Keeping the Inn running smoothly is mostly an act of deception. Like most professions, it seems to me, we present the public with a carefully-manicured outward-facing sheen that distracts from the fire in the kitchen, the dogs shedding all over the floor, and the rotten part of the ceiling.
It would be no exaggeration to say that a good quarter of my time is spent in some capacity as a sort of arctic garbage man. Before I came to Fairbanks, I envisioned that I might be the person holding a lantern behind a great wooden gate. Guests would knock and I’d slide the little wooden panel aside so I could place my one bulging eyeball to the window and determine if I should allow them into the grounds.
“o weary travelers, step inside for tea.”
So far I have slid approximately zero wooden panels aside to scrutinize incoming travelers, and I only once had to use a lantern in a black-out, and it was battery operated. No, much of my time is spent sussing out waste and swiftly orchestrating it’s departure from the lodge. This can include dog shit, wherein a chisel or other jabbing tool must be employed to free it from the steely grasp of the ice. I spend a fair amount of time scanning the pristine white snow for signs of small brown intruders, like some kind of white supremacist. Sometimes for my efforts I make inadvertent discoveries of bygone Japanese food. I may spy the frailest flags fluttering from deep snow of a microwavable rice meal, the wrapper of a hastily-consumed granola bar, or any number of parting gifts from Japan and China, chiefly. I even found some yellow pills which I cannot identify because my Chinese yet lacks the strength to decode medical jargon. They allow me to speak with the lodge animals.
Then there’s the lodge itself: a clumsy beast of waste-production. Despite my efforts to curb it’s rampant filling of garbage cans, travelers stroll in with bags of chips, treats, meals-to-be, and they stroll having transferred most of these commodities to their stomachs. Occasionally, I am the recipient of a lost beer, a sealed snack, or other item. Generally speaking, though, the trash fills up quickly, and we keep bags in heaps on the back deck out of sight until they begin to resemble angular clumps of snow. The sub-zero conditions mean that they stay relatively fresh as far as bags of trash go, but eventually, the trash mountain must be dealt with. This is where the adventure truly begins, because unlike many places in the US, the majority of Fairbanksans must take their refuse to the pinnacle of human achievement: The Transfer Station.
Sub-Zero Arctic Garbage
Acoustic Ecology: Sounds of Transfer, 2016
The Transfer Station (some people call it “The Dump”, but frankly, such a term erodes the majesty present within it’s chain-link walls) is where people in the North Star Borough come to throw their waste into a large semi-circle of waiting dumpsters, their mouths open wide like so many hungry hippos. Many locals would consider it yet another prosaic barrier between their them and whatever it is they really want to be doing, which I assume (as I’ve said in previous installments) is avoiding death. I would consider the relegation of Transfer Station visitation to a box underneath one’s “chore” list as a crime against the self.
Most Transfer Stations (there are numerous dotted around the borough) seem to organized in the same way: The tried-and-true Cyclops-orientation. In this way, the bulk of the bins for rubbish constitute the massive arc of his toothy grin, and his all-seeing eye is the all-important swap-platform.
The array of tan-colored dumpsters are brimming with possibility. Typically, several will be occupied at a given time by strong men throwing their frozen garbage away, and there is almost always at least one man wearing many coats and robes, probably on a bicycle, rummaging through the various bins. Invariably, he will look weathered and grim. Presumably he is looking either for food, useful (read: pawnable) junk, or possibly a mystical sword frozen into the trash that, legend has it, can only be wrested free from the shackles of Tundra by the one true king of Fairbanks.
For my part, I have already seen a good deal of useful “junk” as I cruise the arc of the Cyclops’ smile. Functional radios, all kinds of electronics, boots, and the rainbow of odds (as well as ends) are all regularly found in the dumpsters. The difference between the transfer station here, and in, say, Dallas, TX., is that I think people are so pressed for time and warmth that they just don’t give a shit about the still-working clock radio and so they just eject it in a mad-rush from their driver’s side window as they hurry home to stoke the fire. The climate here has a paradoxical impact on the people. One would think the harsh cold would foster a supernatural level of resourcefulness and wastelessness. One imagines the Alaskan who is made only from muscle and bone, who turns an old, ill-fitting ski into a portion of his/her bathroom wall. And, to be sure, these people exist. But also, the intense cold has the inverse effect of fostering more waste, because again, people do not have time to give a shit about a million tiny things, and they’d rather kick the rusty children’s swing-set out of the back of their F-250 than figure out how to scrap or sell it. Winter makes sloths of us all.
The Joy Of Swap
But the twinkle in the eye of the Transfer Station is crowned atop the toothy grin: The all-important swap platform. I have no idea if that’s what it’s called, or if it has a real name. But most Transfer Stations have a platform for people to drop off and rummage through “functional” or “useful” stuff that doesn’t quite qualify as waste. Again, there is no written directive as far as I know. Alaskans are born into this world with an innate sense of these things, a sort of Bushido of the Tundra that dicates right/wrong; a blueprint for life.
A cursory scan will usually reveal an ecosystem consistent from Transfer Station to Transfer Station: Refrigerators despondently staring up at the night sky, blenders and microwaves gathering around a pile of musty books, and some frosty and rusty (frusty) exercise equipment. Invariably, the numerous cords of electronics form a lush under-story of tangles ripe for the tripping. These citizens of the swap platform are fairly predictable, but for the true sleuth or botanist in all of us, a rich world of artifacts refreshes itself nearly every day if we look closer.
For my part, I am more apt to do detective work than the average Fairbanksan, probably, and thus, I reap all the benefits. Indeed, it is me and not they who have a coveted book written in Gaelic (maybe about a swan?), a hat with a picture of a log, and not two but ONE coffee mugs with “world’s best fisherman” scrawled on the side. If such archeo/bio-logical conquests do not warrant the hours of literally numbing stumbling I’ve done through garbage, then nothing will.
Of course, this is amateur-hour as far as the alchemical wizardry of turning trash into treasure goes. I could never complete with a real hardy Alaskan who is, presumably, able to tap into some kind of ethereal radio frequency that alerts him when an item of value is en route to a platform. No matter when I arrive, there is always a couple of dudes hauling the last item of value into their rig, and heading off to sell their harvest and live out their days on a personal island. While the vast majority of the function of the Transfer Station is getting rid of garbage, some people have rolled up their sleeves and manifested a career, or at least a time-consuming and painfully cold hobby.
And this may be the truest and most pure “Alaskan” ideal that I can conjure: The person who literally subsists on other people’s excess. These are supernatural beings who defy basic tenets of life: conjuring something from nothing. Indeed, conjuring something from less than nothing, in a sense. If the hardy Alaskan can be found anywhere, you’re too late, because she’s already driving off with 600 pounds of frozen meat that she found at the Transfer Station, so you’ll never get to meet her.