In our taxis we were mostly middle-aged and feeling older with each shift. Coming from South Korea and driving in Oʻahu meant that we either worked for Koa Taxi, Hana Taxi, or Pony Taxi—each company like its own clan. Though some of us did switch, like Chanho, our youngest driver at the time, going from Koa to Pony, or Dae-Jung going from Hana to Koa. We all knew each other: where someone went to church, whose wife worked at which restaurant, whose kid went to private school, and who played the worst game of golf. Who couldn’t keep up at dinner afterward and handle their soju like Chang-Yol, who dumped his shots under the table. Not many of us were married and drove to support a family. Most of us were single, only a few widowed. Being a taxi driver was a perfect occupation for someone already used to spending a lot of time alone.
It didn’t matter who we worked for when we started getting replaced by drivers with apps. We had heard stories about kidnappings and how unsafe getting into a car with those drivers could be. We had always been trusted professionals, dressed in white polo shirts and black slacks. We didn’t attempt to start conversations with our passengers just because we were bored. We didn’t do this job because we thought this would be an easy way to make extra money. It was our only way of making money.
It didn’t matter which company we worked for; driving taxi in Hawaiʻi was much better than driving in Seoul. We always nodded when someone brought this up over the radio channel—10-4. We spoke into our walkies when we were signing off for the evening, and some of us turned on our own apps and drove for a few more hours. Some of us left Koa, Hana, and Pony to do this full-time. We don’t know how they are doing.
When we first applied for our jobs, we had to know every street name and how to get from point A to B, and of course the rest of the alphabet, so we went to 7-Eleven and bought The Oʻahu Mapbook to study, which we worked hard at because we didn’t study much during our high school days. This would prove much easier than studying about America when some of us had the chance to become naturalized as citizens and had to take the civics test. We passed so that we could drive you anywhere. Most of the time we had never been to these places ourselves.
We never picked up passengers trying to hail us from the street. You don’t know who you’re going to get. We offered flat rates for military anywhere between Hickam & Pearl Harbor, to Schofield, to Kāneʻohe Marine Core Base. These days we were no longer just taxi drivers but tour guides. We offered private tour services at the low cost of thirty-five dollars per hour, sightseeing or shopping around the city, from ‘Iolani Palace to Waikīkī, and island tours to Hanauma Bay, Sunset Beach, the Polynesian Cultural Center, and Dole Plantation. We didn’t drive individuals as much as we shuttled groups: Korean families, couples on honeymoon, exchange students. Long gone were the days where we drove luxury, a beige Lincoln town car with a wood grain dashboard, cream colored genuine leather seats. A taxi car that, in the right polish, and light, looked gold. Long gone were the days when customers paid with cash, each of us keeping stacks of change in our center console—a mini bank that doubled as an armrest.
At the end of our shifts we used to gather all our bills and flip through them, counting how much we owed the company and what we could keep for ourselves. From what we could keep for ourselves, we counted how much would go to the wife, kids’ allowance, car lease, rent, phone, cable, and church tithing before we saw what was left. Which was usually nothing because we never worked for ourselves. Meaning we never worked to earn anything for ourselves by way of reward. We worked to remain ourselves, meaning alive and able to work. We managed to save enough to pay for and bet on a day of golf, or whatever we had left we spent at drive-thrus, mostly Crunchwrap Supremes from Taco Bell because they were easiest to eat on the job. Eventually we sold our old, beautiful cars and leased Toyota Sienna minivans. We swiped cards through readers that never worked on the first try.
In our taxis our bellies grew each year and pressed against seatbelt straps, and our lower backs ached more from sitting all day. We had tight necks and rounded shoulders, bad knees and high blood-pressure. Tae-woo bought a portable massager, while Jung-yup had a mesh lumbar lower back support cushion that seemed to help for a while. That dummy Chang-Yol wore a weightlifting belt around his waist. Otherwise, we did cupping when we got home and asked our wives to help with places we couldn’t reach. We also kept Salonpas patches where we kept our money, though some of us knew better to put them on during a shift because menthol is pungent. We bore the pain or we took an Advil every hour on the job and every hour at home, where we traded Advil for Coronas. We didn’t just drink to drink the way some people do because drinking is a leisure to them. And we didn’t have a drink by itself or by ourselves, mostly. We preferred to have a beer with a meal and to accompany a cigarette. Usually on the job we smoked because we didn’t want to eat. Sometimes when we smoked we wished we had a beer. And always after a meal, or a beer, we always needed to have a smoke.
Our doctors told us to do these things less and exercise more. We promised but retorted that there just wasn’t enough time to exercise. They warned us if we kept up with our habits, wheelchairs would replace our vehicles, and the only people we’d be driving around would be ourselves. We didn’t take their warnings lightly, so we stretched before we entered and after we exited our taxis, cigarettes in our mouths each time.
We leaned forward and developed bad posture because we were always watching the road and plotting our next signal and turn. Watching for the lights worth making. Being on the road for too long in traffic, around bad drivers, can spike anyone’s stress levels. We all knew what it was like to inch forward on a backed-up Kalākaua Avenue or head out of Waikīkī on McCully Street or Kapahulu Avenue choked with cars. We all knew what it was like to stare down rows of winking red eyes getting off work, picking up their kids, and heading home when our work was really just starting.
And then of course there was the traffic on the two-way lanes going through Haleʻiwa Town for the tourists who wanted to eat Matsumoto Shave Ice after getting shrimp at Giovanni’s, salty to sweet. We took tourists to go from eating to shopping at Ala Moana or the Waikele outlet mall, then we took them to beaches, though the Korean tourists didn’t stay out in the sun too long. They were mostly visiting to take photos, so we took them to the Hālona Blow Hole or the Pali Lookout. Our passengers were just like us when we started learning how to navigate the island: they knew exactly where to go by following a map that’s been given to them. Not an actual map but one that came in the form of a word-of-mouth recommendation, a Yelp review, a travel blog, an article of Bests and Must-Sees-or-Try’s, any movie with Elvis. They took photos and created their own maps, which were really maps overlapping other, earlier maps, so when they got asked where they had gone, they’d have the answers to important questions like: have you tried real poke though?
In our taxis we got into accidents occasionally. We were professional drivers. We would never endanger a passenger on our own account. These collisions happened when we were on our own, on the way to pick up a passenger or on our way home. Vehicles changing lanes, braking too quickly, or making left turns, the occasional scratch from a parking incident—anytime we got hit, it was because we were invisible. These drivers stepped out to check the damage and looked at us, distraught that we were Korean, tensing up knowing that we’d get angry and point, raising our voices but not yelling, not out of hatred toward them but the frustration of knowing how long it takes to fix something broken.
We suffered whiplash, vertigo, and anxiety over getting into another collision. We watched insurance representatives assessing damage that we clearly knew was not our fault. We waited until our cars were ready to go back to work.
In our taxis, needless to say, we always expected to get paid. A return on investment. From the quarters it cost to vacuum our carpets and seats, to gas, to cleaning supplies, to gas again. A few of us waited in line at Costco stations, but most of us didn’t have that kind of patience. We already had too much else to do besides driving. Back during the cash only days, we knew it was a given that cleaning vomit would be a regular occurrence. The cost of maintenance. Dead batteries and oil changes. Flat tire replacements. And the small things. Air fresheners and chewing gum. Powerades that eventually stopped fitting in our cup holders. Our daily McDonalds coffee or Red Bull. Sometimes we used public restrooms, but usually we stopped by home, lingering just a little longer on the comfort of our own toilets, playing one more hwatu card game on our phones before heading back on the road.
Without question we got tired on the road. Though none of us had ever fallen asleep while driving. There’s that saying we had heard before, that you can sleep when you die, which we didn’t really understand. If we ever slept we’d die.
But that doesn’t mean we hadn’t thought about both. Sometimes we thought about only wanting to sleep and how much we’d just like to lie down. To never get up in the morning, which was when we felt our aches the most, our spirits waking to inhabit these awkward and malfunctioning bodies. We twisted in bed, knowing that if we slid out it would be like falling off a cliff that didn’t lead to our demise but just dropped us directly into our driver’s seat.
Sometimes we thought about wanting to die because we already felt like we were dead. Or would be soon, which could only explain why we were so tired, wandering the same routes and haunting the island like a ferryman leading departed tourists, these pale ghosts, to a fantasy afterlife for those who imagined heaven was a beach and tasted like a Lava Flow, or a Blue Hawaii. Here they could pretend like they were gods that could drink lava and the sea.
Sometimes we thought about wanting to die, especially after we saw what happened to Chanho, our youngest driver at the time, who was also the best looking—until that night. Chanho looked like he wanted to die, and he could have. Chanho happened to be dropping a drunk GI off around two in the morning. After Chanho parked, the GI walked out without paying, so of course Chanho got out and followed him to demand his fare. The GI turned around and told Chanho to fuck off, to which Chanho replied, tapping a finger onto his palm: You pay the fare. I get what I deserve. You pay the fare. Now.
The GI called him a fucking gook and punched Chanho in the face, which made him fall back and slide across the pavement. We went to the hospital as soon as we found out what happened. We patted his shoulder and just said things like: well. The police had arrived before Chanho could get any more hurt. We visited him in the hospital and expressed how we were sorry that this happened. The first punch: an orbital fracture in his eye socket and a cheekbone fracture. The second punch: a temporomandibular joint dislocation. And bonus with the last punch: a busted nose. Apparently the GI was giving Chanho exactly what he thought he deserved.
His face was swollen and bruised, his eye closed shut. When we looked at his face, we winced. We gasped and we sighed. We agreed he was lucky to be alive, but some of us wondered if it was just that. Pure luck. We watched as Chanho’s son walked into the room, and we felt ashamed on behalf of Chanho. That he would have to be seen like this in front of his own son. We looked down, and we looked away as tears welled in both of their eyes and as Chanho’s son asked, “Are you okay?” That was when we felt hurt. We touched our own cheeks and jaws.
We wondered when he would be ready to go back to work. We wondered how could this happen? Then we wondered how this could happen. We had always lived in militant terms and times. We thought about Gwangju. We wondered how we learned how to turn against ourselves—and who we learned this from. Our fathers in Vietnam. Our grandfathers fighting on either side of the war, and for both. We thought about Sinchon and No Gun Ri. Not a question of who pulled the trigger but where, and what, was the aim. We wondered why an American GI hitting a Korean in the face felt like something new.
We wondered how many times we drove people to Pearl Harbor so they could visit the Pacific Aviation Museum, the USS Bowfin, the USS Missouri, and the USS Arizona. Japanese tourists took trolleys and tour buses to Pearl Harbor and we wondered about that. As we drove past Red Hill, where one of us heard on the radio that fuel storage tanks leak and contaminate an aquifer that provides for one-fourth of Honolulu, we asked our passengers if they wanted a bottle of water.
We didn’t take tourists to Kalihi, Kapolei, Waipahu, Nānākuli, and Waiʻanae. We drove past and across these places, but never through. We knew that tourists didn’t want to believe that people who didn’t look like them struggled to live here and could not move about as easily as they could. But when they believed that they wanted to live here, we drove throughout the east side of the island, around Diamond Head and through Kāhala. We told them about Genshiro Kawamoto and his real estate takeover during the housing boom, a man who used to drive around in a limousine and point at every house he wanted to buy. They did the same thing—gasping, pointing, marveling. We asked if they could spot any Greek statues or lion sculptures that filled his yards. Some houses weren’t visible when they were behind gates.
Sometimes our passengers asked us why certain streets had the names that they did. Most of us couldn’t answer and shrugged. Some of us could read English well enough to do a quick Google search, so that when we drove tourists to Waikīkī by taking Kalākaua Avenue, we could have told them that Kalākaua was a king that restored ‘Iolani Palace, and sons of missionaries staged a coup to take power from the Kingdom, and businessmen held Queen Liliʻuokalani, his sister, prisoner in her own home as the U.S. military loomed offshore to support the overthrow because Hawaiʻi would be a great place to stay, and we thought about how they did the same in our own country. An airport opened and provided larger landing zones, like the head of a flattened concrete octopus that would cement and unfurl highway tentacles that would blow through mountains, latching on, to connect each major military base on the island, and to exist there, for us, to drive tourists across them many years later—but instead most of us chose to play another game of hwatu on our phones during break.
In our taxis we thought about what we’d be doing if we weren’t in taxis. It started with thinking about what we wouldn’t be doing if we weren’t taxi drivers. We wouldn’t be sitting in traffic for majority of our lives. We wouldn’t be watching money get siphoned from our credit cards as we pumped gas. And we wouldn’t be aching, everywhere, so damn much.
Some of us wanted to be professional golfers, chefs, and businessmen. We wanted to swing our hips and twist, spinning around with a smile after we’ve made our landing on the green, and we would walk back to our carts and return our iron, sliding across the grass and into our kitchens: we’d pull open a drawer to retrieve a silver spoon to scoop food into our lips in one motion, to taste what else our dishes needed, and we’d drop our spoons on the counter and pick up our stainless steel ballpoint pens from our large mahogany desks that we could put our feet up on as we leaned back in the most comfortable, ergonomic office chair. Some of us just wanted to be young again, running around, kicking a soccer ball, feeling like we were the fastest that could ever be as we accelerated across a field and the dirt rose up around us.