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Almost from sunup, Waikiki is active, exuding a good feel. Soon after dawn, the surfers take up their places far out, where the waves break (it almost seems the surfers have been assigned the display role for the day, not unlike Sugarloaf, which surely must be put away at night, like the flags). Joggers splash along on the hard, wet sand, moving among fishermen, who still patiently ply the surf. There are only two strictures posted: NO FRISBEE PLAYING ALLOWED and, under a huge banyan tree just off the beach, WARNING/BEWARE BIRD DROPPINGS. Otherwise you are on your own. The beachboys come out with rakes and begin to scrape the sand clean. Two aging gigolos take up a shady bench and scan the sports pages. One has his college ring on—a college ring on!—and wears tinted glasses and Adidas track shoes. The other, from the texture of his skin, appears to have once been trapped in a tannery. And as his pelt has been bronzed by the sun, so has it blonded his hair (his eyebrows are dark). He wears sandals and short-shorts. He is too old for short-shorts. There is no hair on his legs. The saddest of male creatures is the old beach type, hanging on past his time. This guy was probably a lifeguard or a surfer once; every Boat Day was a score. It was too easy, he never got over it, and now he is coming hard on 60, still wearing short-shorts but reduced to having to get up at dawn to check out the outfield talent that the young beach stars wouldn't look twice at.
A group of Japanese come out of a hotel onto the beach. The men are proper in coats and ties, the women prim in long skirts and stout high heels. Yes, of course they have cameras, and a couple of ladies even make a concession to the sand and remove their shoes. They all take pictures of each other on the beach, posed so Sugarloaf backgrounds. The two old gigolos and other Americans glance up idly. The Americans all wear loose-fitting, casual kimono-type clothes. The Japanese appear to have just stepped off Fifth Avenue.
The Japanese go back to the hotel for morning tea—or coffee, regular, and a Danish, I suppose. A catamaran lands. Pigeons with cherry-red eyes pick at the sand. The place is filling up. The gigolos put down the sports sections and contemplate a chubby middle-aged arrival, deftly evaluating her with the caustic code language of their trade. She has a T shirt over her bikini; it says HERE TODAY, GONE TO MAUI. She takes it off, sits on her towel and begins to put on her special Hawaiian tanning lotion. Hawaii has got everybody who comes to the theme park so buffaloed that visitors are cheerfully deluded into believing that somehow the sun that shines on the islands is different from the one that beams down elsewhere.
The sun is hot by now. On the principal Waikiki thoroughfare, Kalakaua Avenue, the puka-bead shops are already in full sway. Aloha postcards, aloha hats, scarves, decals, panties are beginning to move. If this were Dallas, there would be the same junk with "Cowboys" stamped on it. They probably sell a ton of Jayhawk panties in Lawrence, Kans. The tourists are eating Eggs McMuffin or meeting the day's tour guides. Many are reflecting solemnly about how commercial Waikiki is. The most unfavorable comment that the Visitors Bureau receives is that Waikiki is too commercial.
This, of course, is our great modern affectation: that something is too commercial. It is supposed to prove how sensitive we are. I was at a party not long ago where a guy said he and his family were swearing off national parks (that's what he said: "swearing off") because they had become too commercial. Everybody nodded sorrowfully at this disgraceful condition and commended him on his noble sacrifice. Every pseudodoomsayer provides the same woeful expertise. Sports have become too commercial. Christmas is too commercial. The elections are too commercial. Toys are too commercial. Doctors are too commercial. The Bicentennial was too commercial. What was the first thing Jimmy Carter said after he was elected? The inauguration was too commercial. So Waikiki is too commercial.
Well, yes, hey, life is commercial. Surprise. This is no longer the Fertile Crescent with everybody sitting around eating nature's own pomegranates. If something is good in 1977, it is going to be commercialized. In the old uncommercial days, you had to be discerning about many things now taken for granted. You had to make sure the food wasn't spoiled. You had to stock firewood and make educated guesses about birth control. The least we can demand of people nowadays is that they don't just rail at everything being commercial, which it is, but that they apply some old-fashioned discernment to the matter. Just because there is a whole lot of commercialism running around doesn't mean you have to indulge in all of it. It is my experience that precisely the people who put on the phony hair shirt and moan about things being too commercial are the ones who would expire from lack of pollutants, who would go berserk if they had to endure two days on vacation without scuba lessons at the pool and left-hand-turn lanes.
Of course Waikiki is too commercial. Of course most all resorts are. If they weren't, people wouldn't go to them. But the point is, Waikiki is not too commercial unless you let it be. I found it—the beach, the bustle, the tumult—to be very real, as genuine in its way as smoldering volcanoes and sultry rain forests. What is so patently false about Hawaii is all the pretentious rubbish pawned off as culture and tradition. If I was told once, I was told 100 times that there are now 25 McDonald's on the islands. This was always said with a sense of doom, and so I never knew how to react properly to the news, because McDonald's neither frightens me nor heralds the end of civilization. The people I saw eating at McDonald's appeared infinitely more contented than those who had forced themselves to attend a luau.
My advice is, if you are looking for the most real glimpse of Hawaii, go see Don Ho perform. The hula and the luau—all that stuff was culture once upon a time, but it is a straight-out fraud now. Don Ho is culture now. He is also commercial; also, I could not abide his act. It was boorish and overdone, and often puerile. But it is utterly fascinating, because when you get up to go, you recognize, as I did, that you have experienced what Hawaii truly is.
Don Ho (it is impossible to call him Ho) somehow bestrides the confluence of what Hawaii has become and what the tourists expect. He is the personification of the islands (something the mainland haole Jack Lord could never be), Chinese in name, but "chop suey" when all his strains are totaled up. It is not true, but a revealing rumor nonetheless, that he is paid $1 million a year by the Visitors Bureau not to defect to Vegas.
Many cities used to be instantly connected with an entertainment star, but most cities (or states) now are associated with sports people: Johnny Bench of Cincinnati, Bear Bryant of Alabama and so on. Al Hirt in New Orleans might be one exception to this rule; Don Ho is certainly the other. And he has the place completely to himself. World Football and World Team Tennis are the only "big league" operations ever to try to make a go on the islands. Don Ho is the only superstar on the Aloha team.