Thursday, January 10, 2013

NORTHERN MAINE by Peter Nolan Smith

Bing Crosby couldn’t have sung WHITE CHRISTMAS on December 25, 1991.

The New York sidewalks were bare of snow, sleet, slush, and ice. They stayed that way through the first month of 1992 and the population of the Northeast celebrated the end of winter.

Scientists had been warning about global warming the publication of a SCIENCE article in 1975. This ‘inadvertent climate modification’ was gobbledygook to the normal man terrified by the threat of a 'nuclear winter' after an atomic bomb exchange between the USA and USSR. American oil producers pooh-poohed the National Academy of Science warnings of carbon increases in 1979 and it wasn’t until 1988 that ‘Global Warming’ was mentioned before Congress. Our representatives shelved the warning of the impending climate shifts changes the eagerness of a football fan changing the channel from PBS to the SuperBowl.

At the end of January the New York Giants beat the Buffalo Bills 20-19 in Tampa and every trendy Manhattan fled the city for a weekend in Miami Beach. I rejected the exodus to the newly discovered art-deco district east of US 1. Too many people who regarded themselves VIPs were crowding on Ocean Avenue for my tastes.

I came from New England and wanted to see snow.

My friend Philippe ran a nightclub in the Meat Packing District. The long-haired Englishman was equally put off my the fashion elite’s transformation of old Miami.

"I liked it better when no one knew it."

"So what about doing the exact opposite of everyone and head north until we find snow." I showed him a map of New England and pointed to Moosehead Lake in Maine. "Winter is always winter up there."

"How we get there?"

"I have a car in Boston. We drive up the coast to Bar Harbor and then swing inland hoping for the best." I had phoned for the weather up north. The temperature was below freezing in Portland.

"Count me in. The Eurotrash can have Miami Beach. We're going for the snow."

Two days later an Amtrak train transported us from Penn Station to Boston. My father met us at the 128 station and drove us to my family home in the Blue Hills south of the city.

The grass behind our house was a withered yellow. My mother was cooking beef stew in the kitchen. I looked at the thermometer outside the window. The dial was stuck on 45 F.

"Did you get any snow yet?"

"Not once." She smiled at me. "You boys hungry?"

"For your stew? Always." Her recipe came from my Irish grandmother. It was a good winter meal, even if the season was more like autumn.

"Smells delightful, m'am." Phillipe had good manners.

"Let me show you our ride."

My car was in the garage. The gray 1982 Cutlass had good heat and a working stereo. The passenger window was paralyzed by faulty wiring, but the V8 was tuned for a long road trip.

"I only use it on weekends in the summer." I told Philippe and we entered the den where my father was watching TV. He liked road trips and I asked, “You want to come with us?”

“I know what winter looks like in Maine.” The seventy year-old Maine native had spent two of the long seasons in Jackman for the phone company. “The trees crack from the cold. They sound like cannons. Why can’t you be normal and go to Florida?”

“I want to see Lake Manicouagan.” A five-kilometer meteor had struck the Laurentian Shield to create a ringed impact crater.

“The roads that far north will be closed for the season.”

“It has been a warm winter.”

“Nothing is warm north of the St. John’s River.” The four-hundred mile stream served as the border between the USA and Canada.

“And that’s why were going there. To see winter.”

My mother understood my reasons. She loved to see the world. We ate her stew for dinner and drank wine on the sun porch. My father and she went to sleep and I showed Philippe his room. "Have a good night's sleep. We have a long ride ahead of us tomorrow."

I went to my old bedroom and lay on my bed to read Kenneth Roberts ARUNDEL, a forgotten novel about the invasion of Canada. My eyes shut before I reached page 25.

In the morning my mother made us breakfast. The sky was clear and the temperature had risen to 48.

"You won't see snow until after Bangor." My father put down the newspaper. He subscripted to the Boston Globe. A blizzard had buried Northern Europe. Scores were dead.

"We're not stopping there." I wanted waist deep snow.

"A waste of time, but have a good time." He walked Philippe and I into the garage. We loaded the car with our bags and I hugged my mother.

“Be my eyes.” She kissed my cheek and pressed $40 in my hand. “Buy yourself a nice lobster.”

“Drive safe.” My father was firm believer in defensive driving.

“I’ll keep the car between the lines.” I hadn’t had an accident since 1974.

Getting out of Boston took the better part of an hour. We took 95 as far as Portsmouth, then exited onto Route 1.

Philippe and I listened to NEVERMIND skirting the coast. Nirvana was as good on US 1 as it had been on the highway. Wells Beach, Old Orchard, and Portland were devoid of snow. In Falmouth I pulled off the Route 1 to see my old house.

“When I was a kid, my older brother and I jumped from the roof into the snow drifts.”

“You would break your legs doing that today.” The grass was as yellow as that in our backyard south of Boston.

“My grandfather used to say there were two seasons in Maine; the season of good sledding and the season of bad sledding.” I got back in the car. “He never said nothing about the season of no sledding.”

A half-hour later we stopped at LL Bean where Philippe bought real winter clothing good for -20 Fahrenheit.

“Better to be prepared.” He looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy in his new down jacket. The temperature in Freeport was 40. Sweat poured from his face in the parking lot and he stashed the jacket in the back seat before we continued along on the old two-laner through Bath, Wicassett, and Rockland. Each town held a story from my childhood.

I told Philippe each one.

We arrived in Camden at dusk. The motel cost $40 for two. The picturesque seaside resort was asleep for the winter. The temperature was below freezing and hoar frost rimmed the rocky harbor.

We ate at a restaurant overlooking the falls. The heavyweight bartender in her late-twenties weighed in excess over 300 pounds. She wore a flannel shirt and overalls. The fashion sense for the other women in the bar varied between shabby and manly.

“Is this the norm for women up here?” Philippe lifted his head from the plate of broiled halibut. The waitress promised that it was fresh. In Maine fresh meant an hour off the boat.

“"This isn't up. This is Downeast, but any woman in Maine is twice the man either of us will be.”

A man at the bar was eyeing Philippe in a funny way. The Englishman was near-sighted same as me, but refused to wear glasses. I didn’t mention the attention of the stranger.

The next day we drove farther down the coast. The temperature hovered over freezing. Patches of snow hid in the woods along US 1. We reached Bar Harbor mid-afternoon. After finding a cheap motel Philippe and I headed over the Shell Beach. The polar air was crisp as a potato chip. Small waves rippled through the tidal ice.

"This was the first time that I had been cold this year." Philippe was happy in his down jacket.

"It will get colder soon enough."

That evening we ate lobsters in Bar Harbor. Philippe and I were the only two diners. No one was drinking at the bar. 

The fat woman serving beer looked like she had been spawned by salmon. The bleached blonde waitress at the restaurant in Bar Harbor was missing two front teeth. The skinny thirty year-old had a big nose. I was attracted to her and pushed my short hair into shape.
Philippe had stopped my flirtation by ordering the bill.

“I liked her.” Skinny was better than big in my book.

“You were only leading her on.” The bony Brit was into petite Asian women. New York had plenty of those.

“And she me.” I hadn’t expected it to go anywhere further than holding hands. 

“She’s uglier than sin.” Philippe had eaten every morsel of lobster. His shirt was unstained by butter or stray meat. Mine was spotted with morsels which hadn’t made it into my mouth.

“Nothing wrong with ugly.” I had drunk enough to make me good-looking in the bathroom mirror.

“You’d regret it in the morning.” He was scared of having to share the room with rutting Mainiacs. As I paid the bill, the bartender asked Philippe, “You want some fun.”

“He’s with me.” I thumbed at Philippe.

“Then have a good time.” The fat bartender winked, as if she wanted to watch us

“Aren’t there any attractive females in this state?” Philippe asked under his breath.

“Not many.” I was pissed at him for having ruined my chances with the skinny girl. She was talking to the chef. He looked, as if he thought he was going to get lucky tonight.

“I’ll regret nothing.” I started for the kitchen. “You’re a buzzkill.”

Philippe dragged me out of the restaurant before I could do something stupid. A million stars traversed the clear sky. My breath was the only cloud in the air. The temperature had to be in the 20s. My fingers felt the cold and the car had a hard time starting. It was a good sign. We were getting north.

The next day we traversed the barren potato fields of Aroostock County. The snow deepened past Dover Junction. The grey skies didn’t renege on their promise of snow. Thick flakes clotted the air. The highway was plated by the tire-trampled residue of a recent blizzard. The temperature was hovering around 10F.

Old US 1 ended at its northern terminus of Fort Kent. Key West was 2377 miles to the south. Snow drifted chest-deep against the houses. Philippe tested his new jacket.

“It works.”

“I wouldn’t expect anything else from LL Bean.” I was wearing layers. Heavy boots were a must. We had reached winter and night was falling fast this far north.

We got a room at the motel nearest the ice-clogged river. The grinding floes filled the frozen air with horrid crunches.

“Tomorrow we’ll drive to the St. Lawrence and catch a ferry to the other side.” Icebreakers opened the seaway for ships throughout the winter. “We can reach Manicouagan Lake in two days. If the road’s open, I can make Newfoundland. It’s no Miami Beach.”

“I can’t go to Canada.” Philippe held his hands over the motel’s radiator. The interior surface of the windows were glazed by ice. A naked man wouldn’t last thirty minutes outside.

“Why not?” He was English and I thought he might have a prejudice against French Canadians.

“I have a visa problem.” He avoided eye contact.

“What kind?” French Canadian women were attractive. Their Gallic beauty came from not eating potato chips. Winter would only get more winter farther north.

“My visa is out of date.” He was embarrassed by this admission.

“How long?” Mexicans were called ‘wetbacks’. Up this far north illegals were known as ‘snowbacks’. They were mostly Canadian.

“Two years.”

“Damn.” We were 673 miles from Manhattan. I had a car and money in my pocket. I had dreamed on standing on the shores of Manicouagan Lake for years. I grabbed Philippe by his arm.

“Put on your coat.”

“It’s cold.” He protested without conviction.

“This is northern Maine. Of course it’s cold.” I forced Philippe to get into the bulky parka that he had bought at LL Bean. We walked down US 1 to a snow-covered steel truss bridge. The wind off the frozen river was twenty degrees south of zero and Philippe’s long hair whipped across his face.

‘That’s Quebec.” I pointed to the black bank across the St. John’s River.

“I know.” He refused to look at the other side.

“They have good food in Canada.” The French had colonized the region over four hundred years ago. I appealed to his weakness for good food. We had eaten lobster the previous evening. Fort Kent’s cuisine consisted of doughty pizza and greasy burgers. “There’s a great French restaurant in Clair. The Resto 120.”

The restaurant had been recommended by the motel manager. Her last name was Quelette. Fine cuisine was a specialty of the lost tribe of France. She wore her weight well.

“Tourtires, soupe aux pois, et pommes persillade. Cheese. Wine. Good bread.”

“Really?” Philippe was a hearty eater for a thin man.

“And French girls are cute.” They ate ‘frites’ not potato chips.

At Old Orchard Beach the sexiest girl in the summer were from Quebec City. They looked like either Brigitte Bardot or Francoise Hardy. Philippe was almost sold by my sales pitch, but he had a girlfriend back in New York.

“I can’t risk it.” They were in love.

“What’s the risk?” No one was guarding the bridge. “On the way back you can hide in the trunk. It’s heated.”

If the technique worked for millions of wetbacks, it couldn’t be too much trouble to run a snowback operation at a sleepy border crossing.

“No way.” Philippe shook his head. His nose was red from the cold wind.

“It’s either that or burgers.”

“Sorry.” He walked away from my grasp.

“Sorry?” I trailed him thinking about dragging him across the desolate bridge.

“You can come back in the summer.” 

“I have no idea where I will be in the summer.” Kidnapping was out of the question.

“Me neither, but it won’t be a deportation cell. Burgers and fries tonight It’s on me.” Philippe stormed over to the nearest bar. Neon signs FOOD and LABATT BEER flashed in its window. I stared across the icy river with disappointment. This was as far north as I would get this year.

“Fucking Brits.” I joined Philippe in the Moose Inn. It had a pool table, jukebox, and wooden bar with draft beer.

He didn’t take off his hat. Everyone in the bar was wearing theirs. I couldn’t tell the difference between the men and women and threw my watch cap on the bar.

“Fuck the Resto 120.” There were no pommes persillade on the Moose Inn’s menu.

“What?” Philippe asked to appease my anger.

“Shut the fuck up.” I was in a bad mood. I ordered a beer. The Labatt went down in less than thirty seconds. The second took two minutes. The third lasted almost a quarter of an hour.

We ordered burgers and fries. My fifth beer washed down the hockey puck of a paddy and the sixth took care of the sodden fries. At least I was warm.

The bar filled with loggers, snowmobile sledders, and the state road crew.

A storm was due in two days, so everyone was getting in their drunk tonight. I bought drinks for the road crew. Philippe played DJ on the Jukebox. The crowd danced to LOUIE LOUIE. My battery was on E. A thickly bearded drunk tapped my shoulder.


“You mind if I dance with your date?” The man had a cross-eyed squint. One lens of his glasses was cracked. For a second looking at him was like seeing my personalized ‘Portrait of Dorian Grey’. We were both forty.

“My date?” I was confused for a few seconds, until he glanced over his shoulder at Philippe.

Long hair hid his face.

“You’re saying that you want to dance with my date?”

“She’s better looking than any of the other girls in this town.” He lit a cigarette with a match. It flared over his thumb. The townie didn’t register any pain and said with a dull vice, “Girls around here weigh as much as moose in a peatbog. I like them skinny. You mind?”

“Be my guest.” The Englander’s illegality in America had halted my exploration of the North and I smiled as I said, “Just a dance.”

“You got it.” The townie staggered off to Philippe.

His mouth mouthed ‘you wanna dance’. I put down my beer before I spit it out laughing. The Brit came back to the bar and picked up his beer.

“Some guy just asked me for a dance.” Philippe was outraged by the offer.

“And you said no?”

“Of course I said no.” He was horrified by the thought that I presumed that he might say ‘yes’.

“Just so you know, he had the politeness to ask me if it was okay.”

“And what you say?”

“I said okay. Let’s face it, you have to be the prettiest girl in northern Maine by a long shot.” I figured that we were even.


“Did he offer to buy you a drink?” We were running low on money.

“Yes.” Philippe had said the magic word.

“So get to it, Thelma.” I went over to the jukebox and dropped two quarters to play KC and the Sunshine Band and Nirvana. They were good dancing songs.

Philippe gave me the finger.

I returned the favor, for I was ready to party along the St. Johns. The meteor lake was for another day or year. I ordered tequila. The logger gave me a joint and everyone joked about him asking Philippe to dance.

“I’m not gay.”

“Only blind.” I tossed down the tequila.

Philippe danced with a fat woman.
He laughed with the drunk about being mistaken for a woman.

No one asked me to dance.

I wasn't their type, then again I wasn’t the prettiest girl in Northern Maine.

The dead of winter was 2200 from Miami Beach was a good place to be a man and I didn't see anything wrong with humming WHITE CHRISTMAS.

Even if I was off-key.

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