By Cynthia Oi
Posted: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 06, 2012
The man in the white hat weed-whacked, while his companion used a noisy blower to clear away clippings and leaves from the expanse of grass in a corner of Thomas Square.
These weren’t city parks workers, just a couple of guys preparing the grounds for hurdles and other agility equipment for their dogs to run through. Other members of their canine group rested under trees or practiced commands with their very obedient pets.
This was one of the scenes along Beretania Street on recent Fridays when the trusty Toyota was getting its climate-control devices fixed. The process was spread over two days because the proprietor of Chik’s auto air conditioning was conducting part-by-part diagnostics instead of replacing everything with a whole new system, a much-appreciated effort that kept down the cost of the repairs.
Rather than fuss about the inconvenience of being car-less for a couple of afternoons, I explored on foot the mile or so between Keeaumoku and Richards streets, an area generally known as Pawaa although its distinct boundaries have been muddled over time.
Like many town dwellers, I’ve driven through countless numbers of times. Other than the elegance of the Academy of Arts (new name: Honolulu Museum of Art) and the behemoth Safeway, it has few structures or institutions of significance.
Though the Occidental building topped with a cantilevered box presents a once-futuristic profile from Piikoi Street, most establishments are housed in one- or two-story properties with flat roofs and flat faces.
A lack of architectural splendor doesn’t take away from a bustling series of small businesses that seem to thrive without the big-budget promotions national retailers rely on. They are plain and practical, their names without hints of cleverness or irony; what they offer is clear.
At Asian Grocery, shoppers squeeze through narrow aisles head high with spices, sauces, rices and rice paper, noodles, frozen meats and small bins of choi sum, mint and lemongrass. A customer, a thin fellow in an Orlon polo shirt, gathered as many packages of cardamom as the store had, as well as several cases of coconut milk in cans with unfamiliar labels in unfamiliar syllabary. Clerks, who more than likely were the store’s owners, lugged crates to the sidewalk, where the man hurriedly loaded up his beat-up station wagon to the roof.
A gaggle of children from a nearby school picked through the candies before heading down the street, herded boisterously by one of the kids’ father.
Across the street, Wong’s Drapery workers tended to curtain hunters. A few doors away, a woman who spoke little English spooned delicate servings of nishime for a teenage couple.
At a Latin foods store, a customer popped in to inquire about its next tamale Saturday, an occasion tamale connoisseurs apparently look forward to, before grabbing a handful of a dried poblanos.
There are also curious businesses, including one piled haphazardly with antiques and fresh papayas that never had its doors open, an out-of-place auto dealership, a wedding gown shop and a travel agency.
Up and down the street, people moved at leisurely or brisk paces, caught the bus or got off, window-shopped, and watched others do the same. There was a sense of a small town, an experience of familiarity and of a Honolulu quickly fading away.
By the second Friday of exploration, clerks and proprietors were nodding hellos, taking the time to chat and talk of the heat. A woman stopped me to ask if I had moved to the area since she’d seen me around and we’d exchanged smiles of recognition.
I ought to get out more often.
Cynthia Oi can be reached at email@example.com.