I go downtown more often these days. Nostalgia. Chinatown was a regular haunt for me during small kid time. My dad’s barber was there, so I’d go with him once a month for a “flattop” buzz, my dad’s choice, not mine.
My dad loved roast pork, char siu, and crispy, greasy roast duck. You always found the best there. We frequented the open market as well, buying various types of seafood, pork, and beef.
An insurance salesman, my dad had many policyholders in the area, including whole life, auto, home, and business. Our barber had all of these. My dad carried a three-foot length of telephone cable under the driver’s seat of his car, just in case, when he did any insurance business in Chinatown at night.
When I was old enough, my dad would trust me to go after school, on the bus, to have my monthly cut. Even though I’d achieved this independence, riding the Nu‘uanu Dowsett bus from my school to Hotel Street, he made it clear that he wanted me to continue to “choose” the flattop style. This I did.
One day when I was walking down Hotel to my barber across from the Swing Club, I stopped outside a pawn shop. Displayed in the window were a variety of knives. I’ve always been fascinated by knives of all sorts, probably starting with my Cub Scout knife, and I have a pretty good selection to this day.
A particular knife caught my eye. It had a jade-green pearlescent handle and what looked to be a three- to four-inch blade. I still had a few minutes before my haircut appointment, so I ducked inside to take a closer look.
“That’s a switchblade,” the proprietor said, sliding open the window case and retrieving the knife. “You have to be careful with this kind of knife. See,” he said, pushing the blade in and then releasing it with the push of a button, “it comes out quick, and you could cut yourself if you’re not careful.”
He pushed the blade back in and handed the knife to me.
Now if you’re wondering how on earth a seventh-grader could walk into a store and buy a switchblade knife, wonder no more. In those days, it seems there were no laws about selling deadly knives to minors – at least as far as pawn shop owners were concerned. Anyone could buy a knife the type of which is now illegal and completely banned in Hawai‘i.
I can’t remember how much I paid, but if I were carrying enough to buy it, the cost couldn’t have been more than between $5 and $10 or so. A cheap, deadly weapon in the hands of a seventh-grader. Amazing.
So I walked out of the pawn shop, switchblade in my jeans pocket, which for back then made me fit right in with the folks who roamed the streets of Chinatown.
I showed the knife and demonstrated its capabilities to all the barbers in the shop. They were a bit surprised. Maybe shocked or even horrified is a better word. Why would I want to buy something that dangerous? And why would I carry it around?
Their reaction made me wonder if they would tell my dad about the knife the next time he came in for his monthly haircut. He would undoubtedly confiscate it when he came home. I might get a lecture. I might even get a whack or two for wasting my allowance holdings on such a stupid thing.
No matter. For the time being the knife was mine, and I was invincible.
So, if you take the Nu‘uanu bus from there, you get off at Kawānanakoa School. I did that sometimes, for the walk. But that afternoon, I decided to take the Pauoa Valley bus so I could get off in the back of the valley and take the shorter walk up the hill to my house.
I walked back down Hotel Street and headed over to the nearest Pauoa route stop on Alakea Street. It was past rush hour now, late in the afternoon, and I was the only person waiting for the bus. I had the whole bench to myself. I remember taking some book we had to read out of my Pan Am bag.
Absorbed in whatever it was, I was interrupted by a male voice. “Hey.”
This was a time before parents began warning their children not to talk to strangers. Lots of kids talked to lots of strangers. I looked up, said, “Hey” back.
He was a younger guy, early 20s, dressed in a sailor suit. I was instantly impressed by this. My dad had served in the Army in World War II, and he’d inculcated a great reverence for the armed forces in me. I offer my flattop haircut as Exhibit A.
“How are you?” the sailor asked
“Okay,” I said. “You’re in the Navy, right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” he said.
“My dad was in the Army,” I said.
“Yeah,” I continued, “he fought in Europe during world war two.”
The sailor nodded, said nothing in come back.
I stared at him, wondering if he was going to say something. He did.
“Have you ever been blown?” he asked.
I didn’t understand what he was asking. “What?”
“A blow job,” he said. “Have you ever had a blow job?”
I had no idea what that was. “A what?”
“A blow job. You know. Where you get your dick sucked.”
Now this I understood. After all, I was a seventh-grader. I knew what a dick was, and I knew what sucking involved.
“Ah,” I hesitated, my heart racing, “no. No, I haven’t had a blow job.”
“Would you like one?” he asked. “I can pay you.”
I’d already done a lot of things for money at my ripe old age, but this one I did not want to do. At all. The guy wasn’t huge, kind of short and spindly, so it wasn’t that I was intimidated by his physical appearance. I was, however, very afraid of the look of wolfish anticipation on his face.
I shook my head. “No, I don’t want a blowjob. Please go away and leave me alone.” I looked around for someone I could ask for help, but we were alone.
“Come on,” he said, “I’ll give you twenty bucks.”
I didn’t like that he kept talking and didn’t go away. I liked less that he took a step toward me.
“Go away,” I said.
He gave me this very strange smile and took another step toward me, getting way too close.
Without thinking too much about it, I slid my hand into my pocket and produced my new switchblade. Flicking it open like a pro and standing up at the same time, I said, “Get the fuck away from me.”
I’d just been introduced to the word “fuck” at Camp Pālama Uka the summer before. It had become one of the treasured and much-used additions to my word bank.
The sailor was thrown off by this. He put his hands out and took a couple of steps back.
“Shit, okay,” he said, then turned and walked away, presumably to find someone else to proposition.
My heart was beating like the bass drum in a Marine Corps marching band, and I was more scared than I’d ever been in my life. I didn’t wait for the bus but turned and walked very quickly toward home.
It was one of the longest walks of my life. I don’t know why I survived. If the sailor had attacked me, I’m sure I would have been seriously injured if not killed.
I sold the knife to a classmate a few months later. I loved that knife for a few moments and now, I wish I still had it. Nostalgia, some. And it would be a collector’s item. The association at the time with that encounter, however, was too uncomfortable to deal with.