Stairway to Pahoa

A True Story From Hawai'i

Our galaxy," shouts the woman on the bus to Pahoa, "contains a hundred billion stars, all spinning and spinning around one point, the cosmic center! So every few million years we're right back where we started! That's a fact!"

She is big-boned, brown-skinned, and grey-haired, with bulbous white eyes and an easy, confident authority in her voice. She looks like a Hawaiian grandmother and has the lungs of an auctioneer. The bus bounces and shakes over roads marred by decades of tropical storms and follow-up roadwork, loud enough to drown out conversations, but the big woman's voice can be easily heard. She's either overcompensating for the noise or deliberately speaking to everyone.

"The same thing happens right here on earth," she continues with a faint tone of mystic awe (as much as it's possible to sustain a faint tone of anything, there in the decibels below screaming), "All the continents drift around the world, smashing together, breaking apart, but they all come back to the same point again eventually! It's called plate tectonics!"

Near the shouting philosopher is a skinny girl lost in the years before thirty, bony white arms poking out of a flowery sun dress, with the sharp, jittery movements of the caffeine-addicted. "Yeah!" she shouts back. "Plate tectonics! That's right! I learned about that in night school! Wow!"

"Shh," says the big lady, waving a hand dismissively before launching into a detailed and fairly accurate explanation of what an atom is. Either she's talking to someone else, or isn't interested in audience participation. That's a fact! floats occasionally back over the bus.

A few rows farther back sits a graying man in a rainbow beanie hat and sky-blue tie dye, face wrinkled but sublimely blissed-out. Everything the big lady says makes him laugh appreciatively, and he sends her constant grinning nods of karmic support. Every now and then he looks around in amazement, making eye contact with other passengers as if to make sure everyone is fully appreciating the significance of her teachings.

"Everything happens for a reason," the big lady continues, in a flow of shouted cosmology that's been unbroken for miles, "so we all have to learn to look for signs, for messages, that tell us we're doing the right thing!"

The bus radio starts to play "Age of Aquarius."

The old hippie's eyes light up. "Alright!" he shouts, and bounces his head violently up and down in time with the music. He pulls out a little flute from somewhere and plays a few notes that seem related to the song only in spirit.

"Tectonic plates," the skinny girl is saying, "if I open a restaurant I want to call it Tectonic Plates!"

"In every cell in our bodies," the shouter continues, undeterred, "in the nucleus, there's two forces fighting for control. Three quarters of the cell in a normal person wants to do harm, to destroy. The other one third is good, peaceful, calm. You have to learn to channel the good part, to let it fill your body with peace, with a happiness of spirit."

"The aloha," a spectacled white guy adds helpfully, but the big lady ignores him.

"Aquarius! Aquarius!" shouts the old hippie.

The miles roll on and so does the monologue, its beginning and end so remote as to be inconceivable and perhaps only hypothetical. "We live in a time where bad people are tempting us," the confident voice shouts, "trying to bring us down, trying to factor out what's good, like in an equation, just leaving the bad. I call it the Falldown. That's when everything ends. Everything gets judged, and some people, about three quarters, will be taken away, but the other third--"

"I thought that was called the Rapture," the skinny girl shouts good-naturedly.

"The Falldown," the monologuer repeats.

The old hippie blasts a few notes of uncontrolled excitement on his pipe; it's like a release valve. "Mystic crystal revalationnnnn..." he adds, not quite in the same key as the song but at least as enthusiastic.

As the shouter begins to explain something about Jesus, Bob Marley, and quantum mechanics, a tanned college kid near the back who's been stewing for a while, face jammed in a book and muttering, finally looks up. "Hey," he shouts, "hey, we don't wanna hear, like, your sermon, alright?"

The old hippie turns around with a broad grin. He beats his head in some combination of nodding and keeping time with the music. The skinny night school girl looks indignant.

A lilting Hawaiian voice calls out from somewhere on the bus: "Let de lady talk, bruddah." There are a few murmurs of assent, matched by an equal number of dismissive clucks. Phrases like "peace and quiet" and "not hurting anyone" and "free country" and "ever since I got on" float over the rattle and squeak of the bus. The philosopher has momentarily paused, waiting, it seems, for the court of opinion to make a ruling.

"I was listening to her," shouts a surfer with a deep fried tan, "it was interesting."

The kid is undeterred. "I'm just saying," he shouts, "we don't all need to hear this sermon, or lecture, or whatever. I'm trying to read, man!" He goes back to his book.

There are some more murmurs, but the moment passes. The monologue continues, but subdued, voice lowered to mere loudness that lets the drone and rattle of the bus swallow up distinct words. The occasional That's a fact! is all that carries. A few people shift seats closer to hear better. A few others move away.

The skinny girl shakes her head. "Man," she says, "Tectonic Plates. That's what I'm going to call my restaurant."

Age of Aquarius comes to an end, and the hippie puts his little flute away. The monologuer gets off the bus at the mall. Conversations die for a moment as everyone else rides on in sudden, curious silence.