A recent visit to the county building, Kalana O Maui, got me thinking about the good old days. Chatting with the ladies at the water department service window, I was glad that I had decided to pay my bill in person. Three minutes of relaxed, friendly small talk gave me a refreshing respite from the usual Monday morning madness. It reminded me of old-time Maui, when it took twice as long to finish your shopping and errands, because you had to talk story at every stop. No one was too busy for a few minutes of face time. No one was impatient to get on with their life; that WAS our life.
Monday morning, the Kalana O Maui stairwell led directly to Memory Lane. I took the stairs because I wanted to see the results of the recent departmental beautification contest, in which various county offices painted murals throughout the stairwell. Each floor boasts a different theme, boldly and brightly depicted on the walls. The descent sent me into another realm, one where I was 5 or 6 years old and ruled the county building parking lot.
I guess it would be more accurate to say that I ruled over my cousin Mark, who was a year younger and not nearly as bossy. I lived on Church Street with my parents, a block away from the old parking lot, in a little brown house which was identical to the ones on either side of it, except for the huge mango tree that dominated our front yard. It was a great tree for climbing, and I loved to wedge myself in the forks of its mighty branches and watch the world from my perch.
Mark lived around the corner, on Uluwehi Street, which at the time ended in a large parking lot behind the municipal offices. Kalana O Maui had not yet been built; instead, I dimly remember several low-slung buildings. Mark and I would ride our tricycles up to the lot, our personal playground and frontier. We ate the Surinam cherries that grew near the entrance, even though they were disturbingly sour, because their miniature pumpkinlike appearance made them irresistible. We strung lei with the Job's-tears we picked from the scraggly bushes alongside a stone wall. And on one unforgettable day, we ate kukui nut for the first - and last - time.
It seemed like a reasonable experiment. There was a solitary kukui tree in a recess between two buildings and we often used its fallen fruit as balls. On this fateful day, I noticed the resemblance between the kukui nuts and the smaller macadamia nuts at my grandmother's house in Haiku. My father and I used to gather the little nuts from under her tree, and he would use a hammer and anvil to bust open the shells and get to the rich, tasty gem inside. Mark and I found that the kukui nut meat was much easier to access. We peeled the drying husk from the largest kukui nut we could find and I took the first bite. Sure enough, it tasted like raw macadamia nuts, only richer. We took turns nibbling at the nut, imagining ourselves to be Polynesian pioneers living off the land.
We got home just as the horrible stomach cramps began. Excuse the imagery, but explosive diarrhea is a mild description of what followed. It took years before I could smell macadamia nuts without feeling nauseous.
The second most memorable moment in that parking lot took place shortly before our kukui nut experiment. We had wandered beyond the lot and into the office complex. I think we were looking for a drinking fountain. We peeked into an open doorway and a nice lady invited us in. She said her boss would be happy to see us, even without an appointment, so we parked our trikes and followed her into the inner office. Her boss turned out to be County Chairman Eddie Tam and he did indeed seem delighted to have visitors. The three of us sat at his giant desk for a very pleasant talk story session. He explained that his job was to take care of the county, which was us and our parents and everyone else we knew. He told us we were always welcome there and to come back and see him if we ever needed anything. We never did, but whenever I hear elected officials talk about having an open-door policy, I think of that afternoon.
Should you venture into Kalana O Maui, don't bother with the elevators. Take the stairs and check out the great artwork by your county caretakers. The whimsical paintings might even inspire you to spend a few minutes of talk story with a new friend.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.