Thursday, March 3, 2016

The View From North of 80 - Part 2 (Life in Maine)

"Cities are the contradictions of capitalism, spelled out in crowds."
       --Adam Gopnik

We live in Portland, Maine.  Our home's latitude is exactly 300 miles north of the mean latitude of Highway 80 from the George Washington Bridge in New York City to San Francisco--not far in the global sense, but a great distance, culturally, from the urban vibe of NYC or SF. We are the urban center of Maine, but our tallest building is 16 stories, and our population is 66,000--exactly the population density of one square mile in Manhattan. Portland is "urban" only in a Maine way.  Mini-urban?  Mainely urban. Almost 30 years in the area, we've seen the town change in radical ways.  As always, some changes are welcome, some not.

I begin here  with an orientation for those who know little of Maine and have not often visited. Then expect some "pros" and "cons" about life as a Mainer--my view from this little crow's nest up country.

Don't expect the standard portrayals of Mainers and of Maine--the magazine fluff pieces about lobster and wizened fishermen, stolid New Englanders, launching their wooden dories into raging North Atlantic gales, quaint bean suppahs and ice-fishing, wilderness trekking and trapping on snowshoes, intrepid moose and deer hunters, buzzing the logging trails on their snowmobiles, returning to hot chowdah dinners made on wood stoves by strong-faced tight-lipped women, carrying rosy-cheeked toddlers on their hips, and worrying about an overdue library book on the dust-free mantle--and an overdue brother aboard a fishing vessel steaming home from Georges Bank.

New England's small scale makes me think of Maine in a distorted lens--Maine is 38th in population density, and 39th in geographical area of the 50 states, though I tend to think of the state as vast forested wilderness--true enough if you discount the strip of coastline east of Interstate Highway 95, where most of the people have clustered in a few small municipalities like Portland, Lewiston, and Bangor. Only 8 towns in the state number more than 20,000 population.  Maine can be diagrammed as a kind of 4-circle "Venn" diagram, labelled "Mainers," "from away," "coastal," "inland."  Antagonisms and partnerships can be mapped onto this diagram in overlapping ways that help one understand how Maine--traditionally liberal, tolerant, centrist, and mildly Republican--ended up with a governor, Paul LePage, who is clearly the stupidest, most-divisively ideological right-wing tool of any in the country, save, possibly Scott Walker, of Wisconsin. Specialty license plates can offer some clue about self-selected identities to a visitor: "Vacationland," (default chickadee with evergreen spray), "Support Wildlife," (with moose and fish), "Lobster" (with lobster graphic), "We Support Our Troops," and so on.  Along the coast you'll spot more lobster plates; inland, the moose wins.

Being "from away," I know little of the Maine interior--the woods.  If you'd like to get the flavor of that, you could try We Took to the Woods, by Louise Dickinson Rich, or, maybe,  My Live in the Maine Woods: A Game Warden's Wife in the Allagash Country, by Annette Jackson.  This Maine jokes that the state bird is the black fly (mosquito, in some versions).  For the "upscale" version of this Maine, search YouTube for "The Humble Farmer,"  sobriquet of Robert Skoglund, or go to his website at for audio versions of his long-running radio broadcasts that feature his Maine-spiced stories, and savvy programming of classical jazz (as well as a beginning lesson on the proper accent and speech cadences of the natives.)  There's also "our" Maine comedian, Bob Marley.  You can see him on YouTube, or catch his standup show at the Skowhegan Opera House? At the least, try to learn the correct uses of "wicked?"

On the other hand, Maine--especially Portland and Lewiston--carries a full load of dysfunctional, occasionally predatory,  and damaged people--street beggars, addicts of every stripe and level of desperation, high levels of domestic violence, homeless encampments down by the Fore River,  drunks and bar fighters, prostitution, charter school ripoff artists, political fraudsters, corruption, abandoned properties, greedy developers, sexual abusers, con artists, and clueless hangers-on. It is, after all, America.   And this is an America turned brutal by Republican governors like Bobby Jindal, Paul LePage, Sam Brownback, and Scott Walker, who have dissolved safety nets, slashed medical options, "reformed" welfare into a sham, and spent money on quasi-military policing and prisons, instead of problem-solving.

I have no direct experience with this Maine, either: my best source of information are the regular features and special articles published in Chris Busby's free monthly magazine, available online at
Read the articles by Robin Rage about his life on the margins,  the "fishing journal" by "Tackle Box" Billy Kelley, the feature articles of Elizabeth Peavey, and the occasional photojournalistic contributions of Doug Bruns.  Or, do your own exploring, starting, perhaps, with a stop at the Preble Street Resource Center, and/or a visit to their website:

You can add a couple circles to our increasingly complex Venn diagram--the "Haves"/"Have-Nots."  Class society is expressed in especially egregious ways in Maine.  After browsing in The Bollard for a day or two, spend an afternoon paging through  the slick magazines published by Kevin Thomas, with his team of Susan Grisanti, Steve Kelly, Rebecca Falzano, etc.--Old Port, Maine Magazine, Maine Home + Design, and several others--all devoted to the high-gloss promotion of Maine for the "haves," the young, the hip, the well-connected, the tasteful, the cool, the New Mainers.  This consortium sponsors a variety of magazines, public festivals and events, a pay-to-exhibit art gallery, several social media sites, and it lobbies for developers, business-friendly zoning, and high-end retailers (and advertisers), envisioning a Maine that did not exist when I moved to Portland in the late '80s: one somewhat indistinguishable from similar enclaves in Brooklyn, Miami Beach, Portland, Oregon, Silver Lake, CA, Wicker Park,  IL, or East Austin, TX.  Add in the highly competitive foodie/concept restaurant component, and the new wealthy-retiree peninsula-based condo market, and you'll have America as seen by Forbes Magazine--right here in this little town by the bay!  Ah-yup...

Neither of these two Maines seems to be a place that feels right for us.  And after 25 years of truly brutal Maine winters (skipping over this year's mild el niƱo "winter"!),  and the usual issues with work life, social life, distance from family, and other issues, some of which are just part the general human inheritance, it HAS occurred to us that we should consider another move--maybe back to the NY area, maybe Savannah, maybe Delray Beach or Sarasota, Florida, maybe Cape Breton peninsula, NS, maybe France.  (Of course, the Trump/Cruz/Rubio Republican threats push us to consider moving to other countries...or planets.)

And yet  every time we get serious enough to go exploring in a quasi-serious way, we come back saying, "No, thanks. No way."  Our reasons are as varied as the "shopping" that occasioned them, but I'll hazard a few generalities, at the risk of pissing off readers from the great "not-Maine."  Why do we reject the Big Move?

* Lack of access to the arts and culture:  of course Maine can't compete with New York, Los Angeles, Miami, or other major centers, but Portland is Paris, compared to 95% of other US towns of similar size: well-stocked museum of art, symphony, several theater companies, art/photo groups, independent community radio, community magazines, furniture makers, unparalleled restaurant scene, vibrant rock/bar venues--and so much of it all can be walked.  Access to good colleges, art schools, etc.  So much atmospheric charm in the cobblestone streets and fish just off the boat on a pier at Harbor Fish Market.

* Distances between things--and the traffic.  When I think of Maryland, New Jersey, Florida, Long Island, Los Angeles, Massachusetts, etc., the first image that comes to me is a 6-8 lane thoroughfare with turn lanes and traffic lights every quarter mile--all moving at 50+ mph past one strip-mall after another, filled with characterless cookie-cutter stores and undistinguished chain restaurants.  Worst is that my little errand to pick up a few groceries and get a hinge to repair the screen door requires driving 50 minutes at these speeds in this traffic past all this ugly, nondescript "convenience" shopping construction.  (Not to mention one fenced, gated, cul-de-sac, ticky-tacky condo development after another, filling all the gaps between the strip-malls...)

* This unpleasant scene above follows naturally from the fact that there is so often no town center, no waterfront, no historical district, no 19th century buildings or housing, no truly walkable ways to explore--and worse, nothing worth exploring.

* Water!  The Maine coast and Casco Bay, the Penobscot and offshore islands in the hundreds, a fishing fleet, first-class marinas and anchorages second to none--all make for one of the premier world sailing grounds.  And still very little congestion and crowding on the water (no 50-foot sport fisherman machines throwing up a 9-foot wake, while passing your little boat at 35 knots!)  And CLEAN water AND air!

* Most of the country seem to think that a vacation is the chance to go to one of two places: Disneyland or Las Vegas/Atlantic City.  Mainers do these things by the thousands, of course, but you are more likely to hear about camps, hiking, skiing, biking, boating, crafts, art-making, fishing, hunting, and cottages, than Epcots and Bellagios.

* Mainers read more than most.  And take cooking more seriously. Mainers have gardens. Most of the country seem to believe that the only things that matter are pop music, TV shows, Rush Limbaugh, and blockbuster movies.  I'm talking averages, not the shining exceptions.

* Politics.  OK, we are stuck with Gov. LePage, but he is the first Neanderthal to hold major office in Maine.  Maine tends more to people like Margaret Chase Smith, Susan Collins, Tom Andrews, Ed Muskie, Olympia Snowe, George Mitchell, and Bill Cohen--most of whom held opinions far from my own, but not one of them is an idiot, racist, anti-feminist, ideologue, right-wing screamer/tool, or thoughtlessly corrupt hack.

* Natural disasters and pests. We do have Northeaster storms, black flies and mosquitoes, bears, traffic danger from deer and moose, 2 or 3 days over 90 in summer, But we do not have earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, mud slides, population-threatening forest fires, sharks, alligators, zika mosquitoes, fire-ants, months at a time over 90 degrees with 90% humidity,  tornadoes, dust storms, kudzu, flying cockroaches, large populations of poisonous spiders and snakes, openly expressed racism, Scott Walker, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, David Duke, Ted Cruz, Pat Robertson, Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, Donald Trump. Glenn Beck, or Ann Coulter, (though talk radio and TV bring most of these blowhards to Maine in destructive ways.)

Soooo, what are Maine's "cons" after so many "pros"?

Frigid, long winters. Messy, ugly early springs, New Englandish buttoned-up culture of prudishness.  Very old population.  Very old housing stock (peeling paint, rotting clapboard, smallish rooms).  Exaggerated distance between rich and poor--crushing poverty.  Too many pickup trucks with snow plows.  Too many white people, proportionately.  Insane parking rules in Portland. Summer tourist invasions. Rough employment options.  High rental costs. Condo cost bubble on the peninsula. Too many "pot-luck" events. Difficult barriers in social mobility. Centralization of social services in a few Portland neighborhoods, making the town a magnet for the sick, troubled, addicted, poor, and under-educated.  Loss of shopping venues from town centers to malls.  Such COLD water at the truly great beaches (though climate change is "repairing" that!?).

For the record, we don't own Bean boots (though it would be fine, if we did). We have lobster only a couple times per year.  So a transition to Anyplace South might be relatively easy.  Stay tuned.  Maybe next year I'll be blogging about our 80 degree beach day in mid-January and that wonderful mahi-mahi lunch?  Don't count on it...