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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

To a Neighbor, Obama’s Hawaiian Drive-In Choices Explain a Lot

During his week of vacation in Hawaii, Barak “5-0" Obama has kept a low profile and added to his reputation for being in the right place at the right time–in this case, given the John Edwards affair, out of the headlines. Always a great place to vacation, Hawaii has an extra advantage for a politician, because of the six-hour time difference between Honolulu and New York City. Unless it’s a pack of Zeros coming in over the Wai’anae Mountains at 7:00 a.m. on December 7th, it’s hard to make media waves, something the candidate and his handlers probably counted on.

But that doesn’t mean Obama didn’t leave analysts something to chew on. You just had to know where to look–and be able to think “local.” This humble word, so popular now in organic food circles, is the key signifier in Hawaii, a land of many visitors, many migrants and immigrants, and many ethic groups--and thus in need of one way of denoting who is from “here” and who is from “there.” In Hawaii this week Barak gave clear proof that he is indeed a local, despite the Chicago community activism, despite the sharp silhouette he cuts in a suit, despite looking, yes, different from all those other presidents.

Barak went local in a Friday statement, as reported by many sources, including Michael Falcone of the New York Times, in a time-honored way for a politician–by evoking food, the ur-indigenous reference point. “I might go to Zippy’s. I might go to Rainbow Drive-In. I might go get some shave ice,” the candidate said, adding, “I’m going to go body-surfing at an undisclosed location.”

Aside from the undisclosed beach, which every local bodysurfer could identify with a 90 percent degree of certainty–but will never tell Fox News--“5-0-Bama” was delivering a specific message. He was locating himself in a specific neighborhood, Kapahulu-Diamond Head, where my wife and her family grew up, and where the candidate’s half-sister lives. That he did it by his choice of drive-ins is most appropriate to Hawaii.

Hawaii has a glorious tradition of drive-ins, sadly diminished over time by development and mainland franchises, but Zippy’s and Rainbow, both located a few blocks apart on Kapahulu Avenue, are two of the great remnants. Up until the early Reagan years Honolulu seemed like a place where clocks had stopped in 1956, and you could get a teriyaki burger and a frosted mug of root beer delivered to your Chevy’s window by a carhop.

A local franchise, Zippy’s is the more upscale by far of the two Obama mentioned, offering indoor seating and a diabetic coma-inducing dessert menu to go with its saimin noodles, Portuguese sausage and egg-over-rice breakfasts, and the Island standby, chili rice. Rainbow is the funky spot, with a tricky parking lot and a lunch crowd of construction and state workers who order massive cholesterol-laden plate lunches that typically include double scoops of macaroni salad and rice to go with the entree: teriyaki or katsu chicken or beef, hamburger patties in gravy--and, of course, more chili rice.

Thus the brief quote by “5-O-B” is, when you parse it further, a masterpiece of nuance and concision. By coupling Zippy’s and Rainbow, he went high-low, and earned the candidate points from all income, ethnic and cultural levels. Mentioning shave ice, the favored local dessert of flavored syrups poured over a mound of snowy shavings, connected to the kid in everyone.

Furthermore, by specifiying that he “might go for a Zip Min,” Zippy’s saimin noodle bowl loaded to the max, he dismissed an issue that has plagued his campaign: that he is someone who lacks a serious appetite. The steaming noodles in the Zip Min come topped with crispy shrimp, fish cake, egg and wun tun (or as they call them on the Mainland, won ton dumplings). The Zip Min is a Hawaiian Whopper, the kind of meal that mandates an appetite such as might be raised by a morning bodysurfing run to Sandy Beach. Since this is exactly what Barak Obama says he’s going to do on his vacation, his street credibility here goes off the scale:

I just know the dude has been there, like me, standing in line at Rainbow’s, no shirt, wearing flip-flops, with sand in his ears, jellyfish stings in his baggys, and sea-snot running out his nose from going over the falls and getting thrashed in Sandy Beach shorebreak. After that, only chili rice and a root beer float will do.

While it’s just one quote, it’s a masterpiece of local cool, the equivalent of Abe Lincoln’s pose as the “rail-splitter from Illinois.” It’s an affirmation that, far from being an elitist carpetbagger who cares only for his waistline, Obama is a real guy. Thanks to the above, I now feel, beyond a doubt, that I know who Barak Obama is–a bodysurfer in more ways than one, capable of riding this wave all the way to the biggest bowl of saimin of them all.

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