I found my first year-round job at the age of 45.
Birthday boy was broke, living in a downtown Oakland, California, apartment, and 23 days from eviction. Normally, this would not be a problem, as I was the owner of a tricked-out 1972 VW van. Add warm weather and I’m fine. However, on this occasion, I foresaw a glitch moving into permanent jamboree lifestyle.
I was sleeping 16 hours a day, and, when awake, too dizzy to stand upright. In fact, it required supreme effort to complete the daily task of lurching down one flight of stairs, stumble-trip out the front door and across the street to the neighborhood hole-in-the-wall market. The Lin Hang Market catered to on-the-go professionals whose tastes ran to Swanson’s pot pies, off-brand one-ply toilet tissue, Wonder Bread, and Night Train Express. I’d grab a soggy egg sandwich out of the cooler, collect a stack of frozen dinners, order up four packs of Winstons, two six-packs of Budweiser, and return home. The adventure required three hours of bed rest.
I’d been ejected from the mobility ball game five months earlier. If you’ll pan the camera to the right and zoom in, you’ll see me standing on the back of a flatbed truck with six other partygoers. Craig, a cocaine-addled Teamster, was wheelman. We were making our way down the spit at Point Barrow, Alaska, to a beach party. It was mid-July, and we were enjoying a heat wave, the ambient temperature topping out at a sweltering 65 degrees above zero. The Arctic ice pack had retreated to a position a quarter-mile offshore, which left — here’s the point — a stretch of open seawater; naked, muddy, gray, but indisputably liquid, available to the public for frolic and amusement.
Craig, for a reason never revealed, stomped on the brakes, which caused my abrupt departure from the truck bed, flying in a low arc some 15 feet before making touchdown on the gravel roadway. I landed on my forehead, more precisely, on a spot two inches above my left orb.
I have a tenuous memory of the Barrow Hospital emergency room. I was examined by a young Pakistani doctor/intern/washroom attendant. I remember thinking, If he’s in Barrow, he’s a fuckup.
The fuckup executed a perfunctory examination and sent me on my way. I staggered out the hospital’s front doors, wobbly, unable to focus my eyes, and before you could say, “Long live proletarian internationalism,” fell down 11 steel-grated steps, landing, again, exactly, on the now-indented left brow.
Over and out. It would be three years before I’d be capable of a leg-stretching stroll around one city block.
The assassination attempt occurred while I was working at Point Barrow Station. Said outpost is an important — nay, critical appendage of the DEW Line (for civilians, that’s Distant Early Warning Line). Built in the mid-’50s, the Line consists of a string of 58 radar stations running from Cape Lisburne, on the northwest coast of Alaska, to the eastern shore of Baffin Island, which is, for the geographically impaired, across the street from Greenland. The idea was to catch sight of a sneaky, over-the-North-Pole-Ruskie-bomber attack at its start. That way, we would have time to launch 12,000 nuclear bombs and fry every Red commie cocksucker in Commieland.
Point Barrow Station had super-trained radar specialists and super-secret gear, secret rooms, secret gewgaws, and secret handshakes. Still, everybody has to eat, and somebody has to cook. Everybody has to sleep, and somebody has to change the bed sheets. Somebody has to keep the heaters running, shovel the snow, fix the plumbing, replace broken windows, order and warehouse supplies. In short, somebody has to do the bullshit.
It was damn fortunate for the United States of America that qualified union hands were on the job! Oh, let us sing of Culinary Workers Local 878, Operating Engineers Local 302, Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 375, Teamsters Local 959, Iron Workers Local 751, and Laborers Local 942!
We are the Union
The mighty, mighty union!
Everywhere we go
People want to know
Who we are
So we tell them
We are the union, the mighty, mighty union!
Dear reader, union men and women slaved in the Arctic outback just to keep your ungrateful ass alive, and did it for a lousy $1800-a-week in 1980s’ dollars, plus free room and board and every blue-chip union benefit ever inserted into any contract at any time, anywhere.
I was in Barrow by way of Laborers Local 942 of Fairbanks, Alaska, having squealed loudest when the position was announced at the dispatch window, and, more to the point, because I knew a big job needed a top hand. I should note for the record that this dispatch was taken after my illegal and outrageous banishment from Prudhoe Bay had expired. I’d been exiled from that employment hot spot after an unfortunate incident concerning the theft of a company truck.
Actually, I had merely borrowed the vehicle. At the time, I was employed at Franklin Bluffs, a construction camp found 32 miles south of Prudhoe Bay. After the work day is done, dozens of pickup trucks are parked with their engines left idling. In winter, engines are never turned off, due to inclement weather. I selected a big red Ford crew cab, the one with the best radio, and drove up the haul road to attend a whiskey-and-cocaine party at ARCO Prime Camp in Prudhoe Bay, subsequently totaling said vehicle on the way home in the midst of an unanticipated whiteout.
Besides the destruction of a brand-new crew cab, a large amount of quality cocaine was lost that night. To top it off, the brutish oil companies then operating in Prudhoe Bay called an employment time-out, making the Prudhoe Bay oil field a vast no-go area for your servant, and alerting my union to the fact that I would not be allowed into their camps or work sites. It took time and a lot of expensive sniveling to get that injustice reversed. However, even though I was free to return to Prudhoe Bay, I decided to take the Barrow call, because, to use a phrase that always means trouble, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Barrow was a crazy job, although every job north of the Arctic Circle is crazy. Still, Barrow reigns supreme. (Gather 6000 Iñupiat Eskimos, give them political control, one billion dollars, and stand back. In these sensitive times, I should note here that I like Barrow just the way it is — crazy.) On this occasion, I was partially sheltered from Barrow lunacy, since I was ensconced on federal property where, in general, life was merely bipolar. My mission was to assist two environmental biologists as they rooted through the tundra adjacent to the station.
The area was littered with rusted 55-gallon drums. No one knew what was in those drums as they had been resting there for decades, disposed of in simpler times, when medical doctors recommended Lucky Strike cigarettes for delicate nerves. It was known — as well as you can know these things — that many drums, at least those that hadn’t leaked their contents into the ground, contained toxic liquids. The biologists were there to determine which barrels were toxic and needed to be tagged, so that, if funding and a great many other things happened in precisely the right sequence, said drums would be carried off to become somebody else’s problem. I was there to do what laborers do, lift that big heavy thing and move it from point A to point B.
And then I was thrown off the truck for brain concussion 1 and fell down the stairs at the Barrow hospital for brain concussion 2. At that point, I directed my medical caregivers (Teamster Craig and a town slut named Ruby) to escort me back to camp. I should mention DEW Line sites are called camps by their worker bees. The radar gear is the least part of a camp’s layout. There are dormitories to house workers, offices for staff, an industrial kitchen, large dining hall, recreation rooms, mechanic shops, warehouses, and blah-de-blah-blah, but most precious of all, and a DEW Line exclusive, was a magnificent full-service bar. This was frequently used to liquor-up local women (Barrow is dry) as warm-up for a late-night dormitory sneak followed by sexual exploitation.
I passed through the bar and staggered into the superintendent’s office, filled out an accident report, demanded my paycheck and a seat on the next plane to Fairbanks. Teamster Craig gave me a ride to the airport.
I had — and still have, the last time I looked — a one-room cabin 20 miles west of Fairbanks, near the top of Ester Dome. The decor is threadbare Gold Rush: leaky roof, no running water, and no electricity. Amenities include a Majestic wood cookstove, Ashley Automatic wood stove, one reading chair taken from the Fairbanks city dump, likewise one desk, one mattress on loan from the Salvation Army, six kerosene lamps, one skillet, one pan, one pot, one can opener, one aluminum coffee pot, one knife, one spoon, one fork, one glass, two coffee cups, and $55,000 worth of tools stolen from Trans-Alaskan Pipeline job sites during the glory years of construction. The foregoing was placed a mile’s walk in from the nearest dirt road. I understood, right from the start, that my dear home would be inadequate for a person who could not stand or walk.
I stayed with a town friend who possessed a full kitchen, running water, indoor plumbing, cable television...in short, a goddamn palace. After two weeks, I could remain awake four hours a day, although I couldn’t stand for more than 15 minutes. I could waddle from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom to bedroom, which, when you think about it, is about 90 percent of what you need.
By then, it was late August, which means winter is three to five weeks away. Interior Alaska is no place to be when you can’t mush your huskies. So I flew south and set base camp in Oakland, California, where I kept a Volkswagen van and had friends, who, as it turned out, moved to Indonesia shortly after I arrived.
∗ ∗ ∗
The dance was: move 30 minutes, rest 30 minutes, move 30 minutes, rest 30 minutes, move 30 minutes, rest two hours. In this manner I found, rented, and moved into a $410-a-month, one-bedroom apartment on Alice Street, four blocks from 14th and Broadway, the bull’s eye of Oakland’s downtown.
The neighborhood consisted of low-rise apartment buildings and seemed tranquil. I liked that. As a housing bonus, Lake Merritt and the park that bordered it lay three blocks to the east.
The building was owned by a German couple who employed a troll as building superintendent. I never knew his given name, if given name there was, or saw him dressed in anything other than a thick blue cotton bathrobe. He lived in the basement, and his sole duty seemed of a seasonal nature: during winter, every evening at 7:00 p.m., Troll deposited a tiny bit of coal into the building’s furnace as a warmth tease.
Naturally, I fit right in, and within a few months was telling female guests to “Step away from the window!” without a second thought. On Alice Street, gunfire began an hour after sunset and continued, intermittently, until the bars closed.
Five months passed, and still I could not walk around the block, although I had upped my daily awake time to ten hours and felt I was on a roll. I could not read, couldn’t get past the second paragraph in a book or newspaper. I could not think, my thoughts muddy, each standing alone, unable to connect to the next.
It was the 8th of December, 1989, rent was due in 23 days, and I didn’t have it. I’d tapped out all my friends, acquaintances, and detractors. I did keep enough gas money in my pocket to make it to Tucson. I didn’t know anybody there, but I figured it would be warm. The difficulty was, warm wouldn’t be enough. I could not stay awake, which made street begging impossible. The old standby, glomming onto a female person, was impractical, since I could not razzmatazz long enough to gain free room and board. Ordinarily, brain concussions are not covered by welfare or SSI, because they don’t show up on X-rays or CAT scans: the applicant has no proof of injury. I was turned down for workmans’ comp, since the injury had occurred after working hours and off DEW Line property. I could not find a lawyer, in Alaska or California, who would sue Craig or the Barrow Hospital. “Too far away. Too expensive to acquire evidence and take depositions.” Looking at my situation, walking around it, studying it, poking it here, poking it there, produced nothing in the way of money. As far as I could tell, I’d punched a one-way ticket to that big hootenanny in the sky.
So, of course, it was right here, at this precise moment that I found full-time employment as a writer at a big, prosperous, alternative weekly. The mother ship was located in Southern California and my starting salary was thousands of dollars above the number I dreamed of in my most predatory, greedy daydreams.
Even though there are 10,000 writers for every job, and even though writers will eat one another if snacking on human flesh will move them one inch closer to steady work, I had managed to land a full-time writing gig because I’d been working in journalism and had the clips to prove it.
Let’s clap our hands.
Even as I went down at Point Barrow, I was already a seasoned correspondent for the Oakland-Alameda Monthly, a freebie doorstep publication with “where to shop” advice. I was introduced to big-league journalism by a sociopathic drinking buddy who’d talked his way into a job as assistant editor: the lad had claimed intimate contacts with a troupe of important writers eager to be associated with a trendy, 28-page monthly, especially its robust patio-furniture section.
My association with the Monthly came about as follows: my annual routine was to show up in Fairbanks by mid-May and take a dispatch out of the Laborers’ union hall. I’d work for eight to twelve weeks, collect $8000–$15,000, return to Fairbanks, play until the first snip of cold weather, then fly south, visit friends in Seattle, Eugene, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and then on to Europe or the Caribbean. I’d vacation until I was broke and then some, meaning, until no one would loan me more money. Then I’d schlep back to Fairbanks via Washington DC, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Eugene, Seattle, arriving at my cabin with a handful of gimme and a mouthful of want.
But one year, I decided to winter in Northern California. On this occasion, my VW van was stored at a friend’s house outside of Santa Rosa. On a blazingly hot day in mid-October, I picked up my motor home, drove north to Humboldt County, looked around for three days, and found the perfect cabin. It had a commodious first floor, a sleeping loft, and a wide porch that wrapped around three sides of the building. More, the cabin came with electricity and telephone. The whole deal was located on the back side of 160 acres of prime Northern California forest, 100 feet from a year-round creek and its too-good-to-be-true swimming hole. The rent was right, $275 a month. There had to be — and there was — a problem: the current tenant, a 165-pound salad-eating sensitive male, refused to leave for another five weeks.
What to do? Well, we do what we always do. We get on a plane. In this instance, I flew to Ireland.
Five weeks later, I’m back at SFO. Sean Daily, whom we will visit later, was at the gate. Our habit, over the previous ten years, had been to spend a couple of days together on my way out from Fairbanks to the East Coast, and again, six months later, when I passed through on the Fairbanks return. What we did was drink, bullshit, ingest drugs, visit friends, and hunt women.
I picked up my backpack at the baggage carousel. We walked outside to the airport parking tower and Daily’s orange-and-rust Datsun sedan. I tossed my backpack in the trunk, got in the front seat, and reached into the back for the quart bottle of Jose Cuervo Gold. Then I retrieved two beers from a neighboring ice chest. I took a long pull of tequila and passed the bottle.
Daily said, “I got a job.”
“Jesus, I’m sorry to hear that.”
Daily never had a job, not bad for someone who was 38. He was, as he never failed to mention, an artist, a writer who spoke to generations. Although his published literary career amounted to a handful of Sunday newspaper articles, this did not deter him from holding fast to a vision of himself as a writer so powerful, so towering, that the idea of throwing his talent into the shithouse of mindless labor was an enormous crime — no, more than a crime, it was blasphemy. As for the necessities, indeed, the luxuries of life, well, mostly he’d lived off women, and he’d lived pretty well.
“What happened to Karen?” I asked.
“She moved back to New York.”
I didn’t want to know why. “Sean, I’m not sure how to phrase this, but, what is it, exactly, that you do?”
“I’m an editor.”
I retrieved the tequila bottle from Sean’s two-handed grip and took another long pull. Three heartbeats passed. “What kind of editor?”
“What kind of a magazine?”
It took four beers and a few more slugs of tequila to get near the nub of this. Daily had talked his way into a job at a giveaway monthly, essentially a shopper. He’d gotten in by promising to bring with him big-time writers, and since he knew no big-time writers, we have conflict and disappointment followed by intense loss-of-job fear.
Daily put on his A smile, the one reserved for new prey. “You just got back from Northern Ireland.”
Only Daily would solicit a story from a sporadic drinking companion, a 41-year-old Alaskan pipeline laborer, someone who’d graduated from high school with a D- average and never written anything for hire in his life. The guy was a genius.
I set up an office at McNally’s, a self-proclaimed Irish bar in the Rockridge section of Oakland, and wrote a hitchhiking-in-Northern-Ireland story. It was printed; it was a cover story. The publisher liked it, the managing editor liked it, and I liked seeing my name in lights. I was asked to write another and another and another.
But I could never have become a media celebrity had I not first worked out of the Laborers’ union hall. Donning the proud crown of union laborer is what allowed me to travel the globe and study, from hotel bars and airport lounges, impoverished brown, black, and yellow people, many of whom spoke foreign languages and wore gaudy bandanas. These experiences added authenticity to my subsequent body of work.
Laborers Local 942 of Fairbanks, Alaska. God, that was a sweet deal. Being a union laborer in Alaska, during the 1970s and ’80s, was like nothing else in the world of part-time employment. The position possessed, if you knew where to look, two happy-go-lucky components: minimal toil and big money.
Before I go further, I should talk about the Arctic and its perilous weather, its months of darkness, and most of all, the howling, howling, oh, the howling wind.
In winter, the temperature gets down to 30, 40, 50 below zero. I’ve worked outside at 62 below and that was in still air, bucko. I remember thinking Jesus, fuck, this is cold! But that ain’t nuttin’, you ought to be there when the wind ceaselessly howls, taking the wind-chill factor down to -130, maybe -190, maybe -475, or, more likely, -1000 degrees below zero. Oogie, Oogie, Oogie.
The cold is what made being a laborer so sweet: one toils at a leisurely pace. Arctic construction rule number one states: don’t break a sweat at 20 below, since sweat will freeze and frostbite may follow. Working construction in the Arctic during fall, winter, and spring means working at 20 below. As for summertime, well, the habit of slowness dies hard.
The idea was to trade the least amount of time for the most amount of money. Mr. Unfortunate Citizen, with his 40-hours-a-week job, is locked up for life. That poor fuck will never see the end of it. In those days, working construction in Arctic Alaska meant working seven days a week, ten hours a day, minimum. The job you shot for was 12 to 15 hours. Work like a machine for eight, ten, twelve weeks, then take the next eight, nine, ten months off.
What made it go was union money. God bless the AFL-CIO, particularly the mob-infested portion of it known as the Laborers’ International Union of North America. Because of their efforts, we had a wage of $10, then $15, then $20 an hour, plus $4 an hour into your retirement fund, plus double-time, triple-time, travel-time, timey-time, health benefits, dental benefits, vision benefits, shrink benefits, lawyer benefits, dry-out benefits, and, when one was laid off at job’s end, unemployment checks that stacked up on your kitchen table, wagging their tails and slobbering, eager to greet you when you returned home after six months of partying in Cancún. Bottom line: I was making $4000 a month in 1974, $8000 a month in 1984.
Becoming a union man came to me in this way: the year was 1974 and I’d wintered in Santa Fe, New Mexico — this was before it mutated from a small Spanish town into an American theme park. In late April, when I felt the northern tug, I was living with one gorgeous woman (smart, great tits) and having an affair with another (smart, great butt, long blond hair). Unwisely, I was also two-timing the second gorgeous woman, which meant I was three-timing the woman at home. This is not a situation easily maintained, and within a short period of time, I was busted by all parties. Alaska beckoned. I gathered my life’s savings, $81.76, and hitchhiked north, arriving in Fairbanks two weeks later with $85 even.
Early May in Fairbanks is snow on the ground, naked birch trees, low, thick, gray clouds, a temperature of 42 degrees at noon and 20 degrees at midnight. One requires free housing.
I set base camp in a tree house I’d helped build five years earlier. The ancestral home to this tree house could be found after a mile walk-in on a mining trail called Rut Road. This never-maintained length of bumps was two dirt roads removed from the area’s first paved thoroughfare, and, more to the point, 7.9 miles from the prime window seat at Tommy’s Elbow Room, a well-regarded saloon on Second Avenue, the throbbing heart of downtown Fairbanks. By the way, and I’m sure you’ll want to know, 28 years from now, Tommy’s Elbow Room will be listed as a transgender-friendly nightspot by Trans-Gender Expressions, an international peer-support organization.
In these I-need-to-drill-a-hole-through-my-tongue-so-I-have-a-place-to-put-my-new-earring times, I’m not sure I can explain to you how remote those 7.9 miles made Rut Road. The tree house was built in prehistory, 1969, when Fairbanks had a population of 14,000; the entire state claimed 302,000 residents and almost half that total lived in Anchorage.
Think of it this way: Go to the fridge and grab a brewski. Next, pour yourself a stiff shot of Jim Beam. Down it, walk to the study, beer in hand, and remove an atlas from the shelf. Turn to a big two-page Technicolor spread of the good ole U.S. of A. Regard Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, District of Columbia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Nova Scotia, and the Republic of San Marino. If you put all those states and foreign principalities together you would have the same land area as Alaska. Sprinkle with 302,853 humans, 3000 rivers, 3,000,000 lakes, and 6640 miles of coastline.
Pretty goddamn impressive. Have another beer.
In 1969, the Alaska State Troopers had a budget of $2,611,800. Add a very few more dollars for the police departments of Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, combine with 570,000 square miles of pristine real estate, and you will bake a most pleasant reality: leave downtown Juneau, Anchorage, or Fairbanks — in other words, every city in Alaska with a population over 7000 — walk five miles, and you were on your own. Nobody had the money to fuck with you.
Reckon I’ll build me a cabin on that ridge up yonder, the one that overlooks the Tanana Valley. I’ll wake up, fix me some coffee, and look over the flats to the Alaska Range, 100 miles to the south. On a good day, I’ll see Mount Denali — that’s Mount McKinley to you — all pink and huge, sittin’ there like one of them big diamonds on J.Lo’s wedding ring. Yeah, that might be nice. Maybe I’ll get a passel of dogs and run a dog team. I’d like to hear 50 malamutes howl at night, listen to the wolves howl back. Yeah, that might be all right. Then, maybe, I’ll run the dogs up to the Yukon and winter there. Maybe do a little trapping while I’m at it. Or maybe I’ll get myself over to Dillingham and find a fishing boat to crew on. ’Course, Reb’s still panning for gold on the 40 Mile. I could riverboat in and see if he needs a hand.
Bottom line: you didn’t have to ask anybody; you didn’t have to go to some goddamn government office and ask some TV-watching, Safeway-shopping, dishwasher-owning, Rotary-Club-going, thinks-he’s-living-in-suburbia, motherfucking middle-class white boy if you could pretty please have the form, so you could fill it out just the way he’d like you to, and then go home and wait until he was good and ready to tell you if you could go do what you goddamn wanted to do.
Almost every person I knew had tried one or more of those Alaskan rituals. But I don’t want you to think that was me. Yeah, I built a raggedy-ass cabin with the mandatory no water, no electricity, an outhouse, and a mile walk-in. And I lived there. But for the rest, I was an appreciative observer and fringe player.
I did enjoy how any day of the year, I could walk out of my cabin, tramp all the way to Nome (525 miles), and not cross one road or railway track. That there was as much likelihood I would ever take that trip as Yasser Arafat being posthumously elected prince of Israel didn’t diminish the sense of exhilaration.
A settlement grew up on Rut Road. (I would use the word community had not that handy vocable been made meaningless by rapacious shrinks and self-help parasites.) The original settlers were Freddie Galloway and Kermit Beeman, whom you will meet more formally later on. For now, Freddie was 19 years old, a third-generation Alaskan who had run away from his parents’ homestead and was living, off and on, with Kermit Beeman, a 25-year-old who had been hired as a lecturer of psychology at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
Kermit found, on the east slope of a dome that had been actively mined for gold since 1910, a rare thing: five acres of privately owned land. The pair ran down the owner, bought the piece for chump change, and moved in. Freddie chose the site’s one standing building, a small, two-story, barn-shaped cottage. At least, at one time it had been a cottage — now it had more holes than roof where roof should be, broken or missing glass where windows once were, sagging walls, and a foundation of rotted logs. Freddie set to a 38-year remodeling project. Kermit built a one-story log cabin. The building materials, down to the nails, were acquired by tearing down a flood-damaged house in Fairbanks. I helped enough with the tearing down and building up to earn dibs on a place to stay when I was in town. The next summer, we built a tree house.
It was/is a mighty fine tree house. First, it sits way up there, a good 20 feet off the ground. Kermit and I walked no more than 100 yards into the woods before spotting the right four spruce trees. The first two trees had to be the same size and separated by no more than 15 feet. Then, about 12 feet away, two spruce of the same size had to stand in a parallel line to the first set of trees.
Once located, a 6 x 10 inch, 20-foot beam was hoisted up and bolted to the first pair of trees. The operation was repeated on the other set. Then, 6 x 6 inch tie beams were laid across the span and bolted to each foundation beam. Then, perpendicular to the tie beams, two dozen 2 x 6 inch floor joists were installed. Next, 3/4-inch plywood for the floor, followed by walls, roof, and so forth. When finished, the tree house had a pantry-sized first floor, wood stove, sleeping loft, and, as showstopper, a 4 x 10 foot front porch. Access was by way of a hand-built ladder.
It was the place to be in summer. You were high up in the trees, bird-level. The tree house was on the east slope of Ester Dome, which meant stands of birch and spruce, bunchberry dogwood, wild delphiniums, monkshood, fireweed, Siberian asters, wild roses, high bush cranberries, and, my favorite, grass-of-Parnassus, which has a soft light-green color and looked, from my perch, like green fog hugging the forest floor. I’d lounge on the porch, legs dangling over its edge, and watch black bears feed on blueberries. When the wind blew, the trees swayed, which caused the tree house to creak and groan. I was oftentimes rocked to sleep at night.
My routine, such as it was, began around 10:00 a.m. with coffee, breakfast, and sunning on the porch. Early afternoon, I’d hitchhike in to the University of Alaska, shower in a dorm, visit the library, trot over to the student union for late lunch, then hitchhike into town to begin the daily search for sex. If found, spend night at sexual object’s place and coffee, breakfast, and shower there the next morning. If sexual object not found, return home in the wee hours. If not drunk, read until lights out. If drunk, off to bed.
By this time others had moved onto Rut Road. People came out to visit Freddie, Kermit, or me, saw the forest, the meadows, the wildflowers, and thought Hell, I’ll build a cabin out here. And they did. First, men, then their women, followed by dogs, and, a few years later, home-born kids.
Living in the woods in Alaska has been described as one guy in a 12 x 12 foot cabin with a wood stove, a moldy couch, three kerosene lamps, and 2500 paperback books, acquired a dozen at a time from the Salvation Army. This was a stereotype of the 1940s and ’50s, and it’s as true as any other.
But by the mid- to late-1960s and early ’70s, there was a new breed of cabin rat living in the hills around Fairbanks. These inhabitants had several things in common. They were white, young (mid-20s to early-30s), and had attended, but never graduated from, college. A lot of New Yorkers, a lot of Rust Belt émigrés, very few Californians.
Nobody stumbled onto Fairbanks, Alaska, in those days. You were there for a reason. Remember, the tree house was built in 1969, well before the pipeline; Alaska had been a territory just ten years earlier. If you voluntarily moved to Fairbanks during those years, it was understood that you were not cool. You were too skinny or too fat. Your butt was too big or your tits were too small. Your shoulders slumped, you had peculiar teeth, you wore thick glasses, your face looked funny, and most typical of all, you had the social skills of an autistic post office employee. Ordinary people looked at you and wanted to be somewhere else.
Cool people lived in San Francisco, Berkeley, Eugene, Manhattan, Madison, Cambridge, Boulder, Austin, Santa Fe, and Key West. Cool people smoked dope, listened to Jimi Hendrix, went to love-ins, wore tie-dye T-shirts, fucked hippie chicks, hippie dudes, or both. Newcomers arriving in Fairbanks had never been invited to a love-in, would be too frightened to go on their own, and if, by a hideous, once-in-a-lifetime series of impossible mistakes, they found themselves at a hippie tribal gathering, music festival, commune, orgy, or encounter group, they would be too uncool to function.
Happily, the concept of cool/uncool did not exist in Fairbanks. There was only getting through the winter, and in this the young pioneers performed well. Which brings us to the second reason, as true as the first, why the genetically uncool traveled to Fairbanks. They came because this was the biggest, baddest, emptiest piece of real estate left under United States sovereignty. Physical presentation and social skills count for less than nothing when it’s 50 below zero and you’re an hour’s walk from the nearest paved road. What counted was what they already had, physical courage and out-of-this-world stubbornness.
So while Fairbanks city residents would kill for a power line, couldn’t wait to move into a one-story ranch-style house with a lawn front and rear, applauded when Sears opened a catalogue storefront, wrote letters to the editor whining about when, oh when, would Fairbanks get a Kmart or a McDonald’s or a Denny’s, or, dare we say it, a May Company department store, outlanders arrived in ones and twos and threes to taste the real-deal frontier before it was ruled and regulated by Safeway-shopping, dishwasher-owning, Rotary-Club-going, thinks-he’s-living-in-suburbia motherfucking middle-class white boys, their slop-the-makeup-on wives, and vile offspring.
Pretty soon, 77 people were living along Rut Road. Newcomers tended to be college dropouts. They believed rules were made for other people and were physically adroit, drop-dead stubborn, independent, and smart. Smart people do interesting things. Residents built their cabins, bought trucks and riverboats, ran dogs, shot and skinned black bears, formed a string band, and then, with an augmented cast, created a traveling medicine show that toured the state with vaudeville acts, jugglers, and patent medicines. They went hard-rock mining, fished along the Yukon, spent a winter in the bush. They were always going somewhere exotic or coming back from somewhere exotic, damn near every single person doing something you couldn’t do in the lower 48.
Nobody had a straight job. It wasn’t discussed, even as a joke. Not that the notion was taboo, it was simply an idea too remote to bring to mind. Entertainment happened in people’s cabins. No one watched TV, no one owned one. No one owned a phone. No one had electricity or running water. Water was hauled in five-gallon plastic jugs from the university or, better, from a cold-water spring on the Elliott Highway.
Pick a day, any day. Walk up and down Rut Road, drop in on cabins along the way. Start at 11:00 a.m., return home, depending on what was going on, at 3:00, 5:00, 10:00 p.m. — or the next morning. “Hey, Todd got himself a .357 Smith & Wesson. Bo is packing for a river trip. Maybe I can fuck Debbie if no one is around.” You could count on dope, booze, and gossip. Because so many residents liked each other, most everybody slept with everybody else, road residents fucking their way through an unorganized, yet remarkably thorough sexual gauntlet. This created short-term grudges, but nothing permanent. In retrospect, it was a phase, a last wheeze before pioneers mated up for the long run, had kids, and began the slow, ugly march back to the ranch-style house, garbage disposal, and big-screen TV.
But that was far in the future. Right now, I’m sitting at the big table in Kermit’s cabin, rolling a joint. Gloria Saylor, a 19-year-old Athabaskan Indian is at the cookstove making salmon stew. Kermit sits in his rocking chair, smoking a pipe, reading The Poetics of Space. Geoffrey Annon, a 20-year-old schizophrenic Tlingit Indian who hears voices (sometimes good ones, sometimes bad ones), is visiting from Klukwan. He squats on the plywood floor, arms neatly folded, leans way forward, then way back, all the while carrying on an amusing conversation with the Other. Todd Becker walks through the front door.
Kermit looks up from his read. “Dinner’s coming.”
“Thanks.” Todd sits at the table opposite me. He’s short, five-foot-six inches, has blond, matted hair and a wispy blond beard that never stood a chance. He drove into Fairbanks from Philadelphia two months ago and is still learning Alaska ways, which, during this interval, meant for him an excess of gestures and a country twang. The recently acquired accent was odd, not only because Alaskans don’t twang, but also because his twang was not identifiable with any section of the country. A generic twang. Twenty-five years from now, he’ll be selling lottery tickets and living in the big ranch house.
Todd says, “They’re gonna build it. They started hiring today.”
“Build what?” I tear down the joint I’d been rolling, disappointed, again, that my joints always have a fat bulge in the middle.
Go to Part Two of "Work Ten Weeks, Take Ten Months Off"