Joe DeMattos

Monday, March 06, 2006

Growing Up In Kaka'ako

From the author
The events and personal experiences chronicled here date back nearly 70 years and are but a thin slice of my 80-year lifetime. In case I forgot to mention an event or appeared to embellish another, please remember that memories fade and recollections get rusty as the decades fly by.

While growing up in Kaka'ako and up to the time I went to work at the Navy Yard in Pearl Harbor in 1943 I went by the name of Joseph Mattos. Although all of his legal papers carried the name of Antone DeMattos, my father was more commonly known as Tony Mattos. Three of my siblings went by Mattos and two carried the DeMattos surname. The same went with uncles and cousins.

Born Color-Blind

I don't know if it was the air or the water, but all of us kids grew up color-blind. We couldn't tell the difference between each other's skin color. We were neighbors, classmates or friends. We couldn't tell the differences between the sexes either. The girls dressed different, but they were still part of the group.

Most of the people in Kaka'ako were considered poor when it came to money, but were millionaires when it came to compassion. Love thy neighbor was practiced day after day. Love, joy and peace were not words but a lifestyle.

While Portuguese and Japanese were the dominate races, Kaka'ako was also populated by Hawaiians, Chinese, Filipinos, Russians, Black Americans, Haoles and mixtures of the above.

Seven decades ago Kaka'ako was primarily a residential rather than a business district as it is today. On the edge of downtown Honolulu, it was bounded by Punchbowl, King and Piikoi Streets and about a mile or so of shoreline. The acreage kept growing because any trash not burnt in the incinerator was used as landfill along the shoreline.

The fish cannery at Fisherman's Wharf and American Sanitary Laundry on Queen Street were the major employers of women. My maternal grandmother worked in the cannery. My mother and a bunch of aunts and cousins worked in the laundry.
Most residents referred to American Sanitary Laundry as Magoon Laundry because the Magoon brothers owned it. The Ward family and the Magoon brothers were major landowners in Kaka'ako.

Other businesses in the area were Oahu Ice and Primo Beer on Cooke St. between Kapiolani Blvd. and Kawaiahao Street, Royal Beer on Queen St. between Punchbowl and Queen Streets and the Lewers and Cooke lumber yard on Cooke St. between Queen and Kawaiahao Streets. Also in Kaka'ako were Honolulu Construction and Draying (HCD), a soy sauce factory on Cooke St. and a poi manufacturing plant on Queen St.

Kaka'ako was the last district to have "talkies." The Aloha Theater, called Calhau's Theater by the Portuguese, continued to show silent movies long after the talkies came to town.

The first thing that comes to mind when I get gas at Lex Brodie's on Queen St. are fading memories of the theater with corrugated iron on the outside and wooden benches on the inside that once entertained a whole community on that site.

First Day Of School

Mother dropped me off at the door to my classroom and headed for home, not realizing that I was fifty feet behind her. When she arrived home with me just in back of her, she hooted and hollered and said something in Portuguese that I don't think was very nice.

Grabbing me by the ear, she half dragged, half pulled me to school. She made sure that I was in the classroom before leaving for home. To her dismay, I was back in the house within minutes. Again, she hooted and hollered, but instead of grabbing me by the ear, she took hold of my arm, nearly dislocating my shoulder, and pushed me in front of her all the way to school.

This time, she took me to the principal's office. Miss Agnes was the principal of Pohukaina School and although she gave the impression of being a battle-axe, she was in reality an angel in disguise.

Being more experienced with kids than my mother, after all I was my mother's first born and Miss Agnes had dealt with thousands of youngsters, she got to the root of the problem in a hurry. I was determined not to wear short pants to school. Once that got ironed out, mother took me home where I changed to long pants and walked back to school on my own. And to this day, some 70 years later, I still do not wear short pants or shorts of any kind.

During those years we said the Pledge of Allegiance in school every morning. Maybe not in sync or in tune but when we sang the National Anthem or God Bless America it was with fiery gusto. If I remember correctly, we also recited a short non-denominational prayer at the start of the school day. Today God is a nasty word in the classroom.

We learned a few other things that are not taught today such as personal hygiene, good manners, respect for other people and their property and being responsible for our actions.

We all had to drink a small bottle of milk every morning during short recess. The bottle size was a gill (1/4 of a pint) and it cost five cents. For the first two or three years of my schooling my mother made a deal with my teachers so that I took a dozen eggs to school on Monday morning and my teacher would pay for my milk that week.


Not all memories of Kakaako are pleasant.

Mention the word dentist and my blood pressure jumps up a few notches. Let me stand in front of a dental office and it jumps up again. All I have to do is talk to the receptionist and it goes up even further. By the time I come face to face with the dentist my heart is pounding and my head feels like a volcano ready to erupt.

Twice I was sent home from St. Francis Hospital's Dental Clinic because my blood pressure was too high.

The only dentist that I remember in Kakaako had his office on Queen St. between Kamani St. and Ward Ave. Because his drill did not rotate very fast, filling cavities was a very painful experience. I swear that I can still smell the smoke that came out of my mouth as the drill burnt rather than ground the rot out of the cavity.

I have only one recollection of a needle being used to numb the tooth and I'm convinced that the needle was a foot long and as big around as the barrel of a shotgun.

The price, however, was consistent -- $1 per visit regardless of what was done. I would like to have said that the price was cheap, but in those days a dollar purchased a large package of groceries.

There was an alternative to going to this dentist. We had the option of going to Palama Settlement, which had medical and dental facilities as well as recreational and educational programs. The cost of an extraction ranged from 25 to 45 cents. The pain factor, however, was the same as in Kakaako.

Swapping Lunches

At the time, early 1930s, most of the families cooked and served their ethnic dishes and the majority of the kids brown bagged their lunches.

The Portuguese kids had their homemade bread, malasadas and sweetbread and the Japanese had their rice balls, sushi, seaweed and daikon. As a result, the first order of business on arriving at school was to swap lunches before starting to play.

A sandwich made of Portuguese sweet bread was worth two rice balls. And a rice ball with an ume on the inside was worth a small fortune. It sometimes took two or three swaps to get the lunch that you wanted. Anyway, pre-school play did not start until lunch was settled.


The majority of us boys carried pocketknives to school. Not to defend ourselves or to attack a fellow student, but to slice the dried abalone that we carried in our pockets.

A dried abalone cost only a nickel and would last for more than a week. We would use our knives to slice a thin piece off and chew on it for hours on end. Maybe, that's where the grown ups got the idea for chewing tobacco. With abalone, though, you weren't constantly spitting.

I don't think abalone would stand a chance today. Not because of its outrageous price, but because everybody would be screaming how unhealthy it was.

We would be playing marbles during recess and reach into our pockets with our filthy hands and slice off a piece. By the end of the day, the abalone would be covered with dirt and we would be chewing on as much dirt as abalone. However, none of us died from chewing on this dirty abalone.

Soapy Mouthwash

We kids were not into swearing, smoking and swigging alcohol. Our four-letter words were love thy neighbor, care for each other, look both sides of the street before crossing, help your friend, give to the community, and wash your hands after going to the bathroom.

If a kid did swear, the result would be a mouth washed with soap or a hard slap across the face. More important was the fact that we could speak intelligently without resorting to swear words to get our point across. Now that I think of it, I don't remember my parents and family ever swearing.

Another thing that we learned fast was to stand up and place your hand over your heart when the American flag went by in a parade. If you were sitting on the curb and did not stand when the red, white and blue came by you were yanked to attention by your hair or ear. The person showing you the error of your ways did not have to be a relative, just someone older than you.

A Belated Merry Christmas

To say that the people in Kakaako were poor would be an understatement for the majority of families. We were in a depression and Christmas presents were limited to one or two, mostly underwear, shirts or pants. My brother and sister and myself wore underwear that was made by my grandmother from flour bags.

For the group of boys that I hung around with, Christmas ran from December 26 until early January. On none school days, we would leave home early in the morning and walk to Manoa Valley where the rich kids lived. We would split into two groups, one group on each side of the street, and go through every trash can looking for discarded toys and broken bicycles, scooters, wagons and tricycles. Dolls, too, for our sisters.

We would fill our wagons with the discarded toys and pushing the broken bicycles ahead of us jubilantly head for home where we repaired and repainted the toys. We often had to cannibalize two or three bicycles to make one good bike.

Outside of a complete bike, wheels of all sizes and their axles were worth their weight in gold. We would nail the good wheels from a pair of broken skates to the bottom of a 2X4 and have a crude but reliable skateboard. By adding an upright piece of wood and a crosspiece at the top we had a scooter.

Wheels from baby or doll carriages were perfect for boxcars. The front wheels did not have to match the back wheels in size as long as they were in pairs. Apple boxes were better than orange crates for the boxcars. The cars we made were very crude compared to the boxcars of today, but they worked and brought great joy to us.

Entrepreneur At Six

The word entrepreneur wasn’t even invented yet, and if it were, I wouldn’t have known how to pronounce it, or worse yet, spell it. But I was one.

Several stores in Kaka’ako sold cone sushi at a nickel apiece, but one store on Cooke Street sold it at one for a nickel and three for a dime. Whenever I was hungry for cone sushi I would go looking for classmates or neighbors that had a nickel in their pockets.

When I had two people with a nickel apiece, I would convince them that sushi would be a treat at that time of day and that I would gladly purchase the sushi if they gave me their nickels.

Naturally, at three for a dime I always had a free sushi. I wasn’t selfish so when we were in a group of five or six and at least four kids had nickels. I would still offer to be the runner and purchase the sushi. As to be expected all of us enjoyed a tasty treat.

Graveside Picnics

The Chinese cemetery in Makiki was a favorite place for us kids. Remember, we were poor and oranges were a luxury. We would leisurely stroll to Makiki (it was closer than Manoa) and sit by a grave and enjoy the oranges left there by relatives of the deceased.

I think we ate the oranges at the gravesite instead of taking them home out of respect for the dead. As for the peels, we took them with us. After all, we weren't litterbugs.

Shades of Tom Sawyer

For reasons known only to him, my father always made ice cream on the front porch. While we had a huge back yard, the front yard was real small with the front porch less than ten feet from the gate.

As though a siren had blasted a signal throughout the area, kids started to crowd the porch and front yard about the same time my father brought out his ice cream maker. The one thing my father never had to do was to crank the ice cream maker. The kids would fight among themselves to be the next one to crank.

There is one afternoon in particular that stands out vividly in my mind. The ice cream was ready and my father filled a cone with two scoops and gave it to one of the neighborhood kids. My brother Alfred, whose nickname at the time was "Bully," grabbed the cone from the kid's hand, but before he could lick the ice cream, my father immediately took the cone from his hand and returned the cone to its rightful owner.

Almost simultaneously, my father took off his belt, laid my brother across his knees and gave him several whacks across his behind with the leather belt. Adding insult to injury, Bully was sent to his room without any ice cream.

All of us kids learned a moral lesson that hot afternoon. As for my father, the kids respected him even more after that single incident. That was the first and only time that my father ever spanked one of his kids.

Go Fly a Kite

We had seasons for everything and one of them was flying kites. While there were a few store bought kites in the sky, most were homemade. Most families used a bamboo rake to keep their yards clean.

Well, the bamboo from the rakes was excellent for kite making. Box kites, square kites, diamond kites, butterfly kites, all had something in common -- newspaper glued over a bamboo frame. Mashing rice into a paste made the glue.

Spinning tops was also a seasonal sport. While most kids had commercial tops, I had tops that were handmade by my father. He used a pocketknife to whittle a piece of wood into the shape of a top. I had tops made of various types of wood. The kui or point of the top was a common nail.

Another seasonal sport was marbles. We had to get on our hands and knees to play marbles or agates. As a result we all had dirt on our hands and torn pants at the knees. The games we played included fish, ring, box and five holes.

Milk covers were as popular then as Pogs were a few years ago except that we used real milk covers. Milk came in bottles with a cardboard cover. We saved the covers and used them to play with.

My brother and I had an unfair advantage because my father worked for Dairymen's in the feed department. His friends in the milk department would give him cartons of brand new, unused covers.

We would glue two of the unused covers together to make our kini (hitter). Because they were unused, they were stiffer and could turn over the other milk covers with ease. As a result, my brother and I won more than we lost. We both had large collections of milk covers, thanks to our Dad. Incidentally, Dairymen's is now known as Meadow Gold.

My memory is quite foggy on a game known as peewee. I do know that we cut a broom handle into various lengths, placed a short piece across another short piece and using the longest piece as a bat, tipped the short piece into the air and hit it with the bat such as in baseball.

We did play football and baseball during their respective seasons. The number of players on each team depended on the number of kids available and ranged anywhere from five to a dozen or so. I don't remember ever playing soccer.

On rare occasions we even played hopscotch, jump rope and jacks with the girls.

Money Does Grow On Trees...

Earlier we talked about purchasing abalone and sushi. Where did we get the money for these and other treats such as manapua and going to the movies?

Kiawe trees were and are still abundant on Oahu. In season, the ground was literally covered with the long yellow kiawe beans. We kids would go in groups and fill up burlap bags with the beans that were worth their weight in gold. The beans, high in protein, were sold to cattle and dairy farmers and people who owned horses.

... And in trash cans
Having an empty bottle was like having money in the bank. Depending on their size or type, the bottles were worth anywhere from one to five cents each. I don't think plastics were invented yet. Aluminum was also a thing of the future. Tin and glass were the more prominent methods of packaging.

Since almost all families were saving their own bottles, we kids had to go to public areas such as parks and beaches in search of the elusive soda pop bottle.

A Cashless Society

There has been lots of talk about a cashless society. Well, that's nothing new. We had very little, if any, cash during the "roaring" twenties and depression thirties. We all survived, however, by sharing and using the barter system.

Whenever my mother baked bread, it was shared with the neighbors. The same went for sweetbread and malasadas.

My father was the working foreman for Dairymen's Feed Dept. on Sheridan Street. Although he didn't go beyond the sixth grade, he was quite intelligent in many ways. And one of these ways was to convert kerosene incubators into electrical ones.

He had many friends who brought their kerosene incubators to him for conversion. None of them ever paid him in cash for his work. I remember one afternoon when a huge, I mean huge, policeman came to our house carrying a large burlap bag. He gave the bag to my father and a few minutes later walked out with his converted incubator. As for the bag, it contained live spiny lobsters.

My father was also skilled in determining the sex of a chick on the day it was hatched. Cameron's Hatchery in the Wailupe area "hired" my father on many weekends to separate the chicks shortly after they hatched. He received the male chicks in lieu of pay. The hatchery needed the hens to lay eggs.

As a result we always had a hundred or so young roosters and about a dozen hens in our back yard. Once the young roosters reached the right weight he sold them as broilers or fryers. My job was to deliver the cleaned chickens to my father's customers. I loved that job because I was always given candy, fruit or other treats when I made the deliveries. Don't ask me how they paid my father. I never collected any money.

Coming Full Circle

Television, computers and the Internet have almost replaced the mail order catalog for the purchasing of a wide range of products. The latest fad is having someone else do your grocery shopping and delivering it to your door for a fee.

That is not new. As a matter of fact, the depression era residents not only had their groceries delivered but also did not have to pay for them until payday, which was usually at the end of the month.

Mr. Centeio, of Portuguese descent, had a store in Punchbowl, near Queen's Hospital. He had salesmen that went to neighborhoods with a high population of Portuguese such as Kakaako and catered to their household needs.

The salesman came to our house in the beginning of the week to take the orders and delivered the groceries at the end of the week. We stuck close to the house when it came time for him to collect what was owed him because he always brought a small bag of jellybeans or other candies for us.

Groceries were not the only thing delivered to us. There was the iceman who delivered blocks of ice every day of the week. Yes, ice. Most of the families in Kakaako had iceboxes rather than refrigerators. The ice went in a compartment at the top of the icebox. There was a pan under the icebox to catch the water as the ice melted. Forget to empty this pan and you would have water all over the kitchen floor.

Another important commodity delivered on a weekly basis was kerosene. Again, most people had kerosene stoves to cook on. We had a three-burner and a separate oven that was placed on top of the stove for baking. An upside down gallon of kerosene at the side of the stove fed the burners with fuel.

My uncle Johnny, only a few years older than me, was killed by a kerosene truck The older kids enjoyed the thrill of riding by hanging on to the back of the truck as it traveled from one house to the next. Somehow my uncle slipped and fell under one of the truck's rear tires.

Milk, too, was delivered to your door. The milk came in different size bottles and also in chocolate and strawberry flavors as well as the customary white. Since my Dad worked for Dairymen’s we had our milk delivered at a discount.

History Repeats Itself

Transportation is a major problem on Oahu. The number of cars on this small island is astronomical. And with repaving, repairing or adding underground water and sewer lines, travelling on Oahu's highways and byways can be hazardous to your health.

Elected officials, both city and state, keep talking about a fixed rail system. What do you think we had? Yes, a fixed rail system. The one that I am most familiar with ran from Kalihi to Kaimuki on King St. and Waialae Avenue. There were streetcars on Kalakaua Ave. and between town and such places as Manoa and Nuuanu among others.

The streetcars had open sides, an operator and a conductor. The passengers could get on at any part of the car and pay the conductor when he approached them. The streetcars were powered by electricity with an overhead cable. Before I was born horses drew the streetcars.

We kids were not angels and riding the streetcar for free was a favorite sport. We would hop on at the opposite end of the car from the conductor. If the conductor was in the front we would get on in the back. If he was in the back we would get on in the front. Whenever he got near us we would jump off the streetcar and hop on again in the area farthest from him. Naturally, we did not do this alone; it was always with a small group.

One sunny Saturday morning about four of us were caught like rats in a trap. We saw the conductor in the front so we jumped in the back. To our dismay there were two undercover conductors waiting for us in the back. We not only got our ears boxed but also had to cough up the five or ten cents for the ride. For the record, that was the last time that I tried to get a free ride.

What about the "Iron Horse?" There was a train that ran from Iwilei to Kahuku. The train was primarily used to haul sugar cane, but it also carried passengers and made stops at places like Waianae and Haleiwa. As a matter of fact, during World War II the train carried workers to and from the Navy Yard at Pearl Harbor.

Conserving Water

First let me tell you that we had a porcelain coated cast iron bathtub with four legs and we did not have a water heater.

It seems that it was my father’s chore to prepare our baths. He heated water in a large kettle on our kerosene stove. He then partially filled the tub with cold water and added the hot water. I learned at an early age that the water stayed warm longer if you heated cold water than if you cooled off hot water.

My sister, who was five years younger than me, got to bathe first. The theory was that because she was younger and a girl she wasn’t as dirty as her two brothers
Anyway, after she was through with her hot bath, my father added a small kettle of hot water to the now cooler water and my brother and I jumped in together.

We not only had to get ourselves clean, but after bathing we had to clean the inside of the tub as the water was draining.

I’m not sure whether using one tub of water to bathe three kids was to conserve water or to cut the water bill, but I’m sure it did a little of both.