Saturday, June 25, 2016

We walk into a bar in Alaska

Mecca Bar, Fairbanks
I noticed a man at the bar pull out a cigarette and lighter. Several signs on the walls declared the end of smoking in the Mecca Bar on June 19, 2016, which was four days before we got there. He lit up. Serena the bartender quickly moved down the bar to politely tell the man he would have to smoke outside. The man just as politely complied.

“It’s a big deal,” Serena said about the change in policy to make the Mecca smoke-free for the first time in its seventy year history. Patrons had been asked to vote on the issue, and scores voted for the ban. Only two votes were cast against. A state senator came behind the bar to ring in the new policy. “It could get really bad in here,” Serena said, “Especially on the days when it was forty below outside [when the doors are closed against the cold].”

Keeping the bar smoke free will certainly be a challenge for smokers when winter comes -- as opposed to the summer night we visited. The sun was shining brightly and the temperature was in the low seventies when we arrived at 10:00 pm.

We heard that there used to be many bars on 2nd Ave in downtown Fairbanks, but most have closed. The Mecca itself has changed some through the years. There used to be a Chinese restaurant called the Tiki Cove in the basement beneath the bar, but it’s gone, and the door leading downstairs has been covered. But some things in the place harken back to another time. They still have a pay phone. One portion of the front wall is still covered by the original wallpaper. Mirrors on the ceiling and the wall behind the bar add a touch of 1960’s glamour. And in spite of the smoking ban, cigarettes are still for sale on the counter behind the bar.

The Mecca has had its moments of pop culture attention. The 1979 film Spirit of the Wind, the true story of dog sledder George Attla, features the bar (Attla did frequent the Mecca, we were told). Another film about a true story, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, featured Chris McCandless visiting the bar before he went into the wilderness.

For people coming to Fairbanks from villages and towns further north, the bar is a gathering place. It is a meeting place after memorial services and weddings, and has been used as the location for fundraisers for the larger community of the north.

The bar was fairly busy when we arrived. Half a dozen people or so were sitting at the bar, while others surrounded the pool table. There was no menu, but Serena had some suggestions for us. Mindy ordered vodka and cranberry juice, and I had an Alaskan Kicker Session IPA.

I struck up a conversation with Merritt, who was sitting at the bar. He told me he was from Homer, Alaska, but he was working in Fairbanks for a couple of months. He said he was a boilermaker, but most people don’t know the definition of the word. “It’s not just a drink,” he said. He explained he was a welder who worked on a variety of energy projects. He said that he did this job part of the year and the rest of the year he was a crab fisherman. He claimed to have worked on the Cape Caution before it became famous on the television show, The Deadliest Catch.

I asked Merritt what made for a good bar, and he said, “Socialism. But not the kind like communism. But the kind where people are sociable.” He also said, “Good food is important. But this place doesn’t have that.” (There were a few bags of chips for sale, but there is no kitchen at the Mecca.) “But this place is just a couple of blocks from where I’m staying, so that’s why I come here. The ambiance is important.” And he said the staff was important. He praised Serena, the on duty bartender, saying she had an intuition of what a guest would need next. I asked what made for a good church and he said, “The force of the people”. If there are good people in a church, it will be a good church.

Then our conversation was interrupted as an alarm went off. Serena rushed to the emergency door at the back of the bar and shut the alarm off. Someone had tried to open the door. Though there are signs on the door that say it is the emergency door and not the men’s room door, the larger sign says “Pull” and apparently men mistakenly pull the door on a regular basis.

Another fellow named Andrew had briefer answers to my questions. As for what made for a good bar, he said, “Alcohol helps.” He had no answer for what makes for a good church, “Because I’m an agnostic.” (Merritt said Andrew wasn’t really an agnostic. I can’t judge.)

I also talked to Gary, a California native who has lived in Alaska for many years. In response to what made for a good bar, he said the bartender was important, and he too heaped praise on Sarena. He said some bartenders “try to run the natives out and make bars into a place just for the tourists.” He said, “it’s their land, and they have more right to be in the bars than anyone.” In response to what made for a good church, he said he was Catholic and had only been to the Catholic Church in town (“but not as much as I should”). He said he liked that the Catholic Church in town had meals for the poor.

Serena told Mindy that she could find out more about the bar from Eileen, who knew the place well. After Eileen was done with her pool game (she won), Mindy was able to talk to her. Eileen has a fulltime job, but tends bar at the Mecca on weekends. She’s lived in Alaska for the past seventeen years after spending about that long out of state (she lived in and out of Alaska before that as well). She said a comfortable atmosphere and a good bartender make for a good bar. The atmosphere, she said, should be friendly, and the bartender should be friendly, and a good bartender will keep people under control.

When asked what makes for a good church Eileen said, “Oh, I think it’s the same thing. If the members of the congregation are welcoming.” She said she wasn’ a Catholic, but Episcopalian --”Not that I go that often.” She said that she liked when the preacher talks in a way people can relate to, and added, “I like it when they fit the Bible to what’s happening now, and how it relates even now.” Later, she mentioned that she didn’t think perfunctory worship was good, and that she felt that, based on her experience, the Episcopal church, especially in Alaska, is more relaxed than the Roman Catholic church.

Mindy was also able to ask Serena the bartender our questions. As for what makes for a bar, she said, “I think it’s more the community. I work at two completely different bars. A bar can’t function without people willing to come back. The Mecca’s survived because of the community.” (Earlier, when recommending that Mindy talk to Eileen, she’d told us, “Man, there’s some really cool people here.”) She said the same basics apply to a church as to a bar. “At church you leave all your problems at the door. It’s the same at a bar.” She felt that both bars and churches function as places of escape and support.

We were getting ready to pay our tab when Serena said, “Somebody bought you a shot. Do you want it? It’s a Duck Fart.” We accepted and were glad we had. It turned out that Andrew (the agnostic) had bought a round of shots for everybody at the bar. Serena passed the glasses, and Andrew raised his glass to toast, “To Alaska!” Everyone drank, we paid up, and we went off into the sunny Alaska night.

No comments:

Post a Comment