You've probably seen Suzanne Strickland before. You might not recognize her name, but if you've driven through Soldotna on the Sterling Highway over the past couple months during the right times, you've definitely caught a glimpse of the 24-year-old. It would be impossible to miss her.
Swathed in a teal velour gown and sash, sporting a spiky green crown, and dancing in the street like nobody's watching, Strickland bears a striking resemblance to a certain New York national monument.
So yeah, you've seen her. You might have even waved and honked at her: Strickland is a waver for Liberty Tax Service in Soldotna, and her favorite part of the job is actually revealing that fact to people.
"I say, 'I'm a waver for Liberty Tax Service,' and they go, 'You're a what? What does that mean?'" she recounts with glee while sipping hot chocolate at the Kaladi Brothers only a block away from her hallowed highway spot. "And then I tell them, 'It means I dress up as the Statue of Liberty, stand on the side of the road with a sign, and dance around for four hours a day trying to get people to honk or wave at me."
Strickland saw the position advertised on Craigslist in early January, and it met her criteria for potential employment: no paperwork, no sitting behind a desk and the freedom to listen to music all day. She works five to six days a week -- every other Saturday -- for four hours at a time, rain or shine, freezing or blazing. And she loves it.
"Every job I have ever done, I have done it because I thought I would enjoy it," she says. "I do know that there are people that do this job because they need a job. I need one, yes, but I'm doing it because I want to be out there."
She can't reveal how much Liberty Tax pays her, only that it is more than minimum wage. But that's another question she is asked almost constantly when she reveals her temporary occupation, as if the sum must be an exorbitant amount, some sort of epic bribe to make her dance around in costume every day.
"They wonder, 'Is it worth it?'" she says, "or they see someone who looks excited doing it and they think, 'They gotta be getting paid a lot.'"
A self-described military brat, Strickland has lived all over the world, but Alaska has been her home for the past 13 years. Until recently she lived in Kenai, but due to the high cost of rent and other expenses, she moved back in with her father and stepmother in Nikiski -- that means a 50-mile, round-trip drive every workday.
Strickland is tiny -- a smidge over 5-foot-1 and about 120 pounds -- so she has to cinch up the one-size-fits-all gown with a rubber band or hair tie. Still, a grimy ring of enduring gray encircles the bottom 3 inches of the outfit.
"Today they will splash through the puddles on purpose," she says matter-of-factly, glancing out the window at the slush and water-laden gutters. "And I will get wet."
Strickland says drivers intentionally plow through the miniponds that collect near the side of the roads on warm days in an effort to douse her, and speculates that they probably do it because they find it amusing or funny.
"One of my worst days would be the first time it rained and I had my back to oncoming traffic," she says. "Someone splashed through a puddle on purpose and I got soaked from the top of my crown to my boots."
It doesn't really bother her, she says, and admits that sometimes while driving around on a wet day, it occurs to her that it would be funny to drench an unsuspecting bystander. She always stops herself, though. Strickland also won't curse back at the people who hurl insults or make rude gestures, as it's not really in her nature.
"I've had people honk to get me to turn around and then I'll wave and they'll give me the finger or something," she recalls. "And I just keep smiling and waving.
"I have had mean things shouted. I try not to remember the mean things."
She does, however, like to remember the good moments. Like when she returned from a two-day absence necessitated by car trouble and the office staff informed her customers and noncustomers alike had been clamoring for her return.
"Apparently a bunch of people had called in asking why the person wasn't out there," she says, beaming slightly. "So when I got back, that day so many more people honked and were leaning out of their windows cheering at me."
Strickland doesn't really know where she wants to go from here. This summer will be her seventh season of fish processing at Pacific Star Seafoods in Kenai, but the larger picture is still kind of blurry. While a year at the University of Alaska Anchorage didn't really work out -- she refers to it as an "expensive failure" -- she wants to save enough money to pay back her student loans and start taking sign language and Spanish classes at Kenai Peninsula College part-time.
In the meantime, she'll continue to slip on that sash, sport that crown and rock out to AC/DC, all in good humor. So look for her out there. And try to resist the temptation to splash.
Karen Garcia can be reached at email@example.com.
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