Lei Queen Contest by Jeff Gere

So there I was at 7:30 am, master of an empty parking lot at Ala Wai Golf Course, in service to the Parks Department’s Lei Queen Contest. I’d been there an hour. I was cold and grumpy. The turnout for this event was meager, as usual.

I slumped over a cup of coffee with other grumbling workers who had nothing to do as dawn edged across the morning sky. We moaned about our sad plight and how our tremendous talents were being wasted on this puny event. On and on we whined. Soon bored with that as well, I strolled down the hall to see what was going on with the contest itself.

My god, what a difference 30 yards can make. I walked into a room filled with music. Some 30 senior citizens sang a stream of Hawaiian songs. They were dressed in matching muumuus and aloha shirts with a bold print of red flowers on a white field, the ladies’ hair piled high with orchids. A stand-up bass chased lots of ukuleles, and yarn leis hung on everyone.

Arica and lawai ferns bordered the room with small palm trees watching over the proceedings. The crowds of proud families, friends and ohana mingled easily in their own leis and scents, a bubbling, smiling mix of people and costumes. The air smelled crisp and sweet.

Three girls sat at tables making leis, as kupuna  pointed fingers and asked questions. The girls beamed with answers. Then the sun peeked over the Ko‘olau Range, bathing us all in yellow light.

I sat down with a smile on my face, thinking, I don’t care about getting up early. This is magnificent! It’s a privilege to be in this room with this aloha. This is just stunningly wonderful! This is what a Recreation Department is meant to do, something so glorious, so Hawaiian, so real!

Still, it was early, and I yawned several times as the crowd greeted each other with hugs and chuckles, the chalangalang of ukuleles, slide guitar, and falsetto singing continually pouring out of the old chorus.

To my right, I saw a huge Samoan man sitting near me, yawning. I knew he was Samoan because it was tattooed across his broad upper arm, along with lots of other things. He was covered with images. His yawn brought a yawn out of me, which he saw, and we chuckled together.

“Kinda early, yeah?” I said.

“Yeep,” he said, slowly.

“I got here about 6:30. Nobody much came today.”

“Yeeyep,” he said. “I wuz up at seex. Me an’ my girlfrien’ was helping huh sistah get ready foah today. Das’ her ovah deah.”

I looked over, the music massaged us all, and I turned back to my sleepy companion, saying, “She’s pretty. I got to bed about midnight, so it’s kind of tough. Yeah, I’m sleepy today.”

“Me, I getta bed ’bout ten. But no get to sleep befoah tree … maybe two-tirdy.… Up again at six. But das OK. Dey both happy. I take one nap latah. Dis is nice an everybody happy ovah heah.”

I looked around. “You’re right. This is really special.” We didn’t talk for a long minute.

He turned to me and said, “Ya know, dis is good foah me.”

“What?”

“I mean, jus’ talking heah wid you. Times have changed. I have changed.”

I didn’t know what he meant.

After a minute he went on. “Fouah yeahs ago, if I see you jus’ looking at me, maybe I jus’ bust you, I hook you right heah, put my fiss ’cross youah face, an take you out, brah!”

I didn’t say anything, but I was waking quickly now. We were both silent for a while.

“I grew up in KPT.” He held up his big hand and I saw the three letters crudely tattooed into the valley between his thumb and first finger. Kuhio Park Terrace. Rough place. They closed its Recreation Center because the residents kept throwing burning furniture into the pool from the tops of the looming apartment skyscrapers.

He continued slowly. “I hated everyting. I had so much dahkness in my heart, so much bad feelings inside o’ me I cannot even tell you. I always stay beefing, in gangs, steal, drugs, you name it. All kinda trouble I was in. But it all wen catch up wid me. Dey catch me an’ locked me up. Tree yeah, brah, is one long, long time.…

“But dat was all before, an now, now I got a new meaning fo’ my life. I gonna make good my parole, go back school, learn how foah to be one counselah. Gonna pull all dat dahknes’ out from my heaht, an den I can go back to KPT. I goen go back an’ help dose kids, help ’em foah make bettah choices wit der lives, help ’em so dey no make da same mistakes like me, help ’em avoid da pain an’ help da family too, yeah? Dat’s what I gonna do. I jus’ thankful I get one chance.”

He said this with a slow smile that made my breath stop. Those big dark eyes and heavy lashes, the bright white teeth against the glowing deep brown skin that didn’t need to shave: he didn’t seem dangerous, but I didn’t doubt his tale was true. I believed he had changed, too. I sat quietly, musing. The music and the sunlight and the brightly-patterned people circled gently around us.

“If you don’t mind me asking, I’m just wondering: what happened to you to turn your life around? Was it religion … Jesus?”

“Nah” he chuckled. “Me ’n my bruddahs was raised in da church, but it no help me none. I still get good an’ messed up. My bruddahs still go, but me no.”

I waited. He said nothing. He was leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, his head drooping down. I dared to press him. “So what, then?”

His head and then his body slowly turned toward me. He seemed to be weighing his words. The old band and the aged falsetto voices struggled to reach and hold a high note. His big eyes batted and a gentle smile came over his entire being.

“What turn my life around … is da love … of a good … woman.” He turned slowly away as I moaned understanding and approval. The announcer took the mike and the Lei Queen Contest got underway.


Jeff Gere, a professional storyteller, performs constantly. For decades he produced Talk Story Festival, Hawaii’s largest storytelling celebration, Story TV, radio shows, camps & conferences. Jeff taught storytelling at University of Hawaii, Manoa (Spring, 2017). He performed at the National Storytelling Festival (2010, Residency 2013) and in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Turkey, Vancouver & the Yukon. Jeff retired from Oahu’s Parks Department in 2014, and has since toured to Thailand, Australia, India & Romania. (www.jeffgere.com)


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