Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hawaiian Time

In the 1960's, Paulene Helsper lived in Hawaii for three years. She camped on the beach with her boyfriend, Lyndle, and only returned to the Midwest because they thought he developed a severe coconut allergy. As it turned out, Lyndle was allergic to the straw in the Panama hat he sported, but it wasn't discovered until they migrated back to Chicago and established new lives. As Paulene tells it, "That  goddamned hat ruined my life."

Stranded in the Midwest, Paulene began converting her attached garage into her "Hawaiian room," complete with tiki lights (electric, since the tiki-fire incident), a six-inch-deep layer of sand on the floor, and a wicker lazy boy where she sits most days, sipping a piña colada while imagining Hawaii. There's a mural of Mt. Kilauea on one wall and the surf crashing on a Maui beach on another, along with two large kentia palms that require a daily spritzing. She keeps an apparel trunk full of Hawaiian shirts and island attire for visitors; no one is allowed in the Hawaiian room without a dose of island garb. Even the meter-reader dons one of her emergency leis while reading her gas meter.

Paulene gives ukelele lessons and lives on Hawaiian time. Every one of her clocks are set to Hawaii-Aleutian Standard Time. If it's midnight in Chicago, it's usually seven o'clock in the evening in Paulene's world. I say "usually" because Hawaii doesn't bother with daylight savings time, so sometimes Paulene is only four hours behind. She's late to everything; she celebrates New Years Eve at 4am Chicago time. And if you make a date with her, it gets all jumbly due to the time zone calculations.

Paulene greets everyone with "aloha." She knows lots of Hawaiian phrases and rarely misses an opportunity to slip one into a conversation. It's nearly impossible to get her to leave the Hawaiian room unless it's to attend the Tradewind Buffet at Club Waikiki. When I asked her to accompany me to the Bowl 'n Roll for a sandwich, her reply was, "Is it Hawaii outside?"
"No," I said, "It's Chicago outside."
"Well then, forget it."

I've been taking ukelele lessons from Paulene. She’s a ukelele virtuoso and gets steamed when the instrument is pronounced incorrectly. As she's reminded me a thousand times in her raspy voice, “It's 'OOK-a-lay-lee,' not 'YOUKE-a-lay-lee.'" She can play any Beatle song on the uke, and her rendition of The McCoys' "Hang on Sloopy" is as enchanting as an ocean breeze.

Sometimes the piña coladas reveal Paulene's indelicate undercurrent. During my last lesson, she stopped in the middle of our duet, a spirited version of Sonny and Cher’s "I Got You, Babe."

–Paulene:  Hold it one minute.
–Me:  What's wrong?
–Paulene:  You play like a goddamn freight train. Wikiwiki..... too fast.
–Me:  I was imagining I was Sonny.
–Paulene:  Find a gentle rhythm, like the waves lapping up on Waimea beach.
–Me:  I was wondering, did Cher break up with Sonny or was it the other way round.
–Paulene:  Grab yourself one of those grass skirts from the apparel trunk.
–Me: Keep in mind, I’m Sonny, not Cher.
–Paulene:  Strip down, put on the skirt, and sway your hips. The motion of the grass against your skin’ll dictate the rhythm.
–Me:  But what if Mr. Happy peeks out from the grass.
–Paulene:  Me and Lyndle used to spend every day, naked on the beach.
–Me:  Instead, how about I play air uke and sort of follow you.
–Paulene: Nobody plays air uke.
–Me: I’ve been practicing to a Yanni video.
–Paulene: Are you going to slip into the skirt?
–Me: Not without a matching coconut bra.
–Paulene: Lots of men wear grass skirts.
–Me: Not around here.
–Paulene: We’re not around here; we’re in Hawaii.
–Me: What if there’s a fire and I have to dash out in the street.
–Paulene: Suit up, buster, and follow the flow of the grass.
–Me: When did I become your Ken Doll?
–Paulene:  If Sonny was as much trouble as you, Cher made the break.
–Me: Thought so.
–Paulene: Oh hell, put on the goddamn skirt.
–Me: Oh...look at the time. It’s past 4am; I have to run.
–Paulene: Okole.
–Me: I’m going to look that up.
–Paulene: When you do, put a “big” in front of it.

It’s a time-worn trick, but sometimes a quick glance at a clock can turn a thing around and, despite some offshore name-calling, offer a graceful exit, especially when the clock is set to Hawaiian Standard Time.