Old-timers can remember when the peanuts were free at Chilkoot Charlie’s. Originally, when the place was only 25 feet wide and 100 feet long with one bar the peanuts were acquired by pulling the handle on an old plunger-type toilet that proudly announced “Nuts to You!” It was situated by the one and only waitress station. The nuts flowed with each hungry pull of the lever into any one of an assortment of containers I had provided: old tin cups, plates, bowls, etc.; all scoured from second hand stores around Anchorage. To replenish the supply we simply dumped more nuts into the top of the toilet.
As the bar’s notoriety spread and business grew, the old toilet gave way to 30 and 40 gallon plastic buckets at each of the now several bars. The old tin containers gave way to plastic bowls. Such is progress. The original floor wasn’t much to look at. So rather than look at it I simply instructed the patrons to throw their peanut shells on the floor. As an added incentive we would fine them .25 cents if they insisted on neatly stacking them on the bar in front of them or placing them in their ashtrays.
In the midst of all this some oil companies paid the state of Alaska $900 million for leases on the North Slope and the rush was on. It was hard to keep good help during the pipeline construction because everyone, understandably enough, wanted to get their hands on some of that big money. I knew guys and gals that had never had a good wage in their lives that were driving a bus of God-knows-what-all and making $1,000.00 to $2,000.00 a week plus room and board. They were mostly out of control. The good times would never end! They’d line up at the bar to see who could out-spend the other. They bought new cars. They took vacations to places they’d never heard of a year before, and they drank and snorted and stayed all night at any one of the many massage parlors along Spenard Road or threw their money over the tables at the host of after-hours gambling establishments.
The down side of all this for me, though the money was flowing agreeably enough, was the fact that everyone was out of control. There were fights literally every night and I had a crew of the toughest bouncers north of Seattle on my door and on my floor just to keep the peace. The worst problems were aimless morons from down south. It was as if someone had pried a rock loose in California and every shiftless, no-good, unwanted under it had slithered up the Alcan Highway and was immediately at my front door. It was like us against them, and though we never lost a fight we did eventually get into some trouble for heavy-handedness. I’m glad all that’s over. Anchorage is a more civilized place today.
Anyway, during the pipeline era I had an uncommonly good janitor. His name was Mike S. His nickname was Big Foot, for obvious reasons. If you’d had a couple and wanted to get his attention you could just holler, “Hey, Boot!” and Mike would invariably appear from somewhere in the recesses of the bar, covered with peanut shells. I have a vivid memory of Mike sitting on his haunches on the floor of the Show Bar around 6 a. m. sifting peanut shells into a nice clean pile. Part of Mike’s job was to sweep up the shells each morning after the bar had closed at 5 a. m., sift them through a hand-held wire screen, spread them throughout the club and then douse them with fire retardant.
Big Foot was very territorial. Everything below the knees in that place after closing was his. Bartenders and waitresses had their tips and he had his: anything he found on the floor. Occasionally a brave, careless or uninformed bartender or doorman would venture around the bar, flashlight in hand, in search of treasures in Foot’s domain. If they got caught their ass was his and everyone else stayed out of it. Anything you dropped on that floor was pretty hard to retrieve. The place was crowded for one thing, and the shells would generally be 2 to 3 inches deep. Foot would come up with $100.00 bills, jewelry and grams of coke almost every night.
One night after closing I was wandering around the place, nosing here and there as I’m prone to do, when I came across a .22 rifle laying on a stack of beer in the storage room. I made a mental note to ask Foot about it. It wasn’t long before I had located him and when asked about the rifle he began to shuffle those huge namesakes of his in the freshly sifted peanut shells. I offered an assurance or two but insisted on knowing what the deal was with that rifle. What an unexpected story I got!
I was afraid it was stolen; perhaps part of a drug deal. Maybe even a gun that had been used in some foul play. Nothing of the kind. That gun was used for safaris. You see Chilkoot’s had not only become very popular with people. It had become a world class hangout for mice. It was like a small game preserve and Big Foot was the game warden who had recently begun to perceive his job as that of thinning out the herd. Whenever it was convenient, between 5 a. m. and 10 a. m. when the bar reopened for business, Foot and his buddies would load up the .22 rifle with birdshot and go on safari.
A mouse running across the back-bar in front of a row of glasses could be killed with a blast of bird shot without breaking a single glass. Of course there would be blood and other unpleasantries spattered around but that could always be cleaned up. I suggested in the name of health concerns and keeping the herd trimmed that I should accompany Foot and his buddies on a safari some night and Foot reluctantly and bashfully agreed, but before it could ever be arranged Foot went to work on the pipeline along with everyone else. I did, however, have a photo and would give anything for it today, of Mike and one of his assistant wardens leaning against the bar, rifles in hand, with 5 or 6 mice bravely displayed between them. Ernest Hemmingway, eat your heart out!
What happened to all those mice is another story. By now Jimmy Carter was president of the United States and inflation was on—big time. It had been common practice in the bars around Anchorage, if you were out on a run-away and wanted to give your friendly competition a bad time, to wipe all their glasses off the bar with one swipe of the hand. They didn’t get mad. They got even. You see, glasses hadn’t cost “diddly-squat,” but with the arrival of double digit inflation that kind of game was no longer fun.
Also, you might remember, Jimmy was a peanut farmer. If you ever want to have a shortage of peanuts and the consequential jump in price just put a peanut farmer in the White House. Seriously. I had been buying 40 pound boxes of peanuts from some wholesaler in Oregon and before long I was searching the local grocery chains for one pound bags. You can imagine the difference in price. So, I did what I had to do. I bought a popcorn popper and started putting cedar chips on the floor. This system remains in effect today.
You want to know what happened to all those mice? There isn’t enough nutrition in popcorn, so they all migrated en mass back across the street to the Sunrise Bakery. What a reunion party that must have been!
For more stories of Anchorage history, check out growingupanchorage.com.