For whom the Bell tolls? No mas for thee

Posted: Friday, November 12, 2004

Low Tide By Brandon Loomis

Once or twice in a generation an event is so profound, so broad in social and cultural scope, that it shakes a community into asking what it's become and where it goes now.

Prospectors find gold. A territorial capital moves. Influenza strikes. Gold mines close. A first stop light, first cruise ship, first Internet connection.

And then, without warning, a final chalupa. On Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2004, Taco Bell left Juneau, perhaps forever. For 19 years that esteemed institution served Alaska's capital, yet some of us never took the time to sample its gooey comfort, or even to learn what a chalupa might be. Gone in the night, without a real good-bye. We have ourselves to blame.

But is it bad? Is it wrong? What is Juneau without Taco Bell, and what can it become?

It sounds funny, I know, but Taco Bell running for the border should give pause for thought. Sometimes adversity breeds triumph. Dare to dream, Juneau. Might persons of great ingenuity and delicacy step in to fill the void, perhaps with Greek spanakopita - or even just souvlaki? Mmmmm. Curry. Duck in red curry. Lamb vindaloo.

OK. That's getting carried away. But is a hot dog stand too much to ask? What's become of The Soup Queen, for Christ's sake?

I digress. My point is, or should be, that fast food and Southeast Alaska always have enjoyed or endured a relationship of mythic proportions not known in the Lower 48, and this closure changes everything.

I direct you to my childhood. McDonald's was an ethereal nationalist icon wafting across the mountains and seas to Ketchikan, where we came of age in limbo: neither foreigner nor fully American. The other children had McDonald's. We had Dairy Queen or A&W or some damn thing - they've come and gone in that nondescript cinder block shack. I cannot tell you how it burned us.

Trips south or to Juneau meant Big Macs, and not just for the mobile but for their friends at home. By mail, by airplane carry-on, and even by cooler on ferries, fast food took the scenic route. Something important but indescribable lived in the beef mulch and Styrofoam. It could make an American of an Alaskan.

And one day it happened. The long-rumored opening of McDonald's coincided and shared space with our first modern, monolithic shopping mall (a mint green one). My high school concert band was there to welcome the conquering heroes. I played my heart out through that bass clarinet.

This week I asked an old classmate, Markos, now an attorney in Seattle, for his memories of that heady time for Ketchikan, the 1980s. He'd lived on Prince of Wales Island before transferring to our high school, and as surrogate in the city he became the Bush's burger expediter. He remembers the duty as a given: sometimes it's beer, sometimes it's pizza, but ultimately you take and ship a lot of McDonald's orders if you want to live in the big town.

"It was such a phenomenon that people were ordering McD's food and having it flown out to them," he says. "I don't mean a little, but a ton. I remember ordering well over $100 of food once and delivering it to TEMSCO to be flown out. You know how many Big Macs and fries it takes to spend $100 in 1985 dollars?"

But even McDonald's did not bring us full assimilation into the American way. Sometimes we needed Juneau more than we wanted to admit, for Juneau had Mexican food product.

"One of the big deals about going to Juneau on school trips was that you got to go to Taco Time," Markos says. "We'd gorge ourselves on those delicately flavored delights until we crapped all night. Man, what memories."

My understanding is that Taco Time departed before I arrived in Juneau, but, until now, the northern Tongass still had Taco Bell. And what reader in Hoonah, Angoon or Gustavus does not remember his first trip to it, or where he was when he heard the news this week?

Which brings us back to the monumental nature of the announcement. On Wednesday the phones lit up and the e-mail whizzed. Juneau cared, and readers let their newspaper know from the Valley, the high school and Douglas: Taco Bell is gone. And yet when we rallied the staff for coverage I sensed little enthusiasm for the story. Most of our reporters had seen a Taco Bell close before, somewhere. It happens. It's a corporate world and corporations have needs. Put it in the business digest, they said.

But no. Juneau turned a page this week and it's front-page news here. The capital of Alaska has but two McDonald's restaurants, a Subway and some take-out or delivery pizza to remind it of its colonial food roots. It's time to step back. It's time for vision statement.

Juneau has many critical decisions ahead, including whether to build a new capitol, whether another cruise ship dock belongs along its downtown waterfront, whether a road to Skagway, like an air-freighted Arby's Beef 'n Cheddar, can bridge Alaskans' chasm. Times are changing. Add the culinary gap to the mix.

Farewell, Taco Bell.

• Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire and can be reached at brandon.loomis@juneauempire.com.



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