By then the villages all blended together along the shore of Pago Pago Bay. There were no clear demarcations where Utulei became Fagatogo became Malaloa became Pago Pago. For the rest of the island this was all downtown. It was where the U.S. Navy had set up shop when they took over the island 76 years before, built a dock and the Naval Station Tutuila. Fagatogo (fahnga-TONE-go) was the official seat of government. The courthouse—the old Naval administration building—was there, along with police headquarters and the legislature and most of what remained of the defunct naval station buildings. The original business district, such as it was, had grown up there on the edge of the station, close to the dock.
Pago Pago Bay is a dramatic collapsed caldera, and the only space for village habitation was along its narrow shoreline. Its encompassing cliffs and rainforest hills have little changed with time. In ’76 I was staying in a place on one of those hillsides in Malaola, looking down at the bay. It was a feral time for me, a Berkeley escapee. I was thirty and vaguely Asia-bound, my first time in the South Seas. I knew nothing about Samoa. I was just passing through, though I dawdled longer than I had planned. It was a hard place to leave. To start with, there were only two flights out a week, easy to miss and often full.
Flashbacks are a wonderful gift of aging. And there has to be a better word for them than flashbacks—chunks of past times that spring into the mind in vivid detail, like muted home movies found in the attic. Blessedly, most of my past has slipped permanently into the mists of lost memories, but now and then—and more frequently as I age—snatches of real time history intrude into the present, as actual and unignorable as when they happened. That first visit to Samoa, forty years ago, has recently been the source of many of these reveries. It was a time my mind recorded well.
Previous to this flashback onset I had written a half-dozen books set in Samoa. There was a lot to say after a quarter century living there. Five of those books I wrote while still in the islands, the last right after I left. They were all homage of sorts to a place that allowed me to call it home. No one objected. I had put in my time. I tried to get everything right. But recently I have learned that my books are open to the charge of cultural appropriation. How dare a white guy write about a culture and a place that is not his own? An after-the-fact, politically gross gotcha.
But then, as a writer, what am I to do with these flashbacks, which saved and stored themselves in such perfect tact with the obvious intent of being transcribed later in tranquility, like now? The best I can do is claim them as mine, just my observations—become a travel writer, but a writer travelling into the past. I am going to try that approach here, writing about the saloons of Fagatogo.
What could be more politically safe than an American writing about saloons? There were no saloons in Samoa before the papalagi arrived, the white guys, literally the “sky breakers.” There was no alcohol at all consumed, not even the “palm wine” ingested by tree-top tipplers in other islands. There was ava, a mildly sedative euphoriant, a suspension of the ground root of a pepper plant (Piper methysticum) in water. Alcohol—rum, whisky, lager, and wine—came with the white guys (along with religion). It did not catch on (unlike religion). When the U.S. Navy took over control of the island in 1900 they outlawed its sale to natives anyway. Then, with the onset of Prohibition in 1920, the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels made the navy booze-free, too. (Hence, “a cup of Joe” for a cup of coffee, which was all there was left to drink in the officers’ mess.)
Even with the navy base, the Caucasian population of the island was never more than one percent, and what little smuggled booze that was consumed was purely a private affair. Then came World War II, and at one point the number of U.S. Marines on-island equaled the number of natives. Some of them were thirsty. The navy outlawed the local sale of sugar to try and stem the making of homebrew. But where there is thirst, there is a way. Palepa, my Samoan grandmother-in-law, proudly recalled the profits she made from the still she ran in the bush up the cliff behind the village of Leloaloa across the bay. For her sugar content she used pineapples, bananas, guavas—I cannot imagine the taste— and sold her brew to the malini for $20 a fifth.
That was thirty years before I got there. By ’76 booze was much cheaper. The navy was long gone. The only liquor store in the territory was run by the government in the old native jail in the line of repurposed naval station buildings along the former parade ground down in Fagatogo. Liquor was untaxed and sold for half what it cost back in California. There were also half a dozen places to drink within walking distance of my place in Malaloa. Let’s take a walking tour. No need to get dressed up—shorts, flip flops, an aloha shirt. Sunset lingers over the harbor. The peak of Rainmaker Mountain across the bay is still in bright sunlight.
Let’s make it a Friday night. Friday nights always began at the Sadie Thompson Lounge at the government-run Rainmaker Hotel on the beach in Utulei, just a short hike along the harbor. A local combo will be playing, the room will be packed with politicians and young professionals, ninety percent Samoan. This place would soon enjoy some temporary renown thanks to Nicholas von Hoffman’s book Tales from the Margaret Mead Taproom (with cartoons by Garry Trudeau, published in 1976), a best-selling comic classic piece of cultural appropriation. But this Friday night it is just loud. There are a few tourists—this is the sole tourist hotel—and they are not sure whether they should play it safe and leave or relax and enjoy it. The view is panoramic, of the mountains and the bay all the way out to the ocean. The locals are making plans for the evening, where they will regroup later. Cocktail tables grow full of empty bottles and glasses, which are never removed. It seems to be a custom—to show how many drinks you and your friends have paid for? There is a sense of competition in the scene. The drinks are most expensive here.
Next stop, the Pago Bar, back in Fagatogo, which is the closest local equivalent to a western saloon. All locals here, no tourists, a friendly place, more laughter than the Sadie Thompson Lounge. No music yet tonight. A few palagi teachers and contract workers hang out here. A few doors down is The Captain’s Table, where Samoan waitresses dance with Korean fishermen and no one talks to one another. My British anthropologist friend Colin Turnbull and I got drunk there one evening and I danced with the waitresses. Colin liked the place because it reminded him of central Africa. “You dance like an African,” he told me.
Up the hill a bit, behind the courthouse and the humble Catholic cathedral, is Herb & Sia’s, a small Samoan hotel with a restaurant and bar, renowned for its fa’afafine (transgender) maitre’d everything, Rosie. More a family place. On Friday and Saturday nights they would have the best Samoan floor show, comprised of kids from the family. Five years later, when I returned, we would have our poetry readings there.
Down by the harbor is The Seaside, a classic saloon that could have been dockside in just about any third-world port. Men who came here came to drink. I used it as a setting in Fire Knife Dancing: “a low, patched-together, tin-roofed building near the water’s edge beyond the farmers’ market. There was a back entry from the dockside, and Apelu used that one. It took his Ray-Ban’d eyes a minute to adjust from the full-sun glare of the streets and the bay and focus inside the saloon’s gloom. What struck him first was the smell of the place—a beer-soaked waft of cigarette air and the twin aromas of the bathrooms’ disinfectant and what it failed to mask. The place was echoingly empty, just a few regulars hunched in drunk meditation at the beer-sign-lit bar.” A place where cops drank with criminals. On a Friday night, though, there would be a house band with the same playlist of C&W covers and Samoan standards as every other local bar band. There were still a few bulbs left in the spotlights on the disco ball above the dance floor. Of all the places I’m remembering, The Seaside lasted by far the longest, functionality outlasting fashion. It was still there, serving its public, pretty much unchanged, seventeen years later when I met Connie there at a Mardi Gras party. I was dressed in my Cardinal’s cassock and she was disguised as an M&M.
From The Seaside it is a peaceful moonlit walk along the shore of the inner harbor to the Tepatasi Terrace on the edge of Pago Pago. There isn’t much traffic in ’76, especially at night, even here on the main road in “downtown.” The Tepatasi is the beginning of the “dark side,” which is how everyone refers to the nightlife on the eastern shore of Pago Pago harbor, where the tuna canneries sprawl like a twentieth-century blight, and the stinking polluted bay is routinely filled with the moored-together rusting hulks of Korean longliners— “The Hell Ships of the South Pacific”—that supplied the canneries’ fish. The convivial establishments on the dark side were of another place and sadder time, indentured fishermen’s drinking holes and joyless brothels. I never go there. It is too far to walk and stinks of rotting fish. The Tepatasi Terrace is adventure enough.
If you travel solo a while in foreign lands, you become inured to not understanding what people are saying. Essential communication will happen, or not. Your hosts are under no obligation to try and include you. In a way, not understanding makes you more alert to all the other communicative channels. I am usually the only white guy in the Tepatasi Terrace, where the clientele is working class Samoans and Korean fishermen. An anomaly, I am ignored. I can just sit at the end of the bar and sip my under-chilled Vailima lager and watch. It is a good place to end an evening’s barhopping.
One Friday night, though, a French cruiser is anchored in the bay and the gens de mer are ashore. My friend Randy—another palagi—and I drive down in his jeep to check it out. We end up at the Tepatasi, where, for whatever reason, all the French officers have ended up, huddled together at a table, like fraternity boys, in their Bermuda shorts avec knee socks white uniforms with epaulets. Their flat, stiff, and silly white uniform hats are piled one on top of another like a wedding cake in the middle of their table. The usual four-piece band is playing, and one at a time the officers get up to dance at the invitation of a Korean fisherman, until the dance floor is filled with happy same-sex dancing couples and the wedding cake of hats is left alone. Randy is a Vietnam vet and has no use for the French. He covets one of those hats. He gives me the key to his jeep and tells me to have it running at the curb. When he gets the chance, he will do a grab and scram. Such is the Tepatasi, the entry to the dark side, where even innocent sailors’ hats may be inappropriately appropriated. Randy looks like a doofus in that hat.
My flashbacks have no soundtracks. They are like dreams that way. All aural details must be invented to be remembered. Bands playing Beatles’ songs with Samoan lyrics. A couple with two laughing faces. What did I know about why they were laughing? By writing about it do I steal their laughter? By describing what I saw do I diminish it somehow? If it is all about property, then I give up. We none of us own anything, least of all our cultures, group-created to be shared.
All the places I have named are gone. All that is left to be shared are these flashbacks. So sue me.