In the early fifties, Alaska Natives made up less than a third of Anchorage’s population. In the forties, a court order had officially put a dent in racial segregation, making it illegal for businesses to post signs forbidding entrance to Natives, but it was another ten or fifteen years before the shock to the white population wore off and proprietors greeted my Athabascan relatives with a smile.
I was only about eight years old, but I noticed that when white people drank they joked about being tipsy and shrugged it off. Yet a drunk Indian or Eskimo staggering along Fourth Avenue led to sneering remarks about Siwashes. That image and the racial slurs smeared all Natives, even my mother, who didn’t drink. “People don’t see me,” she’d say, resigned as she shelved books in the Loussac Library where she worked. “They see a drunken Indian on Fourth Avenue.”
From the time she was a child Mom had sought respect, a desire that propelled her to graduate from the University of Alaska. So it was no surprise that she — who never wanted to rock the boat in her efforts to fit in — was horrified when Dad, with the confidence of his Dutch/German whiteness, wrote letters to the editor of the Anchorage Daily Times, calling certain city officials and town leaders, crooks, communists and worse. It didn’t stop there because Dad was also a cartoonist.
“Pete, please don’t enter that in the Fur Rendezvous art show,” Mom said, staring in dismay at his oil painting, a caricature of Alaska’s territorial senator. Red Tape And Errorwas painted above the portrait in garish letters.
Although Mom couldn’t control Dad’s letters, or the screaming portraits of local politicians, she could make sure we looked presentable. It didn’t matter if we were going to church, the grocery store or to pay a bill at Chugach Electric. “Pete, those pants are dirty, put these on.”
Dad didn’t mind. “If it makes your mom happy,” he’d say, smiling. She felt it was her responsibility to help improve the image of Native people. She knew others were watching. She was right. We always drew attention, whether shopping for groceries or sitting at the counter in Hewitt’s Drugstore. People would look at me, fair and light eyed, then at Mom who might have been Japanese, then at my father, blue-eyed and with the strong white teeth of a farm kid. After another look, gazes resting on each of us, comprehension dawned. He’s the father.
We looked, Mom said, if not prosperous then clean, respectable and SOBER. She didn’t mind the curious stares. “It beats being snubbed,” she’d say, lifting her chin.
Thanks to movies featuring Indian women in red off shoulder blouses. Mom, her sisters and my grandmother flatly refused to wear red. “Hoostiutes,” they’d mutter.
I had to admit, the only Indian women I saw in movies were in westerns where they were slapped around and called “squaws.” Even when the “squaw” was Jennifer Jones in orange makeup. Mom and her sisters hated the song, “Squaws Along The Yukon,” and especially “…are good enough for me.”
“Humph,” Mom would snort, glinty-eyed.
Fourth Avenue was the main street in Anchorage. I loved it. The west end had the Empress and 4th Avenue theaters, shops, a few bars and restaurants, First National Bank, Northern Commercial Company, the Anchorage Daily Times, City Hall and the post office. The east end of Fourth was seedier, with bars and saloons with names like The Silver Dollar, Moose’s, Caribou Lounge, The Nevada Club and The Aurora.
When Bob Hope visited Anchorage in 1959, he called Fourth Avenue “the longest bar in the world.” Most of the locals, men anyway, laughed. East Fourth also had a Mercantile that carried fabric, patterns and inexpensive clothing. The Denali movie theater was next to it. There, one summer afternoon, a man slid his hand between my legs when I squeezed past him to get to my seat. I was alone and sat well away from him. The movie was probably a western, but I was shaking and don’t remember.
Fourth Avenue was one of the first streets to get sidewalks where people could stroll, enjoying the long summer days and mild weather. On sunny afternoons, women in red lipstick, tight sweaters, sheath skirts, and high heels emerged from apartments and residential hotels. One afternoon a tall slender woman with black hair and a slim skirt cinched at the waist by a wide belt passed us. “She looks just like Jane Russell.” I whispered, grabbing Mom’s worn coat. Her permanent was growing out and her hair stuck out oddly. But instead of being excited at the sight of this exotic creature, Mom yanked me toward the post office where Dad was waiting, leaning against our ’48 Studebaker that smelled of cigar.
“B girls,” I heard her say on the way home. I opened the small side window, inhaled the fresh air and wondered what a B girl was.
That afternoon when Mom was napping on the sofa, I sidled up to Dad. He was painting a landscape with a small brush, adding a touch of white, called termination dust, to the mountains. “What’s a B-girl?” I asked. Since mom couldn’t hear us, I thought he might tell me.
He hesitated and glanced over at Mom. An Ellery Queen mystery was open on her stomach. Then he turned back to the painting, switched brushes and added a touch of carnelian to highlight a mountain peak in twilight. Still not looking at me, he said, “I’ll tell you when you’re older, kiddo.”
I finally decided B-girls must work in bars or sit on bar stools and that’s where the “B” came from. From my mother’s expression, these women must be like B movies, slapped together cheaply with unknown actors and a poor plot. But that only told me how they got the name, not what made them different from other women. I sighed. By the time I was old enough for Dad to tell me, I’d probably have figured it out for myself. I had a hunch that’s what he was waiting for.