August 10, 2010

A Beer at The Alaskan

“Home is noticed most when it is left.” I leave Alaska in 2 weeks. I’m looking around me with eyes both old and new: I’m noticing the breathtaking beauty all over again, contemplating my good fortune to have lived in such a place and seeing quiet details I haven’t noticed for quite a while. I'm strolling down Memory Lane as I go about daily life; every corner brings a tender, private smile to my face. I’m reminiscing.

Over the winter, one of Juneau’s favorite goings-ons is the Wearable Arts show. True to Juneau style, the show is a compilation of talent that ranges from: “This is uncomfortably bad but we’ll cheer awkwardly anyway” to: a prideful, surprised “Someone around HERE can do THAT? Who? Shouldn’t they be on a bigger stage somewhere? This is amazing!” Every community performance that I have been to in this town (and that’s a lot - it’s a looooong, dark winter, ladies and gentlemen) has included acts that induce both of those reactions and everything in between. But I’m not going to reminisce about the Wearable Arts show; I’m going to write about the bar scene afterwards.

The Alaskan on quiet night. (By Brian Bisbee)
In winter, Juneau’s bars are warm and reassuring when the weather outside is fowl and darkness has reigned since 3:00 pm. Some patrons sulkily slouch on bar stools, “sticking out” the winter. But many secretly hold winter-time dear. So what if most conversations begin with the question: “How much Vitamin D are you taking?” It’s a quieter pace; the town belongs to locals only, no tourists or even family visitors. There’s time for conversations with old friends and total strangers. In winter, the bars are full of ruddy cheeks from a crisp day skiing on the frozen lake or a nasty day smacked with wind and salt water. Or perhaps from drinking all day. (Coffee 'til noon, alcohol after.) As opposed to summer's jam-packing, the bars are comfortably full of all ages and characters in winter. And music. Juneauites will dance to anything: They enthusiastically support any visiting small-time band they've never heard of. A fresh face, a new sound and some different energy is much appreciated. (Have I mentioned there are no roads in or out of this town?)

My friend, K, and I walked through the dark in the silence of freshly falling snow from the Wearable Arts Show to our local. We crossed the threshold of the chilly, muted night into the noise of voices shouting over music and the smell of beer spilled on the floor. Peeling off my layers, I gave a sprightly hello to a woman I work with who draws on her eyebrows and wears shockingly red lipstick. She ignored me. She inexplicably does that sometimes. K and I ordered a couple of beers and sat down to enjoy the music: reggae-influenced stuff being mixed by a handsome, unfamiliar man with short dreads. I heard he was from Colorado. He sounded fantastic - at least to my ears - and I must explain why that might not mean much. Standards change after some years in Alaska. During my first months in Juneau, I was completely underwhelmed and unimpressed during my first visit to the local Thai restaurant. My hopes had been sky high after hearing everyone in town rave about it. Even though I was truly enjoying the mediocre atmosphere akin to a sparse 1980’s living room, I took one bite and thought, "not so much." I had moved to Juneau from Seattle, a city famous for world-class ethnic food choices. Fast forward 9 years, spent primarily in Juneau, largely deprived of decent ethnic food, or really any decent restaurant at all, and my pallet has changed. I SWEAR by the deliciousness of this Thai restaurant. My mouth waters at the thought of going there. I am in heaven at the first bite. I ignore the lackluster response from our out-of-town visitors when we take them out for dinner after setting their hopes high about the “the best restaurant in town.”

So, it is hard to know if the man looping together the reggae music was really amazing or if he was another version of the Thai restaurant (since you can imagine how much reggae I have heard in Juneau over the years.) But my fellow town-folk were equally impressed: Two pretty girls in little dresses and rubber boots unselfconsciously sweating and jumping around with giant grins. A middle aged couple ballroom dancing, somehow fitting it to the music. Single men, beer in hand, eyes toward the floor, some dancing alone, some standing around the perimeter. My friend, S, a small, 5th generation local with some groovy moves, a rough beard, a creative heart and a love for women and Southeast Alaska, making his way toward the happy, dancing girls. One token "hippie" girl - you know the one: she wears a flowing skirt, tank top and long, straight hair, dances alone, eyes following her own hands as she circles them out in front of her and over her head. Yep, she was there too.

Similar scene, on a different night at The Alaskan.
Into this scene, the Wearable Arts contestants started dribbling in. The lady who had dressed as Senator Lisa Murkowski entered, still in costume. K leaned over and said, "She's the best pediatrician in town, apparently." At that moment she just looked like a drunk local liberal impersonating a conservative politician with big hair. I wondered if any parents in the bar were wondering about their kids' appointments the next morning.

The next one to come in from the cold was a striking woman with glossy red hair, green eyes and a generous showing of bare, fair skin. She had fashioned a cute little halter top and, under her bare midriff, a fringed mini skirt and knee high boots – made entirely of baby-blue duct tape. Her eyes sparkled with glitter make-up. She, perhaps, was meant for the stage and this was her annual opportunity to go all out in Juneau, away from her desk at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She walked past the bar and hit the small dance floor.

She danced in close proximity to a man I've grown accustomed to seeing here: a man of royal stature, striking not only for his height and fluro-orange rain coat, but for his head of wild grey hair, intense eyes, Roman nose and a white beard down to his waist. He always seems to be friends with everyone, offering bear hugs here or there as people come and go. It was either him, or another matching the same description (which is entirely possible in this town) who, during a previous visit to this same bar, leaned over to confide to my friend Rhea that he was present "for a wizard conference." Her response? "Oh, that's nice." And she asked him all about it.

The bartender that evening was a woman named N. She used to be quite the looker, a head turner, and she would hit on my old boyfriend right in front of me, with well-trained eyes that never acknowledged me. Nine years and motherhood made her a little less of dazzler but still a pretty woman. I’m married now – to someone else. She has a daughter now – with someone else. I feel a strange affinity with her. Having never actually met her, I wondered if she knows my name as I seem to know hers. K and I were enjoying ourselves - People watching, chatting, drinking beer and dancing too. And in came B. I don’t know how I know B - he could be a friend of a friend, a neighbor, the bag boy, a yoga classmate or a former boyfriend of a former coworker. He's an odd one and devilishly handsome – black hair and icy blue eyes, a mischievous smile. He was wearing a vest on his otherwise bare upper body. And a tall top hat on his head. With a tall feather in it. He carried a small, black, antique briefcase. (And, no, he was not a participant in the Wearable Arts show.) Light on his feet, he moved through the crowd and came before me. He put his briefcase down on our table, opened it. Slowly and dramatically, he pulled out a multi-colored feather and handed it to me. I felt a few eyes watching to see my reaction. I reached my hand out and said, “For me?” He nodded once, slowly. I took the feather and put it behind my ear. "Thanks, B.” He walked away. K and I looked at each other, raised an eyebrow each, and carried on talking, or shouting really, over the music and another beer.

As the night went on, K and I's table filled with our husbands and friends. I remember feeling lucky and happy. When I think about leaving Juneau, I wonder if the music will ever sound this good, or the beer taste this delicious. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to go for a drink or out dancing, wearing a hoodie and rain boots, and feel like I look just right. I wonder if any other place will fit me as snuggly as this one does, or if I will fit in anywhere as well I as do in this eclectic little corner of the world. I wonder what others might say about K and I, what role we might fill - real or imagined - in their rendering of the atmosphere and characters in the bar. Now that I'm leaving Juneau so soon, it comforts me to know that if someone had taken a photograph or written their own story that evening, I’d be right there in it, amongst all the others, captured in that moment in time, before heading back out into the snowy night for the short walk home.

Downtown Juneau from Douglas Island - a late afternoon in winter.

No comments:

Post a Comment