I was in Ketchikan, Alaska back in the summer of 1992 to make millions of dollars in the salmon industry. I made about what I would have if I had stayed home in Lancaster and worked at the Baskin Robbins. Of course, then I wouldn't be writing this.
The cannery I worked at was kind enough to provide a barge that had living quarters on it. It was a biggish, whiteish, rustyish hunk of metal with what looked to be mobile homes duct-taped to it. It was, at some point it its life, when someone gave a shit, christened the “Jan B” registered out of San Francisco. For a mere one dollar per hour worked, we got to collapse at the end of the day in something that wasn’t a tent. In the years prior, cannery workers lived out of tents in an open field in what you might consider a small city. It was called, “Tent City.” Problem was that Ketchikan receives about 152” of rain a year and most of that seemed to focus itself over Tent City. The workers had very little access to facilities and it was a complete muddy mess. Two guys I met said that they preferred sleeping in the plant next to the Iron Chink* instead of slogging back to their tents.
(*The Iron Chink was a huge machine that somehow scaled, gutted, beheaded and betailed the salmon in a few spins of a giant metal drum. Hundreds at a time. And yes, it is a derogatory name. I'm not sure if it has another name.)
The Jan B was, with all good intentions, a floating motel. And a motel has got to have a manager. Our manager was a mix of ex-marine, racist, sexist, jerk, power hungry, asshole, suck up, and, oddly, neat freak. His name was Bruce. So of course we called him Barge Bruce. All Barge Bruce wanted was to take the responsibility trusted in him to manage the barge and somehow make it as if he was Mayor and Sheriff of the Jan B. He was known to just pop into rooms unannounced while people were in them, accused of popping into the them when no one was in them and basically running the place like a prisoner of war camp. The memos he would post were hilarious. A simple reminder about taking trash out of the rooms would fill an entire page, have eight to ten exclamation points and a smattering of misspelled words liberally sprinkled in. Barge Bruce sucked balls.
I lived in room #39. Our room had three guys. Of course there was me. Jeremy was an extremely cool guy out of San Francisco. He was like a land locked philosophical, surfer. The other guy was Steve. Steve was fucking crazy. Steve had recently returned to the United States after being detained in Thailand for three months where he had been busted with pot in his possession. It seems that the ship he was working on didn’t care that he hadn’t made it back on board and left port without him. No one on the Thailand side of the bars told anyone he was there. He just ate rice and sat in squalor for three months. Luckily (for him,) another American got busted for something and Steve was able to get word out that he was stuck behind bars. His post-squalor travels brought him to Ketchikan and room #39.
Steve brought with him a sack full of clothes and a case of Hepatitis B. One day Steve felt sick and didn’t look good. It’s just a cold he said. A few days later, his skin turned a sort of greenish yellow. I ate some bad fish last night he said. Then, his eyes turned yellow. Take me to the hospital he said. We didn’t know it was hepatitis. We went to the bookstore and found a medical book and looked it up. Yuck. Sitting in feces for three months can do that to you.
I should mention a side note here that carries into the main part of this recollection. We were slobs. At the end of the work day, I would take off my blue coveralls and toss them in a corner. The next morning, I would put them back on. The clothes I wore underneath the coveralls got thrown in that corner too. The pile would get pretty big and pretty stinky. I knew that I was sweating something fierce while in the cannery because in the morning when I would put on the coveralls, they would still be wet from the day before. I mean damp. And stinky. An odd stinky too. But hell, I was working in canning factory. I thought this all was normal. I mean, what else could it be beside my own sweat. Normal. Until… (I’m pausing to hold back the vomit.)
Until the night when I woke up to find Steve walking over to the corner where my dirty clothes were piled. He stood in the corner and pulled out his dick and PEED ALL OVER MY CLOTHES! He is peeing on my clothes! “Steve! Steve! STEVE!” I could see his face as he turned, still peeing. He was laughing! “Steve!!!” He finished up and went back into his bunk. I got up and stumbled over all the other crap in the room to his bunk. I shook Steve and woke him up. I explained the situation to him, “You peed on my clothes!”
“What are you talking about.”
“You just walked over to the corner and peed on my clothes!”
“No I didn’t”
Steve had been sleep-peeing. And, thinking back, he’d been doing it for about three weeks. He had no idea that he’d been relieving himself at night. I had been going to work wearing Steve’s hepatitis tainted pee. Shit. I got tested when I got home. I’m clean, but really…
So, we were slobs. I left my clothes everywhere (oh yeah, and piled in the corner.) There were beer cans and food containers and newspapers and magazines and books and tapes (tapes were used to store music back in the 80’s and 90’s.) I think Steve liked the room because it reminded him of his home away from home in Thailand.
One day, I was on the line in the cannery when my friend Taylor came up and got my attention. He took me aside and filled me in on a situation. It turns out Barge Bruce was going through the rooms and wandered into #39. I’m sure he had a hard time getting the door to open with the amount of crap piled against it. Barge Bruce was completely pissed. Taylor heard Barge Bruce yell at someone else that he was sick and tired of the trash and was going to get the plant manager over to take a good look at what he had to deal with everyday. Taylor ran over as soon as he heard this. I had Dan and Jim on the line to cover for me and I ran back to the barge. Boy, my coveralls were going to be sweaty tonight!
(Have you ever heard some old codger talk about how they walked to work uphill both ways? Bullshit? Well, we did. The barge had a ramp going to the shore. In the mornings, when the tide was low, you had to walk up an extremely steep incline to get to the shore. At some later part in the day when the tide was high, the ramp would be at a very slight angle up from the shore to the barge. Up hill both ways to work. I can’t wait to get older so I can tell that one every day.)
I ran from the cannery to the barge and up to #39. I shoved non trash under the beds. I put everyone’s clothes into whatever drawer or laundry bag was available. I filled the trash bag and an empty beer case with trash. Put the trash in a closet in the hallway. I even made the beds. If you would have looked under the sheets you would have seen magazines and books and tapes, but it’s the surface look that counts. I did this all in less than five minutes. (Which of course makes me think, why the hell didn’t we just keep it clean?)
As I walked back to the cannery, I passed by Barge Bruce and the plant manager. Barge Bruce was going on about how unbelievably messy this one room was and how these punk kids have no respect. He was so intent that didn’t even notice me. The plant manager and I made the briefest of eye contact. I went back to the line.
About ten minutes later, Barge Bruce and the plant manager walked into the cannery (The plant manager walked, Barge Bruce seemed to vibrate with hatred). Barge Bruce was pissed. Barge Bruce was steaming. Barge Bruce pointed at me and started to, I kid you not, stomp his foot. The plant manager had Barge Bruce go and cool off to the side. I am motioned to speak with the plant manager. He is not happy, but at the same time, he seems to have a slight upturn on his mouth that would hint at a subdued smile. He basically says that he knows that I must have found out about the inspection. He knows I must have cleaned it. If this happens again I am fired. Keep the room clean.
He then slapped me on the shoulder and, out of Barge Bruce’s line of sight, winked at me.
My only guess is that the plant manager had to listen to Barge Bruce complain every day. For once, it was good to see Barge Bruce completely insane with rage and though words were coming out of his mouth, speechless. Barge Bruce mostly avoided me after that. I was waiting for the confrontation, but it never happened. Good old Barge Bruce. I went back to the line.
At the end of the season, my camping and working friend Dan Berman took white tape and changed the name of the barge from the Jan B to the Dan B. Below is a photo of him, standing on the top ramp, arm held out and finger pointed to the sky. It was low tide and he would have had to walk up the ramp to get to the shore.
Hm. Looks similar to the slave camps back in the UAE. And that story about Hep B Steve peeing on your clothes?? Nasty. What made you give up all this for suburban bliss? More importantly, why did you become a cannery guy in the first place?
I have this probelm with commitment. I also have a problem with coming up with crazy ideas.
Back in 1992, my crazy idea was that my college housemate and I should go to Alaska to make millions. Of course, I immediatley did not want to commit to it. Amy thought it was a great idea and made me go through with it.
In 1992, there was no suburban bliss. I was working at an ice cream store / roofing, waiting for something to happen.
I lived on that barge too!
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