It’s just after 6 a.m. and John Min is already in the car with the engine running. He calls his daughter’s cellphone.
"Are you ready?"
She is, and she comes tumbling out of the house with her Mickey Mouse backpack in one hand and her cell in the other. As soon as she’s in the passenger seat, Min says, "Call her already."
Mikayla calls Brooke. Brooke doesn’t pick up right away.
"Call the mom," Min instructs as he drives.
She does, and when they turn the corner, Brooke is heading out of her house to meet them.
The daily commute for thousands of families who live in Central or West Oahu and work or attend school in town is a shared ordeal but an individual quest. For some, there is precision and forethought, a schedule of steps that must be followed. There is also seat-of-the pants ingenuity and, sometimes, desperate troubleshooting.
Wesley Lum leaves his Village Park house between 4:45 and 5 a.m. to avoid the worst of the traffic along the 20 miles into town. He and his son Chris sleep in the car in the parking garage at his downtown office. He sets his phone alarm for 6:24 a.m. When it rings, he hands his son a breakfast drink, then Chris rushes to catch a bus to Roosevelt High School. They’ve been doing this every school day since Chris was in ninth grade. He’s a senior now.
John Sasan drops his son off at Mililani High at 8 a.m. and then heads into town. Sometimes, he can slip in a quick surf session before work. His real headache, he says, is going back home at the end of the day. "I normally stop by and visit mom and dad at the Hawaii Kai retirement home," he says. Depending on the time of day and the conditions like roadwork or rain, it can take him 45 to 90 minutes to get back to Central Oahu.
Nobody wants to spend those hours in their car every day, feeling the acid worry of being late, the frustration of all that idle time. But they do it because they want better, because they want their kids to have choices, because they need to look after elderly parents. They give up those hours because not making the drive means giving up even more.
Min, like other commuters, has weighed his options. He bought a house in charming, orderly Ocean Pointe when his daughter was a baby. Mikayla is now a senior in high school, serious about her studies and determined to go to medical school. When they were looking at high schools, Min and his wife, Lisa, a teacher at Kaleiopuu Elementary, realized the incoming class at Campbell would number more than 850 students. "I told my daughter I’d walk her to school every day if she went there," Min said. "I told her I’d hold her hand." But the family attended an open house at Damien Memorial School and Mikayla liked what she heard about the college prep program. She wanted to be in the first class of girls to graduate from the school.
"The drive was the thing I was most afraid of," Min said. "If it wasn’t for Brooke’s parents, if I had to do this by myself every day, I don’t know if I’d make it."
Min is proud of a new route he learned for getting out of his subdivision — right turn, then left, then left again.
"It saves me about a minute, maybe two," he says. He gets his 2004 Highlander onto Fort Weaver Road. It is 6:20. It is bumper-to-bumper.
He works out a weekly schedule with Brooke Moreilhon’s parents. Brooke, also a senior at Damien, lives nearby. Some days, either Brooke’s mom or dad will drive the girls to school and Min will bring them home. When Brooke has drum line or ROTC, one of her parents will get her later in the evening. When Mikayla has debate practice, Min will drive to town to bring her home. Some days, Min does both the morning and afternoon drives. He works at home. He goes round-trip from Ewa Beach to town twice.
"When it’s my turn to drive, I don’t drink coffee. I don’t eat. I don’t want to have to use the bathroom when I’m trying to get to town," he says.
Usually, the girls sleep during the drive or they quietly scroll through their phones. Today, there is homework to finish, so the girls compare notes.
Mikayla has her permit and her road test is scheduled. Brooke’s family has a car for her to use when she gets her license. But both sets of parents aren’t sure they want brand-new drivers to take on that beast of a commute. Min is OK about continuing to drive them.
The car inches up Fort Weaver, approaching the stretch of newborn rail that heads into Waipahu. The girls will be out of college before the rail is running. What they have now is these roads, this car, this traffic.
Min punches on the radio. He knows exactly when the traffic report comes on. There are a couple of stalls slowing things down, and the advice from the station is to take the Zipper Lane.
"When it rains, garans ball barans it takes more than two hours to get to school," he says. It’s sunny today, and though the Highlander is crawling along, he never has to come to a dead stop.
Once in the Zipper Lane, it’s clear that the other lanes are much faster. Min shakes his head. "Look at that! They lied!"
There is a spot up ahead near the Urban Garden Center where the traffic almost magically eases up. Min says it happens every day. Also predictable is the slowdown at the H1-H2 merge. "They have to fix that," Min says.
I ask if they’re ever late for school. Brooke laughs and mutters, "It’s my fault." She confesses to racking up 70 tardies last school year — most of them excused. If they’re late, they call the attendance office from the car. Being stuck in traffic from Ewa Beach counts as an excused tardy.
"The lady that we call at the school, she lives in Ewa Beach, too," Min says.
By the time he gets to the Likelike offramp, it’s 7:30.
Then they often get stuck on Bernice Street in the neighborhood leading to the school. A few times, the girls have just jumped out of the car to run the last few blocks.
But on this morning, they arrive at 7:40 — a total time of an hour and 40 minutes from home to school.
The girls have the doors open almost before the wheels stop rolling. They grab their backpacks and phones and run to homeroom.
By 7:45, Min is heading home to Ewa Beach. "On Wednesdays, they’re pau at 2:30, so I pick them up at 3:30. I’ll probably leave the house at 2:20," he says.
Monday, the University of Hawaii will be back in session. Traffic from Ewa Beach will be all this and more. Min is resigned to his fate: "When UH starts, traffic will be so you can’t even move," he says.
But on the horizon is a reprieve — his daughter’s graduation. She wants to go to UCLA. Wesley Lum’s son plans to attend UH next year, so his commute will continue. John Sasan’s older son is at UH and does his own driving.
As he turns onto Fort Weaver, it is 8:15. There’s still a line of cars heading out of Ewa Beach onto the freeway. Min is sympathetic. "If there are kids in those cars, they’re late."