Fairbanks is a college town.
Fairbanks is a town with a military base close by.
Guess which category of patron seems to frequent this bar? Yeah, the latter. Now, I was visiting Alaska, I don’t live there, but my opinion of “The Big I” was shared with four other people that I mentioned the experience to in Fairbanks, a couple of them were born and bred in the northern most state of the US. Let me be clear, I am not anti-military personnel, I have dear friends that serve or have served, and both my father and his mother served in the Army. I am anti-asshole though and the night that I went to this bar was a typical weekend night, nothing special going on in Fairbanks. But let me get into why exactly The Big-I Pub & Lounge receives such a pathetically low rating in my book:
Let’s start with walking up to the bar. I was with my best friend Roger who is teaching English at UAF, it was just two guys walking into a bar on a weekend night. We were sober and just looking to experience Fairbanks together. We must have threw up some red flags for the half dozen unofficial security guards smoking outside of the front door though, because as soon as we set foot on the front patio we were met with glares from the crowd around us. I wasn’t even sure who to show my ID to until a guy in a shirt that actually said “Security” stepped outside and checked our IDs. We didn’t get a single “Hi” or “Hello”, there wasn’t a congenial nod to be found among this fine group of crew-cuts, but the large crowd inside must have shared some telepathic bond with the thugs on the front step because as soon as we entered the building stern eyes measured us up.
Inside the Big I, well let me tell you…I have been to dive bars, I like dive bars and this was certainly a dive bar, twenty years ago. Now it is a smoke filled den of corn fed miscreants looking to release some pent up aggression, and the women that chase them. Seriously, the place is too dark and crowded to be anything less than panic inducing for sober people, maybe the atmosphere lends itself better to extremely drunk people, there is always something nearby to catch yourself before you hit the floor. The good news is that between the bar, the tables, numerous walls and random large objects placed everywhere, there is always a nice dark corner to hide in so that you can lie in ambush.
On to the music. The sound system at The Big I is amazing! It is loud, so loud that even outside you cannot hear the person next to you talking unless you are shouting at them, which may have accounted for some of the people looking so angry the entire time that we were there. The downside is (at least for the hour and a half that we were there) the music being played not only sucked but it was without any atmospheric intent. The music literally rotated between two twangy country songs to two hard core gangster rap songs, the rotation was enough to induce psychosis. I made no effort to find the jukebox as we walked through the bar, I wanted my presence to go as unnoticed as possible, which was difficult to begin with. None the less, the constant stream of noise blasting from a high voltage sound system persisted through the entire visit.
Not that the people within seemed to mind. They didn’t seem to mind anything in fact, except for the two guys NOT wearing some sort of shirt designed to show off muscles and lacking the signature crew-cut. It was as if our presence was the herd’s signal to stand firmly in place and become one with the ground, because not a single guy in the fucking bar moved out of our way to let us pass, even when I politely tapped a guy on the shoulder there was no response. The women though, they were totally moving around and willing to make physical contact with us. And by physical contact I mean they were extremely aggressive as they passed by us, as if we were not occupying any space between them and their destination. I had at least two women shove their way past me without a single sign to acknowledging my existence, not even a look over their shoulders. I felt as if we were being poked and prodded by the bar patrons, to see if we would respond with the slightest bit of aggression so that the entire swarm could be let loose upon us, fresh meat met with justifiable force; we did accost a woman in a Fairbanks bar after all, among the cream of the military crop none the less.
Neither me nor my pal rose to the challenge though and once our drinks were handed to us (the waitress was very nice and seemed out of place) we quickly made our way to the large patio along the outside of the building. The patio was extremely large and we grabbed one of the many open tables, far away from any gathered locals and gave each other a look that said “back on the road after this drink”, to which we both nodded and began drinking. We had both ordered whisky and Cokes, a safe drink, and my drink was okay though nothing to write home about. Nothing special about it, cannot recall if we got them with Makers or not, but at this point it didn’t matter, the bar had already killed the desire that we had to relax and enjoy the scene.
Halfway through our drinks though things got interesting, as the patio began to fill up the empty tables started disappearing. Which incidentally created the opportunity for a drunk local to join us at our table. We didn’t object, and I only gave Roger one look when the guy sat down directly next to me. “Nothing wrong with saying hi” I thought to myself, “At least guy doesn’t have a crew-cut, so he probably isn’t uber agro”. Then the introduction came; “I’m Anthony, and I am looking for trouble”.
Well, fuck. That was certainly not the desired goal of the night, getting into a fight with a local at a GI bar. Two liberal Californians, comfortable with their sexuality and emotions, a multi-layered dip of issues that could only serve to confuse and antagonize anyone and everyone (with the exception of the waitress, perhaps) within a square block. Anthony tried to chat it us up, we weren’t having any of it though, our drinks quickly emptied as I suddenly announced that “Natalie” wanted us to meet her in five minutes, and we had to get on the road. At which point Anthony revealed his real motive for joining our table, a cigarette and lighter. Wishing he had simply asked as he passed by our table, I satisfied his request before looking around for an exit from the patio. Of course one was not to be found in the dark, the waist high chain link fence seemed firmly embedded into the hard packed dirt and loose gravel (which I imagined was to more easily clean up the blood that would inevitably be shed nightly, as concrete stains) without a break for our escape.
So it was back through the bar for us; we made a bee-line for the front door. Dodging the impassable human barriers, side-stepping the future victims of domestic abuse (it is a statistical fact, not my opinion); I felt as if I were a character in a video game and each creature I passed would sense my escaping only to fall into line behind me, I was scared to look over my shoulder. The door was in sight soon enough, the bouncer from earlier sitting firmly in place, smoking a cigarette. He shot us a look as we passed by and I saw his head turn behind us, as if our pursuers were still there, and suddenly I could not be standing in the parking lot quick enough.
As we passed the first row of cars I dared to look back, sure enough there were more bodies standing there than there had been when we passed, and at least a dozen eyes were trained on us. I could only help but wonder if they were trying to calculate the odds of us being terrorists, maybe it would be a matter of national security and they could drag us back in the bar to interrogate us, which I imagine would involve rape at some point.
Sitting in the car, Roger and I look at each other and laugh. Then we considered the number of vehicles in the parking lot that might have guns in them, then how many of those guns might be loaded. We stopped laughing, put the car in reverse, and got the fuck out of that side of town.
We ended up at the Red Fox Bar and Grill, a local place for the college crowd, the place that we should have went to first, but being our second stop only made us appreciate it more. There were just as many people there, but no one glared at us, people were polite and we never once had to wait for a chance to pass by an obstacle in our way. We found a couple of stools, a nice place to observe the crowd and had a few rounds talking about life, Alaska, and people trained to kill living in a frozen wasteland with only alcohol to occupy their time as testosterone kept them ready to face their enemy.
A large part of what makes a bar, especially a dive bar, great are the patrons. You have the atmosphere, the stiff drinks and the patrons that always have character. The Big-I Pub & Lounge may be Fairbank’s oldest bar and it may be an Irish Pub (in name only, I assure you), but it is a shit bar and should only be on your destination list if you want to see if you can survive a night among the charming patrons of this Turner Street drinking establishment.