On a too warm Sunday afternoon at the Kapaa Transfer Station, better known as the Kailua Dump, a father and teenage daughter take turns pitching weathered lumber and moisture-warped drywall from the back of an oversize pickup truck. Thirty feet below, unfazed, a lazy detail of mynahs, gulls and chickens hop along a small mountain of discarded luggage, plastic lawn furniture, Reagan-era Betamax recorders and other household detritus.
Employee Clyde Kawahara sees neither the father, daughter nor birds as he pauses to reflect on the eight years he has spent here at the station.
"I guess you could say it’s destiny," Kawahara says, half chuckling. "A lot of different things kind of prepared me to have this job."
During the week, Kawahara hauls trash to the HPOWER plant. On this Sunday he made a morning green-waste run to Hawaii Earth Products at Campbell Industrial Park.
Now he is filling out the rest of his overtime shift directing a steady stream of pickups and SUVs to their proper offloading areas.
Kawahara looks perhaps 10 or 15 years younger than his driver’s license insists. His loosely bound ponytail is still more pepper than salt, and there’s a slow-burn energy that keeps him working seven days a week. It’s when he laughs, which is often, that Kawahara’s dark skin reveals the lines and wrinkles that have come from four decades behind the windshield.
Kawahara started as a deliveryman right after his graduation from Kaimuki High School. He enjoyed figuring out the best ways to navigate the island’s roads and highways, enjoyed more the chance to see who and what else was out there. The money was decent, too.
"I was always a go-out-and-drink kind of guy," he says, laughing again. "I just spent whatever was in my pocket."
In 1985, marriage on the near horizon, Kawahara decided to get his commercial driver’s license. The marriage didn’t last, but the work allowed him to provide for his two sons and the experience he gained driving larger trucks would eventually come in handy when he applied for a job with the city.
Kawahara sacrificed about a third of what he used to make to take a job as a laborer at the dump, but when a position opened to drive tractor-trailers, he found himself in the right spot at the right time. Hence, the destiny thing.
"I was always told by my father to get a government job, so at age 49 I finally decided to try," he says. "Things are different now with the economy. There’s no guarantees. But I do my best, make sure I don’t get written up for anything and hope that when it comes time to make cuts, I’ll have performed well enough to keep on."
Seated on a swivel chair at the entrance of the cavernous structure, flies buzzing unnoticed around his arms and legs, Kawahara figures he has it pretty good.
The smell isn’t as bad as people think, except perhaps when a not-so-fresh load from the mall food court comes in. The folks who pass through are friendly enough. The workplace politics aren’t any worse than anywhere else.
On good days, of which there seem to be many, traffic flows smoothly, and Kawahara has plenty of time to complete his drop-offs and still find a place in line at one of his favorite lunch wagons.
"There are no bad days," Kawahara says.
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.