Mainers have many virtues—hardiness, independence, the ability to metabolize Allen’s coffee brandy—but an outgoing disposition is not among them. And Mainers often reserve special ire for out-of-staters. Instead of saying “The Way Life Should Be,” the sign on I-95 should announce, “We’ll take your money but we really wish you’d go home.” Not long after college, I was at a work event in Michigan where a colleague invited me over for dinner with his wife. Another co-worker, who knew I’m from Maine, took me aside and said, “Look, I know that where you’re from, you’re probably thinking he wants to chop you up in his basement. But he’s just a nice Midwesterner. People invite strangers to dinner here.” Basically, I needed a cultural translator to explain friendliness.
So when I headed back to Maine a few weeks ago to watch the lobster boat races, I wasn’t expecting anyone to be nice to me—especially now that I’m the out-of-stater. I’m self-conscious of that status, to the point that I vetted my wardrobe for out-of-state douchiness. The green shorts with a pattern of little anchors on them? That’s like wearing a sign that says, “I think I’m better than you.” Pit-stained T-shirt from a Gorham basketball tournament in 1995? Friggin’ solid.
My first stop, just across the border, is at a gas station mini-mart. The guy ahead of me in line is buying cigarettes. He looks about 60. “You sure you’re 18 there, kehd?” the cashier lady asks. He laughs and says he’s 22. “Yeah, and I’m 29!” she bellows, before growing reflective. “If you’d told me back then, ‘Martha, you’ll live to be 76,’ I’d have called you a liah!” Martha and her co-worker, another woman who might be a little younger, crack up at that one. I head out to my car pleasantly surprised: jovial convenience-store employees in Maine. This is surely an anomaly.
But the niceness continues. I’m towing a boat, and on our way to Portland, a cheery tollbooth cashier tells me, “Have fun with that boat!” even though I almost drag it through her booth. In Portland, the members of a xylophone band are gracious about my kids getting in their way as they set up (yes, Portland is now a place with xylophone bands). Even Portland’s scary people are nice. At one point, we’re walking toward a woman on a stoop who looks like she’s about three Colt 45s deep, and she leers at my kids and croaks, “Hey kids…You are the most beautiful children on earth!” The boys both look at me, like, “How do we respond to this inexplicable hyperbolic praise?” Later, I’ll have to tell them that they’re not as great as the drunk lady on the steps said they were. Got to keep them grounded.
The next day it’s another gas station and another unfailingly polite local. I leave the bathroom line to buy drinks, and this guy lets me cut back into my spot. On my way out he says, “Have a nice trip!” I reflexively say, “You too” and immediately hate myself because I don’t think he’s on a trip. But at least he might be, as opposed to the legions of airport employees whom I’ve told to have a nice flight.
Finally, I’m up in midcoast Maine, nearly ready to launch the boat, but there’s a festival going on near the ramp. The parking lot, boat ramp and a restaurant are down a hill just beyond the busy festival. A dour park ranger stops me. “No parking around here,” he says. I plead that I have to use the boat ramp. “OK,” he says, “But once you drive down there you might not even be able to turn around, it’s so crowded. Just warning you.” I drive around the corner to find a single car among acres of parking. The scene looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting entitled Lonely Solitude. I guess it’s easier to tell people to go away than to bother looking around the corner.
The restaurant should be crowded on a summer Saturday but it’s empty thanks to the guy up the road telling everyone to scram. I recount my experience to the restaurant manager, who says, “Oh yeah, Ranger Wayne. So that’s why it’s so slow in here. I’ve been here six years, and he’s been there for four. He’s a pain in my ass.” Bad blood between locals, with a side order of casual mendacity: This is more like the Maine I know, all silent glares and Stephen King settings.
A couple of hours later, I’m parking the trailer at the rental house and some guy comes out of the woods to yell at me for being across the property line. Soon enough, I’ll learn that another neighbor likes to greet the sunrise (and the local renters) by firing a cannon. And a bald eagle, pursued by an angry gull, will nearly drop a fish on my head—even the animals have just about had it with each other. I was worried for a while, but it’s good to be back. ◆
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