by David A. Woodbury
The rest of the country hardly considers Portland, Maine, an urban center. In Maine, it is, though, and especially so from where I live, in the northern half of the state.
One recent spring, I spent an April weekend in Portland, my first sojourn into a major city in almost a year. (It was Portland the last time, too.) We spent two nights this weekend in a stuffy motel room and departed from our neo-Paleolithic roadkill-and-foraging diet into the decadence of IHOP and Applebee’s. I drank three bottles of Shipyard ale in one evening.
My daughter and son-in-law (conventionally-married couple, no children, alumni of an über-liberal Massachusetts college who nevertheless escaped with their minds intact) have lived in a second-floor apartment on a “residential” street in Portland for most of their ten years there. She grew up in T1R9 in the Maine wilderness, population 16 per square mile, while he grew up in Manhattan in the miasma of New York, population 100,000 times as dense as T1R9, so Portland is a middle ground for each of them. To my amusement, though, rather than consternation, they have been sucked into the pulse and flow of this city, as through a straw; they have hospitality jobs and now drive a Prius hybrid. They blend; I applaud; they have more courage than I; cities frighten me.
As I stalked the sidewalks during this visit, alongside my daughter and the rest of the family, and drifted into a few narrow storefronts, clothed in my rip-stock all-purpose laborer pants, flannel shirt, barn jacket, purposeful work boots, and Registered Maine Guide cap, much of what bothers me about city life chilled me with a weakening hangover-like queasiness.
Each storefront is, perhaps, sixteen feet wide with an interior arranged as to fit a wide railroad car. Who or what occupies the three or more floors directly above each one? I doubt most city dwellers even ask themselves that question. No store has a public restroom, not even Dunkin’ Donuts. At home, I let ‘er go just about anywhere I’m standing when the urge strikes. Where do all the city people go to pee when they’re out and around? (We went to a harbor-side park — Bug Light — to fly kites, and it wasn’t long before I had to pee. No polite way to do it, so I had to let it crystalize in the pipe, so to speak, while I pondered where it would be publicly tolerated, since the businesses which kindly provide such facilities in small towns don’t do so in cities any more.)
Two of the strangest stores I passed in downtown Portland — well, one of the two was in the Maine Mall — are made strange by what they sell. One sells art made of glass. That, apparently, is all they carry. Another sells pillows up to sizes intended to replace major items of furniture and in mostly plain bold colors. Who buys enough of that stuff to make careers for a cadre of shopkeepers? Will either of these shopkeepers one day pass on the business to a daughter or son so that their children can boast “In Business Over 40 Years” or will they both be gone within six months?
I know my way around Portland very well. I began learning the lay of the city in the early 1950s, having briefly lived with my grandmother at 234 State Street, one block below Longfellow Square, and then continuing to visit her regularly after that right through my teen years. I have lived in other cities as well, what most would consider pleasant places, both in this country and abroad — Cincinnati, Monterey, Augsburg, Boston — and in each instance I have become ever more resolved that I will never voluntarily call such a place, or its urban sprawl, my permanent home.
I am an alien in such an environment. I see as much moose poop where I often walk as city people see dog poop on their daily strolls. I love spending a day picking wild blackberries and hoping that I’m out of the berry patch before a bear finds them too. I enjoy sleeping in wood-heated cabins that the power lines will never reach, taking compass readings to make sure I’m still on the trail, listening carefully when I hear distant gunshots to decide whether someone is target shooting or signaling distress. I teach firearms safety and hunter education. As a Maine Guide, I get paid to go fishing. When I’m home, which is more often than it used to be, old man that I am, I am continually doing some project that requires overalls and eye protection and, eventually, bandaids.
I can’t help but observe people, myself included. What I wear from day to day is according to function. What I do from day to day is not dependent on or influenced by what others are doing or by what I imagine others expect of me in order to assure my continuing acceptance in their world. Have you noticed, for instance, that since the 1960s clothes designed for city people are intended to express non-conformity? I don’t shop for clothes just so I can then wear them in front of others to show that I have conformed to the expected non-conformity. No doubt I’m an embarrassment to my urban children. I don’t choose a place to drink my morning coffee so that I will be noticed being in the right place. Nor do I think all city people behave thus, but it is apparent that a great many do.
I am just not a joiner. A city is like an enormous club — or a container of many jostling clubs. People in cities make me think of schooling fish or herding caribou. They crowd together and move together as an organism. As an organism they abide predictably by rules of conduct — not that the rules are predictable, but the behavior is. As an organism they accept noise, loss of privacy, cramped living spaces, bad-tasting tap water, street hazards, expensive everything, weirdos, keep-off-the-grass signs, and innumerable other impositions in exchange for proximity to airports and exotic restaurants and custom shops that sell glass art and giant pillows and events like a “musical” about marijuana. It is the rejection of the individual as supreme and the view that people are part of an organism that is greater than the individual that sways urban behavior. This is the view that subdues and subjects the individual to the whimsy of the amorphous masses. I can see how it lures people, always has, always will. (In my youth, I was going to be a concert pianist and spent my first college year at a conservatory of music, but then severed my right index finger in a work accident; my next ambition was to be a Russian-English translator; both of those, certainly, being urban careers. Along the way to becoming a translator, meanderthral that I am, I dabbled in, and became drawn away by the biological sciences.) And now I can see how wrong city life was for me.
City people are convinced that their city is the island-center of their universe and the surrounding metropolitan region is a ring of satellites, and the next city is like the next galaxy, to be reached by passing through the outer space of forests and fields where no one of consequence lives there except farmers, who are required to grow food for the city, and forest rangers, who will rescue them if their car gets stuck on a dirt road detour between cities.
I do not see myself even as a decorative whisker on the cheek of such an organism. And that’s putting it politely, for if I were part of an urban organism I would not be permitted to choose my place; more likely, curmudgeon that I am, I’d get an assignment somewhere in the lower GI tract.
That Saturday, as I waited in front of the motel for other family members to emerge for the day’s activities, my wilderness-honed personal space (roughly 1/4 square mile) was invaded by a growing number of young men boisterously gathering in the taxi area. Presently they grew to eight or ten in number, most with precisely-trimmed narrow beards, flat-billed baseball caps in assorted colors and marked conspicuously with various codes, clean new shoes of the kind we once called sneakers but now defined according to purposes other than sneaking: skateboarding now, or basketball perhaps. They were not in uniform; no two of them were dressed quite alike. They seemed to have in common some general ancestral origin — they were all dark-haired and of lightly-tanned complexion, all shorter than I, all of about the same age, all speaking English but I heard the timbre of ESL. I observed them for a few minutes, guessing at what brought them together. They might have been a visiting baseball team except that the Sea Dogs hadn’t taken to their muddy field yet.
One (but only one) of the bunch wore his jeans at that jaunty, gravity-defying level that advertised his bright yellow boxer shorts underneath. (Why was he so modest as to wear boxers? Why not good old white jockey shorts? Why any underwear at all?) Once my party had assembled at our cars, the motel’s airport shuttle arrived and those young fellows crowded into it. That’s when I decided that they must be some other city’s visiting Men’s Urban Fashion Team, in town for a competition. I can think of no other explanation. If they had been strung out through the mall, jostling all the other competing teams, they would have pleased the judges no doubt, but I never would have noticed them as a separate squad.
I have since retreated to my refuge, remote from the scrutiny and direct influence of those swarming masses. They are not on my doorstep, although their politics will forever threaten my independence. And an annual visit to their mild chaos has once again provided me a year’s dose of metropolitan amusement and musings.