Raging for Daniel Gray
As 2015 began, Daniel Gray was feeling good enough to think that he had put the previous year of chemotherapy and pain and nausea behind him. In 2013, he had been diagnosed with cancer in his sinus cavity, beginning an onslaught of days spent in the hospital. But after a couple months of treatment, things went as well as they could have: The tumor was 99 percent gone; he wouldn’t even need surgery.
Gray went back to his active lifestyle — returning to his construction job, and, as a longtime central figure of the Chinatown nightlife scene, he resumed running his nightclub, Nextdoor.
“For a year, I felt incredible,” Gray recalls. “I felt perfect.”
But, just three months ago, when his physician looked at a routine follow-up MRI scan, Gray found out that everything was not perfect: The cancer had spread to a different area, and there was now a golf-ball-sized growth on the right side of his head near his brain.
Now, for the second time, 33-year-old Gray is battling cancer.
“I am just worried about not dying, basically,” he says.
From the time he was first diagnosed, the community — the nightlife industry in particular — has rallied around Gray. A series of fundraisers have been held, with proceeds going toward his medical bills. The next fundraiser — and final one that’s planned, for now — takes place June 5, during the month’s First Friday. Like all of Nextdoor’s First Fridays, it kicks off with an art show that goes until 9:30 p.m., followed by an after-party with DJs and dancing through the rest of the night.
Gray grew up on Kauai, and came to Oahu to attend University of Hawaii at Manoa. He needed a job, but it had to be something flexible to fit his school schedule — so he started washing dishes at Chili’s, working his way up to the kitchen, then to the front of the house, and when he turned 21, to bartending. It was there, behind the bar, that Gray knew he found his place.
“I fell in love with it, really,” he says. “With bartending, you genuinely get to know people and develop relationships, and you meet people from every walk of life … That was the first thing that attracted me to it — I have always been a social person, so it just fit. And making drinks, getting people drunk, is just fun.”
When Gray graduated from UH with a degree in English, he kept bartending at various venues, taking on management positions. He moved to New York City for a while in his 20s, and when he came back to the Islands, it was to open to the Loft, and later, SoHo Mixed Media Bar.
This was in 2009, when Chinatown was just starting to go through its transformation from seedy neighborhood to trendy hotspot. Gray saw a lot of parallels to what had happened in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood — a bad area turned around through art and artists — and he wanted to move that forward.
“I felt that Chinatown had a lot of potential,” Gray recalls. “So my goal when I opened SoHo was kind of to expose the Chinatown scene to people who I knew would love it, they just needed to be pushed in the right direction.”
In 2013, after four successful years, Gray sold SoHo, and soon after took over Nextdoor as the new owner.
As he was beginning the job, though, he started to experience an uncomfortable pressure in the back of his head. It crossed his mind that something might be wrong, but he popped a few Tylenol and kept living his life — one that was, at the time, pretty much nonstop.
While running one of the city’s most popular clubs may appear glamorous, it’s also demanding. There’s the late nights, the hundreds of emails a day, the business meetings, and the traveling to scout new acts. And when Gray wasn’t working, he was partying — “sleeping until 2 p.m., wake up hungover, go surf, and then it was, ‘What are we doing tonight?’”
But he couldn’t ignore the pain for long: “It went from slightly uncomfortable to I can’t even get out of bed. It felt like someone was crushing my head.”
It was in the hospital when he first found out he was sick, that the fundraisers began to take shape. Mark Becker, Gray’s business partner from SoHo and one of his best friends, was there with him.
“Immediately, (Becker) was like, ‘You are moving in with me, you are not going to pay rent, I want to take care of you, let’s beat this thing together,’” Gray recalls.
“There was never a question that I would let him face this alone — he is my family, and that’s what you do for family,” says Becker. “I have never in my life had a bad time with him. Even through the last 17 months of cancer, we still had fun in the worst situation possible.”
When they found out that Gray’s insurance wasn’t going to cover a majority of the treatment, Becker put in calls to his connections right away. And just as quickly, donations poured in. Meanwhile, Becker and a group of close friends and coworkers organized a fundraiser at Nextdoor, dubbing it Rage 4 Daniel. There also have been a series of smaller fundraisers — Hawaiian Brian’s recently donated a night’s worth of proceeds to Gray, while The Republik gave him a portion of proceeds from upcoming shows. DJs, restaurants, bars, artists and more also have shared proceeds from products or services.
“We had so many people cook us food, bring us groceries, donate money, call or text encouragement,” Becker adds.
Right now, Gray is going through a crucial period: He just finished a second round of chemotherapy, and within the next two weeks, doctors will tell him whether it worked well enough to make him a candidate for surgery.
“The surgery is kind of the pivot point where I am either going to be stuck with cancer forever, or they can cut it out,” Gray says. “If they are able to do the surgery, there is a good chance I will actually be cancer free — that is what I am hoping for.”
That level of optimism didn’t come right away — like anyone would, Gray went through initial periods of denial, and then bitterness, and then anger.
But that all quickly faded, and Gray is disarmingly positive, quick to point out any silver linings. He says things like: “I can’t taste, I can’t smell … but that makes it easy to eat really healthy now,” and even, “I got kind of lucky in a way, because you can never have radiation twice in the same area, so the fact that the tumor is in a different area, someone is looking out for me.”
Gray spends his days vastly different than how he used to. And while he still is adjusting to that, he’s making the best of it. In his living room, he’s got a bookshelf full of books he’d always wanted to read — now he’s halfway through it — and he’s been writing more. His coffee table is strewn with cookbooks — he’s been honing his culinary skills — and topped with a sewing machine, a new hobby. (He just started a couple weeks ago and already has made a pretty impressive looking tote bag.)
The change that bothers him most is not being able to surf — with the tumor pressing down on his optic nerve, it’s left him blind in one eye, making surfing too difficult. “That is where I would find my peace from my hectic lifestyle. It’s like my meditation.”
He’s still able to hold onto his other passion, though — he’s still running Nextdoor.
While Gray says that he wasn’t necessarily surprised by the support he’s received — he already knew his friends and fellow nightlife industry workers would be eager to help — he has been overwhelmed by the massive scope it took on.
“We are all competitors in the same scene … but underneath all that, it is really close knit,” Gray says.
“Everyone in the nightlife industry has literally saved my life, honestly,” he continues. “I always kind of knew that people got my back, but I didn’t realize how much they got my back.”
Stop by Nextdoor for First Friday (June 5) to help Daniel Gray raise funds to pay for his medical bills.
It all kicks off with the June Art pARTy art show and sale from 6 to 9:30 p.m., featuring beach jewelry by Sarah’s Shiny Things, surfboard and canvas paintings by Render, as well as live art by Anya Leychenko. Live entertainment also will be provided by Ian O’Sullivan and Harrison Holmes.
After, stick around for music by DJs SuperCW, Revise and Jimmy Taco, with special guest DJ Lava.
If you can’t make it out, but still want to donate, visit donationto.com/Rage-for-Daniel, or send checks or cash to Nextdoor.