This is my story arriving at the corner of Congress and St. John streets a month and some weeks after Mohamed Atta departed the Portland International Jetport. I find this first impression disconcertingly persistent:
Mainers are unfriendly folk.
“From away” became my identity, and this clean cut college-certified pale son of the revolution bristled at this insistence that my stake was less legitimate; that my voice should be muted; that my privilege be checked – as if there was a different currency in circulation I was not allowed to possess.
I arrived in Anti-New York: “Try to make it? Here?”
I always worry this New England indifference is taken as hostile by people far more foreign, less sure of their place, crossing only white spaces between home and family.
It is hostile. It is rude how Mainers talk about people from away. “How long you been here?” “In country” was the way they say in Vietnam movies. “How long you been this side of where ever you were before?” Five minutes is good as 50 years in my book. Sometimes better. Not for the locals and pretenders who charge to park on filled-in foundations.
An act of resistance against an invader’s advance is pulling down street signs.
The rules of the road are determined mile by mile, relying on ruts and folklore, whether one or two or no lanes hide among the heaves and heaps of run-off detritus.
There’s a dark side to Yankee ingenuity – a fetishized deprivation takes hold as the furnace feeds. When this frugality becomes an end in itself, we signal virtue by insisting on scarcity. A bootstrap culture judges harshly those who ask help without the correct contrition. We demand each to account for their station and measure our charity accordingly.
It is not benign. We are suspect, us who come from away and fall in love, raise our children; create value, sour as the moldering moisture of May’s chilly, slate skies permeates studs and bones and grout. “Why you sticking around, tourist?” is the unasked question, waving at the boarded up ugliness. “What are you trying to take?,” these people so used to themselves seem to wonder.
No one comes to Maine expecting an easy life – that’s why God invented Florida. What we find here is a last, best chance to more perfect our union. We together are a million strong clustered along an archipelago of centuries-old communities surrounded by intemperate beauty under a crown of wilderness and along a widening ocean.
People from away see what the generations have blurred: there is abundance here.
Our cities’ blighted brown field and acres of filthy dirt lots could be home to tens of thousands and never sprawl into a single farm field.
Let’s fill our cities with new apartments for new Americans and old Mainers. Give our streets to buses and bicycles. Yes to driverless trolleys, yes to laces of tunnels and bridges for Franklin, fly Cacoulidis’ tram across the harbor. String a covered escalator over Gilman Street.
Start digging today. Pour the footings for the cities our children will inhabit.
Ward Peck is a 17-year Portland renter. He works for MaineHealth’s Center for Health Improvement in Scarborough, and is obsessed with public transit.