Walrus Coffee

We had a day of it today, out here at the top of the world.

Got Mom’s box of cookies and tea today. Carinne especially loved all of the German tea, and the weed magazine you sent, Mom. She now believes that you and her are cosmic soulmates.

I am so tired. Been in and out of sleep ever since getting off work. Finally woke up around midnight, and and felt obligated to use my time.

Tonight we were supposed to play softball with the community, but it was too foggy out for a game to take place. So we went to the high school to use their gym for the first time, and it was great. Inside track and everything. No more unnecessary facing of polar bears, ATVs and arctic foxes for those much needed jogs.

Earlier today- Tony, Jess and I arrived at the BARC, the Barrow Arctic Research Center, to help an archaeologist for the day. We remove our boots at the front entrance to the building, and walk around in socks all day for work.

There’s something nice about having to take your shoes off every time you’re in a building up here. It gives a sense of relaxation, a feeling of equality, and home.

Cleaning off the tables in the archaeology lab is an eclectic nightmare and dream. There are infinite stories of physical life from throughout the centuries just towered on the various tabletops. No rules, just move this history of life around as you see fit.

Tony finds a bone half as big as a human with a pink ribbon casually tied around on a back table. Written on the ribbon in sharpie are the words, “Dinosaur Bone.”

“Is this a dinosaur bone?” Tony asks as he wipes the counter down around it.

“It is. Or a mammoth bone. We’re not sure which one, yet. Toss it on the counter over there.”

There are boxes of decomposing birds. Boxes of soil. And bones. All of the bones.

We’re working with 17 year old Dakota, 16 year old Michael; native Barrow high schoolers. The archaeologist’s name is Anne, and she’s your standard scatterbrained genius: talking to herself, and wandering in and out of the lab. She’s in her own world, and having no time for social lubricants, she lays it all out for you without even really noticing that you’re there.

I’m drinking coffee and looking at the scatterings of life around the room.

“Here are bones,” Anne says as she slams five big cardboard boxes on the table. “Tell me if they’re walrus and put them in a bag.”

I look down at my coffee, and choose to chug it before sifting through these mystery boxes of discarded remains. Still, at the end of the day I am covered in the dust of life’s creatures spanning from 1,300- present. What’s a little walrus in your coffee, anyway?

Jess and I begin the morning painstakingly extracting information out of the high schoolers, but they soon warm up to us. Well, Dakota does, at least. He’s actually hilarious, and is a complete stream of consciousness, no holding back. He’s super sweet in his own way, and tells us a lot about Barrow. And what it’s like to grow up here. They turn on Native Alaskan rap music, as we search for walrus bones. Fifteen minutes later, we get a call that we are in trouble for blasting profane lyrics around the BARC.

The music is not turned down.

Tony pulls out a few bags labeled, “chopped or shitted bones.” He finds this disconcerting, as the appropriate terminology would be “chopped or shat” bones.

“Have you ever seen the show ‘Slednecks?” Dakota asks me. “It’s a reality tv show that’s supposed to document the roughest parts of rural Alaska. But we all say, have you been to Barrow?”

Dakota’s telling me about the places he’s visited outside of Barrow, which includes Hawaii. A surprising amount of Alaskans have been to Hawaii. He was telling me about the cultural connection, which makes sense. They have Eskimo games in Barrow every two years, and in Hawaii they have a similar traditional sporting event for islanders that takes place every few years.

“When I’m in the lower 48, people don’t make us pay for things. They give it to us free just because we say we’re from Alaska. And then people also always ask us if we live in igloos,” Dakota states.

Then he looks me in the eye and asks me one of the hardest questions I’ve been asked in a while.

“How would you feel if people asked you that?”

He tells me about the high dropout rate in school, due to depression, drugs and alcohol. And just not wanting to get out of bed in the mornings.

“What do they do, if they don’t go to high school?”

“They don’t do anything.”

I ask him if he could live anywhere else, where would he move to? He told me he’d live right here. He’d live in Barrow. This is a common theme that I’ve begun to see. No matter how rough it is for people out here, or how much the darkness and the depression affects them, they stay here. For better or for worse.

Dakota recommends a few traditional books to me on whaling and life in Barrow, and says he’ll bring them for me tomorrow. I tell him I’ll bring him an earring.

He’s been whaling since he was eight, he tells us. I learn a lot about more about the whaling culture, and then we find baleen, the whale’s “teeth,” in a pile of remains.

We break for lunch, and walk past a window showcasing the fog that has rolled over the tundra while we’ve been in the lab. “This is why you shouldn’t touch bones,” Dakota said offhandedly as we look out the window.

Anne comments later, “People think that the weather turns bad whenever you touch old bones.”

“I can just see her putting it in her computer!” Dakota laughs as I type away, trying to create a semblance of the day so far in written words.

“Would you be weirded out if I didn’t tell you I was a writer, but you just saw me writing down everything that you said?”

“No,” Dakota says with acceptance. Then quickly changes tracks. “Isn’t classical music only for rich people?” We look up at Jess, who is ballerina leaping around the coffee lounge to Swan Lake.

“Ohhhh, I could get used to that. That’s like hitchhiker music,” Dakota concludes.

Barrow natives. The accent- soft voice, words flow together like the ocean, men and women both speak in low tones- reaching the attractive smooth bottom of the voice box. Musical poetry voice, could listen all day, leaning slightly forward to catch every word. You really have to really listen to hear people talk up here.

“He’s like, ‘the-lady’s-going-to-take-a-bite-of-her-apple. It’s hilarious. That just made me laaauuuugh….” I’m trying to focus on writing, but the conversation just keeps coming.

A little later, a woman walks in. “You remind me of a girl I knew. You walk like her and all,” Dakota proclaims.

“…that’s creepy…” she replies as she ducks out of the coffee lounge.

Pause. Then we all laugh at life.

“What’s going on,” Jess repeats for the tenth time today.

Meerkats.

“I’ll write you, Dakota. I’ll make you famous someday.”

“Annie, I can see us wearing wigs and waltzing around to the music of our lives together,” Jess concludes, as we walk out of the coffee lounge and back to work.

A stranger wanders in the lab at the end of the day while we’re waiting for Anne and the boys to come back. “I’m just going to be at top of the world after work tonight. Nibbling burgers and tasting cheesecake,” the man tells us as he peruses the room. I ask, “what’s your name, mysterious burger and cheesecake man?”

“Tuck.”

He walks out just as mysteriously as he came in.

“Is anyone else down to one button on their crotch?” Jess asks the room.

“I only have one needle right now,” Tony says as he sews his pants with dental floss.

“We should eat the rich,” Ben C. writes me while I’m at work. I start laughing in the middle of a quiet, serious room again with no context provided.

Back at the house, we’re all sitting around eating cookies and lounging on the couch.

“Richard Nixon ruined everything,” Carinne shouts and kicks her shoes off to read a National Geographic.

“Do you guys ever think about your hands. And how one of them always does all of the work. And the other one is like, I don’t even know how to pick up a pencil,” Jess asks offhandedly, before she commences twerking, and Carinne begins rubbing her forehead aggressively against my knee.

“We don’t have computers in Kansas.”

“Aware to think in many lights; aware, too, that shadows also cast realities… Remaining always curious toward the ways of others, ready to appreciate the differences, wary of diverting splinters such as knick-knack thinking… and my cameras as note takers for my mind, so I may place evidence before others… telling them why I am seldom bored… Every horizon upon being reached, reveals another beckoning in the distance. Always, I’m on the threshold” -W. Eugene Smith, photo journalist

My eyes burn whenever I touch them. Laura said there are a lot of particulates in the air up here. Makes you feel like you have allergies.

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