Thursday, September 18, 2014

Back from Maine

          The short season of adding ice to tall glasses of water has ended, it seems.  We are in mid-September, and my recent trip to southern Maine has punched up the view toward fall.

**Photo of Saco River, by Carter Brown, Flickr Creative Commons.

            Of my four days there, two were gray, two were glowing. They included pancakes, a house tour by a charismatic six-year-old, and dark, tannic river swimming. Also a meeting; local cheese and beer in an Edwardian neighborhood; and a Saturday farmers’ market that is everything organic-farm and progressive and LGBT and collective in culture in southern Maine, at an Olmsted-ian downtown park.These crunchy views are less visible where I live, in Staten Island. 

**Photo of carrots at Deering Oaks Farmers' Market by Mebrett, Flickr Creative Commons. 

         That said, Portland’s overlay of organic and tech and foodie culture is only an overlay, it seems. For a city of 40,000 to have a Whole Foods and a Trader Joe’s is surprising--but it clearly has a hard-bitten side as well. It might be part Burlington, part Boston working-class suburb in a natural setting.

My last afternoon in Portland was spent near the bus station, hearing about a non-working EBT machine at the convenience store across the street, about coffee house offerings being too expensive and too strong in flavor, about how much money is left on food-stamp cards this month, and a long bus trip to Corpus Christi, Texas for a job and a return to Maine after finding only overnight heat and contaminated beach water.

**Hilltop Superette, Munjoy Hill, Portland, by Kate, Flickr Creative Commons. 

People are friendly. At the bus-station convenience store, the counter-women at the pizza/Italian sandwich counter peer toward me as I choose a drink and call, “How are ya?” in a kind, harsh-voiced way that sounds close to a Boston accent to me, but different. I hear that only tourists eat lobster rolls, although I can’t tell, because they seem only to be sold on the coast and in rural areas, not in Portland.

At a coffee shop, people smile to be in one another’s company in the line for espresso. In some regions, smiling appears to be more of an obligation—but here, people seem glad to be with one another, happy to be in a natural place.

**Photo toward Mackworth Island, from Portland, Maine, by Jeff Dunn, Flickr Creative Commons. 

            Outside of town, the rural roads have a kinship with small-town anywhere: mountain-side burgs in Washington state; wooded East Texas. 

Leaving Portland, my bus passes pine woods and rocky areas blasted for the highway.Two retired women behind me are discussing Mount Holyoke and whether Devil in the White City is indeed based on a true story.

As we near Boston, we cross from woods and a certain amount of dereliction into the Northeast Metropolitan Complex--there is a palpable feeling of emerging into the swift click of the cities. With surprise, I realize that I have spent four days outside of the metro area between Boston and Baltimore, which seems to be pulling us in. Now we're in the Tip O’Neill Memorial Tunnel, then passing a farmer’s market on a busy square. City dwellers in business suits shop for dinner, not looking up to make eye contact--they can't show a reaction to every passing Greyhound bus, after all.

At Boston’s South Street Station, a young man asks me to watch his trail backpack while he fetches food. Noticing an Appalachian Trail patch ironed onto his pack, I mention it when he returns. 

He completed the trail the day before, he says—he and others drank champagne and made toasts after fog cleared at the Katahdin summit. It seems magnificent and unusual and world-breaking--I have the urge to give him five, but I refrain from some sense of big-city decorum that I’m not sure is even necessary. He is a laid-back trail kid, a recent NYU graduate with a green-careers degree. I grin and say it’s amazing, how exciting that he did the trail.

After Boston, we drive in darkness past conifers and across waterways. The passengers who boarded in Boston are visibly more diverse and more prosperous: Back in the urban areas, middle-class people use public-transit, and ride long-distance buses between metro centers. In Portland, Somalian and other African refugees were most of the non-white residents, but middle-class African-Americans live near and south of Boston. The passengers around me seem buoyed by suburban security and education. Because only a few of the electrical outlets are working, people allow others to plug smartphones into their outlets. They assure each other that this is fine:“Thank you very much!” and “You’re welcome." This feels like kindness, but also like the urban politeness of strangers.

**Photo of woods in Maine, by Bryan Alexander, Flickr Creative Commons. 

In the four hours between Boston and New York, we pass land, land, the insurance buildings of Hartford, rivers, then more land. I drowse, then wake to realize that buildings are on all sides, and this must be the Bronx. On one side, a stacked garage like a cruise-ship has an outlet mall's name in Roman letters that shine into the night. We whoosh past innumerable buildings, glimpse the tiny red spire of the Empire State Building far ahead, cross a river, then land on Amsterdam or Lexington and head south past the small shops and cafes of Harlem.

Near Times Square, we turn down an alley and find what seems unlikely: a two-story, yawning opening into a garage, our secret entrance into Port Authority. Our bus tucks in with dozens of other buses. I ask the hiker, who is across the aisle, what it’s like to be in the woods for days and days, then here.

He grins, bending to pick up his large knapsack, and says, “It’s—scary, that’s what.” He pauses, then says with decision: “I’m not sure I like it here anymore.”

For the next couple of weeks, he’ll hide out in New Jersey. “Hopefully, I can ease back in,” he says. He plans to work as a bike mechanic in the city, then seek work in sustainability.

I wonder to myself whether I still like New York, either. I’m sure I’d dislike it if I were returning from months on a trail. I’d react against it. I reflect on how it felt to be in a smaller city, with nature not so far beyond it. 

Admittedly, there’s a security in the Mid-Atlantic that I like—it’s an established place, with jobs and culture and milder weather. The temperature is 12 degrees higher here than it was in Portland, and the air is less freighted with chilly moisture. 

As it happens, I have returned to the mega-metropolis at an optimal time, 11 p.m. on a weekday. In the 42nd Street subway station, people move about but there's room to drag my roller bag behind me. The platform is relatively quiet until a man starts singing, his voice like James Brown with a busted voice. He wheezes and shouts, “I *need* you!” in a way that’s a little disturbing. Many performers here seem like naturals, but I wonder how long he's been at it—it’s more that we’re doing him a favor by listening. A man glances over in bemusement when I move further down the tracks, toward the front of where the R train will stop.

The Staten Island ferry, which I’ll ride to go home, stands quiet as a ghost ship. It is like a dream I might have had but didn't realize could materialize: The doors stand wide open to let a trickling stream of people onto the boat, not the usual shopping-mall size crowd. 

**Photo of Staten Island Ferry (daylight), by Rev Stan, Flickr Creative Commons.

I rest on the orange benches on the ship’s side, 10 or so seats from the next person, and gaze into clear night toward Brooklyn and Governor’s Island. 

         I have never seen the boat or the city this peaceful, and I think of the articles I've read about night workers here. Perhaps I can only go forth after 11, I think. How would that feel?

On Staten Island, I board a bus with many others, people returning in a business-like manner to their homes. It is midnight, but the evening feels benign. At my stop I debark with three others, and we walk quickly along the streets. It seems well-lit, as if the streets are quiet but alive. 

        The city is large, its boundaries unseen from here, and I reflect on how that feels around me. I'd been staying in a house with a roommate for a few days, and I wonder if I'll miss the companionship in this city. 

On the way up my block, I pass a woman walking a small dog. I don’t know her. Still, filled with Maine largesse, I wave. She calls out hello, then she continues singing a song in a strong voice. Her dog is scrappy, a Tramp-like terrier.

I don’t know whether I’ll be glad to be away from Portland's easy nature, or easy-smiling Mainers. It's possible that I will miss it. Still, I feel a certain goodwill toward New York as I walk the last incline up my street, and climb the rocky stairs to my house. 


No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for commenting!