Thursday, July 31, 2008

Dolly's House and Doll Houses!

Ketchikan is 3,656 miles from where I am.

I’m sitting at the Diesel Café in Somerville with a group of writer
friends. We have built a little wall of laptops and iced coffees. It is nearly impossible to me that just a few days ago I was walking the creaking plank-streets of Ketchikan, Alaska, paying $4.00 to visit Dolly’s House.

Dolly was a business woman. She owned a number of properties, and spent her summers in Ketchikan, running a brothel. Eventually she got tired of managing the girls, fired them all, and made all her money herself. She had sex for money until it was illegal, and then for many years after. She offered short pulls of whiskey from a hidden bar under her stairs during Prohibition. When she died, she stipulated that her house become a museum. There’s a ton more to the story, of course.

Susan and I had a brief, uncanny visit inside her landmark home. I’m fascinated by the stories of women in the sex industry from the turn of the century into the 50s—if that fact wasn’t already evidenced by earlier posts! Dolly’s house was especially bizarre because except for a few little pieces of evidence (a shower curtain with appliqué made from old condoms, for example) it seems like any regular time capsule from sixty years ago. She had a nice stove. She made her own clothes. She had some mass-produced art on her walls. I had to ask the girl at the cash register if one of the rooms upstairs had originally been a “working”
bedroom since the “personal” bedroom seemed too stuffed with private paraphernalia to function as a place to receive gentlemen callers. In fact, she told me, the “sitting room” was designated as such when Dolly quit seeing clients in there. In her seventies. So, at 72, she threw in the towel and started writing her letters, reading her novels, and keeping her exotic birds in the room where she’d made $75-100 a day on her back for all her adult life. I wonder what she did with the bed that used to be in there. In that sitting room, pictures of a nicely-dressed lady and her various doggie “children” sit next to shelves of books, collector’s dolls, and postcards sent to friends.

I like all the kitsch, but I loved especially the objects of daily life: dishes, old medicine bottles, gloves and hats, letterhead, coffee pots. I love that for a time, prostitution was legal in Alaska, and Dolly was citizen of respect and notoriety, who did a great deal for the town of Ketchikan. I’m sure she was called many things in her life. I’m sure some people thought it was narcissistic and preposterous that she would want her home to become a museum.
But her desire to be seen, and especially to be seen as a woman with many interests and skills (She raised animals! She sewed amazing dresses! She ran a bar!) indicates an almost utopian vision for later generations’ ability to see sex work with an unperturbed clarity we’ve never attained in our country. Or maybe she believed that people would always think she was “bad,” and she set up the museum just to cause mischief. After all, the small street behind her house, from which clients could come and go through the back door, is officially called the “Married Man’s Trail.” Indeed.

In Victoria BC I forgot my camera. I am so grateful for the internet, so that you might view the madness that is Miniature World. The virtual tour is almost as perplexing/wonderful as the real thing. Susan and I were the last guests through the exhibit, and were told we needed "45 minutes to an hour" to fully appreciate everything, even though we only had 25 until they closed. We did it all in 20, and let me tell you, there were moments of true horror peering into the Civil War exhibit. Why make miniature death? WHY? But even the doll houses, or the Dickens, or the Fantasy displays were more creepy than cute. My cuteness sensor finally went off at Circus World, one of the largest miniatures (not an oxymoron, look at the website) with what seemed like thousands upon thousands of tiny people, tiny animals, tiny rides in the tiny
midway, tiny popcorn and tiny balloons and tiny cars and tiny picnics. Tiny elephants with tiny riders wearing REALLY tiny rhinestone slippers. It was Susan's favorite as well, which leads me to believe it must have been the only actually cute thing in the place--since we two are among the few people I know who are truly, deeply, in our core, emotionally affected by cuteness.

We then stumbled onto Luminara Victoria, a festival of lights that happens in the lovely Beacon Hill Park. Glowing costumes, reflective sculpture made from old CDs, ballet dancers lit with purple floods, and a bridge over a lily pond lit with two-inch jars, covered in colored paper and each with a tea light inside, wired in winding pattern across the railing. It was magical.

One of my favorite little rituals from the cruise: Almost every morning on the Westerdam, Susan and I would order breakfast in our room. She would fill out the form before we went to sleep ("Eggs?" "Scrambled." "Me too!" "Toast?") and then when the steward's quiet knock broke our earplugged slumber in the morning, I would sit by the window and pass her dish after dish. Sometimes we talked. Sometimes we watched the mountains and the water out the window. Sometimes we facetiously complained about things that couldn't possibly matter considering how incredible our lives are, just for variety. I miss doing this. I miss the intimacy of it, and am still in awe and grateful for every second.

We spent two more enchanted days in Seattle at my new favorite hotel, the Alexis, taking long walks and having Seattle adventures with Phil, new friend from the cruise. One reason to love the Alexis: a free glass of wine in a bar called the Library, where you can paint postcards to send home.

I realize I've devolved into reportage instead of interpretation at this point. Sometimes I get scared I'll lose the details--especially since my journaling got quite sketchy towards the end of the trip with so much running around. I promise I'm thinking, still, about what it all means...


  1. Hi V,
    A few comments as you requested... Reportage is a good thing in travel writing, since one of the purposes of reading about someone else's trip is to come away feeling like you were there--which requires detail. I think you have lots in here, so I just wanted to point out that you shouldn't disparage that part. I also like opinions in travel writing. So I liked the part of this where you talk about how the one exhibit was really the only cute thing there. That made it more vivid and brought you into the story. Personally I'd say interpretation is the thing that should be included most sparingly, because sometimes it is needed but sometimes people go over the top with it, making it no fun to read. I'm sure you've seen examples of that too. My last comment in terms of travel writing style is that I think it works better without as many extreme words. Usually the description makes it clear that this is an extreme situation, and a slightly understated word is more unexpected than a word like "amazing" or "impossible." I know you like using extreme words--I assume because you think people won't notice how extreme the situation is otherwise, which may be true in a normal conversation, but I think you can assume that the reader knows you aren't going to waste time writing about something that isn't pretty notable.

    I think there is a lot of promise here for some good travel essays. And for some reason I feel like the travel genre is lacking female authors. But I'll wait to encourage you more until after the novel is done. :)


  2. Canceled flight, cafe plight, friends alright.

  3. Hi- Just wanted to say I love your writing style and enjoyed reading your 3 cruise posts, and re-living it from your point of view. I came over thru Susan's email, and I am an Abraham fan, and would never have even gone on a "cruise" without their fun talks on it, but it was SO GREAT to hear your take on the whole thing. And the fun of the zip line adventure, so cool. And your take on Dollys was so good. And the kareoke show, I also thought those shows were SO funny and really lightened up the cruise atmosphere. I ended up calling a cruise ship, a great big luxury camper on the water. (I am sort of camping oriented).
    It was a pleasure reading through your eyes. You write beautifully and I love your blog 'gorgeous curiosity'. That is sooooo good. Thank you!- Lilly

  4. Thank you Lilly! What a boon to hear your voice. The cruise ship does feel in some ways like "luxury camp." Susan and I marveled at how strange it is to share an experience with 500 people you don't know. We now all have some little piece of our lives in common.