Seattle Man Believes In The Gift Of Giving - Mostly Of Himself

Daydreaming isn't allowed in the fast lane. So Bob Shimabukuro has mostly lived life on side streets, taking a detour now and again to help other people along the way.

Shimabukuro is executive director of the Asian Pacific AIDS Council, a columnist for the International Examiner, a woodworker, and a guy Asian-American groups call on when a job needs doing, and the pay is limited to a pat on the back.

He is soft-spoken, though sometimes the words he delivers are strong ones. It is easier to hear him by reading his columns.

Shimabukuro has written about ads that offend Asian Americans ("deep down inside you know this ad stinks"); about harassing phone calls he's gotten since he started campaigning against homophobia (" `Ah, get a life,' I barked and slammed phone down"); about death (". . . sudden and unexpected death beats a gradual withering away any day").

Shimabukuro says he didn't talk much when he was growing up in Hawaii because it's hard to talk when you're constantly affected by asthma.

As a small boy, whenever Shimabukuro would strain to pull a breath into his body, he would get relief from back rubs given by his mother, father or older sister. Each brought something special to the task.

"My mother would sing, my dad lectured me on Marx and Hegel, my sister talked about how the world treats women."

Shimabukuro's father worked as a laborer, and he saw much of life in terms of rich vs. poor. He was known for his union activism, and for a time, he was on the board of directors of the Hawaii Star, an activist community newspaper that made former Sen. Joe McCarthy's list of subversive publications in the 1950s.

Shimabukuro figures he was absent from school at least half of each year because of his illness. While at home, he watched his mother labor, washing the clothes of her seven children by hand. She worked and worked, while her son sat or lay too sick to help.

It was hard for Shimabukuro to leave his family but he was curious about the rest of the world. He chose Reed College in Portland, got a degree in philosophy, found the woman he would marry, and got a job.

The job, in a furniture shop, lasted only two years, but he'd gotten interested enough in the work to latch on to a furniture designer from whom he learned enough to open his own shop in 1976.

His marriage to the daughter of two Montana artists ended the next year. The divorce marked the start of a difficult period in which one pain followed another. Shimabukuro says that for about four years, "I didn't see anyone." It was like his isolated childhood all over. He stayed in his shop, except for trips to the hardware store or the lumberyard.

Eventually, Shimabukuro left Portland to edit the Japanese American Citizens' League national newspaper in Los Angeles.

One of the people who read his columns was Alice Ito. When a mutual friend introduced the two in San Francisco, Shimabukuro was his usual low-key self, but the columns gave Ito an interior view that appealed to her. They visited back and forth between Los Angeles and San Francisco for two years before deciding to move to Seattle.

A series of strokes had incapacitated Shimabukuro's mother, and his brother Sam found out he had AIDS. Ito gave Shimabukuro support as he tried to help two people who had given him so much.

He was a columnist, then editor of the International Examiner but gave up the editing job when his family required more of his time.

Shimabukuro's brother died in 1988, the year he and Ito were married. His mother's life dripped away slowly. It was hard for Shimabukuro to watch such a hard-working woman suspended between life and death.

She died in 1993, but he still wonders when she really died. "What is the point between life and death? When has someone crossed that line?"

These days, it seems Shimabukuro is always giving.

After his brother's death, he helped start the Asian Pacific AIDS Council. He's the only original founder still working with the council. He talks to community groups, and tries to get government agencies to pay attention to preventing acquired immune deficiency syndrome in the Asian-American community. There is pain in his eyes and voice when he talks about how difficult it is trying to get people to think about AIDS.

"That's a real tragedy that people don't see the problem or don't act on this issue until it hurts someone they know," Shimabukuro says. "Until more people in our community are touched by the disease, we have to work harder. If we wait until everyone has been touched, it will be too late."

It isn't the life he wanted for himself, and he says he'll be glad to give it up as soon as there is someone else to take over the work he's doing. Shimabukuro is not an administrator, and this job is not always rewarding.

"You have to cheer very small victories. When you're writing or making furniture, when you're done, you can say `this is good, or it isn't.' " But with this work, "you don't know if you've succeeded or not."

Still, Ito says, "We wouldn't be very happy or productive people if we weren't pursuing activities and goals that really meant something for ourselves and other people . . . pursuing a better outcome in the world."

Ito is grants-program coordinator for A Territorial Resource, which makes grants to community-based organizations that work for social justice in five Northwest states.

She says that shared perspective is one of the things that brought her and Shimabukuro together, and made their relationship strong.

That relationship and the support of Shimabukuro's brothers and sisters keep him going.

Each of the siblings has a special role to play. Tom, the oldest, brings in money. He paid for the college education of the others, and has continued to be a source of financial help. Toki, the oldest sister, has been a second mother to the younger siblings since childhood. The others have their roles too, all supportive of one another.

But things can get tough sometimes, anyway. Ito says her husband sometimes recovers from the toll work takes on him by just sitting and staring at pretty scenery.

Maybe Shimabukuro's daydreams are about the things he wanted to be when he was young, a rock-and-roll singer, a baseball player. And just like when he was a child, "When just getting some air is so hard, I'd dream I'm somebody else, somewhere else."

Assunta Ng, who publishes the Seattle Chinese Post and the Northwest Asian Weekly, admires Shimabukuro. The newspapers have named him one of the top 10 contributors to the Asian-Pacific community a couple of years ago - and admires his way of looking at life in other than materialistic terms. But, she also sees another side to that.

"People take advantage of him," she says. "They know he is nice and won't say no. The man needs to make a living."

She recalls when the organizers of one fund-raiser "asked him to make a box, which took 40 man hours to make. But, we all have to make a living. He made three of those boxes.

"What are you going to say on your resume, that you did all these things for free? What does that make you look like? The man has a lot of compassion, but as a community we also have to support him, and show appreciation not just with a pat on the back . . . offer him something fair."

Ito acknowledges that she and her husband are "now at a time of life when we have to think about security and the future." The couple are expecting a son in November.

Shimabukuro is working on a book. For years, he has used bits and pieces of his family's stories in his column, and gotten great responses, so he's going to put those stories together.

It won't make him rich but, being a philosophy grad, he's philosophical about that.

In one of the columns, he wrote about Mira, his daughter from the first marriage, who graduated from The Evergreen State College in Olympia this year, and has decided to become a poet.

"You were going to be a movie star and buy me a yacht parked in Hawaiian waters. Bet you forgot, didn't you? I didn't. You gotta publish a lot of poems to buy a yacht, you know. I guess I'll just have to settle for a beach house. Maybe just a beach umbrella."