Iqaluit is a place where people seem to wash ashore, like Indian wedding decorations or terra cotta pot shards in Jamaica Bay. How did they get there? Where are they going? Who knows? Apart from Inuit and government administrators, it's a rare person who can explain just how he came, by long-thought plan, to live in a city of 6,184 souls, some 1,200 icy uninhabited miles north of Ottawa, a day's snowmobile ride from the Arctic Circle.
"It's so good to see a friendly face," sighed my first taxi driver as I entered the car, an inch-long cut from a rifle sight still fresh between my eyes. "I just got robbed." He explained how his last fare held a knife to his chest and stole $150. His dispatcher had called the police, but it probably wouldn't help. "Does this happen often?" I asked. "Oh no," he replied. "It's the first time in three weeks."
Another taxi driver, the next day, was Lebanese and wore expensive Italian sunglasses. He rolled down his window to hail every cab and most of the cars we passed. Before Iqaluit he lived in Brooklyn, not far from me, working for his uncle in a downtown counterfeit goods shop. When the city cracked down, a relative said he could make good money here, and so he was; but after six months he was ready to leave. He recounted how a colleague's hair was set on fire by a passenger in the back seat.
My next cabbie was a large man who ignored several attempts at smalltalk before asking, in a good ol' boy southern accent, where I was from. "New York City," I said, to which he replied, "God-damn!" He'd gone there often, he said, while driving a truck in Rhode Island. "I worked for the Chinese," he said. "We were thieves." Exactly what he stole wasn't clear, as his details came in a jumble, but he managed to convey a distaste for rural Illinois.
The last cabbie was an old man with a French accent who waited outside NorthMart, a sprawling department store where arm-long arctic char rest beside fish sticks and fox skins hang above crochet materials. I shared the cab with an Inuit teenager and his younger brother. Cab sharing is common in Iqaluit. A flat six dollars takes you anywhere in town, with the proviso that cabs will pick up new passengers while already en route.
Destinations are designated by number — I stayed at house 2625, and had visited building 208 that day. Cabbies memorize the layout, which signifies the order of housing construction and is broken several times between adjacent but asynchronously erected neighborhoods. The teenager and his brother lived at house 2465. Beside it was house 460. This particular juncture was the bane of new drivers, said the cabbie.
I asked how long drivers tended to stay, mentioning the robbery and the hair-torching. He laughed. "I came here 23 years ago," he said. "I was just going to stay for a few weeks."
Image: From the Iqaluit set.