One of the many reasons I love Maine is it hasn’t been completely taken over by the mass culture/franchise system.
Los Angeles has some good qualities, but the constant barrage of slick consumerism wears you down. Sure, there are still successful unique small businesses, but you have to look for them as you drive by Starbucks, McDonald’s, Lamps Plus, Burger King, Bed Bath & Beyond, Starbucks, Men’s Wearhouse, Taco Bell, Starbucks, McDonald’s, Bed Bath & Even Further Beyond.
You get the idea. Everything repeats itself over and over, like the background in a Max Fleischer cartoon (obscure reference; worth looking it up. Just sayin’.).
Now, because it’s Los Angeles, you can have unique experiences in some of those little businesses. There’s a popular hot dog place, Pink’s. Not the one that’s shaped like a hot dog, and it’s franchised now, but it was a one-off then. Very down market; you eat on picnic tables, and the rich and famous have to stand in line to order their chili dogs and cheese fries with us poor and obscure people.
The first time I went there, I had the kind of experience that made Los Angeles intermittently tolerable. I was standing in line; I heard a familiar voice, turned around and saw Kiefer Sutherland. Donald’s son. Jack Bauer on “24.” Two feet away from me. No big deal.
I’m not going to lie to you: we made eye contact. That’s right, a famous guy knows I exist. Again, no big deal. He gave me his apprehensive “Please let me buy a dog like a normal person” look. I gave him my “Oh, are you supposed to be somebody? Because I’m still ahead of you in line” look. Later we sat at the same table.
I usually don’t relate celebrity sightings because I am not impressed by celebrity. However, I make an exception for people who have saved the free world repeatedly. I’m sure Kiefer Sutherland puts his shoulder holster on one arm at a time just like the rest of us, unaffected by being the offspring of a cultural icon and unscarred by the bullying his parents invited when they albatrossed him with the name “Kiefer.” He was polite. Used a napkin. Not very chatty, but it was still comforting sharing a bench with somebody who could take out a terrorist with a plastic fork, should the need arise. ‘Cause he’s Jack Bauer.
OK, maybe I’m a little impressed by celebrity.
Forgive the digression. My original point was that in Maine, unique businesses with personalities of their own are more the rule than the exception. I’m sure a lifelong resident would say Maine, or at least Portland, is as corporatized and franchised as anywhere, and maybe it’s headed there. Right now, though, there is a critical mass of more interesting businesses that indicate Mainers are not quite as programmed to be mindless consumers. In most places I’ve lived, it felt like people bought stuff because somebody told them they needed it. Here it seems like there are a lot more people who buy stuff so they can use it.
Look at the number of places aimed at selling bicycles to grownups. Portland must have the record for bike shops per capita. In L.A., bike riders travel in packs on expensive racing bikes – hedge fund managers and agents who spend all week working as hard as they can and all weekend “having fun” as hard as they can, in both cases by going around in circles with a lot of other guys dressed just like them. In Portland, the bike riding demographic seems to skew heavily toward people who want to go somewhere.
Forest Avenue has a little of everything. There’s a KFC and a Burger King – and a hydroponics store, for people who grow things scientifically as a hobby. Presumably. I may be a little cynical, but I can’t drive by the hydroponics store without thinking of the kid in my college dorm who was always bringing grow lights into his room. You know the type: Kept to himself, windows blacked out and walls papered with Reynolds Wrap. Smelled like sweetish smoke and Doritos. I’m sure I’m betraying my age, associating a hydroponics store with what we used to call the counter-culture. For all I know their big customers are lobstermen growing vegetables on their boats. Either way, it’s an interesting business. People go there to get things so they can do other things.
A little farther down there’s a brewing supply store, another example of how Mainers are into process as much as results. If all you want is a beer, you can get a six-pack anywhere. If you want something with a little more character, you take advantage of the city ordinance prohibiting a distance exceeding a hundred yards between microbreweries. There are also several non-microbreweries. I’m told they’re known as “breweries” in the trade.
Finally, the supply store is next door to a Portland institution that prides itself on selling every beer ever made since the first semi-nomadic tribesman dropped his bread in the barley water by mistake. Clearly, the supply store is not serving the standard beer consumer. Their clientele are aficionados. Micro brewing isn’t enough for them. They’re nanobrewers.
So I think Maine is more for producers more than consumers. Hey. Maybe they should put something about that on the big sign at the state line: “Maine. Where People Do Stuff.”
In your face, Kiefer Sutherland.
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.