The Economics of My Hometown: Boothbay Harbor, Maine

Maine

It used to be a given that if you were gay and grew up in a small town and you didn’t want to stay in the closet, you left. You ran to the big city and never looked back. I ran to San Francisco — how original! I have often joked that I moved as far away from home as physically possible without leaving the continent. Of course, since both my hometowns are tourist destinations located at the very ends of their respective peninsulas, in many ways they are more similar than I’d always like to admit. For all the examples of things I fled, there are features just as strong to pull my heart back.

The first time my now husband visited my hometown with me, his reaction (considerably less than the love-at-first-sight-ish one I thought it deserved) was this: “It’s so… quaint. Like, really, really quaint.” It is. If you could map the spirit of a place, Boothbay Harbor, Maine[1] would be somewhere near the intersection of charming and twee, though there would have to be a cold, unforgiving landmark close by as well. Probably some kind of granite outcropping.

Fortunately for me and every other poor kid that grew up there, mild summer temperatures, lobsters, and wild, though nowadays somewhat leashed, scenery have managed to attract tens of thousands of visitors, tourists and “summer people”[2], every year between the end of mud season[3] and the weekends in October when half the trees in New England lose their inhibitions and shove glory right in your face. When driveways and dooryards firm up and dry out, and the breeze becomes a sexy warm whisper instead of a roaring gale, spring reveals itself in other ways not found in nature.

 Shopkeepers take down the plywood shutters from plate glass windows, hang signs and plants, and stack hoodies, t-shirts, bric-a-brac. A multitude of little shops and lobster roll stops come hesitantly back to life, first on weekends and then full-time as Memorial Day approaches. That’s when the teenagers go to work. The first paycheck-earning job I ever had was as a “Hobart Engineer” or dishwasher at a restaurant and bar when I was 15. The state of Maine allowed 15-year-olds to get a work permit with the permission of their parents — permission my mother would no doubt have never given if she’d caught wind of the rumors of massive cocaine use. I never saw any but I heard that what used to be openly horked behind the line was now confined to the locked office upstairs. While I was not inducted into the pleasures of Bolivian marching powder, I was tasked with sweeping and mopping the kitchen alone after closing a couple of times a week with a fully stocked bar only a swinging door away. The adults were all upstairs “gettin’ right hamma’d” and singing along to “Piano Man”[4] at the real bar upstairs. I was such a well-behaved, Bible-believing, church-going young man that it took until the final two weeks of my second season working there before I dove into a bottle of peppermint schnapps. It made swabbing the cement floors a lot more fun but it didn’t ease the task of wrestling the thick rubber mats into a sloppy pile while I mopped.

Growing up poor/working class/lower middle class/a step above trailer people, there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for travel or trips to the big city. The relationships I built with my coworkers gave me the opportunity to be my own person without anyone holding preconceived notions of who I was. This was a new community that I had chosen to join, unlike school, church, or family. It was as if I’d been given a new set of eyes that showed me a perspective just slightly above and to the side of where I’d been looking out from. I’d been given the freedom to consider things without the overbearing influences that previously shaped my perception of the possible. Also, booze.

Route 1 is the sole artery that carries tourists and their green blood up the coast from Boston, New York, and points south. Boothbay, roughly a half-hour drive off the golden road, has to work a little harder to entice visitors than other summer places like Camden, or “The Prettiest Little Village in Maine,” Wiscasset, both of which straddle the highway. When the season approaches the apex of grand weather and backed-up traffic,[5] the town hosts an event not possible in most places — even most places in coastal Maine. Windjammer Days recalls the time just past living memory when one of the region’s major industries was building the tall ships that ruled the Atlantic and circumnavigated the globe with ice, rum, spices, various whale parts, and most tragically human cargo. Tall, straight, flexible but sturdy white pines made perfect masts and several deep harbors made the area a perfect spot for shipbuilding. It still is, but that’s more of a luxury trade these days. The days of the tall ships were just about finished when the town of Boothbay Harbor split from Boothbay proper in 1886, and the bustling business district that crafted most of those elegant conveyances was actually located on another spit of land just to the east of “The Haba,”[6] but the Chamber of Commerce won’t let history get in the way of a lucrative party.

On a good year, a half dozen or so majestic ships glide into one of the deepest ports north of Boston, masts stretching a hundred feet into a clear blue sky. They are greeted by most locals, as they pause from their work and stare for just a moment, with an “Ain’t that somthin’” or an “I’ll be. They sure ah pretty, ain’t they.” I am unequal to the task of describing exactly how high are the quotients of praise and wonder implicit in those two rather taciturn declarations. Seriously, if you ever see a Mainer look impressed, he or she is either drunk, crazy, or both. Along with hordes of tourists filling them up for harbor cruises, the big giant sailboats are celebrated with a parade and fireworks[7]. The first parade I can remember seeing in person was the Windjammer Days convoy of antique cars, later model convertibles with local vips, firetrucks and homemade floats advertising local establishments. While the papier mache and crepe constructions didn’t ever give the spectacles I saw on TV much of a contest, the TV parades didn’t have people tossing handfuls of candy my way. Dozens of kids scrabbled for the individually wrapped sweets at the edge of the asphalt or in the pebble-strewn dirt just beyond. Dusty Mary Janes, Tootsie Pops, and Sweettarts that I was able to snag before anyone else tasted better than just about any other candy[8].

Though I am by nature easily grossed out, I was not unused to grubbing around in filth during significant amounts of my childhood. My father was, for several years, a self-employed garbage man. When the population of our tiny town grew four or five sizes each summer, so did the number of boxes[9] and large black garbage bags, and the amount of loose detritus. As the oldest and biggest of three siblings, it was my job to climb into the back of the dump truck and be the human trash compactor, stomping with all my weight to press down the mounds of rubbish so we could fit more in before having to go back to the town dump[10]. You haven’t experienced all life has to lay out for you until you’ve spent a muggy July morning balancing on a heaping truck full of an increasingly pungent mix of coffee grounds, tin cans with just a bit of tuna clinging to the sides, maggots (of course), and I never wanted to think too hard about what else. I started that seasonal career at age eight and was finally off the hook around age 12 when I matured enough to handle less aromatic and more civilized occupations such as mowing lawns and babysitting.

I followed the same pattern when I began working “for real.” Once I was old enough to legally serve alcohol[11] and therefore wait tables, I was out of the kitchen for good. From damp and stinky to the drier side of sweaty and okay, still a bit fragrant but to a lesser degree. Restaurant work is smelly business. Not, however, as smelly as the most iconic of coastal Maine occupations, “lobsturin.”

One bright chill morning when I was somewhere around the age of lawnmowing, I had the privilege to spend a few hours out on the water learning about and playing at that vocation that is both grand small town Maine tradition and a job that like any other puts “meat on yo-ah table.” There had to have been a school report of some sort involved. I vaguely remember firing off questions at my friend Brian’s dad like he was the Encyclopedia Britannica.[12] I’m sure he’s mostly or completely buried the memory of that morning because he continues to be incredibly nice every time I see him.

Lobstermen are on the lobsters’ schedule. That means getting up when it’s still dark to haul up the sea bugs somewhat soon after they are lured into the traps. Otherwise you end up with several half crustaceans per boxy wire cage rather than one or two whole ones. They drive down to the sea in well-kept, lived-in pickup trucks[13] and count among their most precious possessions voluminous, solidly made beverage containers. The beverage is often some of the blackest coffee this side of Istanbul. The early morning I went out, just a sip was enough to put me off the stuff for a couple more years. (The coffee might also have had something to do with my Gatling gun approach to questioning Brian’s dad.) As the truck rocked and thumped down the steep private shore road I watched the sky behind the silhouetted pines fade slowly up from black to pale blue. When we got to the dock it took a while to get the boat’s motor warmed up. When Brian’s dad finally made sure all my limbs were inside the boat and asked Brian to cast off, I thought we’d be heading straight out towards the traps; but I hadn’t reckoned on the bait.

Pogies. Whole. Dead. Two big crates of ‘em. We picked them up from a large purveyor with an expansive dock and a warehouse-like main building. It seemed more boat shop than bait shop to me. We had to spear two or three fish through the eye with a stainless steel skewer. Fishkabobs: one per trap to entice those unpicky scavengers that somehow manage to be so very delicious. When we pressed the pointed end through the fisheye, they gave with a squishy pop and made a wet squick as they slid down the metal stick. Technically it’s true that I helped prepare the bait but I maybe cleared a third of a crate in the same time that Brian took care of the rest.

My short memory film of that day is accompanied by a score that starts out with a piece that resembles something by one of the lesser romantics: pretty but not boring. Once we begin stabbing dead pogies, the music shifts to something discordant, unbeautiful but true. Stravinsky-like. But once the fish eyes were all popped and we pulled away from the shore[14] both my mixed-up memories and the music they evoke become an improvisational pastiche of sunshine, gilded water, open blue sky and, ultimately, boring repetition. It’s no mean feat to winch up a couple of hundred traps strewn along the seabed just to check and see if they’ve snared anything. A good percentage of them turn up empty every time, but you’ll never know what you’ve got if you don’t do the work of bringing them to the surface. Miles Davis, then. Late heroin. Of course, the real music out on the water is the whooshing of the wind against red ears and the gentle slap tap of waves against the hull on a calm day. Along with more prosaic sounds, including the roar of an old diesel engine, the whining of the rope as it whips through the pulleys, and the ever-present questions of a nerdy 12 year old.

The water that day was, as it so often is in Maine, the dark blue color of the deepening dusk sky, and the sky itself glowed a slightly paler hue with a few wispy high clouds to highlight its brilliance. On shore, the dark brown of bare-limbed oak and maple trees blended with the evergreen spruces and white pines[15] in an earth-toned carpet spread on the gray granite bones of rocky inlets. I’m guessing rather than truly remembering, but this description sums up part or all of most non-stormy days in early spring or late fall on the coast of Maine.

Speaking of early spring[16], each April Boothbay Harbor holds a celebration of itself. Fisherman’s Festival can be thought of as the flip side of Windjammer Days. No big tourist crowds, no tall ships; plenty of plain-spoken folks and lots of boats.[17] It’s a weekend that blends the silly and the serious: The Shrimp Princess Pageant; Codfish Relay, Trap Hauling, and Lobster Crate Races; the Fisherman’s Memorial Service; and Blessing of the Fleet, among other events. Fisherman’s Festival serves as something of an early wake-up call before the deciduous leaves and crowds return. Windjammer Days, like all such fêtes that honor bygone times, commemorates that which never really was. But Fisherman’s Festival is spot on, observing the moment. It’s a family affair and, as sentimental and trite as it may sound, the definition of family in this case is everyone in the region. The Codfish Relay is run by high schoolers in full foul-weather gear, including hip boots, holding a heavy dead fish in each outstretched hand.[18] The Shrimp Princess features “ladies between the ages of 9 and 12” who “participate and show us their fine talents,” according to the description in the Boothbay Register. Many, if not all, of the lobster and fishing boats that queue up at the dock across the street from the Catholic Church to get sprinkled and gestured at are crewed by some combination of parents, siblings, and cousins.

The place tourists and even most summer people experience is a dining room during Windjammer Days: clean, bright, and charming, if a little kitsch. It’s a piece of the truth. Dirty, smelly, raucous Fisherman’s Festival is hidden away from the bulk of the crowd. It’s a lot of effort but those exertions are pretty much matched in spirited fun. When I was younger, I loved Windjammer Days most of all. It was the event that called me home from across the continent and made me reconsider why I ever left. Then I remembered the dirty, smelly, difficult labor and satisfied myself that I made the right choice. While I still love the sight of a fleet of tall ships, Fisherman’s Festival has grown on me. So long as I don’t ever have to tramp down garbage or impale any fishes.[19]


[1] Rather odd name, I know. Its excessive inclusion of aquatic geography — do you really need a bay and a harbor? — seems to confuse people.

[2] Tourists stay in motels, inns, cabins and (sigh) RVs; “summer people” stay in Gumpa and Mim’s “cottage” as their WASPy forebears intended.

[3] Sometime in May. Probably.

[4] By far the piano player’s favorite tune, so imagine the strangeness of Billy Joel and Christie Brinkley showing up at the place on their honeymoon and being turned away. They wanted to eat on the second-floor deck where his damn song was belted nightly, but we didn’t serve the full menu at the bar. No Exceptions.

[5] Always entertaining for natives to watch bewildered travelers trying to figure out which street is one way and which they need to take to get to their destination based on unclear destinations delivered in an accent they had trouble believing still existed. It’s less entertaining if one is driving behind them, of course.

[6] It’s called East Boothbay, though it’s still part of the town of Boothbay. It’s just under three miles from the haba. I used to have to run there and back during track practice. It really sucked not having an actual track.

[7] Because of this, the town’s Fourth of July fireworks were always a bit lackluster, as the fancy gunpowder budget was always split between the two events.

[8] Except maybe my mom’s homemade Christmas candy that she made in such bulk that I was able to scoop a half dozen or so out of the freezer and chomp down out back of the house without getting caught.

[9] OMG the sheer volume of empty liquor cases attributable to the old-money wasps each year. Forests of cardboard!

[10] Located on Country Club Road because of course it was.

[11] Sixteen if one was waiting tables and serving only wine and beer, 18 if one wanted to tend bar. Don’t our liquor laws make a whole lot of sense?

[12] Eons before Google.

[13] My apologies to the Psalmist.

[14] Not too far away as lobsters don’t go for really deep water.

[15] Also known as the “Maine Pine” according to a state park ranger on a field trip I took when I was ten. Wikipedia disagrees.

[16] Remember, this is a northern latitude so spring is a later visitor than it is in most parts of the country.

[17] The two do have oceans of booze in common, but most events in the area do. I believe the t-shirt reads “A small drinking village with a fishing problem.”

[18] The “small fry” versions of many of these events feature elementary school competitors.

[19] My original metaphor for Boothbay Harbor as it presents itself vs. how it is: The difference between a cold blue crustacean pulled glistening from the bay, and a mound of pink and white chunks thinly tossed in mayonnaise falling out of a grilled hot dog bun. 

After decades of procrastination, Kevin figured he should finally start writing more than pithy Facebook updates and cleantech press releases before his professional epitaph became “adequate PR guy.” You can check out his lackluster twitter feed @kevmudgeon

Photo of coastal Maine by Ester

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5 Comments / Post A Comment

garli (#4,150)

Aw, I love this and now super miss Maine. Even the winters.

I’ve been to boothbay once. :)

Decker-Drane (#7,183)

I want to gay marry this charming Awl piece. You actually had the childhood this South-Central Mainer dreamed of (with the possible exception of the garbage truck…and THIS despite the fact that I actually loved going to the dump in Turner growing up). My Maine was more shoemill-river-town, small-camp-on-a-pond. I visited your Maine on daytrips and as a college student in Brunswick. Still, a shared Maine-ness comes through and it’s something that continues to call me back after an adulthood in NYC and now Chicago. I imagine I’ll answer that call before too long now. Thanks for this!

cecily parsley (#7,090)

@Decker-Drane Oh, Brunswick! Another polar bear here to echo this comment — thank you for this piece!

@Decker-Drane I know I thanked you on Twitter but I hadn’t read your comment yet. Brunswick was kind of the “big city” when I was growing up. Okay,not really, but Bowdoin meant there was some culture there and definitely some history, and now it’s where I get off the train and wait for someone to pick me up when I go home to visit. Also, have much love for small-camp-on-a-pond Maine and shoe mill-river-town Maine. My mum grew up in Wilton, once the toothpick capital of the world! :)

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