Here in the 49th state’s largest city, there’s a saying that goes, “When you’re in Anchorage you’re just five minutes away fom Alaska.”
Plopped in the middle of a vast wilderness, Anchorage—a city of nearly 300,000—isn’t typically described with the same effusive prose bestowed upon the state’s magnificent mountains, bays and tundra. Bland, boxy and weather-worn, its essence is cheekily captured by a mysterious Instagram account, @keepanchoragebeige, which features churches, high-rises, even a Cadillac cloaked in the city’s unofficial colorway. Anchorage is a city that wears its flaws on its chest—if not proudly, then at least with painful self-awareness.
It’s said that even during hard economic times, bars don’t suffer, yet in the midst of the state’s years-long recession and following a recent shooting at a downtown bar, some locals have opted rather to stay home. But the recession has also prompted Alaska to invest in tourism, and today the state welcomes more than a million cruise passengers each year. For this installment of PUNCH’s “A Night at the Door,” we spoke with security at three Anchorage bars to find out how they cater to throngs of international visitors and take responsibility for locals’ safety.
On the outskirts of downtown, leather-clad Vicki Mason watches over Mad Myrna’s, a drag club and gay bar whose clientele she lovingly dubs her band of misfits. Founded by beloved gay rights activist Jeff Wood (from whose drag persona the bar takes its name), the bar, with its wood-paneled walls and worn-in stools, has been an Anchorage institution since 1999; visiting is a rite of passage for many LGBTQ folx when they come of drinking age. A 2018 Condé Nast Traveler article claimed it has the best drag show in all of the U.S.
Across town in the Spenard neighborhood, the stoic, watchful Alex Tricanico stands guard at Chilkoot Charlie’s, which opened in 1970 and has seen everything from a Pauly Shore–hosted MTV Street Party in 1989 to Metallica and Beach Boys performances. His post at Koot’s, as the locals call it, requires herding hundreds of patrons who pile in each night for arcade games, karaoke, live music and regular stand-up comedy scattered across three stages and 10 bars, including a 25-foot-long solid ice bar.
Three miles southeast at the Great Alaskan Bush Company, bearded and broad-shouldered Nick Carmona looks after the pioneer saloon–styled strip club. Founded by Edna Cox in 1979 during the oil boom, the Bush Company has been in the family for three generations, capitalizing on the historically unbalanced ratio of men to women in Alaska. Today, the club welcomes everyone, and though Anchorage’s demographics have equalized, the old dating adage lives on: “The odds are good, but the goods are odd.” A 31-year industry veteran, general manager Dawn Harris has seen the club through the freewheeling oil-boom heyday through to the current era of Tinder and craft beer. She says the club has only granted five interviews ever, including this one.
Workplace: Mad Myrna’s
What got you into working security for Myrna’s?
When I turned 21, this was the first place I went to. Being of the LGBT community, I was like, “Yeah, I’m going to go to Myrna’s because everybody talks about it.” It’s like a rite of passage. “I’m going to go to a drag show. I’m going to try to be in the drag show.”
When I was 18 or 19 in college, I started doing drag at [the University of Alaska Anchorage]. I was like, “Maybe I can get into the divas show when I turn 21.” It took a year. I got to meet a whole bunch of people here. Got to meet Myrna for the first time and got to meet a lot of the iconic queens who used to perform here every Friday night. When I hit 21 or 22, I was like, “I think I want to work here.” A friend of mine that I went to high school with was head of security, and he said [to] put in an application and [we’d] go from there.
So this was the first security job you had?
I started doing actual security through here. Then I worked as an EMT with a security company.
How long have you been with Myrna’s?
I’ve been here 10 years. I became head of security about five years ago. I’ve been here ever since; it’s like a bad addiction. I stepped away to do some life stuff and some work stuff, but I had to come back because I missed it. I miss the family and the group here. It’s a homey atmosphere.
We spoke shortly after the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando and you said then you felt lucky you didn’t really see many incidents at Myrna’s.
We’re still very thankful. We don’t get what we see unfortunately at some of the other bars in town. It’s not the same group of people. Either people are too afraid to come to this bar, or they don’t know where we’re at. We’re not quite downtown and we’re not quite Fairview.
We have been called a gay dive bar and it’s kind of cute. ’Cause on the outside, it’s like, “Oh this could be interesting.” And on the inside we’ve upgraded our lighting systems, but we’re still a little dive-y, but that’s because we’re pre-1964 [Good Friday earthquake]. So we haven’t had our complete face-lift yet, but we’ve got a lot of cool things on the way.
Do you think your security has changed over the years following Pulse?
It was scary. It was a scary time. Last time we talked, it was right before 2016 Pride Fest so when Pride happened there were a lot of protesters and a lot of hate going on. We upped our security and we did that for about two years before we finally decided there wasn’t a need anymore. We got rid of the [metal-detecting] wand-ing process and emptying pockets. We want them to feel safe, but not like it’s TSA check-in.
As time went on, we realized we’re OK. Thankfully we’re an establishment [where] we catch a lot of things before they even remotely happen. We don’t let super-intoxicated people come in and [we don’t] let it escalate to a point of violence, whether it’s fights or somebody pulling a gun out or anything like that.
Just within the last couple of weeks with everything happening downtown, it’s been kind of scary for us too. And it’s like, OK, we just have to keep doing what we’re doing. Keep doing what we’re trained to do. We’ve been good. I wouldn’t change anything about this place. Everybody comes in and says, “We feel so safe,” and that’s the important part.
How do you go about creating that safe space?
A lot of it starts with how we train our new employees. We teach them to be open-minded. You’re coming to a very open-minded bar. You have to be accepting to work here. This is a safe place because we don’t tolerate people getting groped. We don’t tolerate possible roofies. You leave your drink behind, security is going to come up and grab it. If you’re on the dance floor and you have a drink that looks like it’s been sitting there for a long time, we’re going to pick it up because we don’t know if it’s been roofied. So we’re going to take that extra safe step and protect you as a patron. And we’ll get you another one if that’s the case.
Have you ever been harassed on the job?
No, I don’t think so. I mean, we all get flirted with by the men, the ladies, the drag queens, the drag kings, everybody of every color. And that’s one of the things about here, is, you’ve got to have thick skin and an open mind. But we don’t really get people who harass staff. Some get belligerent. They get tipsy and they want to get mouthy, but they’re asked to leave rather promptly. I’ve heard other bars have situations where people and staff get harassed. We don’t have that problem here. And I’m OK with that.
What do you think makes Myrna’s one-of-a-kind?
The people. Definitely the people. Both the patrons and the staff. We get every walk of life that come through here. We’re a house of misfits. Everybody of every nationality, of every gender label that you use, every sexual orientation comes here and feel safe. Those that don’t feel comfortable going elsewhere, whether it’s another bar or store or establishment, will come here and won’t be harassed and know that they can be who they are and not be judged. And that’s what makes Myrna’s Myrna’s, is the people.
Lastly, do you have a post-shift drink?
Lately I’ve been into the Malibu Barbie [Malibu rum, Absolut Mango, pineapple juice and a splash of cranberry juice], but I also like the Basic Bitch [Malibu rum, Pinnacle Whipped vodka, blue Curaçao, pineapple juice, Sprite]. I also order the Buttfucker Deluxe [Cruzan 151, Myers’s dark rum, amaretto, cranberry, orange, soda and extra pineapple juice], but only if Misha is making it. I’m also a fan of a pint of beer. Just plain old beer.
Workplace: Chilkoot Charlie’s
How did you get into this line of work?
Right now I’m actually in the military. Just hanging out here, the bartenders and everybody were so nice, I decided to join in and be part of the group. The atmosphere is always great.
How long have you been with Koot’s?
About 16 months now. I love coming here. I love working here. Every Friday and Saturday is a different environment, different people, different crowd. It’s never the same thing over and over. All the events are always different. It’s pretty nice to be able to see some of the events and be a part of it.
How do you think your background in the military informs the job you do?
For me, I’m very observant, which is good being a doorman, because you have to be observant of people—how much they drink, how they react, how they act. A lot of them try to hide it when they’re a little too drunk and I’m very good at reading people. I try to keep all of the problems, if there are any, down to a minimum, but I can’t say we’ve encountered many since I’ve been here. Maybe one or two.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about being security?
A lot of people think we’re the bad guys. We’re the ones kicking everybody out, but some people don’t realize that it is the law here that you’re not allowed to keep drinking. You’re not allowed to come in when you’re drunk so we’ve gotta be the bad people. We’re very nice to everybody as best we can, no matter how much they get in our face and yell at us. You know, tell them “Have a nice day,” be as polite as possible. That’s our main goal and I think that’s one of the qualities I like about working here.
You have a very calm demeanor, so that probably helps.
Oh yes. I’m very calm. You need a lot of patience. There’s a lot of people that drink too much that don’t really know what they’re doing when they’re drunk, so it’s up to us to make sure we stay level-headed and patient with them to make sure they get home safely.
What do you think it is about Koot’s that makes it such a destination for locals and tourists from around the world?
The first thing that got me was all the different areas, all the different bars they have. You know—ice bar, swing bar, main stage. They always have something different in each bar, so it’s never the same with one stage and one kind of music all the time. You have your hip-hop and R&B in one area, you have concerts, your comedians. So you always have something to choose from. The Bird House is another popular bar everybody comes to see.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on the job?
The funniest thing I’ve seen is I had a drunk person come in and I asked for his ID card, and he pulled out his phone and showed me his picture on his phone, acting like it was his ID card. I was like, “Nah, I need your ID card.” He was like, “This is my ID card,” and kept showing me his phone. “Look, that’s me and my kids,” he said. And I’m like, “I guess, sir, but I need your ID card.”
What’s your favorite part about working here?
Everybody who works here. We’re one big family. We look out for each other and that’s very big for me. You know, being military, we’re very family-oriented, especially with the people we work with, so if you can connect on that level that we connect, everybody looks out for one another and vice versa.
Do you have a post-shift drink or snack?
No, I never drink, even afterwards. Once we’re closed, it’s legal to drink, but I’m not much of a drinker. Post-shift snack is the pizza they give us that’s left over.
Workplace: Great Alaskan Bush Company
How did you get into this line of work?
I never actually imagined that I would be working as a doorman when I was younger. I was in the military and had just gotten back from my second tour and one of my squad mates was a regular at a club downtown and he knew everybody there and they were looking for a doorman and I was looking for part-time work on the weekends. So I went over and applied and got hired, and that was like 14 years ago.
How long have you been at GABC?
Almost exactly six years. It was October of 2013.
What do you think it is that makes GABC special?
I think it’s really cool that it has such a long history and it’s kind of an iconic establishment, and so we get people from all over the place spending their layovers here from the airport. They come to the airport, they’ll spend three hours here, then head back.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen on the job?
There’s been quite a few strange things over the years. There’s people that we don’t let in the door, [so] they go out and change their shirt, take their hoodie off, or put a different hat on and try to come back in. There was one guy that had an entire wardrobe in his car, and he kept changing outfits and trying to come back in like we wouldn’t recognize him. We were just cracking up and sent him back out half a dozen times.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about your work?
I know that I had misconceptions before I began working as a doorman. I had probably the same misconceptions everyone else has. I couldn’t imagine myself working as a doorman. Everyone is really actually normal. Your coworkers, the other doormen, the dancers, the management, the owners. I didn’t expect that.
What did you expect?
I don’t know. I never really went to clubs so I imagined bouncers throwing people out all night long.
How do you think the military training helps you do your job?
I think the military is really good at developing a certain amount of discipline, punctuality, interacting with people and situational awareness. Just being aware of your surroundings—that’s the entire job as a doorman. It definitely helped me because I spent my younger years in the military, so I was a little older and more mature when I began.
What do you like most about your job?
I like that it’s very low-stress. To me it’s low-stress. I’ve had other jobs in the military and deployments that were more stressful. I think the military is more politically correct and strict. Here it’s all very casual. We have rules and regulations that need to be enforced, but it’s a very casual environment. I actually look forward to nights I work here more so than other jobs.
What other jobs do you do right now?
I’m in school full-time and I also work as a transport officer for the state. We fly around the state and we transport people from jails and mental facilities and things like that.