MY ALASKA

MUSINGS ABOUT THE BYGONE ERA WHEN ONE COULD STILL MEET A SCHIZOPHRENIC CAT NAMED BABY TEAPOT

by August Kleinzahler

One April morning thirty-five years ago, I stepped off the Wickersham, flagship of the Alaska ferry system, and into the mud and rain of Juneau. I noticed, among other things, that there didn’t appear to be any chain stores, not even a McDonald’s. I double-checked just the other day with my old friend Lincoln Hart to be certain. He confirmed that there were not, in fact, any chain stores and that a man by the name of Wolf, a construction contractor whose claim to fame was taking and winning a bet that he could survive a jump off the Juneau-Douglas Bridge, once hired a plane to bring him down a Big Mac from a McDonald’s that had recently opened up in either Haines or Skagway.

Nor do I recall meeting any Republicans, though I’m sure they existed; in fact, I’d wager Mr. Wolf was a Republican. Most of the people I knew or ran across, if they were political at all, dwelt somewhere in the range between anarcho-syndicalist and Nativist dada. Nixon was in the White House. The Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, to be completed three years later, had only just begun construction, employing thousands of young men in the far north, up by the Beaufort Sea.

I don’t remember the locals being especially religious; in fact, quite the contrary. It just so happened that one of my principal friends at the time was a Russian Orthodox priest, originally from New Orleans, one of seven brothers, the other six of whom, he claimed, were psychiatrists. Father Elias would come visit me now and then, mostly to drink bourbon and talk about T. S. Eliot. He had, somewhere along the line, picked up an MA in T. S. Eliot, probably as a youngster, before going on to the American University in Beirut for studies more related to his calling. But the father and I only advanced to the works of the Possum after an obligatory theological discussion, which mostly involved the stern cleric informing me that I was going to hell because (1) I didn’t believe there was a hell, or a God either; and (2) because I was a Jew, which was even worse than being a Catholic or a Protestant, who were also on the road to perdition. Furthermore, even though I may have been hitherto a reasonably well-behaved young man, or at least one without a criminal record, I was no damn good, regardless, because, not believing in divine retribution or hell, I’d eventually come to the conclusion that since nothing was stopping me from larceny, rape, and worse, I’d realize, Why the hell not? and get down to business. I believe Father Elias was murdered some years later. He ministered to a poor, almost exclusively Native population. It could get rough in some of those villages if there was liquor around.

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August Kleinzahler was born and raised in New Jersey. His most recent collection of poetry, Sleeping It Off in Rapid City (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), won the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award. His latest book is Music: I-LXXIV, a collection of music essays, published by Pressed Wafer. He currently lives in San Francisco.

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