Talking Tiki

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Penny is talking about the hula queen.
"Somebody told me that the body was one person and the face another, so I don't know. It used to be a nude, and one of the guys that bought the bar didn't want a nude, so he had the skirt and the lei painted on." Which I don't quite get. On close inspection, the hula queen's chest is very apparent.

The hula queen is shrouded in mystery. Later, someone says he thinks it is an owner's wife. Then the night bartender, a Hawaiian woman named Westley and a patron named Mike have this conversation:

Westley: "She used to be a customer."
Mike: "All I know is she's got nice tits."
Westley: "Hey!!"
Mike: "You got nice tits, too."
Westley: "Now I feel better."

Penny says that the guy who started the bar, whose name she doesn't know, was in the South Sea Islands during World War II. "He loved them. When he came back, he built the Tradewinds downtown, then on the south side he built the South Seas, and then he built this one andnamed it after Bikini atoll."

The Bikini is all that remains of this unknown soldier's tiki empire, a last gasp of unique designon a stretch of Grand Avenue that is less than breathtaking. Though the masks and lights and hulaqueen may have little to do with it, the Bikini has turned into a home away from home--or, in some cases, a home, period--for the gang at the bar.

Let's go talk to white-haired, white-bearded Dean, who looks a little like Willie Nelson. He is funny (this during a pool game: "You better call home and tell 'em to sell the outhouse 'cause you're gonna lose yer ass!") and actually possesses the kind of wry twinkle in his eye that is usually reserved for fictional characters and actors in Frank Capra movies.

"The decor? I like it. It's different. I come here because I like this bar. I've been coming here since 1978. I like the people. I've seen a lot of 'em come and go. See that flag up there? That was for one of my best friends. He died last year; he used to come in here every day. His name was Norman. That flag is from the American Legion. He was a serviceman. He was a good old man, he was a regular, came in every day and had his Beam and his beer. To me, it's a neighborhood bar. I can look up and down this bar in the morning and name almost everyone.

"These bartenders, they always take care of us street people, that's the way I look at it; you can interpret it any way you want to." For the record, Dean is not actually a street person. But you can interpret that any way you want to.

"Maybelline" begins to play on the juke as Dean orders another pitcher. Westley buys Duck a shot of Bacardi, Mike is at the other end of the bar working on a pitcher of his own and contemplating his cigarette. The tiki masks are frozen, the hula queen shimmers in the smoke, everybody roars in a shared joke. It is roughly ten minutes to eight in the morning.

Long live the Bikini.

I know this guy, name of Ben, he works at a record store and he hasnever been to the Bikini. Yet he is no stranger to the ways of tiki. In fact, he built a tiki bar in his own backyard and, through a tasteful ensemble of certain tropically oriented items, has managed to capture a bit of what the Bikini must have exuded in its heyday.

He's got the fiber-glass fish hanging on the thatched bamboo wall, actual shark jaws gaping, palm-tree-stump, hand-carved tiki gods, wind chimes tinkling away in the breeze, a three-foot-tall Mayan statue reaching for the stars (or is that an ancient astronaut?) and strings of red, green, yellow and pia-colada-colored plastic Easter Island heads hanging from the roof, glowing warm and inviting light through their stern faces. All in all, it's an incredible simulation of an incredible simulation.

But where is Thurston Howell III? Shouldn't he be stepping through the stands of potted bamboo, saying, "My dear boy! Have a cocktail, for God's sake"?

"Gilligan's Island!" spews Ben, face glowing. "Yes! Huge! Huge! A huge influence! A lot of the stuff I do now relates back to what I liked when I was a kid--the Rat Fink stuff--and you associate that with the surf culture, and the surf culture with the tiki stuff," says this man who was born and raised in Buffalo, New York.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap