This was at the Big-I in Fairbanks, Alaska, to be exact. Middle of the winter. The Big-I is a place that straddles an interesting line up in Fairbanks: it’s close to downtown, which is where the Alaskan Natives drink (as opposed to the Native Alaskans…err, the white people) – but it’s not quite downtown, and it’s a fun change-of-pace for the college kids (who drink mostly at the on-campus pub). All this to say, the Big-I is as good a spot as any in Fairbanks to get smashed, get in a fight, fall in love, see some people you’ve never seen before, and end up passed out in the bathroom. It’s smoky and dark, but they’ll serve you a free dinner; it’s got a nice big wooden bar that’s full of charm, but it’s covered in those awful video puzzles and some of the saddest alcoholics you will ever see. It’s a crossroads, which is what drinking is really all about after all.
On the particular night in question, though, I was just there with a few friends, in the corner having a couple quick ones, not necessarily out to drink until sunrise. This was only a few years ago, when I was already approaching 30 and didn’t really want to have to wake up with a hangover the next day every time I drank anymore. I had a good job and was working and just not really thinking about much at the time…just kind of in a lull between a few places in my life, or at least that’s how I remember it in retrospect, this night I met Harry.
There were a few young guys at a table next to us and they seemed a bit to have trouble on their minds, so in my stubborn way I had my eye on them, angry at them just for making me have to watch them (and in my brilliance, probably showing my anger just enough for them to pick up on it). The tension surely sucked, but it also put me in the frame of mind to probably speak up a little bit when anything happened around us. And it was into this situation that Harry, an elderly, elder Native man, walked up to both groups – the kids, and us, and asked for a light. I got him one, and he sat down at a third table between all of us, and started to chit-chat about the university and academics…which was fairly interesting because: 1) he was wasted and 2) he was old and 3) he was Native, and old, wasted Native drunks at the Big-I don’t always want to talk about the English Department. Harry got his light, he told a few tales, and then he went away for a while.
Later on that night (somewhere in there, my planned modest night of drinking went out the window), I walked into the back part of the bar to scavenge for food when I found Harry again…this time, he was at the bar piano. I leaned in and said hi and he had me sit, and began telling me of his life growing up, in a rural Alaskan village. He told me how the nights were cold and dark and even lonely, even as a child – but that his one saving grace had been a small transistor radio that he had at home, which some nights was able to pick up radio signals from Fairbanks. He told me how he listened every night falling asleep, and then related the incredible fact that he had been able to memorize every song he heard on those radio midnights, and that the first time he sat down at a piano years later, as a teenager, he’d been able to summon up all those songs from memory and translate them to the piano on his first try.
I was incredulous, of course – in the loud bar I wasn’t even sure I’d heard him right – but then he began to play for me, and all my doubts subsided. In the loudness of the bar the piano’s notes were only heard by him and I, but he played sublimely, classical pieces, rollicking country/western jingles, and even “Unchained Melody” by the Righteous Brothers. At this point, Harry was my fucking hero – he’d come from nowhere, and was pretty much nowhere now, but in between, he’d learned, done, and achieved some weirdly beautiful shit, said his piano virtuosity. And then he’d met me here, nowhere, on this random winter night, to tell me all about it. I was all ears.
Which is why, on that awesome night, I was able to remember the joke he told me. I’ve heard many many jokes over the years, but somehow my bad memory and worse comedic timing conspired to never let me remember them. But the joke Harry told me, I’ve got it down.
“What does a Native get when he sits on an iceberg all day?” Harry asked.
I shook my drunk, puzzled head.
“Polaroids,” Harry said. He said it straight-faced; the joke didn’t even make him laugh.
Hell it’s a bad joke, but when he told it, I knew it would be my go-to joke for the rest of my life. Men like Harry and me, bar-hopping rural-raised pseudo-geniuses like us, we need a go-to joke. Feel free to use it as your own if you don’t have another.