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Authors: Marjorie Kowalski Cole

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BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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“Oh, Gus, look at it this way. Maybe one issue would serve our needs better than another. This is a pot of money for our little group to spend, after all. Are you covering the ice show? That would be just the ticket, that issue, will it be the next one? I'll just swing by Thursday or meet you downtown. I love this time of year, don't you?”

“I'll give you a call,” I said. “And, uh, thanks.”

Felix didn't say a word when I climbed into the cab.

I decided to drive him up to the First Family, our heads still freshly packed with images of monsters, dancers, and ice castles. I parked on First Avenue and we studied the thing for a while. On its pedestal of stone it rose above an acre of hardpacked snow.

“It's very much a pyramid, isn't it,” said Felix. “Very stable, I guess. The sculptor is taking no risks with the material. Why aren't they doing anything?”

“That was part of the dissension when it was put up. What's with the craziness of standing out in the wind? That's no way to survive.”

“You don't suppose it's the Holy Family?”

“Not in this country, Felix. I assure you no one's ever suggested that.”

“What was here before?”

“Well, that's an interesting question. Grass, trees. A riverbank. Drunks sleeping it off, meeting each other.”

“So that's why all the concrete? To keep the drunks away? Make it easier to clean up?”

“You know your monuments, Felix.”

“It's always the way. Gus, you'll pardon me, but every village at home has its statues and monuments, and this is one of the least attractive ones I've ever seen. How would you even disfigure it?”

“Disfigure that thing? You mean, make it worse?”

“Week I arrived in Alaska, reading the Anchorage paper, they had just put up this new statue down in Sitka of the Russian trader…the man who founded Sitka? Who am I thinking of?”

“Alexander Baranof.”

“Very week it was put up, someone cut off his nose.”

“Well, now you mention it, the Russians invaded Tlingit land, why should they welcome a statue in his honor? But who could think of doing such a thing to the Family—where's the insult here?”

“Besides the aesthetic one?”

“Sure.”

“As you said, if it isn't the Holy Family, whose family is it? I mean families—that's an idealized situation right there.”

I decided to lighten up a bit.

“Or maybe someone just objects to all this concrete,” I said. “It's hot now, in the summer, in this spot. How about that? Now let's eat.”

“That Baranof story in the paper,” Felix said as we drove away, “caught my eye because it reminded me of Nelson's pillar. You know that story? In Dublin 1966, they blew up Nelson's pillar, a
statue of Horatio Nelson on top of a hundred-foot column. And no one got hurt. A couple of days later in the street, as the army was hauling the rubbish away, a thousand people sang ‘A Nation Once Again.'”

“And no one got hurt?”

“They did it at night, with explosives and a timer, at the wee hours, and Dublin in those days was not the center of drug trafficking it is now. Things actually shut down at night, or so I've heard.”

In my mind's eye I saw shards of bronze flying in slow motion over the Chena River.

The Irish are dangerous people. Or is it just Felix? I thought. The way he's on the edge of things. Decent fellow, thoughtful, I'd trust him with almost anything. But he does stand on the outside, looking in. Something about him, a touch of something unique. Days would go by and he'd be a perfectly predictable young man with an enviable young man's appetite, and the usual hanging participles and odd Britishisms: “daft” and “whilst,” for Pete's sake. Then suddenly you're aware again that an illegal is hanging around, witnessing everything you do, and where in hell did he get the moral advantage?

As for Shelley Suliman, her request, tell the truth, was a gift horse, almost a miracle. We sure could use that money. If I had to sort of lay low with this issue and the next, I could do it, up to a point; no one would know. There's plenty of leeway.

They have these great mixed-berry muffins at the Palate; I decided to take one down to Gayle. When I saw her that afternoon, coming toward me—her slight bowleggedness, her bright parka and caribou mukluks, that mild excitement of incipient composition in her face—I felt quite happy. I stopped walking just to let her come up to me.

She said, with a giggle, “Gus, there's something loony here.”

“That's what Felix said.”

In my truck she ate the muffin down from the top, sugary crust first. Crumbs fell onto the blue sleeve of her parka. Like Tad she was not a tidy eater. But her presence was a great relief, somehow. People like Judy and Shelley made me feel dizzy, like I was riding a small boat on a rapids.

I thought that when you really liked somebody, you'd be called out of yourself. I had been expecting that, but Gayle made me feel kind of good inside, like I was already home.

J
UDY FINCH'S TEAM WON SECOND PRIZE IN
the large-block competition. Far from exposing Tad Suliman as a waster and ruiner of the natural landscape, I pleased him by running Gayle's photo of the griffin all lit up by halogen lamps, Judy in her belted jumpsuit nearby in fetching silhouette. It took up half of page three.

Shelley Suliman praised the Ice Art issue, and her well-timed check paid some of our bills. I felt like the servant of two masters, which in my case would be truth and solvency. This was a tricky situation, one that required dexterity. Or should I say ambidexterity—two hands able to function independently.

 

TWENTY YEARS I'VE LIVED IN FAIRBANKS, AND THIS KEEPS HAPPENING
: I get a handle on this place, but then another layer comes off and I'm looking at some unexpected monstrosity, the worst thing about America. The wrong side of town.

Barely room enough in Fairbanks for a right and wrong side of the tracks, but people here sort themselves out that way, just the
same. The haves and the have-nots. In Fairbanks, the haves live on south-facing hillsides, among fat birch trees and gentle aspen groves. The solar radiation coming at their homes is like the difference between trying to stay warm with a dinky space heater, or having central heating. Solar radiation in the hills means everything.

The have-nots get the Southside, a flat, shrubby floodplain south of downtown, along the highway. It's a vast, featureless neighborhood studded with boxy fourplexes, churches, vacant lots, and warehouses, small family homes with playsets in the small yards side by side with crack houses and double-wide trailers on hundred-foot lots. A hard, high-density grid of streets stretching from the arterial, which becomes the Alaska Highway, all the way to the silty banks of the Tanana River. On the gritty flats of the Tanana you find the burned-out cars, the dangerous litter, one time a girl beaten to death with her head wrapped in duct tape. If every community has its dumping ground, its Nevada, you could say—that territory set aside for desperate pastimes—ours is the Southside.

It's that part of town avoided by tour buses. Tourists ride the big sternwheeler down the Chena River, or go into the hills to admire old gold dredges and pan salted sluice boxes for souvenir flakes of gold, or stroll the part of downtown that's popping like a new biceps with parks and statues. On the Southside people specialize in survival, and tourists have seen that already back home in Toledo, Flint, Bakersfield, Tacoma, Troy. Tourists aren't explorers. Like grizzlies who really need a lot of habitat, tourists need a specialized environment and lots of it. Those tour buses have resulted in a lot of new pavement in Alaska, and a lot of official dissembling to create the illusion of Alaska.

Southside has its vitality, though. The transient population, the small packs of kids, the community garden plots, the noisy little
churches, the work of hanging on, getting by. It's a neglected area, but I wouldn't call it depressed. And there's the Southside Community Center. Billy Green, former head of the vocational rehabilitation office in town, started the community center in a former church building. He is a solid man with neat dreadlocks and the looks of an actor, a bit of a local celebrity, the kind of guy who emcees events and serves on the ethnic committee of the school board, which is where I met him. I served on that committee as well, my appointment being political spoils from a board member whose campaign I had supported.

During my tenure on the ethnic committee, we voted Alaska Native languages and black history into the curriculum. That was, I think, about all we did. We were a racial and cultural mix on the committee, but we shared a significant trait—the ability to move with ease between cultural groups. We were mainstream types, despite superficial differences, well spoken and warmly dressed. There was little reason to move away from a shared comfort zone, and since we did not allow the full ugliness of racism into our meetings, we couldn't really address solutions.

Right about the time the sculptures at the Ice Park had dwindled away to dripping horns, looking like sucked Popsicles out there, Billy Green announced Southside Cleanup Day. An ugly response from the community ensued. I was astonished. Billy had arranged for trucks from the department of sanitation contractor to cruise the streets all morning, so that residents would not have to haul refuse to the landfill nor pay for the disposal of broken washing machines, old batteries, and dirty crankcase oil. People in other parts of town fired off letters in protest. Why should taxpayer dollars finance special privileges on the south side? Why doesn't landfill amnesty apply boroughwide? Why don't trucks come to my door for my junk?

I was astounded and appalled. Billy Green was forced to ex
plain how the money came from the remnants of a block grant and to pose with the mayor at a press conference. I suspect that was a last-minute repair. The complaints stopped but damage was done. So I decided to give myself another field trip and to cover the event, which had ballooned into a festival, with a 5K Run Against Racism, free hot dogs, burgers, and pie, and a disc jockey from Wolf 97 holding his show outdoors in the community center parking lot.

In spite of two bowls of Cheerios consumed at eight A.M., my blood sugar capsized by eleven, so my first impulse once I got down to the community center was to get hold of a burger. The smell of the grill pulled me across the parking lot to the table where burgers were disappearing as fast as Chester the Starfox, the d.j. and celebrity chef, could produce them on his double hibachi. A plate of fresh hot patties shining with grease appeared as I reached for a plate and bun.

Sometimes plain food is the best. Low blood sugar times, for example. The meat and bread were heavenly; heat and grease are the best seasoning.

I noticed that people were going in and out of the center with more food, so I inserted myself into that stream next. Inside I found a buffet loaded with beans, salad, squares of cake, and sweet potato pies in tinfoil pans.

It's odd to look at the world through stained-glass windows, holding a burger on a paper plate. A rambling, plain egg box of a church at one time with the usual three rooms (nave, kitchen, and social hall), the center had a new lease on life thanks to Billy Green. It drew people to community school classes, support group meetings, workshops. In the big room a half-dozen boys were slamming Ping-Pong balls at each other among signs that read “Easy Does It” and “Keep Coming Back.” A few women in the kitchen rinsed dishes and refilled a coffeepot. I ate my lunch in
peace, walking past the stained-glass windows in the nave—simple geometric lambs, candles, a plain cross. Churches are the nearest that the landlocked get to the sea. This one was a fairly simple ship. Beams overhead created that feeling of empty space, as of a cargo hold gently rocking on calm water.

Stepping outside again I heard the wheezing of the sanitation trucks and cheering. Blood sugar restored, it was time to pay for my meal by putting my face back in the crowd.

I took an empty bright orange garbage sack from the pile at the edge of the parking lot and followed the Boy Scouts cleaning up the shoulder and runoff ditch along Twenty-fifth Avenue. There were balloons in the air above me; we were generating trash at the same time as we were retrieving it. Someone in a gorilla costume was waving traffic into the parking lot, and Chester the Starfox was now interviewing Billy Green, no doubt describing the scene in the most colorful language he could summon.

I felt at peace, though suddenly fastidious, picking up butts and cans. A youngster in front of me picked something out of the ditch, waved and shouted to his friends.

“Home pregnancy test! Never opened!”

“Hey, Mr. Hulburt, here's another untouchable!”

A scoutmaster brought up the rear with a long metal claw.

At the corner a small crowd milled around a pile of cardboard boxes and other junk, waiting for the garbage truck. A tall woman in a faded blouse and blue jeans, with black and bleached-gold cornrows spilling from a neon green clip at the back of her head, was backing toward me holding one end of a huge couch. At the other end, facing me as she took small steps toward the street, was Gayle Kenneally.

“Can we jump on it, Lucerne?” a small girl shrieked, pulling at the jeans of the tall woman.

“Wait till we get it set down,” Lucerne answered. Her long fin
gernails were the same green as her hair clip. “Now you go ahead and jump on this thing for the last time!” She and Gayle set it in the street, so that traffic would be forced to circle around. The upholstery was a mustardy print, white foam leaking out from many tears. “I'm one happy woman to get rid of this,” Lucerne called to Gayle. “He won't know where he's supposed to sleep next time he thinks to pay us a visit.”

“There is no next time,” said Gayle.

“Take the cake and dump the chump!” Lucerne said.

“Look what's under the cushions!” cried the girl.

Lucerne grabbed at the exposed belly of the couch. “That's mine, Destiny, you take the change there, but this here's mine. Put the cushion back now, hon. This thing is dirty. You don't know how dirty.” She stuffed something rescued from the couch into the pocket of her jeans.

“Gus,” said Gayle.

“Gayle,” I said, and then with complete obtuseness, “what are you doing here?”

“I live here.”

I looked at her and at the sagging dark brown rambler from which she and Lucerne had hauled the couch.

Saved by the approach of the sanitation truck. What could I have said to make up for that question, the complete exposure of my stupidity, the world of assumptions it gave away? If I said nothing more, I might survive. With the growling arrival of the truck, nothing more needed to be said. The maw opened and everyone joined the garbageman in hurling boxes, bags, tires, and unrecognizable junk into the truck. Lucerne, Gayle, and a teenage boy picked up the couch. I hurried to lend a hand. We took a few steps back to position ourselves, then ran it toward the truck.

“Let's get this sucker airborne!” Lucerne called. As it rose into the air and then tipped into the truck, shouts of delight went up.

Gayle turned to me with a smile. I struggled against a half dozen stupid opening remarks, like
Nice event, isn't it?
She wore a faded black T-shirt that read “Native Arts Festival,” and a pair of porcupine quill earrings.
Nice earrings
. I opened my mouth but words did not emerge.

“Lucerne,” Gayle said, catching the arm of the tall woman. “This is my boss, Gus Traynor, at the
Mercury
. Lucerne Thompson, Gus, she's my roommate.”

“How do you do, Mr. Traynor.” Lucerne held out her hand, her green nails.

“Lucerne and I go way back,” said Gayle. “She came to Allakaket ten years ago to take care of my great-uncle. Got on a plane in Mobile, Alabama, and got off in Allakaket.”

Lucerne looked older, up close, than her first appearance suggested. She must have been over forty, with deeply set eyes, the skin underneath them darker, almost black. Her hair, pulled tightly over her head to the huge green clip, was pure black and hugged her skull. The spectacular fall of cornrows was a mixture of her own hair and a hairpiece, a glittering tangle of black and yellow ropes.

“From Mobile to Allakaket is an unusual experience,” I said.

“Mr. Gallette had Parkinson's and I'd seen that before,” said Lucerne. “But oh man it was different all right. The people there treated me right, but we were aliens to each other at first. They are the best people, most of the time.”

She and Gayle exchanged looks and smiles over “most of the time.”

“There's a barbecue going on back there, plenty to eat,” I said, and waved back toward the Southside Community Center.

“I don't dare go near that food,” Lucerne said. “My waistline is totally out of control. But where's Jack, is he missing a good meal?”

“Oh he's not. I sent him over. I see you're helping the Scouts, Gus.”

“You need some work gloves,” said Lucerne.

“I'll get you some gloves, Gus,” said Gayle.

“Now don't trouble yourself, please.”

Lucerne insisted. “Are you kidding? This is a public health situation. I don't want to be giving you a tetanus shot, or worse. Come on up to the house.”

I stepped inside after them and stood in a dark closetlike entryway while they went through a couple of milk crates full of winter things, caps and mufflers and mittens, giggling and encouraging me to have patience. It was close in there but exciting.

“What's going on?” The inner door opened and a pale young woman stuck her head and then half her length into the crack.

“Cathy, time you woke up,” said Lucerne.

“I feel good, I needed the sleep.”

“Why don't you go ahead and get yourself some breakfast,” said Gayle.

The young lady sized me up with a flat stare. She wore a white thermal-underwear shirt, with several snaps undone, and her breasts were small, pretty mounds against the shirt. I looked away from the outline of her nipples and her thin waist. Her streaked light brown hair and pale skin contrasted with dark eyes.

“Don't think I'm hungry,” she said, and smiled. “How are you?”

“This is my boss, Cathy. My cousin Cathy Carew, staying with us for a little while,” said Gayle.

“How do you do.” I nodded.

“Jack around?” said Cathy. “He like to go up to the store for me?”

Gayle didn't answer but turned and faced her.

“He's helping with Cleanup Day, Cathy. I don't want him running errands. I'll help you in a sec.”

The girl shrugged and withdrew.

The brief episode subdued the two women with me, but Gayle gave a victory shout when she unearthed a pair of leather work gloves with wide, stiff fingers. She pressed them into my arms. I'm used to women, but not this way, three of them for a minute and now two of them, formidable women studying me in this tiny, dim space as I tried on the gloves.

BOOK: Correcting the Landscape
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