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Unanswerable questions
By Dave Kiffer

May 26, 2005

Ketchikan, Alaska - Just 10 days into the summer visitor season I received my first "unanswerable" question.
As someone who works downtown, I am frequently stopped by visitors seeking assistance as I go hither and yon. At least once a year, I am asked an "unanswerable" question. The reason it is unanswerable has nothing to do with its difficulty.

jpg Dave Kiffer

Unanswerable questions always have relatively easy answers. The hard part is answering them without letting on that the questioner is a complete moron.
My Mom taught me to always be polite - if possible. And besides we are all "tourists" somewhere. But it is just so hard to be polite when the questioner is obviously not the sharpest tool in the shed.
One of the first lessons I was taught in journalism is that there are no "stupid" questions, only "stupid" answers. Well, I have to admit that, yes indeed, there sometimes are stupid questions.
This year's "unanswerable" question had to do with dogs. Sled dogs. Husky dogs. A well dressed woman (she was wearing a clean garbage sack-raincoat) stopped on a rainy day a week ago and asked where the "dogs" were.
I offered my best perplexed look - sometimes they think I can't speak English and just walk away.
"Young man (I love it when those blue-haired vixens call me young man)," she repeated in a distinctly Georgian accent. "Where are the daaawwwwgs?"
"What dogs are you looking for Ma'am?"
"Why the sled dogs," she said. She turned to her friend. "What do they call them, Gladys?"
"The Iditarod."
"Yes, that's it, those cute Iditarods."
"Oh you mean sled dogs?"
"Yes, sled daawwwggs."
I paused for a minute. I had two choices. I could've patiently talked about "The Last Great Race" and how it is held way up north and that we don't have sled dogs down here. But that would have taken time (I was late to an appointment as usual). And judging by their glazed expressions, they really didn't want to hear it.
"How did you hear about our "dawgs?" I asked, trying to buy a few seconds.
"The nice man on the cruise ship said they have sled dogs in Ketchikan," Gladys the friend replied.
It was getting wetter by the minute.
"Well, Ma'am, " I said finally. "When it's rainy like this, we like to keep the dogs inside. We don't want them to catch cold."
"Can we visit them?"
At that point, I could have directed them to the Pat Wise Animal Shelter, but it was time to be moving on.
"Sorry, Ma'am," I said. "The dog shelter is too far away. But you can get a nice video of the dogs in that store over there."
They thanked me and toddled off to do more shopping.
A few years ago, the unanswerable question involved ethnicity. But it didn't start out that way.
"Excuse me," asked a man who was wearing an identical jacket to that of his wife (both kind of a "puce" color!). "Do you know where Troglodyte Jewelers is?"
I didn't.
"But they are having a 10 percent off sale today," he continued. "They were highly recommended in the presentation before we got here."
I started to explain that just about every one of the 105 jewelry stores in town was selling similar merchandise at similar prices. But he was not able to process that information and his wife was certainly having none of it.
"Troglodyte Jewelers produces the finest jewelry in Alaska," she said firmly. "Are you from here?"
"Born and raised."
That caused them to pause.
"You speak English very well," she said after a minute.
I thanked her.
"I mean it must be hard to learn English after speaking Russian."
This time "my best perplexed look" was genuine.
"When we studied up for this trip, we learned that Alaska used to be owned by Russia," her husband continued. "You speak English without an accent at all."
I look more like the Lucky Charms Leprechaun than Leonid Breznev, but why argue?
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"New York," the wife said cheerfully.
"Funny you don't look Dutch," I wanted to reply but they already had on their "best perplexed" looks as they walked off in search of the 10 percent off sale.


Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2005

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