Hope and Hi-Fi in Kodiak

 

I lived in Kodiak Alaska from 1971 to 1975. After two years of working in the fishing industry, I bought a duplex on Spruce Cape at the edge of Kodiak City. I rented out one two-bedroom apartment and one bedroom in the side that I occupied. I got a lot of visitors – partly because I had lots of records and a nice stereo. At that time the HiFi record player was a major component of the social network experience. Visitors often brought their latest records and we would listen to them, sometimes with a little beer and pot.

Kodiak was a wild frontier town at that time. Drinking, whoring and drugging was common. The lure of rich fishing grounds created a gold rush atmosphere.

My roommate was Johnny[1]. He was a very handsome young man from Wisconsin and part Japanese - which some found exotic. He had a natural appeal with the ladies that I couldn't achieve if I had majored in charm in college and gotten a straight A. Many considered the dream job to be on a highligher – a very profitable fishing boat. Johnny was looking for that kind of job – but in the meantime he tended bar on the late shift. At closing time, he would ask every lady at the bar if she would go home with him. More often than not, one would say “yes” and I got used to meeting an overnight guest in the morning. Johnny's dates often appeared hungover and regretful.

Occasionally Johnny lent his bedroom to a fellow named Bear. Bear was scrawny and appealingly homely in an Ernest Borgnine sort of way. He was married to a very beautiful woman who was pregnant and – according to him – permitted him to spend a night with a prostitute now and then. Bear was working on a highliner and was rolling in dough. Someone “in the money” likes to show off success. Buying a fancy car might do that, but one could assume that the car had a lien on it. Hookers in Kodiak didn't extend credit. Bear's purchase – for the entire night – of the prettiest and most expensive courtesan in town was his demonstration of achievement. That girl's name was Camille.

I knew Camille by reputation - after all, Kodiak was a small town. Prostitution was tolerated in Kodiak after it had been institutionalized and legal for decades prior to Statehood in 1959.

At this time, most sex workers in town were controlled by one Madame – allegedly with clear knowledge by law enforcement. Madame offered protection, management and housing for a modest share in the cash flow. Protection was mainly provided via a baseball bat, with police occasionally stepping in. Should a customer mistreat one of Madame's girls, that customer might end up being mistreated himself. If a pimp came to town, he would soon be seen leaving and just might appear a bit worse for wear.

Camille operated independently. She had presumably worked an arrangement with Madame and didn't need protection. She carried a .38 in her purse and owned larger caliber ordinance as well. Camille was often seen at the shooting range and was known to be a crack shot.

Camille and I introduced ourselves to each other one morning when I got up and found her wrapped from head to toe in a terry-cloth robe and examining my record collection in the living room. She was looking in the back of the assortment where most of my friends had no interest and was inspecting an Ornette Coleman record. We started talking music.

Camille visited regularly after that. At night, while working, she dressed like a New York model. At my house her garb was a halibut hat, a wool tweed deck hand's jacket and a hooded sweater; distinctively curly, ash-blond hair pulled back in a pony tail. Those clothes were standard attire for the island. She always brought records and we would play them and drink a beer and talk music. One day she told me that she played jazz on the cello.

Camille had an even quirkier taste in music than I did, and she acquainted me with all sorts of interesting musicians; Sam Rivers, Anthony Braxton, Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, to name a few. Some of my friends learned to like Frank Zappa. After all, what's not to like in a song called "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow". But one friend told me that listening to Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart made him want to set his hair on fire.

On one occasion Camille brought her cello. She said that it was “pretty beat-up”, but I couldn't tell the difference. She played "Night In Tunisia" and "Moonlight in Vermont". I was entranced.

She said "This cello is the only thing that I really enjoy having between my legs."

Camille went on to relate that her earliest memories were of being sexually abused by her father. In her early teens her father starting selling her to his friends. Subsequently she decided to keep the money for herself and left home. Her goal was to buy a world-class cello and study at the Berklee School of Music.

She said, "I want to start my education with a new cello, and pay for all four years in advance."

Camille said one other thing to me, which I will save that for the end of this story.

The last time I saw her, she came to say goodbye. She was departing for Dutch Harbor where the money was better.

A few months later, Molly came calling with a Billy Holiday record. I knew Molly casually, but she made me uncomfortable. She seemed very artificial. She seemed to have a forced attitude and a phony sense of humor. I didn't particularly like her and I cringed inwardly at the thought of having to entertain her, but she was my guest and I let her in. I found I liked Billy Holiday. As we listened to the heart-breaking tunes that were so typical of Holiday, I saw a change come over Molly. She became quiet, abandoned her clumsy attempts at humor and became more genuine. Then Molly told me her story. She had come to Kodiak from Juneau after the love of her life was killed in a fishing accident. I immediately realized that what I had disliked about her was the veneer that she had built around her grief. Molly was ever hopeful and expressed to me that it had been two years and she was just about done grieving.

She said "All things have their time and that time is about up."

Not long after, Johnny found himself a steady girlfriend. Her name was Franky. Franky was a farm girl without pretensions. She was steady, solid and practical and loved Johnny despite his record of promiscuity. To tell the truth, I couldn't help but like Johnny myself. Although his practices were opposite to my own standards, it seemed like he was caught in the overly free spirit of the time and swept away by his own gift of charm. After all, it was the 70's and more than five years before Aids became well-known.

Early in 1975 there was a nasty flu epidemic in town. I became severely ill. For several days, my day comprised of stumbling out of bed into the living room and putting a stack of six records on the turntable. I would lie there for two hours whiled they played, then stagger to the turntable to turn the stack over. After a couple of stacks, I would go back to bed. And I wasn't eating.

Franky showed up. Johnny had told her that I was sick. She had a stack of records and several yogurts. She played the records while she sat on the floor next to me on the couch and spoon-fed me yogurt. I could get a spoonful down every 15 minutes or so. I managed not to throw up, even though she was playing the Bee Gees. After about three hours and two yogurts I was feeling better. Franky returned the next day to nurse me further.

A couple of weeks later, I passed Johnny's bedroom and noticed a woman through a partially open door and saw that she wasn't Franky. A few minutes later, I saw Johnny in another part of the apartment and asked "Who was that girl?"

Johny shushed me, but by then, the unfamiliar girl had left and Franky had arrived. Franky heard.

Franky was full of hope too, and for her that didn't mean putting up with being just one in the lineup. I didn't see much of her after that. Johnny didn't seem angry with me. He accepted the fact that he had lost one of the best things in his life through his own bad choices and never blamed me for my slip of tongue.

Not long after, I left Kodiak for Anchorage. That following fall Johnny got a job on a high liner crab boat. I heard he made twenty-five thousand dollars in a three week season and bought his own bar.

Some time during the following year, I was browsing through records at Shimek's record store in Anchorage. I found an album recorded by students at the Berklee School of Music. Among the photographs on the album was one that showed Camille with her cello. I knew those luxiarant curls anywhere. As I looked at her picture, I remembered that other thing that she had said to me.

"Even though I've (expletive deleted) about a thousand men, I feel like I'm still a virgin because I have never been in love. I expect that day to come."

I hope she did fall in love.

Hope springs eternal.

 

Author's Note :

[1] Names were changed. Reasons should be obvious!