“The earth fell between my fingers,”he recalled, “and at that moment, I knew I was home!”
I had been living in the land of resort hotel bliss. Yes, I had a few interesting experiences: The naked systems analyst, a fun family from Korea, a couple of loving parents. All unique and very human, but I needed to get out. To find someplace that, other than my meeting of the veteran Santa Clause and friends, was void of the tourism based culture that I had been wandering for days. So I put on my backpack, slung my camera over my shoulders, and with iPad in hand (I learned to show the previous day’s interview as an ice breaker), I walked out of the hotel.
Onto Ala Moana Blvd. I strolled, merely drifting, the humidity dripping down my face as I peered down side streets and into the lobbies and driveways of much less resort-based accommodations. Past the local eateries, parking lots, and shops, the spirit of tourism fell farther and farther into the background.
I can’t say that I was looking for trouble—not out to get myself into any compromising situation or be irresponsible with my safety, or be a martyr in proving a point to what ultimately became an interesting discovery (please keep with me as it evolves through the progression of Sidewalk Ghosts). I was simply stepping out of my comfort zone in trying an experiment in listening to something beyond myself. In a way, testing my intuition as I questioned if I was being honest in my statement of not profiling.
The air was balmy; road traffic zoomed by as I came across a twenty-something man who, behind a low fence, leaned against a car. Alone and smoking a cigarette he appeared to be calmly taking in the evening. There was something about the situation I could not shake as I became more and more transfixed in wanting to know his story. With my interest ignited I paused, double-checked my surroundings, as the area seemed a little sketchy. With due diligence I surveyed and after a thorough scan, I decided to approach.
One last look around I walked up, showing a story on my iPad, “Excuse me, forgive me for interrupting you, my name is Richard Radstone, I’m a photographer and have committed to photographing a stranger every day for a year. Today I’m on day 28 and I wonder if you would like to be part of the project.”
“Sure,” he responded, as dropping his cigarette to the pavement, he added, “but I just took some(can’t remember the drug), so we better do it quick.”
His next comment, before I could even ask his name, pointing to my camera, “Nice, how much is it worth?”
OK, that was a question that ranked almost at the top of my you are about to get mugged alarm, but I was in the situation, committed to find out who the guy was, so shifting the camera behind my back and under my bag, I redirected, “Not much.” He backed off and as he did, the night clerk who, just behind the entry door to what I then realized was a hostel, stepped from behind the front desk and walked out. “I’ve been watching you. What are you doing?”
I shared with her the same introduction as I did with my still unknown friend. He began to sway and slump a little, and before I could turn back to him she opened up. Without my provocation beginning at her childhood as she revealed a life of tragedy and abuse—things you see in the cinema and crime series. Heart breaking accounts and memories that were seriously in need of clinical therapy or spiritual intervention. Stuff that was so dark it sent chills up my spine and my wanting to comfort her with any words I could share. I did not get the chance.
As fast as she began her unload, and as if a new switch was clicked, she turned, “F**K YOU! This is none of you damn business, get the hell out of here!”
I was stunned, and to be completely open, I was starting to become a little fearful of what I had walked into. My senses heightened, I turned my attention to my first contact. By that time, murmuring out a few disconnected sentences, it was obvious he was falling under the influence of whatever it was he ingested. All this was happened in a matter of seconds as, back in the hostel office, the woman who had unleashed on me was telling about our encounter to a third player who walked into the story. A gigantic Samoan man, who with one of those voices that sound quiet in tone but somehow has the volume to carry miles says, “That not cool.” He walked toward me.
With this warning moving my direction I figured it prudent to start a we’ll do this another time exit strategy with my deeply drugged friend. But before I could dismiss myself, I felt a wall of body heat behind me and the movement of warm breath hitting the top of my head. My heart was pounding and I was ready to flee, as Player Three, at what had to have been at least three hundred pounds of tattooed body mass stood only inches from my back.
Got to go NOW! Blazed through my head. It was time for no form or etiquette. I needed to go!
With one escape route visible, an exit way to the busy street, I turned, and as I did I was cut off as two more players walked toward the scene. Hats tipped and strutting at high pace they settled at my side. The wall-of-a-man still standing behind me, they asked, “What’s up?”
I was freaking out, but hid it well as I showed past stories on my iPad, “Hi, my name is Richard Radstone, I’m a photographer and have committed to photographing a stranger every day for a year, today I’m on day 28 and I wondered if your friend here would let me photograph him for my project… he said ‘yes’ and we’ve just been hanging out.”
“Wait! Go back! I know that kid!” one of the cap-wearing guys said, and as he did, I viewed it as opportunity—a bridge to perhaps gaining some trust.
So I chested up a little, held the iPad so that he could not see the screen, “What’s his name?”
“Jonathan,” he replied, adding, “I was just thinking and praying about him this morning.”
I was floored. He was accurate. Was that the reason I could not shake the need to be at that place at that time. Was my first impression to approach the smoking guy behind the fence really a call to have the interaction I was then having?
The tension instantly left, I had been accepted as a local. An indicator I assumed when the big dude behind me tapped me on the shoulder while looking at the guys with the hats, then walked away, again sharing in his soft loud voice, “That’s cool.”
His name was Nathan and his story was rich and colorful. His link to Jonathan, the gangsta kid I met only a few weeks earlier in California? Turned out that they were cousins, and having overcome falling to the pressures of gangs earlier in his life, Nathan was concerned that Jonathan was on a similar path. “I’m going to call him tonight,” he expressed as he opened up about his life.
There were just too many levels of amazing to articulate in regard to the intelligence and humility of Nathan. A man who, in 20 minutes of conversation, made me feel like a long-lost friend. A guy who, with hugs and all, embraced me with the full spirit of Aloha as the world became a very small planet.
Nathan came from a huge family, 15 brothers and sisters to be exact. All true Hawaiians, each literally birthed in their home. In Nathan’s words, “Island Style.” He spoke lovingly of his relationship with the old country, showcasing stories of the real Hawaii, all the way back to where he was born in Laie, Oahu.
Hung-up on the sheer size of his family, I could not help to ask if his mother was still living? With the smile of a well cared for son, he answered, “Oh yeah, a happy 76.”
He told me of how she kept the house in order and was no push over. Again in his words, “A strong island woman.”
One thing I learned from the Polynesian culture, and I learned it fast, is respect for family and history. Special things like men cooking for the women and of the importance of respecting the elderly. For Nathan it was a tribute to his name to carry forward the legacy of his mother’s upbringing. In that, he proudly told me of his two children, one of which was on a full scholarship to USC. That alone was reason for celebration, and a fact that helped me to reframe all the fears and assumptions of my first impression of him. Sadly admitted, I was afraid.
We talked of the times he lived on the Main Land: California, New Orleans, Washington, and Las Vegas, working in the hospitality industry. All of which left him reflecting on Hawaii.
“I’m a country boy,” he labeled himself. Followed by a heartfelt and touching story—an experience that happened after years away. Hopefully I can give it the justice the story deserves.
He arrived home. Felt the air, smelled the earth, and saw the land he had missed. As he exited the plane, a fellow traveler threw a cigarette butt to the ground and stamped it out.
I know it sounds hoaky, but I looked into his Nathan’s as he shared this account, and it was beyond obvious his love for the land was real.
He told me of his bending to pick it up, grasping not only the discarded remnant of inconsideration, but also, a handful of the soil he was raised on.
“The earth fell between my fingers,”he recalled, “and at that moment, I knew I was home!”
I was starting to understand the full meaning of Aloha as I asked my final question.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
His basic answer, “Owning a market selling only Hawaiian products.”
But in this dream there was much more. He went on to express the importance of developing local agriculture, and of the lands that were not fully used to their best advantage. He also spoke of the need for conservation on the islands. His desire to one day open a market that could not only stimulating the local economy, but also bring awareness of the bountiful resources of Hawaii.
I really respected Nathan, and in tribute to him upon arrival each time I have the pleasure to visit the Islands, I honor his closing invitation: “Come to Hawaii. Enjoy it for what it is. And please keep progress responsible.”
Mahalo Nui Loa
Talk tomorrow my good friends,
Readers, if you are returning, so nice to be with you again. If you are new, looking forward to getting to know you.
To all: please comment, like, and forward. Every engagement goes a long way toward connecting us; as together, we grow a movement that betters the way we view and treat one another.