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My Alaska

musings about the bygone era when one could still meet a schizophrenic cat named baby teapot

My Alaska

August Kleinzahler
22 Snaps

One April morning thirty-five years ago, I stepped off the Wickersham, flagship of the Alaska ferry system, and into the mud and rain of Juneau. I noticed, among other things, that there didn’t appear to be any chain stores, not even a McDonald’s. I double-checked just the other day with my old friend Lincoln Hart to be certain. He confirmed that there were not, in fact, any chain stores and that a man by the name of Wolf, a construction contractor whose claim to fame was taking and winning a bet that he could survive a jump off the Juneau-Douglas Bridge, once hired a plane to bring him down a Big Mac from a McDonald’s that had recently opened up in either Haines or Skagway.

Nor do I recall meeting any Republicans, though I’m sure they existed; in fact, I’d wager Mr. Wolf was a Republican. Most of the people I knew or ran across, if they were political at all, dwelt somewhere in the range between anarcho-syndicalist and Nativist dada. Nixon was in the White House. The Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, to be completed three years later, had only just begun construction, employing thousands of young men in the far north, up by the Beaufort Sea.

I don’t remember the locals being especially religious; in fact, quite the contrary. It just so happened that one of my principal friends at the time was a Russian Orthodox priest, originally from New Orleans, one of seven brothers, the other six of whom, he claimed, were psychiatrists. Father Elias would come visit me now and then, mostly to drink bourbon and talk about T. S. Eliot. He had, somewhere along the line, picked up an MA in T. S. Eliot, probably as a youngster, before going on to the American University in Beirut for studies more related to his calling. But the father and I only advanced to the works of the Possum after an obligatory theological discussion, which mostly involved the stern cleric informing me that I was going to hell because (1) I didn’t believe there was a hell, or a God either; and (2) because I was a Jew, which was even worse than being a Catholic or a Protestant, who were also on the road to perdition. Furthermore, even though I may have been hither­to a reasonably well-behaved young man, or at least one without a criminal record, I was no damn good, regardless, because, not believing in divine retribution or hell, I’d eventually come to the conclusion that since nothing was stopping me from larceny, rape, and worse, I’d realize, Why the hell not? and get down to business. I believe Father Elias was murdered some years later. He ministered to a poor, almost exclusively Native population. It could get rough in some of those villages if there was liquor around.

There were churches in town, to be sure. I know this because one of the students in my poetry class, an extension course I taught at the Adult Education Center, burned most of them down over the course of four or five weeks. The “perp” was an otherwise pleasant, taciturn young Tlingit, nineteen or so, who just happened to be a pyro.

I had volunteered my services to the Adult Education facility because I thought it might help me to find a place to stay, perhaps a job, and the possibility of meeting girls.

All three would have been an improvement on my circumstances at the time. I was living on an abandoned wharf overlooking the Gastineau Channel about a mile south of town, below the old A-J Mine (the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mining Mill, completed in 1917), with my friend Lincoln. We’d met briefly on the ferry coming up from ­Seattle, and he was kind enough to invite me to join him at his secret kip, the Seaside Marriott. It wasn’t too bad out there on the wharf, really. We had mummy bags that kept us warm. There was a corrugated roof and an oil drum where we could stow our gear. The police flashed their headlights across the wharf ­every night, around eleven, but we were tucked back well out of view. The main drawback, apart from when the tour boats began coming up the harbor and blasting their horns to kingdom come at six in the morning, was standing over the edge of the wharf and peeing after a long night at the Red Dog Saloon. “Steady as she goes, Aug,” Lincoln would volunteer.

Hundreds of young men just like us flooded into Juneau every spring, hoping to get construction work at what were then the inflated wages available in Alaska, around twelve or fourteen dollars an hour for unskilled labor—at least that was the number being floated around. Over time I’d realize a lot of information was “floated around” in that part of the world. Alaska, not least Juneau, is a place where the fabulist is not reviled but revered. The two big lies I remember best from that time were (1) the weather’s going to break any day now; and (2) there’ll be so much work in about two weeks’ time that they’ll be dragging worthless bastards like you off the street. My plan was to put together a grubstake and connect in Europe with my girlfriend of the time, then working as an au pair in Paris, and eventually set up in Spain or Provence on the cheap and write deathless verse. Lincoln’s plan, more realistic, was to take his grubstake and set up with his girlfriend at five thousand feet somewhere in the West—Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, maybe—and carpenter in summer and ski all winter. Which is exactly what he did and continues to do, a couple of girlfriends later. As was, and is, my custom, I managed to get serially detoured along the way.

The weather never broke, not the entire nine months I was there. And no one was dragging anyone off the street to work for fourteen dollars an hour. Not even for half that. No dragging whatsoever, except maybe outside a bar on Franklin Street late Saturday night. By the third week of May or so, those hundreds of young men who had accompanied us to Juneau in April had retreated south after going through what money they had in the unspeakable, and expensive, fleabag hotels of Juneau while waiting to be “dragged” off the street for work. Lincoln and I were paying the “nice price” out there by the Seaside Marriott, living on food stamps and free peanuts at the Red Dog Saloon, where the older tradesmen would stand us drinks, most amused and impressed were they by our alfresco lifestyle.

Every morning we’d head off into town, our first stop the Franklin Hotel, where our man John, a recent graduate of Vassar or Bennington, I forget which, and among the school’s first male graduates, had set up shop because he needed a “clean” place for his daily insulin injections. Lincoln and I kept a few personal belongings there and spent our Sundays in the room with John, since everything else was shut down, reading and re-reading the weekend edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. As always, it would be raining outside, cold, heavy rain; it never stopped. The walls of the room were riddled with bullet holes. The toilets would have made a stumblebum from Calcutta blanch, and there was the constant presence of a delightful little songbird in the stairwell, a woman of indeterminate age, screaming, “Fuck me, fuck me,” all day and well into the evening. Perhaps someone did now and then—fuck her, I mean—but if so, it never managed to soften her plaint.

The next stop for Lincoln and me was the doughnut shop for coffee and a bite. Then we’d head to the state office building, the one with the library and an enormous, old-fashioned lavatory, where we’d strip down to our jeans and wash up, best as we could, in the big basins. There was a public pay-shower in town where we’d shower a ­couple of days a week and on weekends. If a suit walked in while we were at our ablutions, we might catch a funny look but never a reprimand. Juneau was that sort of place back then.

Lincoln would then proceed to the carpenters’ union hall. He’d worked green-chain at an Oregon sawmill and his Lumber & Sawmill Workers card looked a fair bit like a Juneau Carpenters & Joiners card, enough at least so he managed to pass. The Manpower office—a nation­wide employment agency that handled day-labor work—opened an hour later, so I’d hang out at the State Library reading back issues of the Spectator to kill time. Don’t ask me what the Spectator was doing there, but I spent so much time reading it I’d pretty much assimilated the magazine’s house style of the ’60s and early ’70s, not to mention becoming conversant with all manner of useless morsels from the literary Britain of that era.

Lincoln didn’t get out of the hall for those first couple of months, and I seldom got lucky at Manpower. Such was the work—cleaning up someone else’s big mess, laying concrete foundations in the rain—that I was never particularly sorry when I didn’t, much as I needed the dough. So by ten or so in the morning, Lincoln and I would hook up at the Municipal Library, an old-fashioned, Andrew Carnegie sort of affair with three rooms, one of which, the Alaskan Room, had a couch. We would spend our days there, all day, with the rain pouring down, Lincoln reading carpentry books, as he didn’t really know too much about carpentry, especially Modern Carpentry by Willis H. Wagner. Doors and staircases, and the challenges they presented, especially fascinated him, as I recall. I pursued my usual, desultory fare: essays, travel books, James M. Cain, Ross MacDonald, poetry, back issues of Harper’s, the Atlantic, the New Yorker.

There were several librarians, and they disapproved of Lincoln and me having set up residence there in varying degrees, except for one, Dale DeArmond, an older woman who’d served as director of the Juneau ­Public Library since 1958. She’d retire five years later. It turned out that Ms. DeArmond was a noted woodcut artist and children’s book illustrator. She has an entry you can find in Contemporary Authors. To the political question, she answers, “Liberal, sort of”; to the religious question, “Agnostic.” I like to think that Ms. DeArmond spotted Lincoln and me as a couple of enlightened young gents, a bit down on their luck. In any event, when she was at the front desk, Lincoln and I got to take turns snoozing on the couch in the Alaskan Room.

Finally, Lincoln took a job up the road building houses at a new development near the Mendenhall Glacier. He relocated to a revolting little basement apartment where a sulphurous fluid continuously dripped from the water taps. I grabbed a volunteer job teaching a couple of night courses a week at the Adult Education Center in town, attached, somewhat vaguely, to the University of Alaska, Juneau Extension. One of the students in my “Buddhism” class (don’t ask) was a sixtyish white-haired woman with an appraising twinkle in her eye and a sardonic, decidedly un-Buddhalike manner. Nancy, who was drawn to strays, invited me to live in her big house at the top of West Seventh Street, a very grand, turn-of-the-century house, with her husband, “Sweetie,” a good deal younger than she was, and her son by a previous relationship, Michael, who was my age. Also on hand was a vicious Belgian shepherd called Choctaw, kept locked behind French doors in the parlor, and a schizophrenic cat named Baby Teapot with a bedroom all to herself upstairs that only Nancy was allowed to visit, like some deranged aunt in a Southern Gothic novel. I was dispatched straightaway to a cavernous, unheated attic, where I bedded down in my mummy bag under a big window with an extraordinary view facing south and from which I could see the flats of Juneau below, the Gastineau Channel, and Mount Jumbo, mist climbing up it like an ink drawing of the fifteenth-century Japanese Zen priest Sesshu or a S’ung dynasty landscape painter.

I lived for seven months in that house, rent-free, well fed and looked after. It was probably the greatest kindness shown me in my life. My first little chapbook, published four years later, is dedicated to “Nancy Dethridge, the Belle of Juneau.” Nancy wouldn’t take a dime, even after she made a phone call a few days after I moved in and got me a job at the Alaska State Museum. It wasn’t the fourteen dollars an hour I’d had in mind when I headed north, but it was a fine job, better than fine. Nancy had more juice in town than Gloria Vanderbilt, Brooke Astor, and Dorothy Schiff combined. She had a direct line to the chief of police, the editor of the newspaper, the animal shelter, you name it. Whatever Nancy didn’t get wind of first, her friend Peggy (who ran the florist shop) was right on top of, usually matters involving sexual impropriety. If Juneau had an official religion it was Alcohol&Fornication, and Peggy was the high priestess of the ­latter, at least insofar as keeping tabs. The town was named in 1881 after a French Canadian prospector and alleged drunkard named Joe Juneau. The word hooch is derived from Hoochinoo, the name of a Tlingit village on Admiralty Island, near Juneau, renowned for the manufacture and sale of distilled spirits. The main church for the worship of Alcohol&Fornication was a Filipino dance place called Dreamland down near the foot of town. It was only open on Friday and Saturday nights, from around ten p.m. till four or so in the morning. During summer it was light when you went in and light when you staggered out. There were quite a few knifings in there. Mike Dethridge had warned me at the top not to engage the eyes of any of the Filipino men. Not everyone seemed privy to that message. One heard, during the course of any given evening there, the thud of bodies hitting the floor at irregular intervals. The house band was called Melange, which most of the people in attendance seemed to think meant ménage à trois. There were ten guys for every chick in Juneau. Rain and mud notwithstanding, it was a great place to be a girl.

To this day I don’t know how Nancy became such a mucky-muck or lived in such a grand house. Years before I knew them, the Dethridges lived modestly in the flats, running a little soft-drink business. When I knew them, Sweetie worked as a telephone lineman, a well-paying job but not so well-paying as to afford a house like that. Sweetie liked to sit back into his easy chair when he got home from work, drink his Canadian whiskey, and listen to Rod McKuen records. He was a tall, good-natured, quiet sort of man who mostly put up with ­Nancy’s shenanigans, such as inviting strays like me into the household. I would say that, on balance, Sweetie was more used to it than real pleased about it. I do know that Nancy and Sweetie had pretty much cornered the Alaska trade-token market. Tokens were the main currency during the Gold Rush and continued being produced even after Alaska achieved statehood, in 1959. There had even been a long ar­ticle about Nancy and Sweetie and the trade token trading business in the New York Times, which they had tacked up on the wall in the kitchen. Nancy also dealt in Native Alaskan artifacts, “on the side,” as it were. I’ll leave that one alone except to say that as a going-away present Nancy gave me an Eskimo-fashioned ­walrus penis bone tipped with baleen.

The last part of my plan didn’t really work out too well, the part about meeting girls. Of course, I had a girlfriend who tortured me with long letters from Paris about the importunings of her amorous employer. But I did go out on one “official” date. It was to the movies on a Saturday night, The Godfather, if I’m not mistaken. I’d invited one of my students, a beautiful Tlingit woman, a few years older than I, a little rough around the edges and with a couple of kids out of wedlock, Doloresa “Yelling Sea Water.” Nancy wasn’t too thrilled about that one, especially when Doloresa phoned the house one Saturday afternoon to invite me over to Douglas, telling Nancy, “I got some water heating up on the radiator. Tell Gus if he comes on over I’ll throw in a couple of hot dogs and get rid of the kids.” In any event, Doloresa was a bit late that evening as I waited impatiently in front of the theater. But she did finally turn up, in white go-go boots and a very mini skirt. The place was packed. The only seats left were in the front row. It seemed like all two hundred people in attendance, dozens of whom I knew, were checking us out as we sheepishly made our way to the front. At least I was sheepish; Juneau was a small-town kind of place and there wasn’t a lot of conspicuous dating between Tlingits and whites, at least not in those days. We sat down, the lights began to dim, the curtains to part. The audience fell silent, just when Doloresa turned to me, suddenly indignant, and roared, “How about some fucking popcorn, Gus!” 

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