Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Than Just Customers

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.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I just LOVED this blog!! I love hearing all that history.

The garbage man!! I guess you wouldn't throw anything in the garbage that really did not want displayed. I'll bet he knew more about townsfolk than anyone else in town (Harold!! I said to bury those whiskey bottles NOT throw them in the trash can!)



Papa John said...

Linda, What fun! We didn't arrive in Juneau until 1967, but I was aware of several of the characters you have mentioned.
**The first and foremost of those you include, I loved dearly: Your dad - who in more ways than one was a silent mentor to me. Not that he was that silent, of course, but that he never let on the kind of advice and encouragement he offered a newcomer who was still a bit of a newlywed. He was also good at sharing about "eldering" and how to prepare for that role and work toward it. He knew his "Book" too!Strangely, I rarely got to pay for a doughnut or coffee at the shop, and sadly, my souvenir cup has disappeared over the years.
**Your mom was, and still is, one of my favorite ladies. I continue to be impressed with her insight and wisdom and thoughtfulness. Her example was especially valuable to many of the young women of the church, including my bride.
**I really didn't know any of the oldtimers you described well enough to spend time with them, but I knew quite a lot about them. I was most familiar with Montana Bill. We once took a Thanksgiving turkey and fixin's to him, but had to leave it on his tiny porch. Worried about it being somewhat vulnerable, I made several trips past his cabin until he returned; the food was presumably safely inside. I don't think we ever had a conversation, but we always waved as we drove past his tiny cabin.
**I knew about George, and I once tried to do business with Fishpole John, but that didn't work out. The George I did slightly know owned the Alaska Art and Trinket shop right by your folk's place. When I stored the meat racks and rollers for him under those several buildings, I was told about the rat man. I never saw him that I know, but I did see a couple of large rats and other horrors down below.
**I became acquainted with many of the South Franklin Denizens when I drove a cab to earn eough money to pay for Patty's birth. The cab office was across from the Baranof Hotel, but the wait lot was across from the cold storage. One of the most prominent town drunks I remember was a man who was also a cab driver. He protected me from the other drivers after I helped him clean out his hack after someone was sick in it. Mostly he made sure I wasn't cheated out of my turns to pick up a fare and earn a buck. (Whew! There's a story or two in that.)
**The neighborhood we knew back then was rowdy, colorful, ethnic, and full of rare individuals. We should-a written a book about Juneau's underbelly culture then, Linda, 'cause everyone on the street had a unique story and most of the tales wouldn't be believed if told today.
**Thanks for the memories.

Linda said...

John, I think we're talking about two different Georges. I believe the one you are referring to had the last name of George, whereas the one I mentioned had a first name of George. But, now that you mention it, "your" George was a character as well! He actually served as mayor for awhile. I worked for him in his gift shop one summer. My very first "job" at the age of 11 or so was to sweep the stairs that led up to his apartment, which was over the store. I got paid 50 cents a week to keep them clean.

grammajo said...

Delightful stores, Linda. Thank you.

Janet said...

I also enjoyed reading these. I remember Montana Bill and his well groomed garden. We got to pick berries or carrots a couple times at his garden. Thanks for all the memories. Your mom and dad were very special to me as I was growing up.