Hawaiian Noir

Murder Calls

Aggie Park opened Friday at Texas A&M after almost two years of development. I visited this morning with my KoAloha longneck soprano. It’s a great place to sit and play music. Here is Ulupalakua.

‘Ulupapakua sung at Aggie Park 9/7/2022

Well, it took awhile to figure out how to embed this YouTube video, so I’m going to leave this post with that.

Here are a few more shots of Aggie Park where we used to tailgate for many years.

Edith Kanaka‘ole, a dancer, composer, teacher, and kumu hula, was one of the leading lights of the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970’s. She will be featured on U.S. quarters next year as part of the Treasury Department’s American Women Quarters Program. You can see more designs here:

Edith was born in Honomu, Hawai‘i on the Hamakua Coast of the Big Island, in 1913. She was taught hula from an early age and began to compose traditional Hawaiian music in 1946. She choreographed hula to accompany her chants and founded the hula halau, Halau o Kekuhi, in 1953. She taught Hawaiian language and Hawaiian studies at Hawai‘i Community College and the University of Hawai‘i, Hilo from 1970 until her death in 1979. Her legacy continues to be felt today through the foundation that bears her name. It’s mission is stated on the website:

Established on the vibrant traditions and rich cultural heritage of the Kanakaʻole family, it is the Foundation’s mission to elevate Hawaiian intelligence through cultural education founded on the teachings and traditional practices of Edith and Luka Kanakaʻole.

Of her songs, my favorite is Ka Uluwehe o Ke Kai (The Plants of the Sea), which tells of a task common to Hawaiians who live near the sea—the gathering of seaweeds for eating. She wrote it in 1978 in the studio when the producer told her there was running time left on her record.

My instrument is a KoAloha long-neck soprano, which I purchased in 2018

Kihei Maui, 6/12/2022

Napili Kai waves.

Eleven days ago we arrived in Maui for the 24th George Kahumoku Jr. Ki Ho ‘Alu and ‘Ukulele workshop. The workshop was held at the Napili Kai resort, as it was last year. Just leaving the airport felt like we were arriving back home. We were met at the airport by Destiny Aponte, whom we had met last year while touring George’s farm. Destiny is a remarkable woman. Originally from San Antonio, she has worked as a chef, as a farmer, as a student of agriculture, and as an entrepreneur. It was great to see her again.

Napili Kai is beautiful. It is situated on a crescent shaped beach, whose soft golden sands slope down to beautiful blue waters. Across the bay, the islands of Moloka’i and Lana’i are clearly visible. Our first two days, Maui was under a high surf advisory. The waves were huge, bigger than we’d even seen on Oahu in May. I ventured out into them for a brief swim but thought better of it after one crashed over me. For the remaining days of the workshop, however, calm waters returned.

George and Nancy Kahumoku telling a story about George finding edamame floating in the water while swimming and eating it.

Beautiful as Napili Kai is, its beauty is not what makes the workshop magical. George and Nancy Kahumoku are the spirit of the workshop. I would say they are the driving force, but driving does not describe the workshop. “Aloha,” “ohana,” “kanikapila,” “hang loose.” are the best descriptors. As soon as we arrived, we renewed friendships we’d formed last year with participants and instructors alike. The music began immediately and didn’t end until eight days later. Nobody was too busy to talk story or to teach you a chord. or a riff, or a song. Everybody encouraged you to try and nobody criticized you for failing.

There is a strong feeling of community or ohana among slack key guitar and ‘ukulele players. Even though we play different instruments employing different techniques (some musicians play both) the music and the history unite us. That feeling of unity is felt no more strongly than at the kanikapilas (let’s play music). I might be sitting between such masters as Ledward Ka’apana on guitar and Bryan Tolentino on ‘ukulele and we’re all playing the same song. No judgement. When I screwed up on a song, Bryan jumped in to get me back on track.

Morning Kanikapila. Instructors: Sonny Lim, Bryan Tolentino, Stephen Ingliss (partially hidden), Led Ka’apana, Brad Bordessa, Kevin Brown, Jeff Peterson, George Kahumoku.

Every morning about 5:30, Led Ka’apana would set up and start playing in the pavilion or under one of the tents. Other instructors would soon join him and they’d all play until breakfast. You can’t get better performances than that. I showed up with my phone (like a lot of other participants) and captured more than an hour of videos of uke players—mostly their hands—so I can study them later. Each evening after dinner, instructors and students would get together for more kanikapila.

Speaking of ohana, or at least ‘ukulele ohana, Bryan Tolentino, whom I already mentioned, and Herb Ohta, Jr., another great musician and instructor, left the workshop a day early to attend a memorial service for Sam Kamaka, Jr. who passed away in March at age 99. Sam was the patriarch of the Kamaka family (yes, Kamaka ‘Ukuleles) and Bryan and Herb are close to the family. Sam Kamaka Jr. ran the ‘ukulele business for many years before turning it over to other family members. It is still a family owned business. Sam Jr. and his brother, Fred Kamaka, inherited the business from their father, Sam Kamaka, Sr., who started the company down in Kaka’ako in 1916. Kamaka introduced the pineapple shape about 1920. That was the first significant change to the ‘ukulele since its arrival in 1879. Prior to starting his own company, Sam Kamaka had apprenticed with Manuel Nunez, who is generally credited with inventing the ‘ukulele. So how’s that for ohana and six-degrees of separation?

So what did I get out of the workshop? First, I gained some insights into how Hawaiian music is structured. Last year, I had the songbook, with the chords and lyrics, vitually glued to my hand.
Still, I was always a few beats behind on every song. This year, I was able to anticipate the chord changes and rely more on my ear than the book. I still missed chord changes, but I know where I made mistakes. I also learned to play on more of the fretboard instead of only the first four. After all, I paid for all the frets so why not use them? Our workshop songs were “Sweet By and By” by Dennis Kamakahi, and Kauanoeanuhea by Keali’i Reichel. I also learned Ulupalakua and, before the workshop, Kaimana Hila. Ulupalakua is a paniolo (cowboy) song and Kaimana Hila is about Diamond Head.

I’ll do more reflections on the the workshop in the coming days. We’ve already decided we’ll be back next year.

Napili Kai Sunset

I can’t believe we have been here almost a month. Last evening I swam in the water off our condo and watched the sunset between my feet as I floated on my back. It felt both familiar and new at the same time. Tuesday we head to Maui for the ukulele workshop. I’m looking forward to that, but i’ll miss Oahu.

Mai Tais at the Mai Tai Bar, Royal Hawaiian. Vic’s ’44 in front.
Mai Tais at Beach Bar, Moana Surfrider
Royal Hawaiian Band at Iolani Palace

Update on the Mai Tais. Two more stops on the Mai Tai trail: The Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian and the Beach Bar at the Moana Surfrider. The Mai Tais were great at both. The Bar at the Royal Hawaiian serves two versions: the more common version with fruit juices and rum; and the Vic’s ’44—the original recipe created by Vic Bergeron in the 1940’s. The Vic ’44 is based on lime juice and two kinds of rum. I kind of like the ’44 better because it is not as sweet. The setting at the Royal Hawaiian was great. The drinks were great, the music was nothing special. The Moana Mai Tais were the fruit juice kind. They were good. The setting was great, but the music, again, was nothing special. Overall, the Mai Tais at the House Without A Key are my favorite because of flavor, setting, and music. Our friends Marilyn and Ernie joined us on the last stops on the Mai Tai trail.

Speaking of music, we caught a performance at The Blue Note, featuring Henry Kapono and Ledward Kaapana, two legends of Hawaiian Music. The concert was fabulous. Ledward makes magic with his guitar and ukulele. He’ll be one of the workshop instructors on Maui. We also caught a performance of the Royal Hawaiian Band at Iolani Palace. We’ve been trying to catch them, but without luck until yesterday. A previous try was rained out.

I’ve been taking uke lessons, while here. The instructor is Jody Kamisato, who performs for Disney on cruises and at resorts. Jody is a contemporary and friend of Jake Shimabukuro. He’s also taught performers such as Honoka Takiyama.

With uke instructor Jody Kamisato.

From Jody, I learned the song ”Kaimana Hila” about Diamond Head. Kaimana Hila are not Hawaiian words. they are the Hawaiian pronunciation of Diamond Hill, another name for Diamond Head. Hawaiians do not have hard consonants such as D or T in their language, so those already sound like K. Hawaiians also end all syllables in a vowel. Thus Diamond becomes Kaimana. The hotel next to ours is Kaimana as is the beach next to the hotel, all in the proximity of Diamond Head.

Speaking of Diamond Head, I climbed it with my friend Ernie. We also hiked Manoa Falls Trail and Kaena Point.

View of Honolulu from the summit of Diamond Head
Manoa Falls
Kaena Point, the westernmost end of Oahu. Leeward Coast on my left, Windward/North Shore on my right.
It’s lychee season. We got these at Maunakea Marketplace
Hawaiian Sunset over the Waianae Mountains

Aloha Oahu!

Another stop on the Mai Tai Tour

Allison Chu, Miss Hawai’i 2021, and Pa’ahana at The House Without A Key

Wednesday night we made another stop on the Mai Tai Tour, this time at the House Without a Key in the Halekulani Hotel. I don’t think there was ever any doubt that this would be the top spot on the tour. The setting can’t be beat. The House Without a Key is on the spot where a beach house used to sit a hundred years ago. Earl Derr Biggers stayed there and made it the setting for the first Charlie Chan story, The House Without a Key. It is now part of the Halekulani Hotel, which is absolutely gorgeous. The Halekulani was remodeled during the pandemic and was still undergoing renovations in August when we visited. The best place for sunset cocktails is the outdoor lanai where you can find a musical group performing every evening under the 100-year old kiawe tree. We heard Pa’ahuna. the bass player, Pakala Fernandes, is a member of the Farden family of muscians, the most famous of which is his cousin, ”Auntie” Irmgard Farden Aulili. Pa’ahana has performed there for many years. The performance always includes some numbers performed by a dancer. On this evening, the dancer was Miss Hawai’i 2021, Allison Chu. She was gorgeous. We arrived before the band opened their first set and stayed until closing. You can’t beat listening to Hawaiian music under a tropical moon near the ocean. The Mai Tais were the best. Made of two kinds of Baccardi with Lemon Hart 151 floating on top and garnished with lime and sugar cane.

Mai Tais, House Without A Key

For flavor, ambience, and music, the House Without A Key Mai Tai surpasses all the others.

Museum Visits

We did four tours this week. The first was to the Hawaiian Plantation Village which showcases how Hawaiians lived during the plantation era. We were guided by a gentleman named Take. He’s Japanese and grew up on a plantation. The Plantation Village houses replicas and restorations of the homes that Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Portuguese, and Puerto Rican immigrants lived in as laborers in the sugar cane fields. Sugar was one of the canoe plants, along with taro and sweet potato, that Polynesian voyagers carried during their colonization of the Pacific. By the time Cook arrived in 1788, it was growing on all the islands, and he noted it in his journal. Around 1840, some missionaries started a sugar plantation, but the sugar industry got its real start during the California Gold Rush when Hawaiian beef and sugar fed the Forty-niners. American and European businessmen were quick to see the potential for Hawaiian sugar. During the Civil War, the Northern states were cut off from Southern sugar so they turned to Hawai’i. In 1873, King David Kalakaua entered a Reciprocal Agreement with the United States, under which the US eliminated tariffs on Hawaiian sugar in exchange for access to Pearl Harbor as a naval base.

Sugar is a very labor intensive industry. The Hawaiian population, which numbered between 250,000 and 1 million at Cook’s arrival, had been decimated by imported diseases so that, by 1850, they numbered around 25,000. Those that survived had little interest in working on plantations. They continued their lifestyle of subsistence farming and fishing. Planters looked to other countries for labor. Growing sugar is hard work and conditions are terrible. In order to reduce labor strife, the planters adopted a divide and conquer strategy of bringing in people from different cultures, different nations, speaking different languages in the belief that laborers would stick with their own kind, and that, without a common language, would be unable to communicate grievances and organize for better conditions. The plan didn’t last long. In 1879, the Portuguese arrived and brought the ukulele. Soon it was the national instrument. The uke is a laborer’s instrument, made by laborers for laborers. It was played on the porch of the plantation store and under the mango tree by the sugar mill. Music attracts people and soon people were getting together and sharing their meals. In time they developed a common language—Hawaiian Pidgin—which defeated the planters’ plot. Pidgin can still be heard all through the islands along with Hawaiian music. The third legacy of these gatherings is Hawaiian cuisine known as ”mix plate” which can be had at many local eateries. Mix plate might be kalbi from Korea, or katsu from Japan, or Chinese short ribs, or chicken adobo from the Philippines, or other combos of meat and fish along with rice, mac salad, and maybe kim chi or musubi. It’s become a metaphor for the mix of cultures in Hawai’i.

Kitchen in a Chinese Plantation Home

We took three other tours this week. We spent the better part of a day at the Bishop Museum. They have a fascinating exhibit of Samoan tattoo designs and culture. We also caught a movie in the planetarium called ”The Wayfinders” about Polynesian voyaging and navigation, and especially, the voyages of the Hokuleia. The Hokuleia is currently in Tahiti, having arrived there last week. The director of the planetarium gave an overview of the Hokuleia’s celestial navigation. You can get more of it here. I’ve been getting up late at night to look for the stars used by the navigators.

We visited Iolani Palace, which has been undergoing restoration in the last 20 years. Iolani was the home of the last two monarchs—David Kalakaua, who had it constructed, and Lilioukalani who lived in it as queen and was imprisoned in it when the monarchy was overthrown. It’s an impressive symbol of Hawai’i as a nation, but also a sad and sobering reminder of American imperialism.

The third place we visited was Shangri La, the home of Doris Duke, tobacco heiress, who amassed a huge collection of Islamic art to fill her Diamond Head home. The art is beautiful and inspiring. She clearly had great knowledge and taste for Islamic art. But as you wander through it, you can’t help but wish that it was presented in a context that told about the creators of the art and their lives. Who made these tiles and tapestries? Why and how did they create such beauty? What did it signify to the people who viewed them? Without that context, I’m sorry to say, you see only what one person, with an excess of money acquired through a monopolistic, rapacious capitalist enterprise can accumulate.

Tonight, we are going to the Hawai’i Theatre in downtown Honolulu to hear Raiatea Helm, a great Hawaiian songstress..

Fishing at Colony Surf, 5/9/2022

Three more stops on the Mai Tai Tour

We celebrated Mother’s Day at the Blue Note. They had a brunch and a performance by comedian Frank DeLima. We started off Bloody Marys. Mary Fran had a kalua pork burrito and I had the musubi sampler. Musubi is a Japanese rice cake often served with Spam and wrapped in seaweed. The sample had three: one spam, egg, avocado, and fish (I think mahi mahi); one Spam and egg; and one Spam, egg, and bacon. The dipping sauces were soy and a cheese sauce. They were delicious, but more than we could eat.

Frank DeLima’s show was hilarious. He is a long-standing comedian in Hawai’i. We first heard him in 1974 on a stopover going back to Thailand. He was performing at a place called The Noodle Shop and was just starting out. He is a genius at ethnic humor, particularly the type of humor he calls plantation humor, in which he makes fun of the different ethnic groups in Hawai’i. It’s hugely popular in Hawai’i because the locals like making fun of themselves and each other. However, if you are new to Hawai’i you probably would not get most of it. We did not get any of it that first time. It was only after being in Hawai’i awhile that we caught on.

We finished up with mai tais of course. The Blue Note’s are not as sweet as the others, which I like. Flavorwise, Blue Note’s is one of the best.

Duke’s Waikiki

Yesterday we hit the Mai Tai trail again in search of that elusive best concoction of light rum, dark rum, and fruit juices. The first stop was Duke’s in the Outrigger. Duke’s, of course is named after the legendary Duke Kahanumoku, the ambassador of surfing and aloha. First off, Duke’s is always crowded. If you plan on lunch or dinner, you can expect to wait a long time. If you just want drinks, you can go directly to the bar and hope to find an open table or one where folks are leaving. We got lucky. Just as we got into the bar, the TV was showing the final leg of the Kentucky Derby. We watched long-shot, Rich Strike win, and then got our own long shot. A table opened on the edge of the lanai. We were close enough to hear the performer, Steven Iglesias, who did some contemporary and Hawaiian music on his acoustic guitar. He was good. We hadn’t heard him before, so we were glad to hear him.

The mai tais were good, though I thought they could have been stronger.. Better than SKY bar, slightly below Cuckoo Coconuts. The view from Duke’s is great. You have a clear view to Diamond Head and you’re right on the beach. Surfers off shore, other beach activity right in front of you. We had Duke’s nachos with kalua pork, which was more than enough for two. I’m ranking Duke’s mai tais on a par with Coconuts. They both have ambience—one is a good beach bar and the other is a classic tiki. They both have music. I like the performer at Coconuts better than Iglesias, but on a different day, I might have a different opinion. Duke’s brings in a lot of performers with several shows a day. More on that below.

Tapa Bar

Another disappointment on the tour. As with the Royal Hawaiian Band, we had looked up the dates for Jerry Santos and marked them on the calendar before leaving Texas. As with the Royal Hawaiian Band, we learned when we got there that he wasn’t performing. He was supposed to be at the Paradise Lounge in the Hilton Hawaiian Village. However, we discovered that the Hilton hadn’t fully returned from covid. They weren’t doing weekend fireworks yet and the hostess didn’t expect Santos to return until the fireworks returned. Why are they linked? I don’t know. The hostess said a lot of people have been disappointed that he was not performing.

Always flexible when it comes to music and mai tais, we went to the Tapa Bar in the Hilton. It, too, was crowded, but we lucked out with two seats at the bar. The mai tais were good. They were stronger than Duke’s mai tais, The performers were a brother/sister duo backed by some other musicians. They call themselves Kaiona. They did a mix of classics, contemporary and Hawaiian, including some hulas. We thought they were great. i would definitely hear them again.

I looked up Kaiona. They are often on the schedule at Duke’s. If you’re visiting Duke’s it will be worth your while to catch them. Another regular at Duke’s is Henry Kapono. He is more rock and blues (think Stevie Ray Vaughn) than Hawaiian. We heard him this afternoon after leaving the Blue Note.

Mai Tai Ranking

So far, I’m putting the Blue Note mai tai at the top for flavor. The entertainment, although not music per say (DeLima did some song parodies) was hilarious and superb. It’s hard choose between Cuckoo Coconuts, Duke’s, and Tapa Bar. CC and TB are about equal in flavor and music, but CC has better atmosphere. CC and Duke’s both have atmosphere and music, but CC’s mai tai was stronger than Duke’s. SKY, in my opinion, was mediocre in flavor, had no music, and the view wasn’t much..

Well today didn’t go as planned, which worked out fine with us. The plan was to catch the Royal Hawaiian Band performance at Iolani Palace where they perform regularly at noon on Fridays. Today the concert was canceled because of rain. It wasn’t raining hard—really just a mist—but even a mist can mess up sensitive instruments. We’ll catch them another time.

Since we were downtown at noon, we decided on lunch at a little place we discovered last year on Fort Street Mall. Fort Street Mall runs through the middle of the financial district of Honolulu. This place is called The Fort Street Cafe. It’s located at the cathedral end of the mall, directly across from Hawaii Pacific University. It is a Vietnamese cafe with a variety of local and Asian dishes. It looks like a hole-in-the-wall. They have four tables inside and three outside. You can get the usual Vietnamese—ban mi, pho, spring rolls—but also many more. I’m always surprised that a small place, with what must be a tiny kitchen, can have so many offerings. We split a combo plate of Thai penang curry and garlic fried chicken. It was served on a plate of rice. I cannot imagine an individual consuming all that food. We were full on half of it. I use penang curry as a standard for judging Thai food. This was great. The chicken, also, was good. It was very crispy and flavorful. Don’t be put off by the appearance of the place. This is, in my opinion, the best lunch spot in downtown Honolulu.

I love local restaurants that have pictures of the dishes all over the resturant,

After lunch we caught the bus back to Waikiki and stopped at the Royal Room at Waikiki Beach Walk. The Royal Room is actually the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame. It has displays of influential Hawaiian musicians and composers. We learned that they also have free performances once a month. The next one will be May 21. In addition to music, they have a person who gives free instruction in feather lei making.

Two doors down from the Royal Room is the Ukulele Store. We spent some time talking to the owner, who, it turns out, is friends with Jake Shimabukuro and Jody Kamisato, from whom I have some lessons scheduled. The owner let me noodle around on a new Koaloha mango concert uke. It’s a beautiful instrument with a great sound. Only $1550. It’s on my wish list. I doubt I’ll ever get it.

We seared an ahi steak and a salad for dinner. We hoped to get to the Hilton Hawaiian Village to hear Jerry Santos, but, after dinner and wine, that won’t happen tonight. Probably tomorrow.

As far as the Mai Tai and music tour goes, today was all music, even though it was not the music that we planned. No mai tais today.

I have not done a lot of writing, but I did polish a story and submit it to Shotgun Honey.

Our second day in Honolulu, it was time to start the Mai Tai and Music Tour. First stop was Waikiki Beach Walk on Lewers. For fifteen years, the Waikiki Beach Walk complex of shops has presented music on an outdoor stage. Today we caught Blaine Kia and his hula family. We saw Blaine last year at the same spot. Blaine is a musician and hula instructor. His wife and children also perform. The show is always entertaining. The dancers perform beautifully.

From the Beach Walk, we made our way two blocks over to Cuckoo Coconuts, which is supposed to have one of the best mai tais in Honolulu. Coconuts is new to us. In previous visits we had never gone down Royal Hawaiian Ave, From the outside, it’s hard to tell what it is. Inside, it’s a full on tiki bar with all the tiki furnishings.

Cuckoo Coconuts, Waikiki

We had the mai tais and the fish and chips. I won’t rate the mai tais yet until I’ve tried the other ones on our list, but we both thought they were good. A mai tai is basically light rum mixed with fruit juices and dark rum floated on top. There are two kinds of people in the world: those who stir their mai tais and those who don’t. Mary Fran stirs hers. I don’t. I prefer to keep the distinct line as long as I can. I also like to to sip from the glass rather than the straw to get that hit of the dark rum.

Mai tais, fish and chips at Cuckoo CoconutsAs

We also lucked out in that Coconuts has nightly entertainment. In this case, a singer and keyboardist. The singer has a great voice. She sings a variety of music. In particular, she did a great rendition of ”Blue Bayou.” We hope to get back to hear her again.

Cuckoo Coconuts

Tomorrow, we’re heading to Kaimuki to visit our favorite noodle shop. Aloha!

Diamond Head, Dillingham Fountain, Kapiolani Park at sunrise

We’re heading out tomorrow for an extended Hawaiian vacation. We’ll return the last week in June. The bags are packed and we’re itching to go. Unlike previous trips, we’re not doing a lot of island-hopping or condo jumping.

We stay for 30 days in the Colony Surf on the Diamond Head end of Waikiki. We’ve rented the same studio we stayed in last year on the top floor with a gorgeous view of Diamond Head. Imagine waking up to this sight every morning.

There is a small beach down below that is shared with Outrigger Canoe Club. It’s the perfect spot for catching the sunset. Not far from that beach is one of our favorite beaches—Kaimana Beach—where we used to go nearly every Sunday.

We’re calling this our Mai Tai and Music tour. Mary Fran has compiled a list of all the best Mai Tai bars and I’ve scouted out all the music venues. Some of them overlap of course. The House Without a Key in the Halekulani Hotel, The Royal Hawaiian Mai Tai Bar, and the Hilton Hawaiian Village have performers we hope to see and hear for the price of a drink or three. We discovered that the House Without A Key now recommends reservations, so we made them.

There are also some free performances we intend to take advantage of. Waikiki Beach Walk has regular performances by Blaine Kia and his wife’s hula halau. We also hope to catch the Royal Hawaiian Band at Iolani Palace or Kapiolani Park Bandstand.

We have tickets to hear Raiatea Helm at Honolulu Theater, Ledward Kaapana at Slack Key Lounge, and Henry Kapono and Ledward at the Blue Note. All in all, I’m pretty excited about Oahu.

After Oahu, we head to Maui. First to George Kahumoku’s Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele Workshop at Napili Kai. We attended last year and, man it was fantastic. I got to learn from, and play with, legendary Hawaiian musicians and up-and-coming performers. Plus an immersion in Hawaiian culture. We’ll be there a week. After that, we’ll be in Kihei Maui for two weeks.

Led Kaapana at the Kahumoku Workshop 2021
Workshop Hula Troupe. Mary Fran next to George

Groovy Gumshoes, Private Eyes in the Psychedelic Sixties was released on Monday, April 11. This anthology was edited by Michael Bracken. It contains 15 private eye stories, all set in the 1960’s. The list of contributors includes some of the best short story writers today, so I’m honored to be among them: Tom Milani, Michael Bracken, N.M. Cedeño, Grant Tracey, Jack Bates, C.W. Blackwell, Steve Liskow, Robb White, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Mark Thielman, Neil Plakcy, Adam Meyer, Hugh Lessig, Stephen D. Rogers, and me. You can order your copy directly from the publisher, Down & Out Books or from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The cover is just an extra bonus.

When Michael Bracken put out his call for submissions, I had to jump on it. The sixties are my era. I entered high school in 1961 and graduated from college in 1969. The best music, the best literature, and the best cinema were produced in the sixties. As I look back, I think that the issue that defined the decade was segregation and the struggle for civil rights. For a time, the Vietnam war nearly overshadowed the civil rights cause, but eventually it became clear that the two issues were tightly bound up by racism. Our leaders were sending black men halfway around the world to kill brown men. Leaders who tried to prevent that were assassinated.

I was born near St. Louis, Missouri and that’s where I’d spent the sixties. I’d never written a story set in St. Louis, so this presented an opportunity. It also presented a challenge. Michael had suggested that the stories involve the events of the decade, not as background, but as an integral part of the story. However, the big headline events of that era, the ones that captured everyone’s attention and which determined the course of our lives for decades to come, all seemed to occur elsewhere. If I was going to write about St. Louis, I would have to dig deeper into its history. I hoped to find something that, while it might not have been a major event at the time, was nevertheless indicative of that era and became more important in the future.

In 1968, a black family sought to buy a home in Ferguson, Missouri. If successful, they would be the first.

Ferguson is a suburban St. Louis city which bordered my home town. Growing up, I knew nothing of Ferguson’s history. It was a pleasant community where Mom took us shopping for back-to-school clothes and where we went on Saturdays to see the movies. The fact that all of the residents were white did not register with me at the time. Even if it had, I would not have known that structural racism was the cause.

Ferguson was a sundown town. Non-whites who were found within the city limits after sundown were subject to harassment and arrest. At one time, the city might have posted signs saying that colored were not allowed there after sundown. By the time the sixties rolled around, such signs were no longer permissible, but the city remained a de facto sundown town. Redlining was the method of enforcement. Realtors would not show homes in redlined areas to non-whites. Banks would not lend to non-whites for homes in those areas. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was designed to put an end to redlining. In reality, the act pushed it below the surface.

Had the Fair Housing Act done as intended, had it been enforced, the pioneer black family might have had an easier time purchasing their home in Ferguson. Despite the resistance of realtors who didn’t even return phone calls, they persisted with the help of a white clergyman. Threats and intimidation followed. Eventually they prevailed, but it would be forty years before the story of their struggle and eventual success was told. By that time, many more families of color had moved into Ferguson. The city, from the outside, seemed an example of what the Fair Housing Act was designed to accomplish. But the shadow of racism is long. Institutional racism didn’t go away; it just mutated into a more toxic form. And so, in the summer of 2014, Ferguson exploded.

In 1968, the nation was torn apart by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The fires were stoked by the rhetoric of George Wallace. Nevertheless we had made progress on civil rights and we repudiated George Wallace at the ballot box. Jim Crow appeared, if not dead, then soon to be. We dared to hope. It was the dawning of the age of aquarius. In hindsight, we were naive.

My take on the story of Ferguson is that we underestimated the staying power of the beast. The busting of redlining was a victory in the fight against racism, but then we let our guard down.
I began the story with a white private eye. He was something of a hippie, a member of the counter-culture, but I soon realized he wouldn’t do. His hope blinded him to the reality of what was happening. I needed someone who had faced the beast, who was more grounded in reality, whose hope was tempered with cynicism.

Meet Horatio Cutter, a black man recently returned from Vietnam. His weapon is a camera. He does freelance assignments for a white private eye firm. His ambition is to one day get his own PI license. Horatio has struggled for equality all his life, but it’s only when assigned to gather photographic evidence of the radical activities of a white clergyman that he confronts institutionalized racism head on. Though he enjoys a small measure of victory over the beast, the victory, as we all know, wasn’t final.

I’m honored and proud that “Sundown Town” appears in Groovy Gumshoes. I hope you all will get yourselves a copy and let me know how you like it. I plan on writing more Horatio Cutter stories.

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