About seven years ago. Something truly special happened to me. With a lasting impact I never could have imagined.
I had just returned to Honolulu from a whole day on Hawai'i Island. The day was filled with a Hawai'i Island Burial Council meeting to deal with issues of the dead. Our beloved ancestors, our kupuna, whose bones were being threatened by development across the State. The council on Hawai'i Island always was intense and heavily spiritual. Heavily draining as well. My coworkers and I caught the last flight from Kona and arrived in Honolulu at almost 9:00 at night. We arrived physically, emotionally and mentally exhausted. Spiritually, we were uplifted but that was about it.
We parted ways but I couldn't go home yet. I clutched a beautiful bouquet of red, white, coral and pink anthuriums and I had to deliver them to a vase and water waiting at an old school cafeteria near Diamond Head. My department had secured the building as a temporary curation facility for about 200 sets of ancestral human skeletal remains of Native Hawaiians. About 50 were disturbed during the Kuhio Beach renovation on Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki and another 150 came from the Bishop Museum and were being repatriated back to Waikiki having been assembled in a collection for the past 50 to 60 years. All the kupuna sat quietly on tables in the facility.
We were going to have a dedication and blessing the next day for the 'ohana, the families, and I had brought the flowers for the occasion. I made it to the building. We had the only keys. I filled the vase with water, arranged the flowers and sat down for a little while to rest in the presence of my ancestors. Before I knew it, the time was almost 10:00 p.m. and I still had to go food shopping to buy hamburger meat, hotdogs, steak and other food for the next day's celebration. We payed for everything out of our own pocket but it felt good to contribute to something so special. I said goodnight to the kupuna and turned out the lights and headed to the grocery store.
I arrived at Foodland across from my home. I wandered through the store selecting this and that for the next day, from an imaginary menu in my head, and knowing that we would have a huge 55 gallon drum, cut in half, for our barbecue grill. I was getting very tired and I knew I still had to mix the hamburger meat and make macaroni salad before I could go to sleep.
I purchased the food, took my bags and headed up the ramp to exit the store. I looked up and noticed a young boy with a backpack, leaning against the ramp railing, and saying something to an older man who walked up the exit ramp just prior to me. The man ignored the boy and walked out of the store. The boy looked about twelve or thirteen and dressed with jeans, t-shirt, and jacket. His hair was disheveled and I wholly expected him to ask me for money as I passed by. Instead, as I looked at him, he said, "Can you help me find my friend's house?"
I stopped and looked at him and said, "Excuse me?" and he repeated, "Can you help me find my friend's house. He lives somewhere around here." I thought it strange that a young boy could be out so late at night and looking for a friends house. I thought he might be a runaway. I asked him where his friend lived. He said "Ku'ulei Street." I thought for a little while about the neighboring streets and didn't know of any Ku'ulei Street in the area.
I asked him to follow me and I would go look in the street map books which were plentiful around the cash registers. We both walked back down into the store and over to a rack by a cash register in the middle of the store. I shifted my bags on my arm and pulled out a map book. Flipping through the index, I found several Ku'ulei entries for a street and road. They were nowhere near the area we were in. I asked the boy if he knew where his friend lived and if he was sure it was Ku'ulei? He dug in his backpack furtively and pulled out a little folded piece of paper and looked at it while shielding it from my view. I asked if I could see it. He slowly showed it to me. I read the address, scribbled in little boys writing, and it said "Kuilei Street." I said, "Oh...Kuilei...not Ku'ulei. Let me look again."
As I looked through the map book index again, I asked him if his parents knew he was going to his friend's house. He said his mom told him to go stay with his friend. I didn't probe any further. I looked through the index and found a Kuilei Street near the University area. It could be considered to be in the general area on the island but still about a mile away from where we were. I told him I found it and pointed to it in the mapbook and showed him where we were as well. He smiled and asked how to get there. I told him that I knew where it was and could drop him off there. He smiled and said "thanks."
I put the map book back on the stand and the two of us walked up and out of the store. As we headed towards my car in the dark parking lot, I really felt a dread come over me. That a boy would willingly walk with, and accept a ride, at night, from a total stranger. It gave me such an awful feeling. It had rained hard earlier and it was still drizzling. I was glad that he wouldn't be wandering around in the rain if we could find his friend's house.
We walked to my 1993 Camaro and got in. I started up and backed out of the stall. He looked around and said, "Wow. You have a really nice car." As we drove through the lot, and before I could respond, he blurted out, while pointing out the window to the parked cars whizzing by, "We have a car like that one." I couldn't really see which one.
He smelled a little like body odor. Like someone who hasn't bathed in a day or two. I felt somewhat embarrassed at his admiration of my car. I said, "Oh, the car looks nice but it is a lot of work to take care of it. The tires cost a lot of money when they need replacing. I probably wouldn't choose this car again." My excuses still sounded lame for a boy who probably didn't have a whole lot in life. He said, "I would like to get a car like this someday." I said, "You can if you stay in school and work hard."
We pulled out onto the roadway which was slick and shiny with rain, reflecting all the colorful lights of the neighborhood. I was still exhausted but determined to get him to his destination. We made it through several stoplights and I turned onto the main street which would take us all the way down to Kuilei Street. He sat in the deep sport bucket seat straining to look over the dashboard.
I asked him how school was. He paused, and then said it was okay. He then volunteered that his family was from Papakolea. I immediately knew that he was part Hawaiian. My first impression of him was exactly that. He said that his family was "messed up" and that he was going to go stay with a friend. My mind raced of whether he was a runaway. Whether I should try to contact his parents. Whether I should go to the police. Then the thought of betraying him overrode all of that. I didn't know what to do and actually found myself driving slower and slower to give me extra time to figure it out.
As we drove, we both were reflectively quiet for a little while as the shiny wet roadway expanded in front of us. Then he spoke up. He said, "My grandfather lives in California. He loves me a lot." I said, "You're grandfather?" He said, "Yes, my grandfather. He is Japanese and we talk on the phone sometimes. But it is hard to understand him but we still like to talk." I said, "Wow. You are so lucky to have a grandfather who loves you so much."
I asked him if he ever goes to visit his grandfather. He said no, but that he really wanted to go live with him. Before I could add anything further, the boy started digging around in his backpack by his feet. I slowed the car down even more, trying to extend our ride. He pulled out a little white handkerchief and placed it on his knee. Then he started carefully and tenderly unwrapping it. I had to divide my attention between the road and his actions. Luckily, we hit a redlight. As we sat there he unwrapped the final portion and a gold coin flashed in the streetlight. "My grandfather gave me this" he said, looking up at me with a big smile. Then as the light changed and I stepped on the gas, he hurriedly started rewrapping his treasure. I couldn't really see what kind of coin it was, just a flash of gold.
I said, "Wow. That is something really special. You are so very lucky to have a grandfather who loves you so much. You make sure that you call him whenever you can." I was very touched by the whole scene of him unwrapping his coin. Sadly, we were almost at our destination. My mind still raced about what to do. The thought of him being hit by an angry drunk parent crossed my mind too. I still didn't know what to do. I made more small talk and told him to stay in school and work hard so he can get a good job and have the life he wanted. And I told him that his grandfather would want that as well.
We turned onto the avenue where Kuilei Street was and I peered through the rainy windshield and saw the street sign. I pulled into the dark street and went slowly down it. He looked out the windshield and pointed to an apartment building on the right side of the street and exclaimed, "There it is! It is right there..." I looked out at a little apartment building lowrise complex and pulled up alongside.
I asked him if he was sure that was the building and he assured me that he had been there before. It was where his friend lived. I was running out of time quickly to intervene. The thought of a loving friend opening the door and concerned parents knowing what to do with this boy took over my mind. Maybe more wishful thinking. The rain started coming down harder outside.
He looked over at me and said, "Thanks a lot..." as he started to reach down and gather his backpack. I asked him to wait a second as I dug into my back pants pocket to pull my wallet out which was squished between my pocket and the seat. I knew I had just pulled out money from the ATM to buy all the food and should have some left. I opened my wallet up and spotted three twenty-dollar bills. I pulled them out, folded them in half and handed them over to the boy. He hesitated and looked at me. I said, "Here, just take them. Use them for food when you get hungry. Okay? Don't buy anything else. Use them for food..." He looked at me and reluctantly took them. He peered at them in the dim street light filtering through the rainy windshield, then quickly unzipped his backpack, and stuffed them inside. Then he turned to me and said, "You know...this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me." A wave of emotion swept over me and I wanted to cry right there.
The thought that a boy his age, who would have never had kindness, no more than a car ride and some money for food, broke my heart. I didn't know what to say. He started digging in his backpack and pulled out his little white handkerchief with his grandfather's gold coin inside. He held it and tried to put it in my hand, saying, "Here, this is for you..." He had tears in his eyes. I held his hand with the handkerchief clutched inside, and pushed it back towards him. I said, "That is yours. He pushed it back towards me, his voice quivering a little more, and said, "Here...I want you to have it." I led his hand back towards his backpack and said, "That is something so truly special from your grandfather. You need to keep that so you remember how much your grandfather loves you. "
I told him to put it back in his backpack. He did. We both sat there quietly for a brief moment. I was very much moved of his desire to give me something he treasured so much having seen how carefully he unwrapped it and rewrapped it earlier, and how his face lit up when talking about his grandfather's gift.
Then suddenly he extended his hand and I grasped it. He said, "My name is Leroy." As I shook his hand, I said, "My name is Kai...nice to meet you Leroy." He said, "Nice to meet you Kai." We both smiled and held onto each other's hand. Tears welled up in both our eyes as the rain pattered on the roof. Leroy said, "Thank you Kai." And I said, "You are welcome." Tears began to well up even more in our eyes. I said, "Leroy, no matter what happens in life, I want you to do your best in life. Stay in school. You can be anything you want. Don't ever let anyone put you down. You are truly special. Your grandfather loves you very much and I care about you very much." We looked at each other as we held hands in a moment of reflective silence.
Then with a final up and down shake, we let go and he reached for the car door handle, said, "Thanks Kai" and exited the car.
My mind still raced whether I should get out with him and go up to see his friend or his friend's parents. Before I could comprehend any action, he bent back down into the car and extended his hand one last time towards mine. I grabbed it and shook. He looked at me, smiled, and said, "Kai...you the man." Then he let go, stood up, closed the door and all I saw was blackness through the rainy window. I chuckled a little at his "you the man" comment and made a U-Turn on the little roadway. As I drove past the apartment building, I strained to see any sign of Leroy but there was nothing. No body walking up stairs. Noone at any door. No lights coming on. Nothing. The rain started pouring down. I drove out onto the main street, exhausted. As I waited at the stoplight, I burst out in sobbing tears. The light changed and I could barely see through the rainy windshield combined with my heavy sobbing.
I made it home and prepared my food for the next day and collapsed into bed. The next day was incredibly busy, but a success. At the end of that night, after the party, as I sat around with my coworkers, I remembered the event from the night before. We were so busy, I didn't have time to tell anyone. I started to tell my coworkers the story and when I got to the part about the gold coin. I broke down in tears, startling my friends. It was difficult finishing the story.
I never spoke of it after that until about four years later when I was reminded of the story while eating lunch with some new coworkers and when I got to the part about unwrapping the gold coin, I broke down in tears to the astonishment of my friends. I never finished the story for them. Then several weeks ago, and about seven years after the event, I was again reminded of the story. I began to tell it to a coworker and a friend in my office. I broke down in tears halfway through the story. I can't believe it has had such a lasting impact on me. Maybe from guilt for not having done more for Leroy that night and wondering what his fate was.
The few people who have heard the story believe that Leroy was either a Hawaiian 'uhane, a ghost, testing me when I was at my weakest point, or an angel testing my faith as well. They asked me if anyone else in the store interacted with the boy. After thinking about it. Truthfully, no. They asked how a young boy could be lingering inside the front of the store so late with no manager or anyone else approaching him. I don't know.
Someone recently pointed out, on my last failed attempt to tell the story without breaking down, that Leroy derives from Le Roi. French for The King. Maybe this was a test from the King of Kings. Or maybe it was just a runaway Hawaiian boy having so much difficulty in such a short life. Searching for a little kindness, meaning and love in the land of his ancestors. Whatever it was, it has obviously changed my life in ways I probably don't even know of yet. I finally am compelled to tell this story by writing it down so the whole story can be told without fail. Why at this hour of the night? Why on Easter Sunday? There are so many unanswered questions. There is only one thing I do know however. Leroy. You are definitely The Man...