Walking Through Downtown Honolulu

With her tousled white hair and shredded clothes, the elderly Japanese woman appears to be someone living on the street.

It’s early. I’m on my walk around downtown. I like to come at this time of day on Sundays precisely because there’s no one around. Usually.

Because it’s still pretty dark out, I have trouble focusing on what it is she’s doing. But as I come closer to her, I can see she’s standing over what seems to be a genuine street person lying in the doorway.

She hears me, turns to look at me.

“This is the building where there are ghosts,” she says, pointing behind her.

I follow her finger past the figure in the doorway. It’s a two-story building I know well. I see we’re at the corner of Alakea and Merchant Streets. This building stands out down here, first because of how small it is compared to all the tall buildings now, and second because the second floor is constructed of what look like rough-cut black lava bricks. The first floor, however, is made of mold-cast bricks, roughly uniform in shape and texture.

This place, when I was a kid, was called the “Café Bon Bon” building. The café was a very popular downtown eatery, and I was partial to their root beer floats. I’d drink them often, too, because my dad’s office was up on the second floor.

I’m standing very near, but not too near the elderly woman now. “What about ghosts?” I ask.

“This place,” she says, pointing now at the person on the ground, “has all the ghosts. Always had the ghosts.”

She’s looking hard into my face as if she’s trying to convince me of what she’s saying by boring it into my skull with her laser vision.

I skirt around her, trying to keep a safe distance from her, to look at the person. It’s a man, face down, very well-dressed, perhaps in his best Sunday church suit. I’m thinking he might have had a heart attack. I kneel beside him.

“Watch out the ghost,” the woman says, and then she walks off in the direction of the post office.

These days, I’m a little anxious about getting too close to anyone. I don’t lower my mask, but I take a good long look at the man’s back. It doesn’t seem to be moving.

I call 911. I tell the operator what I’ve found and where I am. While I wait, I stand well away from the man.

The police arrive first, gloved and masked. I tell the two officers responding how I was out for my usual downtown Sunday walk and saw the old woman first, then saw the man she was standing over.

One officer asks me where the woman went. I say she headed toward the post office. He asks what she looked like. I give him the best description I can. He hops in his cruiser and drives off toward the post office.

I say to the remaining officer that I don’t think the old woman could have anything to do with what happened here. He says nothing to agree or disagree with me, just writes notes.

At this point, the ambulance arrives and the EMTs come around, gloved and masked. After a brief examination, one confirms the man is dead.

The officer asks if it appears to them to be natural.

“I think so,” says one EMT. “I don’t see any signs of blood or trauma, at least.”

Now another policeman arrives, this one a detective. Gloved and masked, he gets down to inspect the body. “What you guys think?” he asks. “Heart attack? Stroke?”

“Hard to say,” says the EMT. “We better take him in.”

I don’t know why I have to say anything at this point, but I do anyway. “If he was killed by someone, shouldn’t you get photos or something? Collect evidence or something?”

They all exchange glances that make me feel out of the loop. The EMTs get out a gurney and, flipping the man over on his back, lift him on. I see he was wearing a mask.

“What’s that?” says the officer, reaching down and picking up a slip of paper.

Everyone stops what they’re doing.

“Well?” asks the detective.

“I don’t know. It says, ‘oxtail soup,’ and the rest seems like ingredients and cooking instructions.”

“What?” says the detective, reaching for the paper.

I say, “Oxtail soup? That’s what Café Bon Bon was famous for. My dad loved it.”

“Café Bon Bon?” asks the detective.

“Yes,” I say, “Café Bon Bon. This building here used to be Cafe Bon Bon, here on the first floor. My dad’s office was upstairs there.” I point up. “I practically grew up here.”

Everyone is listening to me, I think, and they’re all staring at me.

“So,” says the detective, “you’re saying what exactly? That this guy is dead here with a recipe for oxtail soup from a café that was here, what, how many years ago?”

“Geez, I’m not sure,” I say. “It closed a long time ago, though. Maybe thirty, forty years.”

The expressions on their faces appear universally shrug me off as some kind of wacko.

Just then the other officer returns. The old Japanese woman is in the cruiser. He gets out, then lets her out. The two join us.

The detective asks, “Ma’am, did you see what happened to this man?”

She looks up at him as if she doesn’t understand what he’s saying. Then she says, “This is the ghost building. Always had lots of ghosts.”

“What? So why do you say that?” asks the detective.

“I used to work here,” she says. “Café Bon Bon.”

I’m completely overwhelmed by this statement. I try to say something, but –

“When was that?” the detective asks.

“Forty years ago.”

“Do you know what this is?” He hands her the recipe.

“Ay!” she says, crumpling up the paper in her veined hand. “This is a secret. How you got this?”

“It was underneath the body,” says the detective.

“That’s why,” she says. “That’s the ghosts, that’s why.”

I interrupt. “Ma’am, my dad used to work here, upstairs. Metropolitan Insurance Agency. Did you know him? Henry Lee.”

She stares at my face, seems to be as surprised as I was to hear that she’d worked at Bon Bon. “You are his son?” she says. “Ah, Hank, yeah, he loves oxtail soup. Yeah, every time I see him come eat.”

I can’t understand what I’m hearing. “What? Saw him back then? Or are you saying you see him now?”

“See?” she says, pointing at the dead man’s face.

The sun is well up now. I follow her finger. It can’t be.

I open my eyes. “I say, are you all right?” a woman standing over me asks.

I sit up, look around me. I’m on the sidewalk.

“Yes, I guess so. Where am I?” I ask.

“You’re downtown, at the corner of Merchant and Bethel. I was walking and I saw you lying here in the doorway. I thought you might be dead. Thank goodness you’re okay.”

She’s an older Haole woman. Very fit. Decked out in running gear, expensive shoes.

I remember I’d been out on my morning walk. Where are the cops? Where are the EMTs? The old Japanese woman?

I get to my feet, survey the scene. It’s my dad’s old office building, sure enough, where Café Bon Bon used to be on the ground floor. It is, in fact, where he ate oxtail soup all the time, his favorite. It was the oxtail soup he always tried to make at home, but he never quite got it right, he said. Something was missing, but he never asked what it was.

I thank the woman, and she goes running off toward the post office. I look up. For a moment I can see my dad’s face staring out the window on the second floor.

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