A Different Kind of Birthday

Things were not going according to plan.

Three of our party of six were down for the count. The three happened to be the male members of the group. They were suffering from a food-borne illness easily traceable to fish tacos the night before. The women in the party (where did that term “fairer sex” come from?) were hale and hearty as always.

The plan — months in the making and now clearly unfeasible — was a big birthday bash for the lovely young woman pictured here. The “big” in the birthday bash was in honor of a milestone birthday. We won’t say which one, since a lady never reveals her age.

The bash would have involved a dinner at her favorite restaurant in Maui. There would have been copious amounts of wine involved. The day would have ended with a sunset and maybe even a little live music.

None of that was happening now.

Now, some people on their birthday faced with similar circumstances might lament with a cry of “why me?” But not this birthday girl. Since I know her pretty well, I can probably surmise as to why.

The first time I met this individual was on, coincidentally, her birthday. Well, it might have been a day or two after, I’m not really sure, since it was a long time ago and at that point in my life I was not conversant in days of the weeks, numbers, and, to be honest, I had no concept of life.


VRBO

I do remember — at the age of three — the drive in our brown Rambler station wagon. We chugged up the hill to the hospital, Dad at the wheel. We swerved into the pickup area and a nurse was there with Mom in a wheelchair. Mom got into the car with a bundle in her arms.

I stood up and peaked over the seat to see what all the commotion was about. Mom pulled the blanket back to reveal the biggest mop of the curliest raven-black hair imaginable. It was clear my little sister planned to make a fashion statement to the world. Time would prove she intended to make more of a statement than that.

We come from a big family of nine kids. In order of appearance they are two girls, then four — count ’em — four boys all in a row. Then came this little curly haired girl before another girl and boy completed the ensemble. Mom thought this particular one was a delicate little thing and named her Francine Mary. We called her Frou Frou.

Frilly she was not. Sensitive, artistic, yes. But coming on the tail end of four boys was not easy. Teasing, shall we say, was commonplace. Frou learned to take it and dish it back. She learned to roll with the punches.

Fast forward an unspecified number of decades to this special day where she awoke at sunrise to be greeted by 1. A double rainbow in full, glorious technicolor and 2. The news that husband Mike (the guy who still looks a little pale in this photo) had had a very, very rough night.

So, without even a moment’s hesitation, she pronounced a Plan B. She soaked in the view for another moment and dashed off to the local store to pick up medical supplies for the wounded. After administering proper dosages to those in the makeshift hospital, she gathered up the girls and pronounced: “Let’s go snorkeling!”

The ladies did not think twice. They had been on a quest all week to witness some sea turtles in action. This seemed like as good a time as any.

(It should be noted, for the record, that the other female protagonists of this story also tended to their incapacitated spouses: Lecia, whose husband, Gene, you may remember from the previous episode, and Sherry, whose husband may or may not be the author of this story).

And so, off went the all-female army, in search of a decent snorkeling locale and, hopefully, to see a few of the leathery-bound reptiles. It was not easy finding a spot. Trails along precipitous cliffs and rocky shores led to nowhere. Private resorts posted large “Residents Only” signs at every other possible point of entry.

But Francine led the group, and kept their spirits high. It was a glorious day, after all. And a call from big brother Tom didn’t hurt. He informed Francine that he and his meditation group would be focusing their mental energies in her honor at 1 p.m.

Soon thereafter, the expedition found a promising beach, and it was open to the public. Braving the somewhat chilly waters, they began to swim out. Sure enough, soon thereafter, Francine found a large tortoise friend. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that he or she found her. Not only did he/she find her, he/she appeared to be swimming in tandem with her.

The ladies returned home and Sherry whipped up a batch of Congee for the still somewhat feeble male members of the party. If you are not familiar with this Asian dish, it is a type of rice porridge that can be a palliative for those suffering from stomach illnesses (usually due to an overindulgence of alcoholic beverages, but just what the doctor ordered in this case).

By day’s end, the boys seemed to be on the mend and the sun set on cue for the birthday girl.

That was simply a bonus to a day with double rainbows, good vibrations from the meditation crowd, and a dance with sea turtles.

She didn’t say it aloud, but I’m pretty sure Francine was thinking: Life doesn’t get any better than this.

Happy Birthday, Frou.

Brotherly love

I had to make a decision involving one of the most basic of human needs: use the bathroom now or chance a long ride?

We — my siblings and our respective spouses — were on the upper northwest side of the island of Oahu, about to make our return to our vacation rental, a fair trek south in the direction of Honolulu. The public park, where we had just finished picnicking, offered an unequivocally beautiful view of the sand and surf. It also offered what you would expect for a public restroom in a beach town.

So the dilemma before me: Do I brave the germ-infested latrine or gamble on making it back home? I erred on the side of caution. Besides, brother Gene, who had just returned from said facilities, was still alive.

When you gotta go, you gotta go. So I notified the other members of our party of six that I was on my way.

“Hey,” said Gene. “Ask that guy over there what year his Chevy Blazer is.” I looked out to see a white vehicle parked right in front of the restroom. I never knew Gene to be an auto enthusiast. His first car was a Rambler station wagon. From then on, it’s pretty much been pickup trucks. But, no problem. I could do my younger sibling a favor. I assumed he had just had a conversation with the owner, and forgot to secure this one key data point.

As I approached the vehicle, the Blazer’s owner was standing on the running board and assiduously wiping down the top with a cloth. I bade him “hello” and asked the relevant question.

He jumped down immediately to greet me.

“It’s a ’96, he said. This thing is old.”

I looked directly at him now and realized he was about my age. He sported a wispy, gray beard and shaggy mane of hair.

“Well, looks like it’s in good shape,” I said. He smiled, revealing a few missing teeth and many others held together with gold crowns. His face was creased and tanned by the elements.

I said goodbye with a wave and went to the restroom. But as I returned, I had to walk by him again. He was back in his position on the running board and I figured there was no need to continue our conversation. But he spotted me and jumped down.

“Hey, what’s your workout regimen?” he inquired.

The question took me by surprise and it took me a moment to process. Sensing my confusion, he posed with his arms flexed.

“You know, like, what do you do, weights? You look pretty fit, man.”

“Oh, yeah. I do some weights,” I said, a little embarrassed that anyone would notice but admittedly a little “pumped up,” too.

Before I knew it, we were in a conversation that transitioned to a number of other topics, including getting old, retirement, his disdain for those who did not respect the beauty of the island, the best Chinese restaurant in town, among others subjects.

I glanced at my party at the picnic table in the distance. They were intensely observing the entire interaction.

I saluted him with one final adieu and returned once again to my group.

“So did you ask him about the Blazer?” Gene inquired.

I nodded affirmatively.

“A ’96 right?” he said, with a smile. And then the rest of the group erupted into laughter.

Gene then confessed he had no interest in the car. He explained that he had overheard our new friend discussing the Blazer and his request of me was just a joke. Gene had set me up. My own brother had pranked me.


VRBO

At this juncture in this tale it needs to be noted that brother Gene is a gentle soul, and has possessed this character as long as I have known him.

“I didn’t expect you to actually listen to me,” Gene said, laughing. He underscored this claim by averring that his older brother had never heeded his requests before. And then, he asked, “So, are you going to get me back?”

The words on the tip of my tongue were, “You just wait!” But I refrained from resorting to such a childish response. I took the high road.

“Let me just say that vengeance is sweet,” I said. So much more mature.

We made the drive back to our house. And after dinner, we discussed the day’s events and this episode in particular. We laughed again. But as I thought about my new Chevy Blazer BFF, it dawned on me: I had unwittingly made the guy’s day. I was the second person that afternoon who had asked him about his vehicle. It made him feel proud that anyone would notice, let alone two people in one day.

In his groundbreaking work, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” Abraham Maslow said that we all need food, water, shelter, warmth, as our most basic needs. But above that, he posited, we crave a sense of belonging, of being respected by others.

We are all, after all, part of the same fraternal, sisterly, familial, order. We all desire the same things.

Mr. Chevy Blazer’s spirits were unexpectedly lifted on that day. And that’s not a bad thing. And, with his spirits lifted, he sought to repay the gift by complimenting me. And it worked, quite frankly.

Imagine if seven billion people on this planet did this maybe once a day with a perfect stranger. Could it hurt?

It was then that I realized my younger brother was off the hook. You don’t get any sweeter vengeance than this.

Greaser, Bro and Godot

“I’m telling you it’s not like him. Maybe something happened to him.”

“No, Bro. Nothin’ happened to him. He just didn’t show. I mean he didn’t show all day. I waited for nothin’.”

The two middle-aged men generating this conversation are walking toward a park bench overlooking the shores of Waikiki.

One is wiry, of compacted frame with salt and pepper hair, haphazardly shorn into a crew cut. This is Bro. He is missing a few front teeth. He is wearing what appears to be a basketball uniform made for an NBA center. The silky bright red shorts come down almost to his ankles. He has a tattoo on each bicep. The design appears to be a floral pattern, but nothing recognizable.

The other man, also of the same lean build and about the same height, is beyond tanned. His skin is cracked, darkened and etched by many hard years and exposure to the sun and the elements.

His hair is slicked back with a little duck’s tail reminiscent of the greasers in the ’50s. Greaser is wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with the sleeves rolled just a bit — also in the style of the era, and revealing a tattoo on his left arm. The inked image appears to be a classic sailor’s anchor. He is wearing knock-off designer jeans and flip flops.

“I’m telling you, Bro,” he says, “I’ve been waiting all fuckin’ day. What time is it, like 5?”

There are two park benches ensconced comfortably underneath a scraggly Banyan tree. One bench is unoccupied. The other has an unassuming occupant, an elderly man who could play the part of a scholar right out of central casting. He has a white goatee, he is wearing round spectacles and he is reading a very thick book.

Greaser and Bro decide to sit with the scholar. Now we have, from left to right, Greaser, Bro and Scholar. Scholar is doing his best to remain consumed in his literature, but undoubtedly he knows that as long as these two are accompanying him, his task will be all the more difficult, if not impossible.

If Scholar is listening to the conversation — and how could he not — he is probably smirking at the irony of Greaser and Bro enacting a variation on the theme of Beckett’s masterpiece, Waiting for Godot.

Greaser’s speech is slurred and slow and it becomes clear why when he pulls a 16-ounce can of Pabst Blue Ribbon out of a plastic grocery bag.

Greaser stands up, apparently to negotiate opening his liquid refreshment, and then he sits down. He is fidgeting until he takes the first swig.

All is quiet for a moment and then Bro re-ignites the conversation.

“Maybe something happened. It’s not like him to not even call.”

“I called HIM!” says Greaser. “And all I got was an answering machine. Didn’t even sound like him. “

“What did it say?” asks Bro, plaintively.

“I dunno. Couldn’t even tell,” says Greaser. He takes another gulp of his beverage. “Maybe it was a wrong number or something.”

Behind Greaser, Bro, the Scholar and the Banyan tree, the sun appears to be negotiating its descent with a puff of clouds hugging the horizon. Surfers and swimmers are basking in the amber light and the waves are gently lapping the shore. The waves are inaudible, overpowered by the din of traffic on Kalakaua Avenue.

Tour buses are gunning their engines and spewing diesel exhaust. They seem to be competing with myriad motorcycles, apparently designed for two purposes: to make a lot of noise and add more fumes to the air. Delivery trucks of every kind make impossible (and no doubt illegal) turns, while street vendors with monotonous tones chirp their offerings, amplified by tinny speakers. A pan flutist attempts to compete with a spin class that has the windows to the studio wide open, blasting a thumping bass beat that seems to suck the oxygen out of mid-air.

Greaser and Bro seem oblivious to it all, consumed in being either insulted by or concerned for their no-show friend.

“He’s a creature of habit,” says Greaser. “It’s not like him.”

“Did you call?” asks Bro.

“Of course, I called. And all I got was a busy signal. Not even a message.“

“All day?” asks Bro.

“All fuckin’ day,” says Greaser. “All I got was a busy signal. No message.”

“Whataya goin’ do?” asks Bro, who seems more upset than Greaser.

“Go home,” says Greaser.

“Fuckin’ ruins the day, though,” says Bro.

“Gone from bad to worse,” says Greaser, who bends down to pull something from his backpack. As he leans downward, a lanyard — the type conference-goers wear to identify themselves in a crowd, swings from his neck.

Greaser pulls the backpack on and gestures to Bro to get moving, probably to the nearest establishment serving alcohol. As they leave, Scholar seems to sigh in relief.