I WAS ONCE a tax form in Iowa. This was a long time ago, granted, but I have no real concept of time. I know only that I spent years in a giant ream of those just like me, clones designed to serve only one joyless function, until the day I was typed out, processed and ultimately tossed into a recycle bin.
It was only with my demise that things began to get interesting. Crumpled and forgotten, I embarked on a long voyage over land and sea to a plant in a place called Shenzhen, in an even bigger place called China. There, I was drowned; pulped; pressed; dried; and then, to my infinite surprise, dyed. And next printed with bright little flowers, cut into strange circular pieces (this whole process was fuzzy, but exciting!) and finally stretched across tiny little spokes of cardboard attached to a toothpick. But still, I had not come into my own — I sat in a plastic bag, compressed somehow, until suddenly someone pushed something somewhere inside me, and I opened like a butterfly.
No, not a butterfly.
A cocktail umbrella.
According to Tiki historians (Yes! That is a career you can have!), the first human to put a bright little paper umbrella like me in a drink was a bartender named Harry Yee at the Hilton Waikiki in Hawaii. We were a neater option than the stick of sugar cane he had been using as garnish before, which patrons would chew on and then leave, moistly, in their ashtrays for him to dispose of later. Whereas tiki umbrellas, even when discarded, only made the place brighter.
But where did he get this umbrella? Supposedly our kind was invented in the 1940s, during or just after World War II, when Americans became enamored of Polynesian culture. I’ve heard that we first were popularized as novelties by Don Beach (aka Don the Beachcomber, de facto founder of Tiki culture, and therefore sort of a father to me) and/or Trader Vic’s bar. But at that point, I gather we were used for purposes other than drinks, perhaps decorating those canned pineapple-based desserts that people liked in the ’60s, or shading the roasted face of a luau pig.
These days, of course, you’ll find us anywhere people poke straws into alcohol-filled coconuts. We adorn your piña coladas, your Blue Hawaiis, your Scorpions and your Zombies. Strictly speaking, a “tiki” drink always contains rum and some kind of fruit juice, but we umbrellas do not discriminate. If a drink is bright and punchy and evokes tropical fun in any way, thread a slice of fruit on our little stick and bring us along.
Some bartenders will solemnly theorize that we’re there to keep the ice from melting on a hot day, or the alcohol from evaporating from your Mai Tai, but I can tell you categorically that I neither can nor need to do that. If you’re leaving your drink sitting long enough for either of those things to happen, it probably wasn’t much of a Mai Tai to begin with. Frankly, we don’t serve any real purpose except the noble aim of increasing your overall joie de vivre.
And, as I mentioned before, I’m recycled! We mostly come from factories in China, Japan and the Indian subcontinent, although any amount of the actual material used in our production might come from your own backyard. So many of us were tax forms, or math homework, or junk mail, in our former incarnations.
If this is retirement, I’m ready for it. My previous life in bureaucracy seems a drab, distant memory now. I spend my days surrounded by laughter, and sugar, and bathing suits, and candied pineapple, and lychees, listening to the dulcet warblings of Yma Sumac. Life could not be better.
Here in Seattle, come see me sometime at Navy Strength, Hula Hula or the Hotel Albatross. I won’t even mind if you tuck me behind an ear in a moment of rum-fueled flirtation. I’m here to party. One caveat though: If you like piña coladas and getting caught in the rain, you might need a little more help than I can offer. I’m only made of paper, after all.