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Penitentiary atmosphere doesn't fix what ails Anchorage Downtown bus station

  • Author:
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published December 12, 2015

What shall we do to save the Anchorage Transit Center? How about inviting a priest to sprinkle holy water on the waiting-room floor. Every other approach to making the bus station routinely pleasant and safe has failed. And by the way, people who use the bus station never say transit center. That's government-speak.

I pass through the bus station four or five times a week on my way to Alaska Dispatch News or appointments. If you accompanied me, here are some of the things you would notice in the station between G and H streets on Sixth Avenue.

First of all, the repetitive prohibitions in the Code of Conduct posted on the double doors and on a large sign in red on the back wall. They include no smoking, no drinking, no rowdy behavior, no profanity, no illegal weapons, no panhandling, no skateboarding, no animals except service animals as well as "Shoes and shirts must be worn at all times." The latter seems obvious in December, but maybe a few foolish patrons need the reminder.

These prohibitions are illuminating. So is a notice on the double-door entrances -- right next to the prohibitions -- that says "High resolution video and audio recording in use on these premises to prosecute unlawful activity." Obviously violation of the prohibitions has been common in the past and remains so is in the present. Bad behavior, from the annoying to the unlawful, is expected. That's why security guards, who seem polite and restrained, are on duty.

In the last couple of weeks, management has added video and audio prohibitions. Several flat-screen monitors above the waiting room loudly play a loop of them, in some measure repeating the posted rules. Those passing through the station are reminded not to ask for spare change "or anything else." Anything else could include the time of day or the bus to reach Alaska Regional Hospital, so management is on shaky First Amendment grounds here. The video also shows young people smoking weed with a reminder of management's prohibition on that activity, and a young man jumping from to his death after using Spice. Patrons also are alerted to the possibility of encountering people who talk to themselves without making sense, and the loop provides a sample of loud gibberish. "Be nice, not a nuisance," patrons are encouraged.

The loop also has several public service announcements telling people in trouble where they can get help -- homeless teens for example.

Who is the audience for all this hectoring? Most of those using the station are nice -- or at least silent -- not a nuisance, but the nuisances are noticeable and set the tone for the place. They include the homeless, the mentally ill, drug users and rootless young people apparently looking for some action. It would be interesting to know the average income of these visitors to the station. It's probably the lowest of any public facility in Anchorage.

The homeless are of all races and ages. Some of them show up with bags, some wearing blankets or sleeping bags, although this form of attire has declined since winter arrived. A few of the homeless are on their way to Bean's Cafe or the Brother Francis Shelter. You seeing them getting on the 8 or 45 bus. Sometimes you smell them getting on the 8 or 45.

The mentally ill and the drug users are hard to separate. I am going to assume the two young men I saw standing on opposite sides of Sixth Avenue waving their fists and screaming back and forth "You're nuts" and "No, you're nuts," were high -- the insults were not for diagnostic purposes. I'm also doing the same for the disheveled young man with orange hair consumed by laughter who broke off laughing to bum a cigarette or money from whomever was in begging distance, including me.

In September, I saw a young man, maybe 25, sitting on a bench in green hospital garb, top, pants, and soft booties. He had a ID band around his wrist and had clearly left a hospital without checking out or picking up his clothes. Apparently, he came to the bus station because he had no other place to go.

No doubt there is a learned academic who has studied bus stations and can tell us why they attract the damaged. The Port Authority Bus Station on 42nd Street in Manhattan and the Greyhound Station in downtown Oakland were legendary for attracting them. Years ago in Denver, I encountered a man in the bus station who kept yelling "I may be nuts, but I'm not crazy."

When I was a student, I read the iconoclastic psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, author of "The Myth of Mental Illness." Szasz contended that while the behavior called mental illness is real, attempts to categorize this behavior as disease are not much different from "explanatory conceptions such as deities, witches." For Szasz, troubled people are not ill, they are struggling with questions about how they should live, how to achieve "peace of mind" or "a place in the sun." They face a philosophical conundrum.

Szasz may be right. But he does not answer the question, "What should society do when faced with disruptive people living out philosophical conundrums in the bus station?"

Maybe the Berkowitz administration needs to place a philosopher in charge of the transit center.

Michael Carey is an Alaska Dispatch News columnist.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com

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