Anchorage in the Great Land

I. Locals
What I wear: my normal office attire – jeans or a cotton dress, the kind a person buys at an outdoor store instead of a department store if she eschews elegance for feminine-casual, or if she wants to look like she fits in without not trying too hard. What he wears as he veers toward me on a BMX-style bicycle, the kind ridden by young men who have either lost or never had a driver’s license: I have no idea what he wears. At first I barely register his existence or approach. Shirt, pants of course, probably tennis shoes. Long, dark hair that boxes with the air as the young man – still a boy, really – mashes down on his pedals.

This time of morning, the shops and bars bide their time. The Pioneer Bar across the street is still; its customers are always standing out front when I walk the other direction around five o’clock. Sometimes they half-yell, half-slur greetings – or maybe curses – or maybe greetings – that are somewhat less than coherent. Just another dive bar assimilated among the ubiquitous t-shirt and souvenir shops, all of them in quiet solidarity for another hour or two. It is early summer in Anchorage, and small clusters of tourists wander in the distance in anticipation. They wait for something, anything Alaskan, to happen. Maybe they hope for the large, fur-clad oddity in an urban setting, a bear or moose or wolf materializing on these downtown streets. It’s not impossible; out my office window, I once watched a moose and her calf trot down E Street.

The boy on the BMX bike has almost reached me. He and I alone travel along this short stretch of Fourth Avenue. A noisy raven stood guard all winter atop the traffic light up ahead at 4th and D and would greet me – or curse me – with its raucous call on many a morning, but it has flown off to better digs for the summer, possibly some overflowing hotel dumpster. Morning traffic labors up the C Street hill behind me; motors gunning when the light changes at the top of the hill, and the occasional radio pop tune leaking out an open window – it is June, after all, and over fifty degrees – serve as background to my internal muttering, which mostly consists of lists: emails and phone calls I must return, meetings I must attend, people I must see whether I want to or not, people I hope to avoid.

At the instant he and I pass each other, BMX guy yells at me without making eye contact: Jerk-off candy asses!

In the next few seconds I think, What do you know? And, Did you do a nine-mile hike to Rabbit Lake the other night after work? And, If he came at me, I could take him. During the daily walk between the parking lot known as HoJo – a long-closed Howard Johnson’s – and my office four blocks away, some of the strangers I encounter stumble or weave or ask for money, but not him. His line is straight, his navigation skills intact. I think, No alcohol fumes. Then I wonder beyond this moment and this stretch of Fourth Avenue, what has gone before this moment in his life versus mine, what will come after. Maybe, I think, compared to him, I am a jerk-off candy ass.

Sometimes I wish I could shout whatever sudden anger or frustration or notion of injustice leaps into my mind, like children do before they learn about social norms. I might yell from a downtown corner, Meetings waste life force! or Bullet points suck the soul dry! Instead, I continue to move forward, laptop bag slung over my shoulder, a tether to the socially acceptable.

I wish I could think of the perfect response to offer this young man, explain that I’ve seen some shit in my life too but you can claw your way beyond it, that my own mother used to make inappropriate exclamations on occasion, that he and I have a connection, however indirect and, yes, tenuous, and I am the wrong person at whom to direct his anger or frustration, that he should instead call out those who would indeed do him injustice. I know better. I say nothing.

II. Souvenir
The corner shop on 5th and D has sulked in its spot for decades, lackluster beige and in shadow under its low awning. The window display has not changed in the three years I have been making this walk. Every morning I think, Today I am going to take a picture. Every morning, I don’t take a picture. As anyone who lives in a tourist town knows, you don’t take pictures of the things the tourists take pictures of – at least as long as there is anybody around to see you. Once, Very Famous Writer came to our town. As I was driving her to dinner, we passed this shop just after she had asked about what kind of gift she might bring her child from Alaska. She noticed the window display and I noticed her noticing it. On this and on everything else that evening, I could think of nothing clever to say. On this and only this, she, too, was speechless.

If the stocky old man who owns the corner shop happens to be standing outside smoking a cigarette when I walk past, which he often is, wearing his gruff expression and his incongruous Hawaiian print shirt, he always says hello. I think, I don’t want him to think I’m making fun. Which, were I to take a picture of that eternal display, is exactly what I would be doing. Maybe it’s what I’m doing now by writing about it. Who knows: Maybe he thinks I’m just one more jerk-off candy ass.

The shop sells gold and fur. To nobody. I have yet to see a customer either enter or exit the place. Surely people duck in there on occasion, or the store would have closed long ago. Over the past few years I have wondered variously, Who would buy a Speedo made of fur? A joke gift perhaps. And, Who would wear a Speedo made of fur? Over time, more uncomfortable questions: Why does the owner think a fur Speedo makes a good marquis display, year after year? After so much time, has the fur retained its softness? Do customers touch it? Do they cringe and shrink away? Does it collect dust? How would one dust such a thing?

I think about how many people must walk past this store every day. Am I the only person who is so concerned about the fur Speedo? Probably not; he is too. In an unsettling way we have this dusty, aging, furry novelty item in common. I decide I would rather not have to speak to this man, ever. I dread seeing him standing outside the store as I approach. I choke my way through his aura of cigarette smoke and worry that the smell will absorb into my cute-but-not-elegant cotton dress. Then we greet each other, as if we are both completely normal.

About the author

Karen Benning has enjoyed hiking and cycling in Tunisia, New Zealand, and Europe. After twenty-plus years of living in Anchorage, Alaska she has started…

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Issue 23 · November 2015

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