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It’s Cloudy DownEast

May 15, 2009

Maine has always been a barometer in my life. When things are good in Maine the country is pretty much clicking on all cylinders. When chins are dragging on the bar at Gritty McDuff’s pub in Portland, we’re in trouble.

Last weekend I took a solo trip to Maine. I do that on occasion to recharge my mental batteries and try to gain perspective. New York isn’t the best place to get a read on what’s happening in the country. On the way, my car broke down outside of Hartford and the tow truck driver (Phil) observed that his revenues are actually up over the past six months. Recession? Not in his business. In fact, he’s thinking of adding another flatbed to service the increased breakdowns on I-84. It’s hard to explain to a guy that his good fortune is evidence of an underlying virus that’s spreading. Looking down the road in front of his shop, I notice a Chevy dealer and a Chrysler/Jeep dealer overflowing with cars and bright signs advertising give-away deals. On the radio, a commentator announces the closure of 25% of Chrysler’s dealerships by June. Likewise, the folks at Enterprise were happy to rent me a small inexpensive car for the three days it will take to repair my 95 Izuzu Rodeo’s radiator. In fact, it was the last car on their lot. Wasn’t I lucky? Well, I suppose so, but the two folks ahead of me had also rented cars because they broke down on the highway. Some business is good, I guess.

OK, stuff happens so off I go, to Portland (actually, Pine Point – a tiny community at the mouth of the Nonesuch River on Saco Bay) arriving in the early evening to drop off my bags before heading into town. The first thing I notice is that the local Catholic Church has been sold and is now The Landing at Pine Point: a wedding/corporate event/entertainment venue. Really? What’s happened here? 30 years ago my parents (a high school teacher and his wife) built a modified A-Frame (about 1,200 sq. ft.) on a tiny 1/4 acre beach front lot that nobody wanted. We spent our summers here and rented it to teachers in the winter to cover expenses. There were few homes on the beach side of King Street then. Today, our little retreat is flanked by a condo project and 10 to 12 spectacular homes which could house the populations of many third world countries. In the old days kids could play football between the houses. Today it’s tough to fly a Frisbee between them. In those days the church was the center of community activity. Today it’s a center for high end hors d’oeuvres. Like Maine in general, Pine Point as a microcosm: an illustration of the way wealth has been dislocated over the past 30 years. This is a bit depressing and I leave for Portland.

Up on Forest Avenue, I pop into The Great Lost Bear for some sliders, a local ale and a bit of local chatter. Folks speak easily in Maine. The tightlipped Mainer is largely a myth as far as I’ve ever seen. And at the bar a 40 something lady who works for a veterinary lab is happy to chat over her after-work cocktail about being a single mom and holding things together on a shoe-string. There’s no resentment in it. That’s just how it is. She’s lucky, she says. Her ex hasn’t worked in a few years and her daughter (a 13 year old) is a good kid. She’s a pretty lady, but she’s not trolling for men. She’s simply getting on with life the best she can. Stopping for a breather at her local pub after work and headed home to make dinner.

On the other side of me is a high energy U Maine law student who already has a potential client in every person who walks through the front door. She’s a regular and her sights are on – not the local white shoe law firm, but family law and legal aid work here in Portland. Her energy and unshakable devotion remind me of the late 60’s. She tells me of the dislocation that has resulted from the demise of the local shipbuilding industry and the hard times the lobster and fishing communities are going through. She wants to make a living, but she’s also committed to making a difference.

Later, I walk down Congress Street and head to the Old Port (Portland’s trendy, hippy-dippy place to go). Some early season tourists are on the street and a scruffy kid with a beat up Harmony guitar is banging out tunes on Exchange Street for change. I love this street and drop a buck in his case. But looking around I notice strange omens. Six street level shops are vacant. “For Rent” signs glare out at passers by where last summer charming window displays enticed you to reach for your wallet. And the independent cinema “Movies on Exchange” is gone! Oh no.

I headed back to Pine Point to whip up some dinner, stopping at Bayley’s Lobster Pound to grab a couple of 1 1/4 lobsters. I figured I’d do bit to help the struggling lobstermen at $5.99 a pound – about half what they were last summer. The clerk explained they were nearly giving them away over the winter. She sees sales getting better, slowly, and hopes the tourists will return next month. She worries that 4 of 7 car dealers out on Route 1 have closed and lots of her friends are either out of work or scared that they will be.

After dinner I walk out on the beach. Twelve miles or so from Prouts Neck to Fortune’s Rocks. I watch the light swing across the water punching through the fog. I know the tide will come in again but the clouds are still thick across Saco Bay.

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