Being from away is unsettling sometimes, as if real Mainers are sharing a wonderful inside joke that I can never be in on. However, I recently saw a ray of hope for assimilation in my lifetime.
It was during a recent talk to a group at Highland Green in Topsham, a community for active seniors (a lot more “active” than “senior,” by the way). The attendees were mostly from away. Seeing how much they felt at home here, it dawned on me I may have to adjust my attitude.
My first trip to Maine was 1980-ish, managing a skating safety show sponsored by a soft drink company. Physically, Maine was and is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. Before we left, Corporate warned me that the people could be standoffish, but I took that with a grain of salt. I was a nice guy. I was giving away free soda, the brand of choice for 70 percent of Mainers, according to Corporate. What’s not to like?
So I was a little taken aback the first time we stopped for gas, and I gushed to the gas station attendant something like, “You know, … (reading his name tag) Enoch. Really? Enoch? Anyway, you must love living in a beautiful place like Maine.”
Without looking up, Enoch said, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with Maine that dynamitin’ the bridge tah Pahtsmith wouldn’t cuah.”
I didn’t decipher “Pahtsmith” right away, but I was pretty sure it was on the state line. He may have been put off by our station wagon with New York plates jammed with gear and hauling a 25-foot-wide Plexiglas half pipe. Clearly, we weren’t from around those parts. Or it may have been our uniforms. We were required to wear red skater shoes, white knee socks, blue corduroy shorts (mid-thigh length), and red, white and blue polo shirts plastered with soft drink logos. Because, as the founder of McDonald’s might have said, when you’re representing a large multinational, it’s critically important to look like a circus clown at all times.
None of this occurred to me at the time. Neither did how many times he had been patronized by summer people with New York plates. I might have cut him some slack instead of what I did, i.e., call him an incredible moron. Silently, because he was bigger than me, and I’m a coward. But I think he knew he was being chastised.
One of my skaters made fun of a bank teller while she was cashing his check, like nobody in Bangor had ever been told he had an accent before. It must have seemed surreal to hear, being told by a redneck from Mispronounce, Texas, that it was “rilly funneh haw y’all cain’t say yer ‘r’s!” Yeah, you keep telling the Mainers how to speak, Professor Higgins.
The interesting thing is how I started realizing all this during the Highland Green talk. What were supposed to be cute stories turned out to be revelations. Behaviors I always thought were quirks and idiosyncrasies seemed more and more like the ways that people who had chosen a life they liked dealt with people who didn’t get it.
A case in point is my favorite memory of that first Maine trip. We discovered a slow leak in one of our tires before a show. We had just enough time to get it fixed, so we drove into a service station, four lads dressed like packs of Fruit Stripe gum, with New York plates and an extremely unusual trailer, all in a big hurry. I approached a guy in the coveralls who was sitting on an old car back seat.
“Hi, how you doin’? We have slow leak, right rear tire, and we have to do a show in about 45 minutes.”
“So … you think you can put a plug in it, or sell us a tire, or – ?”
“New York plates, huh?”
“Yep. Company car. It’s the right rear tire.”
“You live in New York?”
My mental clock was pounding like “The Telltale Heart,” but I managed, “Yes. Manhattan. And now we’re on our way – “
“I had a friend run off to New York once. Got tired of Bangoah. Too small, he said it was. Went to Rochestah. You know him?”
No name. I am not making this up.
“Uh, no. I don’t think so.”
He got up and did a slow walk around starting with the left rear tire. Finally, he bent down by the right rear and said, “Well, theah’s ya problem, right theah. You got a flat tiah.”
To him, I was just one more outsider trying to impose my way of doing things and my schedule on him with no understanding or consideration for how things were done in his world, and he was right.
The Highland Green people have looked beyond the postcard and lobster roll vision of Maine that I had on that first visit, and they have been drawn to the people and the sense of community I didn’t even suspect.
I think I’m getting closer to that now, so maybe, just maybe, I may not always be from away.
Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at email@example.com.