-headed transport into the stupendous “tropical atmosphere” that this family-owned, four-decades-old lounge lovingly, and very seriously, nurtures. Once your eyes adjust to the dark of the initial room, neon, day-glo shapes of primitive origins leap out at you from across the dim, beach-like bar: your first thought is, these colors do not exist in nature; your second thought is, well, maybe they do. Somewhere.

Materializing out of the dark, our pale waitress—she looked to be in her sixties, and was stuffed into a Hawaiian-print muumuu—asked to seat us, and our jaws must have trailed on the wall-to-wall tiki-print carpeting as we followed her, slowly. The decor stunned us in its fierce attention to quality details: authentic wood-carved tiki wall-hangings and shag carpet paintings; pineapple torch-lamps at each table; faux leopard-skin upholstered tiki chairs; a bar sitting literally inside of a bamboo hut, complete with a hanging burlap ceiling, thatched bamboo walls, and suspended petrified blow fish mounted with tiny interior colored-lights; an outdoor courtyard dotted with grass huts, numerous tiki-god statues (some life-size) and, incongruously, three small plastic deer; large second and third attached rooms with still more impressive displays of Polynesian-style art and mementos; a wall-sized, bubbling fountain; shelves full of tiki and skeleton-head mugs; and beads, beads, and more beads seductively draping each doorway and separating the booths. Our heads were dizzy before we even ordered our drinks.

The overriding atmosphere is one of state-of-the-art ersatz, and the gimmicky ambiance made us giddy: it is as if you leave the world of comfort, to enter a climate wherein you feel you’ll never touch down on solid earth. Whether it is the “tropical” surroundings or the artificiality of the “tropical” surroundings that so disorients, is unclear. Sipping our weak Zombies and Scorpions, we listened to Don Ho over the sound system. Who knew that there were words to the theme from “Hawaii Five-O”?

We watched the owners and wait staff scurry through the Hala Kahiki with great purpose: here too, there’s room for little if any irony. As our waitress earnestly explained to us how busy the place was on Valentine’s Day, and as more and more besuited middle-aged couples visited the lounge, we began to understand: this place is for real, not for fake. A sign on the front door reads: No baseball hats, no cutoffs, no tank tops. Initially I thought it was hung for vintage kitsch appeal, but the longer we sat at Hala Kahiki the more we realized that this is a legitimate dress code, “though it’s as casual a dress code as you can have,” the pony-tailed owner assured us in his thick Midwest accent. “You don’t go wearing baseball hats in someone else’s house now, do you?” explained the owner’s father to me. The type of swank sophistication that characterized the acme of Polynesia during the mid-century is alive and well at Hala Kahiki. Waiting for the bar to open, Amy and I drove up the road to a diner and drank coffee for an hour and a half. When we told the waitress where we were heading, her eyes fairly sparkled: “Oh, I've been to the Hala. Yeah, everyone should go there at least once. It’s a special place.” There was the glow of allure in her eyes, not the slightest trace of condescension. Tacky is baseball hats and cutoffs. Piped-in bongo drums, “Tiny Bubbles,” and plastic orchids in our drinks: that’s culture. (Someone’s culture. Anyone’s?)

Floating through the semblance at Hala Kahiki, I wondered on authenticity. Clearly, here you pay for the atmosphere, but do you pay for the truth? Does it matter? Memories of the artificial, though not artificial memories. My mental images of Hala Kahiki swirl and resolve themselves in a mysterious foam redolent of the mist floating atop my bright-pink Zombie. When we have memories of an event that itself is a re-creation of a time and a place that was fabricated to begin with, where are we?

I headed off in search of the restroom. “Through the beads, and to your left,” directed our waitress. It was the kind of exotic direction I’d been longing for.

~~

I asked my mom for any memories she might have of the long-gone Hula Hut from our neighborhood. A few stray images linger for her, but the majority have evaporated. She remembers the slanting bamboo torches out front holding aloft the restaurant’s thatched roof, and an interior murky with boats, oars and grinning tiki idols hanging on the walls. As it turns out, the restaurant was never quite the swinging spot for dark suburban intrigue that I’d fantasized; my parents did not go very often, and didn’t witness many shenanigans of the illicit variety when they were there. The idea of a Polynesian restaurant in Wheaton was as odd then to my parents as the memory of it is to me now.

My mom does recall bringing her parents to the restaurant during one of their visits to suburban Washington, D.C. from tiny Coldwater, Ohio. The restaurant was so dimly-lit that my grandmother couldn’t read her menu, and became suitably annoyed. So much for romance.

As I write this I’m looking at a coconut shell. It came from Trader Vic’s in downtown Washington, D.C., and in it was served some kind of tropical libation to my parents one night when they were there. I remember seeing the coconut shells in the house while I was growing up, and being attracted to them; my mom was using them as pencil holders. After she gave me the mug, I’m doing the same. The shell sits on my desk, bathed in the glow from the desk lamp. Somewhere, far, far away, a coconut shell lies on a white sandy beach, warm in the tropical sun. Closer to home, a fluorescent light hums, or a purple light casts a spotlight, and we go on dreaming. 


Images of Hula Hut via Tiki Central. Images of Hala Kahiki via Hala Kahiki.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Blue

A decade or so ago around the time of the Elvis Presley's birthday- and death-anniversaries, The Movie Channel would run marathons of The King's movies, more often than they do now, it seems. A few years back Amy and I enjoyed  Blue Hawaii with several drinks of the same name. It was, of course, a blast, and so we sat for a few days worth of Elvis movies with pitchers of industrial-strength Blue Hawaii's. The fun morphed into something strange: on our fifth or so flick—I think it was Kissin' Cousins or Easy Come, Easy Go, or quite possibly it was Paradise, Hawaiian Style—the obvious awfulness of the movies stopped being fun, stopped being fun to make fun of, and became excruciating. I don't know that I was fully prepared for the lurch from innocence to guilt. With each movie, Elvis looked more and more despondent; the plot twists grew more and more laughable and implausible; developments in the third act weren't merely odd, they seemed imported from another movie; the dreadful songs, never organic to plot, sprang up in increasingly ludicrous situations. By the end of our mini festival, Elvis looked to us not just bored and embarrassed, but angry. At one point, we realized that every third song in the mid-60s movies were about snacks and snacking. In one movie, the title of which is lost in the sad blur, a young woman said to Elvis, "I don't think I can take the strain." Gazing unhappily at Elvis's stretched polyester slacks, Amy turned to me and muttered, "I don't think his pants can take the strain." The treacly blue drinks in our hands were tasting more and more like alcoholic manifestations of wretchedness. Our silliness had moved beyond irony to something else, something darker and revelatory, that feeling just after nervous laughter. I don't know that I've recovered. This was many years ago.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

An Origin Story

Joe O. was in the rec room, struggling to play the simple opening chords of Foreigner's "Cold As Ice" on the piano, and I was upstairs in my bedroom—upset about something, red-faced, strangely sequestered that day from the kid I was playing with, the same Joe who lived with nearly a dozen siblings stacked two to a bed in a tiny red box house on Nairn, the boy I went to kindergarten with and who got in trouble with me when we slid on our knees, side-grins at each other, that language, the boy who went to Saint Andrews with me, growing into the man he'd become, who was more athletic, the day at recess when the bell rang as the football he threw at the tail-end of a play precisely designed zipped on a line into my ribs, stinging terribly, the same boy who in an act of betrayal to my childish leanings went to a different high school where he wasn't big enough to play football so he volunteered to run the first-down markers during the game against Good Counsel, where I watched from the bleachers feigning disinterest as he marched up and down the field, a small adult now, barking orders, speaking in a foreign language to kids I didn't know—alone, trying to make sense of the promises made by a pop song badly-played by a friend downstairs who was already, although I didn't know it then, leaving.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

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