Santa Wears a Black Hat

Terry Stahlman was born in Seattle Washington. As a young man he bore a striking resemblance to James Dean. He carried that look with him into his twenties,  even following a stint in prison following a string of robberies. He tried to escape when he was 17. It didn’t go well.

After he served his time, he moved up to Alaska, some twenty plus years into its statehood and still in that period of time where the law was, you know, whatever. He made friends with biker gangs. In the 70s, he opened what was, for many years, the biggest strip club in Anchorage. He operated a gambling distribution. He was director of a halfway house for a while, which was darkly hilarious in that he would consume three times a day the amount of narcotics it would take to normally kill a man.

Terry has been in and out of jail and rehab centers and courtrooms for years. He once put up bail money for Mechele Linehan before retracting it for medical reasons. Maybe you heard about her.

The man has died and come back. He clings to life like a Terminator. He has an overpowering voice and a laugh that terrifies. It’s always his way or no way. When sober, he was one of the shrewdest businessmen I’ve ever met, a self-made millionaire time and again, remaking his fortune every time he kicked the drugs that made him lose it. He was frightening.

Now in his 70s, he is a frail old man laying in a hotel he no longer owns, high more often than not and ostracized by his children. His legacy is a tarnished record, a footnote for an era that no longer is. He is publicly regarded with scorn and disgust and raucous laughter.

He was my stepfather.

My mother danced at his club for many years and, as such, I grew up accustomed to the exotic dancing industry. When she and my adopted father split up, she married Terry not long after. When I was 4, my half-brother was born.

I grew up not knowing for a long time that things were different or wrong. I spent most of my childhood living with my adopted grandparents. My adopted father was drunk on the couch. So staying with my mom and Terry was…interesting. Exciting. As terrified as I was of the man’s booming voice and the yelling he would do at my mother when he had had too much to drink, we also went on a lot of vacations. Disneyland, Hawaii, Texas, Seattle. My grandparents were lower middle-class. We had our trips to Montana every summer, within a budget, but as a child it was the trips to hot places around tons of people that blew my mind.

I remember being three or four, peering out of my bedroom door in the early hours of the morning, awoken by arguing. My mother was walking down the hall to me. Terry hurled his briefcase and caught her between the shoulder blades. She went down hard. He bought me a lot of Christmas presents that year.

Beaches! Palm trees! Toys and money! Disney characters and live shows and expensive restaurants. When my brother was an infant and I was four, my stepdad left us in a room at a casino in Las Vegas to go have lunch with a friend. He told me to call 911 if there was an emergency. When he returned to the room,  the police were there.

I had called 911. I had had a bad dream. They almost arrested him. For a long time, I told that story because I thought it was hilarious. I still think it’s hilarious, but you should never leave a 4 year old and an infant unattended, least of all in a Vegas hotel room.

My step-dad and my mother divorced but stayed close. My brother stayed with Terry because my mom was incapable of taking care of him. She went to Texas and California and came back pregnant. When my sister was born, Terry took care of her and my mother. My sister’s drug dealer father paid attention for a hot second before disappearing completely. When my mother went back to rehab, Terry took it upon himself to adopt her and raise her as his own.

He took to the news to talk about the struggles of raising a mixed-race child because her mother was in rehab and biological father dead or in prison. The news.

The title of this post comes from a news article back in 1999 or 2000 for the Anchorage Press. I tried to find it, I swear. There is nothing I can say about it that gives the actual article justice.

See, Terry fancied himself a cowboy. He loved country music. He loved horses. For all the fur coats and gold nugget jewelry he wore, he also had himself some goddamn gorgeous cowboy hats and boots. He owned and rode horses. He chewed tobacco (fun fact: when I was three, I told him I wanted chew, insisted on it and he packed a little bit in my lip. I’ve never taken chew again and seldom smoke. Alternately, I asked him what breasts were when I was three and he gave me a Playboy to peruse while he went to an AA meeting. I have actually enjoyed breasts since. Nicotine < the feminine form).

For many, many years Terry would spend thousands of dollars to give toys to a local organization that helped abandoned, abused and impoverished children. Terry is gruff, he is an addict, he's often a misogynist, but he can also be incredibly generous and there is nothing on this world he loves more than my brother, my sister and the sister I gained through his third failed marriage (the one after my mom).

Santa came for these kids every year. Sometimes more if there was an event being held or if the organization was struggling. Santa was a 'baccy chewing, swear word spewing, loud and proud man in a black hat.

Terry once told me that my mother, free spirit that she was, had been engaging in flirtation – maybe more – with a man who reciprocated despite knowing who her husband was. Terry had some people put the man in the hospital and then paid all of the hospital bills. Just to prove a point.

The man loved drinking, drugging and having women (make no mistake, he often considered women "things to have"). He liked to gamble and he liked to fight. One thing more than any ever, though, is he liked to throw his money around. Money was power for him.

The strip club that Terry owned in Anchorage (he had another in Fairbanks) was built on property that belonged to a bar right next to it. When the lease came up, the bar refused to renew it. Terry sued unsuccessfully and the bar tore the club down and built an expansion in its place.

Terry went on to buy an absolutely skeevy motel from a drug-dealing pimp named – I shit you not – Muhammed Ali. I worked there on the weekends when I was 14 years old, mostly alone. It was my first job. I worked ten hour days at $7 an hour under the table as the desk manager and occasional house-cleaner. There was plenty of clientele left over from Ali's day who would try to offer me pot or cocaine for rent money or who would ask what our hourly rates were.

Do you know how many adults will try to fight a 14 year old boy when they're being asked to vacate the premises they can't pay for? In certain parts of Anchorage,  the answer is "a lot".

Terry built a new club out of the back of this motel because of course he did. It was nice, too. Small, but fantastic carpeting, leather seating, exciting lighting, a new sound system and beautiful, talented women. When I turned 19 I dated one of the girls from there briefly and I was friends with many of them. I would drive them home, pick up their drink quotas on slow nights and get the worst of the customers away from them.

Then I disappeared for a bit. Terry got back on heroin. The girls left for better clubs, the people who knew how to run the club got fired for arguing and Terry replaced them with the cheapest,  shadiest, most addicted criminal pieces of shit he could because he didn't have to pay them much. This was a trend that continued for many years as most of his fortune went towards medical expenses and drugs and he found it harder and harder to quit and come back.

Terry always gave my mother a place to live when she needed it. He gave my adopted father a job. He gave me a car and clothes and helped my grandparents out constantly.

When I was 15, I found out I was adopted. Not long after, I got suspended from school for three days for telling a teacher to go to hell. These two things were not related, but when I went to my step-dad's house to spend the night with my siblings, he sure thought they were.

He went off on me. He said truly terrible things that cut deeper than any bullying I had ever gone through. I left the room and stewed for twenty minutes. I went back in and closed the door behind me and I gave it right back. I chastised him for treating me like one of his workers instead of like family, the brother of his son, someone he had known since birth. I ridiculed him for lambasting me over what I said considering how he treated people, especially women.

He came in close to my face. My hands went up defensively. The tip of my right index finger brushed his chest. His eyes went dark. He dropped into a crouch. He screamed at me for coming at him,  for daring to touch him. His forehead snapped into the bridge of my nose and broke the cartilage on the right side. My back hit the wall, my ass hit the nightstand.

“I’m out of here,” I said. I opened the door and my 11 year old brother was standing there, terrified. I convinced him I was okay and to go downstairs and I apologized because something came up and I needed to go home.

I got tissue to stem the blood from my nose and stood at the door waiting for the cab to arrive and take me home. Terry spent half an hour standing there trying to justify it. When the cab arrived,  he pulled out $200 in twenties.

“You can take this and tell the cab you don’t need them anymore. You can take it, go for a ride and get a burger, come back and keep the rest. Or you can go home and at least you’ll have some money in your pocket.”

“I don’t need your fucking money.”

I walked out. I went home. I paid for the cab. I ignored his phone calls. A week later I got a letter from him, apologizing, telling me that he was wrong. I was finally a man. He couldn’t believe I had refused his money. It changed our relationship from then on.

I haven’t spoken to him in a few years now. I don’t recall why. An argument of some sort, I’m sure. He gave me employment, my family a home, gifts. As difficult as it was growing up in that house, he has given my siblings profound determination and strength and conviction not to end up like him. He provided limos for my proms and paid for my birthday parties.

He degraded me, hurt me, hurt my mother, hurt others. I’ve seen the seediest parts of this city. The worst gamblers, the most violent biker gangs, the failing strip clubs, the underbellies of addiction groups.

“He’s going to be dead soon. That’s what happens when you surround yourself with bad people. You die alone.”

My brother said that. About his father, who he also hasn’t seen in a year or more. He asked me this last weekend to go with him to see him soon, though, and get closure before that moment happens. It’s a poignant statement and a harsh one. It is also true.

Terry Stahlman is one of the hardest, softest, scariest, most boisterous, cruelest, most generous, smartest, most foolish, most industrious, laziest, strongest, weakest people I have ever met.

He taught me a lot about myself and about life. He removed in me the fear of man. He taught me the dangers of addiction. He introduced me to the beauty of women. Because he was two men vying for control of the same body, I learned many things about how not to act, how not to treat people. I learned how to be stubborn and the danger in being unyielding. I learned how to be strong from him and that there are greater powers than wealth.

Terry is not a good man. He has done terrible things to many people.

Terry is not a bad man. He has done incredible things for many people.

Terry Stahlman is a flawed man with horrendous demons. They have cost him his businesses, his wealth, his homes and his family. Before long, it will cost him his life. There are few who know him better than I and even fewer who will know him for more than his discretions.

It isn’t necessarily right that he should only be remembered for misdeeds. It probably isn’t fair. It’s just what happens when you surround yourself with bad people.