My Turn: Bartending on the Alaska Marine Highway

As senior bartender in the Alaska Marine Highway System, I’ve been deluged this week with inquiries about the Ketchikan Central Office announcing they were closing the bars on the ferries. Their statement said this would save more than $750,000 annually, help limit reductions in service to communities, and those affected would still be employed.


I know the state is in a budget crisis and all departments are being asked to cut. But my ancestral Lutheran sense of justice has kicked into question the AMHS’s figures and reasoning.

I’m one of the few with seniority to work year-round. Most ferry bars get closed because their ships get tied up. Then those displaced bartenders work other positions, if they have seniority to work at all. This off-season there have been only two ships running with bar service, the Malaspina on the mainliner run, taking soldiers north and south, and the Taku, serving the smaller communities in Southeast.

I’m in the Inland Boatmen’s Union. We rank as the least-paid union members in the state, and I’m proud of it. Which sort of brings me to the AMHS’s figure of saving $750,000 by eliminating bar service. I recently received my W2, and by my crude math, given the number of bartender dispatches last year, we’d only “lose” about half of the state’s claimed $750,000 — without taking in revenue. Is the state also saying we take in no revenue?

Granted, some runs make more than others, especially during summer. On the Columbia’s run to and from Bellingham, there are days when I ring up my entire week’s wage value. And if a fact-finding reporter got busy, and it were discovered that the Columbia bar actually made money — without question — it should be considered a eureka blessing at a time when the system needs every bit of revenue possible to help stay afloat financially and politically.

One suspects that cutting bar service now is an all-too convenient budget fix for AMHS. It makes them look responsible and plays to a ready-made cohort, the anti-alcohol choir. The truth may be that it helps the office support the bloat shoreside, which some analysts have noted. For instance, we now have more dispatchers than before, with fewer actual workers to dispatch. So there may be something to the hearsay coming from the Ketchikan terminal, that a port captain was overheard saying he was glad the bars were going so he could keep staff. This may not be about keeping “service to the communities,” folks. If it has a nice sounding political ring to it, it probably is.

We wish the system luck with the new plan of serving beer and wine in the cafeteria. There are huge logistical concerns there. Can the snack bar on the Columbia handle the extra clientele? Will cashiers have the skills to cut off over-indulgers, with a big line waiting, and handle that discussion? Would they even know if his friend goes through to buy yet another beer for him?

This is a sad time. We bartenders appreciate the support we’ve gotten, such as the Juneau Empire’s editorial praising this cherished socialization place. It is an Alaskan thing. There are things that have value that just can’t be equated and which people will never forget. Like the folks who got married in the bar on the Taku and the many who have gathered there on their way to and from funerals.

I like to say I’ve worked in over 800 bars. And by that I mean that a bar is not defined by the space, but by the neighborhood it serves. There is always a completely different neighborhood bar going during those three days south to Bellingham than there is during the three days coming back north. And those neighborhoods are all as different as Alaskans are. I brag that this state attracts a more interesting breed of cat than average from the square states. But soon our bar — that long connecting table that helps this big Alaskan neighborhood to connect — will be no more.

It’s been quite a ride, and it’s been a pleasure serving you!

• Tony Tengs has been the Alaska Marine Highway’s senior bartender for the last eight years.


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