Growing up in Juneau was fun. The Alaska-Juneau Gold Mine had only been shut down for thirteen years when my family moved there in 1957. The town was still a frontier town. My dad’s bakery and coffee shop, which was located on South Franklin Street, in the older part of town, was a gathering spot for many of the old-timers. Many influential folks frequented our shop – politicians (even the governor, occasionally), business owners, lawyers, doctors - but the people I remember most vividly were the fascinating old pioneers. To me, they were more than customers – they helped form the web of childhood memories that live with me still.
Emil and Montana Bill were best friends, but were cut from two very different pieces of fabric. Bill’s moniker – “Montana” Bill – came from his place of residence, a wee little house (probably no more than 12’ by 12’) in the middle of a large, well-maintained garden, alongside Montana Creek. The tiny house was always immaculate, with fresh paint, contrasting window trim, and sweet-smelling wood smoke coming from his little chimney. He worked his garden diligently, by hand, and harvested vegetables that grew large, under the midnight sun. Emil, who spoke with a strong Norwegian accent, lived in an equally tiny house, but it was nothing but a dilapidated shack, set back in the woods and surrounded by all sorts of discarded rubbish, car parts, and weeds. Bill and Emil came to town together every Wednesday. They rode a bus into town, Bill looking all spit-and-polished; Emil looking (and smelling) like he hadn’t seen bath water in weeks. Bill and Emil would sit in my dad’s shop, drinking coffee, arguing good-naturedly, telling stories and laughing. Other old-timers, knowing that Bill and Emil would be there on Wednesday, would also show up, anxious to see them and to join in on the weekly banter.
One of those fellows was George. George was a gentleman. I don’t know whether he had a formal education or was self-educated, but he was intelligent. He ran a little key and lock shop/Post Office Sub-Station across the street from our bakery. George knew Alaska history, and had a history, himself, of trading with the Natives. As a result of his trading, he had some wonderful treasures – ivory, bead work, carvings, jewelry, documents, photos, art work. A few of those treasures George gifted to me, notably an ivory necklace, a hand-beaded belt, a carved wooden snuff box and an Indian lip plug. He also took a trip to his home country of Norway, once, and brought me back a pretty little silver bracelet from there. Once George invited us to his house for dinner. He took us to his basement where we saw, in amazement, what amounted to a museum of historic memorabilia.
Unlike George, Fishpole John was anything but a “gentleman.” He was a loud, coarse-talking character who owned a shop on South Franklin Street. In his shop he sold fishing poles that he made himself. They were truly pieces of art and were treasured by those who owned them. Fishpole John liked coming into the bakery and creating a ruckus. Although he knew that my mom, who worked in the bakery, was happily married to my dad, it appeared, to me, that Fishpole John was “sweet” on her. Once he even tried to woo her over with a gift of one of his signature salmon rods! Even this didn’t win Mom’s affection. She dreaded seeing John come in and hearing him bellow out, as he always did, “Hi Marge!” (Mom’s name is Margaret, and she has never gone by Marge.)
Bingo was Armenian. He was a short, roundish fellow, with a jaunty cap and a face covered with dark, thick stubble and a huge, jolly smile. I never knew much about his personal life, but I always loved it when he came into the shop. He told stories so funny that he couldn’t finish them for laughing so hard, himself, and his laughter was punctuated by hilarious nose-snorts.
I never knew the name of The Rat Man. We only knew him as The Rat Man. He was actually an exterminator who serviced most of the downtown businesses, including our bakery. Juneau was a seaport town, and much of the downtown was built on pilings, over the water. At high tide, you could open a hatch door in the basement of our bakery and look down onto the surface of the water. At low tide, the seaside rodents scurried beneath the streets and buildings, seeking a way to invade. So a regular regimen of extermination was absolutely essential. The Rat Man, so they said, actually lived under the buildings with the vermin, and had an unparalleled knowledge of their movement and habits. In Chicago people might have had to pay protection money to be safe from the gangs, in Juneau we paid protection money to The Rat Man to keep the rodents at bay.
Woody was the downtown garbage man. This was when garbage men were called garbage men, not sanitation engineers. This was before the time of modern trucks with fancy motorized lifts on them. Back then, people didn’t even put their cans to the curb! He knew where each person kept his can. Woody leapt out of his truck at every stop. He would lift the can; haul it to his truck, on his back; dump it; and return it to its proper storage place. Needless to say, Woody was STRONG! Because he hauled and dumped every can himself, it was easy to mine the trash for treasures, one or more of which he always attached to the front of his truck, bringing a smile to everyone’s faces.
Hattie Jessup, better known to us as Ragtime Hattie, was the piano player at the Red Dog Saloon. Hattie was well up in years, but had a fine girlish figure. A sharp dresser, and a little ahead of her time, she often wore slacks and always wore heels. Whether she wore slacks or skirt, she always dressed entirely in black, including her trademark black gloves. She wore, around her waist, a belt made of silver dollars. Her Ragtime piano notes tinkled out of the swinging doors of the Red Dog, and warmed the cool summer evenings of South Franklin Street. Hattie loved coffee and a powdered cake doughnut for breakfast. She would perch atop one of the red-vinyl-covered stools at our coffee counter, primly and properly, with her back as straight as a board, to eat her doughnut. Although she didn’t remove her gloves, to my fascination, she never got even a spot of powdered sugar on them.