Soothing the Savage Beast
SLACKJAW, MI -- Chris Janison was angry. Her hat was askew; her woolen coat unbuttoned; her face red and her eyes narrow slits. That was before she stomped into Agnes Borkland’s office at 8 a.m.
Less than 20 minutes later, Janison emerged. She was smiling. The cause of her anger forgotten, her mood upbeat, her gait cheerful and content. She calmly buttoned her coat, said hello to anyone and everyone in sight and, whistling a carefree tune, sauntered into the May sunlight.
Behind her, Borkland waited for the next angry person to march into her office. Day in, day out, Slackjaw’s director of the Commiseration Center sees dozens of residents from this Upper Peninsula community.
All of them enter upset frustrated and, often, incoherent with rage, barely able to swing open the office door and charge inside.
Some can no longer tolerate the persistent cold air. Others are finally overwhelmed by the immense isolation. There’s no way for anyone to get here. Trains, scheduled in 1876 to run through Slackjaw from Lac La Belle to Laurum adjoining state route 41, never were built. Even buses avoid this small community.
Some mutter about the state officials who consistently relocate Slackjaw around the state map. A situation that irritates residents upset about being placed at various times near Detroit, Grosse Point, Lansing and Kalamazoo.
They bluster about the lack of jobs. The only industry is an old mill that sells sawdust to bakeries. They kvetch about the town’s decrepit appearance, the result of the founder’s passion for adobe and distaste for wood. (Visitors are usually so stunned to find a community here in the Keweenaw County woods, lacking any television hookup, living in adobe huts, that the town name was changed from Russell to Slackjaw in 1891 to commemorate the common reaction.)
Borkland sees them all, comforts them with a few words and has given this small town of 3,200 souls an aura of contentment. Fourth director of the city Commiserate Center, Borkland has spent the last two decades listening to any complaints in the privacy of her office, quickly changing attitudes and boosting spirits.
“I’m the fourth person in my family to have this job,” explained Borkland, a buxom woman with silvery hair who was sitting behind her desk. “We passed it along generation to generation.”
She had little time to talk. It was 8:30 a.m., and, already, more townspeople were following Janison into the C.C. office, exactly on time. There was Hazel TerHorst, a housewife fed up with the antics of her four children. They had started a snowball fight in the house and eventually broke the ice sculpture in the living room.
She was followed by Alex Winsburg, a tourist who was stranded here 15 years ago when his car broke down and never was able to leave. Winsburg comes to the C.C. at least once a week. Borkland said. “He ran a sauna on the outside. There just wasn’t any call for his services here,” she said.
Others trooped in: Wayne Gortsen, a policeman upset because his wife insisted on chopping wood instead of letting “a man” do it; Philamena Orgestborg, who was disappointed that her irises had died in the recent frost; young Jon Groatlund, frustrated that he couldn’t make a figure eight on his ice skates.
One by one, they came. And one by one, they left, content, ready to meet the difficult demands of their small community.
Maybe it’s the acorn cookies that every visitor enjoys. It’s an original recipe, Borkland said. The shells are cooked right along with the batter. It could be her shrill voice that seems to lacerate a listener. Or the weapons, the pictures of starving children in Africa and the interior of decaying jails and slums, street people in New York and Calcutta, and the blunt, cynical homilies about vanity, life and death covering the C.C. office.
Or it could just be the existence of the center itself.
“It started at a time when everyone was depressed by the train situation,” Mayor Rose Lindstrom said. (Her office budget is smaller than the one for C.C. If Lindstrom has a complaint about it, someone in an office above hers will be happy to talk to her.) “Virginia Findlayson was our elementary school teacher, and she had to calm children upset because their parents were so angry. She just told them how bad off children in other countries were, struggling with the broiling sun, insects, boiling hot sands on beaches, things like that.”
“After a while, adults started coming to see her.”
“It’s hard to explain,” said patrolman Gortsen, a burly man with blonde hair and a serious expression on his face. “Mrs. Borkland is direct. She tells us how much better off we are here than anywhere else. It makes it easier to face Slackjaw.”
Borkland doesn’t talk about her methods, although her angry tones can be heard rising through the air outside the city hall. Occasionally, her visitors whimper and cry, mingling their plaintive sobs with her more shrill outbursts.
Her sessions are private, and the reasons that prompted townspeople to visit her remain locked in her safe. She just nods at questions with a puppy dog look in her brown eyes. “I’m so sorry I can’t help you,” she said in response to a question about her methods. “I wish I could tell you what you want to know, but you are better off not knowing. If people knew everything, their brains would explode.”
The committee itself actually has two other members who fill in when Borkland takes a rare day off. Neither Esther Wiedenhorst or Abdullah Sharif have the same support from the townspeople. “It’s tradition.” Mayor Lindstrom said. “Somehow, the truth sounds more vicious coming from Agnes.”
Several area communities have talked about setting up their own C.C. Mandan, Bete Grise, Mohawk and Fulton all sent officials to meet with Borkland. They didn’t learn any secrets, but returned to their respective towns to report there was nothing wrong and no need for such an agency.
Today, 10 years after Mandan’s mayor and town committeeman first visited Borkland, the two men, no longer in office, still visit at least once every six months for a booster commiseration.
Borkland, however reserves most of her time for her fellow residents. “Slackjaw is heaven,” she said between interviews. “Plenty of fresh water, woods to play in, snow. Who needs television? It just ruins the mind anyway. And books? Whoever succeeded reading a book? Movies? I tell you, we have more entertainment in one snowball fight than Hollywood ever thought of. And it’s free, too. Just think about it. It’s all free.”
She slammed a small clenched fist against her wooden desk, sending cookies flying. Behind her, a framed picture of Nazi concentration camp victims glistening in the sunlight. “It doesn’t get any better than this.” Borkland said firmly. Her eyes were narrow and hard. “You’d better believe it.”
The residents of Slackjaw apparently do, without complaint.
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