ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Weekly Newspapering in Rural Alaska
A Newsroom Can Be A Living Room
When you work at a small newspaper, especially a weekly sheet with just five cluttered desks, in a rural place like Southeastern Alaska, there are no security guards.
People just pop in — to pay their bill; place an ad or demand a correction.
Or just to hang out.
Leigh Horner blows in a lot. She writes a local column call Duly Noted which captures the private goings on among residents: Where they went on vacation, what Haines resident they ran into down in the Lower 48.
Leigh’s husband is an artist and she immediately struck me as the kind of person who would marry an artist. She’s cheerily cerebral. She likes to laugh. She’s gossipy, and she gives as good as she gets.
When she was pregnant many years back, she came into the newsroom and announced, “It doesn’t matter if it’s a boy or a girl, by the time they’re 18 they might want to change anyway.”
That little bit of motherly wisdom immediately became enshrined on the Truth Board, the space above the coffee maker where all the wise-ass statements and things you can’t deny that people say here find a home.
The Feltist, Joe Parnell, who has been known to walk around town in a bear suit and once Roller-Bladed along Las Vegas Boulevard on The Strip in said suit, comes in almost daily.
Joe once wrote an absurdist column for the paper and is friends with Tom Morphet, the owner of the Chilkat Valley News.
I, for one, like it when Joe comes in. He’s like Stuttering John, Howard Stern’s nuclear reporter or like Kramer. Joe says things, most of which end up on the Truth Board.
“The goal of being intelligent has been replaced by the 50-inch plasma,” he said once.
“As individuals, we can be pretty cool, but as a race, humans are one bad apple,” was another.
Or, “It’s like roulette. If you say enough B.S., once in a while the ball will go in the truth hole.” This truism was apparently uttered after Joe was told to calm down.
Another time, he said. “I hate serial killers; I really don’t like them at all.”
The way I see it, Joe could be a cast member on Second City Television. Things are conjured up in his mind, like a band of people in animal costumes called the Bandimals.
Joe bounds into the newsroom like a retriever who has just gotten the ball and lays it at your feet for another throw. He’s a principled man and often goes off on tangents. He can raise his voice in the newsroom.
Which isn’t great if a reporter is on deadline (yes, there are deadlines on a weekly newspaper.)
That’s when Tom will say, “Not now Joe. We’re busy.”
Tom says Joe operates on Child Time, which is a lovely phrase in its truth and exactitude.
And it’s why I adore Joe, relish his visits. Wo doesn’t want to return to a bit of child time?
Sometimes, strangers blow in.
They come holding a check for their subscription. Frankly, they come in for just about everything.
The newsroom is located on the second floor of a building that sits along on Main Street. It’s over a chiropractic ship, which is next to a bookstore, which sits near a consignment store.
The street level door is never locked, and our office is the first one at the top of the stairs, so we can hear people coming before they reach us — especially Joe, who has heavy feet.
One day, a woman came in and laid a wadded-up ball of felt on the desk of Russ Lyman, the ad salesman and layout guy.
“Your paper is recyclable,” she said, apparently after putting on in her washer and dryer.
Apparently, that’s all she wanted to impart, because she left.
People will come in to report that they paper entered the wrong Bible verse in their ad.
The calls are shriller. Many people complain about the paper’s (agreeably odd) policy of not naming people until they are convicted of a crime.
That’s Tom’s call.
He believes the quality of work done by the police department is unworthy of Mayberry and that many charges don’t stick, so why cast people with the Scarlet Letter in a small town where gossip rages like The Plague?
Many people argue that everyone in a town of 2,000 people knows the person anyway, so any identification in the local paper is overkill.
But sometimes, people do get named.
When The Feltist ran into some hot water for donning a bear suit and frightening some tourists, he got named. Tom said that was his only transgression from his rule, and he agonized over it.
Tom knows how to handle the oddest people who come calling at this office
A few years ago, a woman repeatedly popped in with a request: She said she had lost a whole passel of pounds in a weight-loss program and kept badgering Tom to come out to her house and take her picture in a bikini.
One day, a fellow came in with an ad request. I asked him what group he represented.
The Uglys, he said.
He was from The Uglys of Haines.
The group did not originate here, but in all of its weirdness, it certainly should have.
The group started in San Diego over 30 years ago, with a more colorful name: The Ugly Motherfuckers of America. (which was later blessedly shortened.)
They’re Hell’s Angels without the Harleys, a band of brothers who march to their own (apparently not so good looking” drummer.
I found this preamble on the Internet:
“The “UGLY Mother Fuckers of America” was founded in July,1982 in San Diego, Ca. Our founding father was “Moko Joe” (UMF#1), an escaped lunatic from Hawaii. The express purpose of the club was to take the vote away from women. Having run into some heavy resistance from the US Congress, we fell in with some bad company and have been drunk and/or loaded ever since. We have members in Norway, Australia, Japan, Hawaii, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Philippines, and other places too rude to mention. Most of the Philippino members are Philippino Fighter Pilots, so we’ll always have a pair of players. The vast majority of the membership is patriotic, but we don’t get involved much in politics. We did mount a massive campaign to defeat the California motorcycle helmet bill. We also voted to write and congratulate Col. Ollie North on his fight with the “Commie-Pinko Fags” in Washington. The secretary -treasurer has been drunk however, and is not sure whether he mailed the letter or shredded it. Members must be ugly and at least twenty-one (21) years old. It helps if you know Joe as in “Joe Mama”. You’ll often see us in collusion with lewd women, but females are strictly forbidden from membership. If you are interested in joining this sleazy outfit, go to the chapter’s link and then San Deigo National Chapter to get your membership application.”
There’s more. Here another Uglys saying:
“BEAUTY IS ONLY SKIN DEEP, UGLY GOES TO THE BONE”
The group in Haines are a bit less political. They’re largely comprised of local fisherman and they do a lot of good deeds here.
They sponsor fundraisers for local people with diseases. They like to drink.
Before Christmas, after the Haines town parade, they will sponsor a fundraising dinner that attracts the entire town.
The Uglys representative who came into the office wanted to take out an ad for the dinner.
He was a quiet man and didn’t seem to want to talk about the cause.
But he did say this:
“Sometimes, a bunch of misfits can get together and do good things.”
I put the words up on the Truth Board.