My office is on the third floor of a small building at the corner of Fifth and Franklin in Juneau. Right next to us is a 12-story condo complex.
My desk is next to the window. When I look to the right, I see the condo windows.
The person with the window closest to mine has covered it with a big magic screen picture. You know the type. It's a multi-colored, dense pattern of wavy lines that seems random until you look at it for a while, and then something jumps out at you in 3D. I didn't really take note of it until I stared at it for a few moments and saw a Kodiak bear sitting on a toilet reading the New York Times.
Or maybe it was a king salmon devouring an elk.
Something like that.
The magic screen moved and way in the corner a shard of a face appeared in the slit between the screen and the window frame. There was an eye.
It was sizing me up.
I smiled and went back to work but every time I turned I saw the eye and imagined its owner delighting in my dismay. Eventually I couldn't work anymore so I just stared back.
Then I realized the eye was part of the magic screen image.
It's not going to work out for the condo owner in the winter. When there is no sunshine the picture will be unviewable for nearly three months. Then there will be no bears or elks or salmon. No eye. Just me staring at him from under the office lights. In the darkness.
There's a big dock a few blocks away from my office window. Large cruise ships park there. Usually, there are three or four. Holland America. Princess. Celebrity.
They park and disgorge a couple thousand passengers. Most of these people hustle into the cruise line-owned shops right by the dock. They buy souveniers and get back on the boat quickly so they don't miss any of the 24 hours of food being dispensed.
Some of the ship tourists get on busses and go to the airport. Helicopters take them on 30-minute trips up to the glaciers, and then back. The tourists take pictures of the ice from the air.
Some of the busses go out to the glaciers themselves. The tourists take pictures of the ice from the ground.
Some of the busses take the tourists to the big whitewater raft trip. The river is meltwater from the Mendenhall glacier. The water is white because it's full of glacial silt, and not due to speed. The tourists don massive life jackets and get into pontoon boats to have a Disney-style, merry float past the Safeway, Don Abel's hardware store, and the U.S. Post Office.
They take pictures of all of that.
The rarest clusters of all tourists are those who decide to walk up the hill from the boat to the stuff up here.
Up the hill is the historic Greek Orthodox church, a couple of parking lots, and my office. They don't know this when they get off the boat, of course. That's the essence of tourism in general, and Alaskan tourism in particular.
Once I was coming out of my office after work. When I opened the door I bumped it into a tourist who was trying to take a picture of the historic Greek Orthodox church across the street. I had disturbed his picture taking, and he was peeved. In a challenging voice he suggested I take a picture of him and his group, as a penalty, I suppose, for his having positioned himself in front of a steel door I could not see through when I opened it.
Because I have no fight left in me, I took the picture. When I gave him his camera back he asked me if I was an Alaskan.
"I live here," I said, because I certainly haven't lived here long enough to consider myself an Alaskan. I make no claim to this place.
His group seemed delighted by my answer. One of the women pulled out a small digital camera and took my picture.
I had to tell them my name and what I did for a living. Because they were tourists, I lied. I told them my name was Ralph Stevenson and that I worked at the Department of Fish and Game.
The man asked me how much a fishing license cost. I told him I didn't know because the prices had just changed. But I was pretty sure he couldn't fish off the cruise ship, anyway.
"Unfair to the fish," I said, and he agreed it was hardly sporting.
Then he asked me if the white water rafting trip was any good.
"Very," I said. Then they thanked me and went on their way.
I went home thinking I'd warm up a frozen chicken pot pie for dinner and in my reverie I nearly stepped on a freshly cooked dungeness crab my neighbor had placed on my front step. As I was eating the crab thinking of pot pie the phone rang. It was a guy I work with.
"Did you say something to some tourists out here?" he asked.
I told him the whole story and he said they'd come back with a copy of my picture looking for my autograph. Apparently, being someone who lived in Alaska was important to them. When they showed Roger my picture, he wondered why they were calling me Ralph.
"You shouldn't do that," he said.
"Because it's a lie."
"You're absolutely right," I replied. "I should stop lying. I'm sorry. It's a California thing. I have to get over it."
"But I didn't want to let them down, so I told them you were out investigating some salmon smugglers."
"Good call," I said.
"Tourism is everybody's business."
"So I'm told."
"You know why they want to take your picture, don't you," said Roger.
"They think you're an adventurer for having survived a winter up here."
"Of course, I've never been here in winter."
"Right. So they're not really getting their money's worth, now, are they?"
"Nope. What should I tell them next time?"
"You might want to consider honesty."
"Ok. I'll tell them I've been to the south pole."
"Much more rugged than California."
"Tourism is everybody's business."
"You'll get the hang of it."
My neighbor is a psychiatrist. He has a small green motorboat named "Crustacean". He uses it to set his crab pots, and to haul in the crabs he catches during the season. One day he asked if I would go out with him to pull in some crabs.
We motored across Auke bay, around Spuhn Island, and over toward the Mendenhall River where he had placed a couple pots in three hundred feet of water.
We found one of his buoys and I hauled it in and started pulling up the rope.
He asked me, "Ever see that show on the Discovery Channel, about the guys who go crabbing in the Bering Sea?"
I told him I had. He said, "Love that show."
When the pot came to the surface I saw it was full of king crab.
"We're on the crab!" I said, emulating the TV show and trying to open the full pot.
"Eahhh...those are kings. It's not king season. Gotta throw them back."
I put on some thick rubber gloves and threw seven spiny juvenile crabs back into the water.
Then we found his other buoy. That pot had some king crabs, but also the dungeness crabs that were in season. We kept those.
On the way back with the crabs we encountered some six inch swells. The small waves made spray that broke over the bow of the motorboat.
"Pretty deadly out here for us Alaskan crab fishermen," he said.
"This is just like the TV show," I said. And then we passed a sixty foot charter boat filled with fishermen. They were all holding bottles of beer and fishing poles.
My psychiatrist neighbor said, "Well, not really."
As we were cruising the F/V Crustacean back to our homes my neighbor pointed to a big house on shore. He said the couple that bought the house were a pilot and flight attendant for Alaska Airlines. The parties they had there were infamous.
One day they had a party and one of the neighbors brought a VHS tape. After everybody was good and drunk he popped it into the VCR and played it on the big screen TV in the great room.
The movie was a secret video the neighbor had taken. It was of his wife having sex with the pilot who was the husband of the flight attendant.
My neighbor said, "Needless to say, it made quite a splash. The couple got divorced. The flight attendant got the house, but had to move, eventually, because of the video. For a while it was all over town. Everybody saw it."
"Did you see it?"
"Do you have a copy?"
He looked at me for a second, and then smiled.
"I'm a professional," he said.
The postman on my street refuses to put my mail in the mailbox. He sends it back to where it came from with the stamp, "Unknown address. Unable to forward."
I went to the post office. I told them I'd lived in places all over the country and that usually, when you get somewhere, letters addressed to you show up. That's the way the post office works, in case they needed a reminder about the charter of the U.S. Post Office.
They did not agree. I spoke to the route supervisor.
"Did you fill out a rural route address card?"
Not only had I not filled one out, I didn't know they existed.
"Shouldn't you have told me that when I got here rather than returning my mail?"
"Sir, how were we supposed to know you had arrived without your telling us?"
"You could have surmised it from the fact my mail was being forwarded to Alaska from California -- to that address."
"But that mail could have been coming from anywhere."
"And how were we supposed to know where you were? We can't keep track of everybody now, can we?
I filled out the form. My mail still didn't come.
"Did you speak to the letter carrier?" said the route supervisor.
"About delivering your mail."
"Isn't that your job?"
"I'll have him call you."
When I got home I had a message on my answering machine from a guy named Bob who claimed to be my mail carrier.
"I can't deliver your mail because your mailbox is too far from the road," said Bob's voice on my recorder.
"What about the other people at the house? Is their mail longer than mine? How does it get into the box?" I said this to the machine, not to Bob, because I did not know his phone number and he did not leave it in the message.
Eventually, I got a Post Office Box. The mail gets into there, just fine.
Every time someone asks me my address, I have to talk about Bob.
"Don't bother mailing me anything. Bob won't stand for it," I say.
Upon hearing my story the town dog groomer said to me, "Oh. That Bob. He just hates delivering the mail."
"Then why doesn't he cut hair or fix cars, instead?" I asked.
"Because he's the mailman."
Yesterday I was cut off on Egan Drive. A big sunflower-yellow school bus careened from the right lane to the left and then back again. On the side of the bus these words were painted in three-foot tall brown and red letters:
When I got home I said to my friend, "What's with the Salmon Bake bus? It almost ran me into the marina."
"Probably late to deliver the cruise ship tourists. The salmon bake is part of their tour. Holland America, I think."
"Don't you think it's demeaning?" I asked.
"What? To take a cruise?"
"To have to be in a bus with the words SALMON BAKE in big huge letters, as if the whole world needed to know where you were going. Do they think it will make me envious? It reminds me of my grandmother. In fact, the whole bus was full of blue-haired people. What makes old people want to be in big emblematic theme busses?"
My friend stared at me as if I had burst into flames. Eventually she said, "Are you done now? Did you get anything for dinner?"
"Have some sympathy, I was almost killed by a bus full of old people about to eat fish."
"Tourism is everybody's business. Get it through your head."