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].”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.