Remembering John Heckathorn

I first became acquainted with John Heckathorn the way that so many of us did—through his byline. As the former editor of Honolulu Magazine, a prolific food critic, and active community member, John’s name preceded him. It was easy to find his writing across newspapers and magazine titles. And everyone seemed to know him. Which became easy to believe considering his larger-than-life personality.

An aspiring editor and writer myself, I followed the glossy pages of his city magazine and read his newspaper columns, tracking his food interests and listening to his writing voice in my head, that trademark mix of sassy staccato that never missed an opportunity to get straight to the point. Before I had ever had a conversation with him, he had established himself as an institution in the Hawaii community. He was one of the names you could invoke to set the standard for good writing, good eating, a sharp eye, and island sophistication. None of these was a small feat. He was the critics of all critics in Hawaii.

That was how I first knew John.

But it was only as an adult that I came to know the guy who my boyfriend and I not only respected but also loved.

During the summers that I interned at our local Gannett paper, The Honolulu Advertiser (a newspaper now sadly no longer with us), I made a good friend named Derek. We had found common interests in music and pop culture and took to swapping the latest tunes or rare tracks of live or acoustic performances we had found. We also loved writing and with equal fervor traded stories about our latest interviews, sweet pieces of writing we had read, and our favorite magazines. Derek and I enjoyed sharing about all the best things in life, and that included our friends. For Derek, that meant John. John was one of Derek’s and his wife Dawn’s very best friends, and even though Derek would talk about him in that familiar, intimate way would you talk about your dearests, John somehow seemed even more mythologized to me. What a man of cunning, cleverness, good taste, loyalty, and unshakeable character, I thought to myself! In those days, there was no Yelp, no Nonstop Honolulu, no Metromix, only your smarts, strong instincts, and divining sensibilities—which is what John seemed to have because he was always in the know.

It was inevitable from there, I suppose, that I would get to know John.

After Derek eventually left the Advertiser, he started to work in the same office as John. I was living in Chicago going to school at the time, but whenever I would come home to Honolulu, I’d pay their downtown office a visit, and we’d steal off for a bite to eat during lunch hour when they weren’t too busy. John was funny—really funny—and not afraid to say anything, which partially accounted for his sharp wit and much larger vocabulary than what was allowed to be printed. ;-) On days when there wasn’t time for lunch, he’d let me badger him in his office, often dumping into my arms all of the press editions of books he decided he didn’t want, usually from some dusty cardboard box in the corner (I thought they were gold). If he heard my voice in the office, he’d come out with his hands on his hips, squint his eyes at me with concern, and say, “Noelle. How ARE you?” His inquiries were always so earnest—so sincere as to what this crazy kid was up to. He would continue to ask after me, sometimes in person when I was home or through Derek and Dawn or occasionally through Facebook or the phone, throughout all of those cold, blustery winters in Chicago and then throughout my career after I graduated from college. I always appreciated the ways that he made sure I was doing OK.

As the years passed, we started to share more and more in our interest in food and, especially, drink. The group of us—John, Derek, Dawn, my boyfriend Josh, and myself—had all caught the craft cocktail bug and loved making tasty drinks using fresh, high-quality ingredients. Holiday parties soon branched out to planned pau hanas which spread to regular cocktail nights. These were cherished get-togethers during which each of us would bring food and choose a special cocktail to make for each other. It was a clever way to taste new things not on bar menus, test our amateur hands at mixing, and spend some time with good friends, good music, good food, and good drink. They were often long nights that would start early in the evening and end very late at night—which would allow those of us who were cautious to pace ourselves carefully and others  who were ambitious to adequately indulge. John’s dishes were so tasty. They were also usually the richest. Mussels with white wine and garlic. Some kind of stew (perhaps a cassoulet?) with all sorts of cured meats. Only the best.

Hot afternoons would die into cool evenings, and we’d sit around on the floor talking and laughing. John talked about not only food and wine and writing, but also entertained us with many stories about his wife and daughters, whom he clearly adored.

During these nights, John and my boyfriend Josh hit it off so well and so quickly that the first time they met, Josh announced in excitement that John was the grandfather he never had (as it turns out, John didn’t like the implications about age, whodathunkit, though he would later say that we were about the same age as his kids), and John emailed Josh a picture of John’s mother. Neither of them could later recall why.

Other times, we talked about music. During a recent cocktail night—one that was actually the last time I would see John—we were playing a marathon of Jim Steinman songs, an epic compilation of dramatic songs like “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” When John heard that I had never listened to Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” he insisted on buying it on his iPhone immediately, just so I could hear all 8:25 minutes of it for the first time. We played it twice in a row.

Later, I commented that I liked Steinman’s songs for the most part, but the song that really bothered me was “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.” The lyrics were so vague, I said, naively. “What do they even mean when they say, ‘When you touch me like that’ or ‘When you kiss me like that’?” I said aloud. “It’s so vague. What is this or that?”

John looked at me, squinting, again. “They're talking about sex.”

“Oh.”

I was sheepish. John told my boyfriend I was a keeper.

When I first heard this morning the news of John’s passing last night, I felt outside of myself. How could it be that a man with so much life, so much spirit, and a bold, gravelly voice that could reach clear across any room, be gone from us? I sat for a moment quietly in my bedroom, looking at the Honolulu skyline washed in morning light. I had no words. Yet here I am, writing this breathy remembrance that I wonder whether John would say rambled too much. On the other hand, maybe this is the way to celebrate him and his life—with my words. Which is my style. And also John’s style (if I lack his swagger).

I remember one of John’s signature drinks, a concoction of his own design called the Smile. It’s how I will remember John—one part Scotch, one part sweet, a little acid for kicks, and all smiles.

These are just a few of many fond memories of John. I am grateful to have had the chance to know him—a legend in our community who became a caring friend. He may have been a critic of food but not of people—his heart was so big for so many. Josh and I already miss him very much. Our prayers go out to his family and friends. And we raise our glasses to a Heaven full of pork belly and Old Fashioneds. This one’s for you, John.