Brendan Jones is the author of the novel "The Alaskan Laundry" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
There was no way of knowing that the dark-haired woman I met eyes with in my Cuban salsa class in Sitka, Alaska, was from Mount Laurel. That she was born at Holy Redeemer in Philadelphia. That we would be married a couple of years later, living on a World War II tugboat in Sitka, the two of us holding our daughter Haley Marie over the training potty emblazoned with the Dallas Cowboys star. Good job, Sweetie. Good job.
I grew up on 20th and Lombard, and went to school in the city. At age 19, I traveled to Alaska to work at a salmon hatchery, lived in the woods for nine months, had my life transformed by that fishing village on the edge of a rain forest, a town where brown bears outnumber kids.
In 2006, I returned from Alaska to Philly to start Greensaw Design & Build, worked for six years doing renovations, filmed three reality television shows, then sold my rowhouse right around the block from Pat's and Geno's to return to Alaska and buy the Adak.
It's bizarre, negotiating my love for this city with our life in Alaska. This has become even more complicated when it comes to raising Haley Marie, who pulls herself up in the morning on the threaded rods of the brass porthole to look out over the water. Who stares down sea otters and growls back at Earl, the harbor sea lion. Who witnessed her first deer butchered at 8 months (don't tell Rachel's mother) and whose small fists excel at gutting fish.
But we also want her to have that Philly/Jerz panache, to make sure that the 215/856 blood she inherits flows strong in her veins. (My father grew up at 47th and Pine, my mother worked as press secretary for Mayor Bill Green, then at Temple, then the Free Library. My wife's grandfather was mayor of Mount Laurel.) To know she's an underdog, a counterpuncher. Always will be, just like her parents.
An alley runs behind the brick rowhouse where I grew up. At the far end a dumpster, a bramble of weeds, and chunks of granite that sparkled when we stood atop the air-conditioner compressors and dropped them, thrilling in the explosions. We were feral, the dirty lot of us, straddling wooden fences and riding the cap rails like bulls. Finding scraps of plywood and milk crates, making ramps for our big wheels, which we rode with such clatter and bravado, the sound of their hollow plastic wheels echoing so loudly against the brick wall of the church on 21st Street that one of the neighbors built a concrete speed bump to slow us.
In Sitka, in the harbor where we live, I see versions of my younger self, this pack of kids, boys and girls in faded camouflage rain pants, working herring jigs along the dock, impervious to hail, jockeying around in their little sailboats in 20-knot gusts. I hope Haley one day will join their ilk, maybe wearing my oil-splotched Eagles hat, swaggering up to those kids and saying, "Yo, what's up?" I hope she does like her mama, and makes her first stop in the Philly airport the soft pretzel stand. (Mine is Jahmal Rhaney, to get my crazy "fisherman" hair, as he calls it, cut into something fit for proper company.)
Rachel's mom, who grew up in Mount Laurel and still spends summers in Ocean City, calls us "whack-a-doodle" for living the way we do. For going out into the woods to chop wood for heat, for our freezer full of berries and salmon and venison. She might be onto something - maybe. But it might have more to do with the double life we lead, our East Coast stubbornness plaited into our Alaskan lifestyle in ways that perhaps we don't completely understand.
I still wear that same Eagles hat while changing oil screens on the tugboat engine, still have cheesesteak parties for friends, albeit using venison harvested from the alpine. Getting the cast-iron hot, squeezing oil out of a ketchup container the way they do at Pat's, freezing the meat so I can shave it thin. Teaching friends to order "Wit" or "Wit-out," making a show of anger when they get it wrong. Back in Philly the boys at Claudio's have grown accustomed to vacuum-sealing pepper poppers with provolone and prosciutto and marinated squid and testun al barolo, that mixed milk cheese shrouded in a netting of spent grape skins that the baby will nibble on the plane ride home.
But there are also the intangibles, what we bring with us to Alaska. Tristate bluntness of speech does not translate well, I can tell you that. The city attorney wasn't used to the two of us telling her where to go when she tried to impound our tugboat. (She got used to it.) Rachel and I both serve on boards, and have little patience for the small talk that so mysteriously oils the gears of small-town life. At a bonfire by the water I once got in a wrestling match with a buddy from Scranton. People tried to break us up. Pennsylvania fun.
After Haley's first Eagles game (8 months), we took her for a cheesesteak. Boy, did she love it. The Eagles game was a bit loud, especially after the quiet on the tugboat, the sound of an actual eagle alighting on the boat mast, the salt-brine smell in the air.
It's OK. There's time.