ALCOHOL WAS A FACTOR: Weekly Newspapering in Rural Alaska

The Feltist Speaks. And Writes.

I was in the newsroom on a Sunday afternoon, drinking coffee at my desk, when Joe Parnell catapulted into the room.

He was excited about something.

“C’mon,” he said, “We’re going cross-country skiing.”

“Um, I’m not sure,” I said. “I’ve never done it.”

But Joe wasn’t listening. He was already clomping back down the stairs from the second-floor newsroom, out to his van, to return with two sets of skis and everything else necessary for a late-afternoon outing to the snow-covered parade grounds at nearby Fort Seward.

A ten-minute lesson clipping in and out of the skis and Joe declared me ready.

We drove slow over the ice-plastered streets. Joe showed me how to steer into the embankment in case I lost control of the vehicle on an icy hill.

He had information to impart about this place that was so new to me and so familiar to him. At that moment, between Joe and me, Haines, Alaska was both exotic and old-hat.

I looked at the dashboard of the old van, with most of its doors either iced shut and simply not working. There was clutter, a half-finished plastic container of salsa, tools.

Then I saw them: Two thin books, their pages brittle and tattered from sitting next to the thrumming defroster. They were two self-published collections from the mind of Joe Parnell.

I asked if I could borrow them. These were another passage into the mind of this madcap man whose unfettered brilliance and lunacy had hit me like a well-packed ice ball.

Joe said I could take them. He seemed at once surprised that anyone would take an interest and proud of his long-forgotten accomplishments.

The first book was a collection of poems that Joe had published back in 2008, when he was running a pizza shop here and was given the the moniker Pizza Joe.

His subtitle was: “The Brains of Haines.”

Joe thought that last part was kind of funny. I mean, how smart do you have to be the brightest bulb among a motley collection of fishermen, miners and loggers in the heart of Alaska.

Before I tell you what he called his book, I want to read you the dedication that Joe wrote on the first page — one that for me goes to the mettle of the man:

“When I was twenty, my parents and I went to dinner and my dad said, “You can do whatever you want, what is it you want to do?

“I said, ‘I want to be a poet.’

“He said, ‘You can’t do that.’

“My mom started having a coughing fit.

“Well, it’s 26 years later; dad was right, and here’s my first book of poems, dedicated to all the poems I lost, that blew off the dashboard when the window was down.

I should have taken care of you better.”

Joe went on to say that the poems really aren’t about anyone real or dead — a statement he made to avoid confrontations with the people they are really about.

He says the poems popped out of his head for fun and sadness. And that if they mean something, then Joe got lucky.

The first poem is the one that gave the book it’s title.

It’s called “You Make Me Want … To Get a Job.”

Here’s the first stanza:

I want to take you to the best restaurant in town.

Buy you jewelry, a sundress.

Take you to Paris in the spring.

New England in the fall.

You make me want … to get a job.”

The poems seem to speak of the loneliness of small-town living; about the particular angst suffered by one man living on the edge of civilization, in a town that didn’t seem to appreciate people who weren’t like them — who were like Joe.

Another poem is called “Not a Real Person” about a woman’s search.

It begins:

She drank a six-pack of Red Bull

And went looking for a lover.

But no one could handle her.

So she took prescription drugs for her depression.

She drove through men like a car with a DUI driver.

When she looked back on the carnage,

She said, “I don’t have time for this.”

She’d get mad and drink Red bull. A six pack.

Then go looking for a lover.

If finding none then she said

I want a new hair-do,

I want to help people.

I want to get some help from other people

So I can get to where I can help other people.

Full-time.

She wanted a lover.

Someone who could see her calm and tranquil side,

Not what everyone else saw most of the time.

Rancor and dramatic fits.

Dark and self-centered, an empty bottle of

Pure drinking water.

Inwardly insecure; outwardly bombastic.

She was a concrete cake with plastic icing.

Men without taste buds found her enticing.

She told herself to focus, focus, focus and

Started a small business.

She sued her ex for his house and garden.

Do you want to read on?

I know I did.

I read Joe’s book of poems in one sitting.

Later, I was talking on the phone with a friend from Chicago. He was reading a new book of poetry and wanted to share some lines.

I listened, then I took out Joe’s book and read some lines back.

My friend said Joe sounded like Charles Bukowski.

But I found more hurt and less alcohol.

***

In 2012, some eight years after the first book, Joe wrote another.
This one was a collection of essays from Joe’s experiences up here in southeast Alaska.

He called it, “Chronicles of Joe: from Haines, Alaska.

The cover has a photograph of Joe shoveling an avalanche of snow from the roof of the cabin he built with his own hands.

The postscript reads: “Success is 1% Inspiration, 99% Who You get to Help You.”
The book’s appearance merited a short story in the Chilkat Valley News here in town.

Joe told the reporter that the book was “artsy-fartsy poetry” like his first.

“This one is more traditional in that you can read the stories. Stuff actually happens; it’s like a book.”

The paper described “the Joe Chronicles” as “a compilation of nine extended anecdotes culled from the last 20 years of Parnell’s adventures. One of Parnell’s favorite stores in the collection offers ‘a horrifying but true account’ of the time he dressed up as a dinosaur at the Southeast Alaska State fair and several children tried to kill him.”

Joe self-published some sixty copies of the book. He said he’d consider publishing more books based on sales. “My parents always put in a big order,” he said.

The book sold well at the local Babbling Book store.

The book price varied.

Joe said, “If you’re my friend, it costs more.”

That’s Joe. That’s his humor.

He drew up in central Ohio. His parents were straight-laced and religious and Joe fled a life of hum-rum familiarity he saw laid out before him.

He surfed in Hawaii and Mexico. He was a ski bum.

He moved to Alaska.

Tension followed. Joe got fired from a few jobs here, including a position as assistant harbormaster, where Joe didn’t get along with the self-entitled fishermen.

He says it’s easy to upset people in Haines.

He says moving here is like moving into a town of drunks and telling people they need to quit drinking. He calls the place frozen Appalachia.

He calls the Haines motto “You make your own life brighter by extinguishing someone else’s.”

It’s a Haines thing, he says.

I am starting to see what he means.

Joe will come into the newsroom and sit at a desk. When he leaves, there are papers left behind on which are recorded scattered thoughts.

One read, “I’m not as tough as I am in my mind.”

And another: “Isn’t it sad that people will go to such great lengths to lie rather than risk a glimpse of the truth?”

And, “Half the town of Haines lives here because they’re too lazy to leave.”

One day, we took a ride up toward the Canadian border in Joe’s beat up Honda, the one without aide mirrors or a back seat, and he tried out some material on me.

He says he has a gene to entertain and has taped a few skits. Many years, he performs at the state fair and has started a band of people dressed in animal outfits.

It’s called the Bandimals.

These are some of the lines he used as the driver of a local tour bus. He got fired from that job.

I found the Fountain of Youth; except that it was in Mexico, where you can’t drink the water.”

“Why do they bother to list eye and hair color on driver’s licenses in China?’

Joe has an uncle in town. His nickname is Nanu, from the Robin Williams character in the old Mork and Mindy TV show.

Joe doesn’t talk about him much.

He talks about his parents, what good people they are.

He talks like a son who is still seeking their approval.

The other night, after the Haines Christmas parade, in which Joe dressed up in his tiger costume, Joe called his parents from the newsroom.

He’d just bought a new iPhone 7 and wanted to try out a video call.

I held up the phone and Joe mugged for the camera in his animal outfit, a 54-year-old man having fun — yet looking for something.

I could see his parents staring into the screen.

“Oh Joe,” his mother said, “that’s just terrible.”

“I’m proud of you son,” his father said. (Joe says his Dad has a thing for sarcasm.)

Later, Joe sat at a desk. He seemed like he wanted to talk. But I heard his father end the call too early, like many parents do. I think it comes from their roots when such calls were “long distance” and therefore expensive.

“Well, son, we gotta go,” his father said.

There was a pause and Joe said something that somehow broke my heart.

“I love you,” he said.

And it was clear that he did.

I don’t know if they heard him, whether they were listening.

And now, because I like you, I am going to give you the rest of Joe’s poem, “Not a Real Person.”

There was no mid range in her emotions

She was either pleasant like a party balloon,

Or mean like the schoolyard bully.

Her inner pack of wolves

Was pulling her good side down.

“I’m under the cryin’ cloud”

She would cry out loud

Causing everyone with in ear shot

Of where she was house sitting to groan.

She thought maybe she was not capable of love.

But OK as a lover sometimes.

One night the heli-skier from Switzerland came to town

And after his show at the bachelorette party wearing

Only his climber’s belt, he said to her,

Your whispering juices make me wet

Your peach is a wispy fog surrounding me.

You’d melt in me whilst

I ski on your rose petals.

I will drink of your mango juice rivers,

Your caramel waterfall,

Passion is our headwaters.

She lost it. (Her always tenuous grip on what the Majority of us call reality.)

Police had to forcibly subdue the heli-skier later

When he got too drunk and smashed out the big front

Window of a bar.

She said, “I wish you’d just strangle me

But before we get to that

I’d like to strangle you.”

He lost it. And had no calm side to calm down.

The chance was zilch in a billion

She’d post his bail or ever come around.”

Former Big City Journalist turned Sojourner