The Portland, Maine I Knew

I was 23 and a year out of the Navy when I arrived in Portland, Maine.

In the 1980s Portland was a good place to be 23 and a year out of the Navy. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted to be and I had no interest in finding out. And I didn’t know at the time how fortunate I was to have lucked into Portland as she was gasping her last breaths of the unique character that, from all accounts, is missing today.

I guess I should have seen it coming. The throes of change were convulsing Portland almost from the moment I got there. My buddy John and I drove to the city looking for work and my habit was to, without paying, park in a metered space on the north end of Commercial Street along the waterfront. The meter maids swept the area once a week and didn’t often make it that far. During the day demand for spaces wasn’t all that keen. Besides, the penalty for parking at an expired meter was only $5, so it was a worthwhile gambit.

After a day of pounding the pavement I’d reconvene with John at a bar called the Range Light. We’d share what we learned and any leads over a beer or two before retreating to our temporary accommodations in a friend’s basement 45 minutes up the Turnpike in Auburn.

One evening, before we’d emptied our glasses, a ruffled man entered and struck up conversation. Soon he decided that his tattered flannel shirt clashed with John’s silk necktie, so he grabbed it and pulled. Fortunately John had loosened the knot and instead of drawing tight or yanking his head forward, the loop simply slipped apart, leaving the fabric limp in the confused man’s fist. The bartender barked. We steeled ourselves for whatever might happen next. The man skulked out into the gloaming.

A few years later the Range Light was gone and a boutique dealing in expensive kitchen wares had taken its place. Fine, I suppose. But no one tells stories about tense encounters in kitchenware boutiques.

A couple years ago Portland was in the national spotlight thanks to a feud between an entitled from away mother and the cranky owner of a local diner after the latter told the former to scram — and take her bawling infant with her. The report got my attention at first not because of the nature of the disagreement, but because of the name of the diner where the disagreement took place: Marcy’s.

I used to be a semi-regular at Marcy’s when it was actually owned by Marcy. No snooty mother with an exceptional baby in tow would have waited in line outside for half an hour for a seat at the Marcy’s I knew, where the walls were stained amber from decades of cigarette smoke and a cribbage game was always playing out at the counter. I lost more money at cards in Marcy’s than I ever spent on eggs.

At one point, during a losing streak, my debt to the house climbed to a few hundred dollars and one of the players suggested that it would be a good idea for me to settle the tab. His smile belied an unambiguous malice. I paid (I never intended not to) and, realizing the game wasn’t as friendly as I supposed, stuck to ordering the SoS.

Portland’s laissezfaire vibe attracted a lot of colorful characters. The City by the Sea at the time I lived there was home to a man named David Koplow, better known around town as the Dog Man. Koplow and his pack of dogs squatted in various places along Portland’s waterfront. Back then there were more derelict warehouses than tony shops and condominiums.

During the day if you ran into the Dog Man he’d be calling out commands to his unleashed dogs who, for the most part, obeyed him. But Portland had ambitions that didn’t include Koplow and his roving dogs. In a vendetta by the city that lasted for years Koplow was charged again and again with various offenses having to do with his canine companions, and successfully defended himself again and again until, finally, he didn’t. The dogs were taken and euthanized and a heartbroken Dog Man left the city.

In Portland today the State Theater is a popular concert and performing arts venue restored to its original early 20th Century Art Deco glory, but in the ’80s the State was a seamy erection that housed four screens of adult cinema and, if you were curious enough, you could barter your way in with a near full pack of Marlboros.

Just before the high-end coffee craze infected a trendier Portland the swankiest java shop was a short-lived place called Abe’s House of Coffee. Abe’s flouted the city’s commercial ordinances, staying open well past midnight; well past the time when the city said it could stay open. As such, Abe’s was popular with the kinds of people who tend to be up well past midnight. Portland didn’t put up much of a fuss at first, but when the rumor spread that prostitution and drug deals were being transacted as often as coffee and pastries were being purchased, things changed. Abe’s was finally shuttered amid accusations that a boodle of queer had passed through its till.

Today there’s a Starbucks just a few doors down from where Abe’s used to be. The coffee’s probably a lot better and the tables a lot cleaner, but the patrons are too busy grooming their beards and writing their blogs to be bothered with furtive dope peddling and hand-job negotiations. Where’s the fun in that?

One time I needed a filling. I’d noticed a dentist’s office on State Street along the route I walked to get to work, so I stopped in to make an appointment. The man that did my work was an older gentleman who probably learned his craft during the war. The Big War: W W Two.

I sat in the chair and he rolled alongside me on a wheeled stool and started drilling. After a few moments he pushed himself away from me and took a drag on a cigarette then came back to resume his work. The pattern continued throughout the procedure until my tooth was filled. He never asked if it bothered me. It was just the way it was going to be and likely had been since he opened his doors however many decades earlier. Why change?

My Portland had character and characters. DeFilippo’s Ye Olde House of Pancakes. The Surplus Store. Bobby Shakes. Len’s Market. The Wharf’s End. Hollis (the world’s fastest busboy). People, places and experiences that — for good or ill — could not happen in Portland today.

All of which is not to say that Portland isn’t a nice place. I’ve been back on a few occasions and enjoyed my visits. Portland and her citizens will always enjoy the benefits of being a port city with a rich history and fortuitous geography. I suppose what’s changed the most about Portland is that I am thirty years older and blessed with memories that have been burnished with time.

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