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FROM THE ARENA
Column for the Anchorage Times 27 January 1991
by Wayne Anthony Ross

Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney gave a talk at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce last week on the need for more housing for the influx of troops that are expected to come to Alaska in the near future.

The general's concerns are valid, but not new. It has often been difficult to find proper lodging in Anchorage.

I first came to Alaska in late June, 1967, the year of the Alaska Purchase Centennial. After driving into Anchorage from Kluane Lake that day, my classmate Jerry Shimek and I were quite exhausted. We wanted nothing more than a shower and a good night's sleep.

The shortage of housing in Anchorage, in those days, quickly became apparent. After several hours of looking for a room, we finally arrived at the old Palace Hotel on Fourth Avenue. It had one room left, for nine dollars a night or fifty-six dollars a week. Since the Palace hotel did not seem to live up to its name, we chose to rent for only one night.

The clerk gave us a key to a converted clothes closet on the second floor! There were two cots in the room, and a small dresser. The only problem with the dresser was that to put anything in it, or to get anything out, we had to move both cots into the hallway! It was warm and dry, however, and since it would just be for one night, we took it.

The next day we started looking for a place to live in earnest. The only vacancy that we could find was at the Voyager. The rent there was $165 a week! Since we had about a $150 between us the Voyager was out of the question.

That night found us back at the Palace hotel. We decided to rent the closet for a week and told the desk clerk that we wanted the fifty-six dollar a week rate. He sneered at us. "That was the weekly rate yesterday," he said. "Now the weekly rate is seventy- two dollars!" (It was obvious that he knew we were desperate). But we weren't that desperate. We left in disgust and spent the night camping at the then edge of town, Russian Jack Springs campground.

We stayed at Russian Jack for several nights. Our days were spent looking for work and for a more permanent place to stay.

I finally found a job as a law clerk for a local attorney. Not knowing anything about Anchorage's cost of living, I was quite excited by the amount of my weekly salary. My classmates in Milwaukee were earning $80 to $90 a week as law clerks. I was earning the princely sum of $125 per week! I had never earned so much money!

But money isn't worth much without a place to live and we still couldn't find a place to rent.

We moved our camp from Russian Jack Springs to the Eagle River campground. Each morning when we woke, we'd wash up in the river, get dressed, and cook our breakfast over a campfire before going to work. When the attorney I was working for mentioned that the office was starting to smell like wood smoke, I knew something had to break for us soon.

One Sunday morning, coming back from Church, we saw a "Room For Rent" sign on a house at 325 L Street. The landlord, Chet Paulk was a likable, colorful character and we immediately became friends. He had a room to rent in his basement. He wanted $20 a week and agreed to furnish it with a second bed. We finally had a place to stay at $10 apiece per week!

I won the coin toss for the big double bed, and Jerry got the cot. The room had a big picture window. Why this window had been installed I don't know since the only view through it was of the concrete block wall across the basement. At night, I heard things scurrying through the rafters above our heads.

The first morning, I went to take a shower. The shower was a nozzle hanging over a rafter with the water pipe coming from the sanitary tubs in the basement. The shower stall was a shower curtain draped in a circle around another piece of pipe hanging from the rafters. As I walked back from the shower towards our room I heard a radio playing behind a curtain. Peeking behind the curtain, I saw that there was someone else living in the basement. Continuing on, I heard coughing coming from the fruit cellar. Someone else was living there. By the time I got back to our room I had learned that here were seven of us living in Chet's basement!

We stayed at the Paulks the rest of the summer. When my Dad visited us in August he stayed in a hotel, calling our room "the Black Hole of Calcutta". It was dark all right, but we thought it was great. It was quiet, clean, and inexpensive. And every once in a while, either Chet, or his gracious wife Virginia, would invite the two of upstairs for a home-cooked meal.

Chet Paulk, and 325 L Street are both gone now. Someone filled in "the Black Hole of Calcutta" and put a parking lot on the site. But I remember that first exciting summer in Alaska. And I, for one, can understand and relate to just what it is that the good general is saying.


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