Smoking in the boys’ room

Portland, Maine

I have a friend — let’s call him Todd — who thinks that the city of Portland, Maine is so hip, so cool and oh so wonderful.

Todd fled the pace and grind of Boston in order to raise his family in place that is consistently ranked as one of the country’s most “livable” cities, whatever that means. Today, Todd has become one of Portland’s biggest fans.

I like Todd. He is a smart guy. He has a law degree.  Generally speaking, Todd arrives at his conclusions following a painstaking and multi-layered process of analytical and critical thinking. Todd has jumped into Portland with both feet. He recently bought a home in North Deering. He is a civic volunteer. He is an under-40 professional with a beautiful wife, two small children and a promising life ahead of him.

I admire Todd, but I want to vomit every time he feels compelled to tell me how great it is to live, work and play in Portland.

I know what you’re thinking: Dude, you live in Biddeford. You ought to shut to eff up and call U-Haul before you start dissing Maine’s largest city.

Go ahead and laugh. I can handle it. It’s not exactly an original thought.

Before we proceed any further, let me assure you that I know a thing or two about the city of Portland. I have some street cred when it comes to discussing the city I call pretentious-ville, a city that so transparently and desperately wants to be a mini-Boston.

I’ve lived in a brownstone, I’ve lived in a ghetto

I lived in Portland before it was considered hip; before you thought it was actually possible to bump into Jack Kerouac’s ghost.

I worked in the kitchen at 39 Exchange Street, a restaurant that has since been replaced by a much-needed boutique store in the Old Port. I worked as a janitor at the McDonald’s that was located on the corner of Oak and Congress streets. I made pizzas at The Bag on Free Street. I also had a corner office across the street from Brian Boru.

I lived on “The Hill” (Vesper Street) and the West End (well, sort of the edge . .Walker Street) I lived on the fourth floor of the Trewlawny building and survived on Italian sandwiches from Joe’s Smoke Shop. I remember the State Theater when it showed pornos. Christ, I saw mainstream movies at the Fine Arts Cinema before it decided to give the State a run for its money with John Holmes flicks. I was thrown out of Horsefeathers.

I remember when Dewey’s was located on Fore Street; when DiMillo’s was just a hole in the wall on the other side of Commercial Street. I rented a room on Sherman Street. We used to call that neighborhood “the student slums.” Today, we call it “Parkside.”  I lost my virginity on Alba Street in Deering Center. I got picked up by the police on Canco Road, and I was there when the cranes arrived at the Golden Triangle to begin construction of One City Center.

I ate mushrooms in the basement of a friend’s house on Spring Street and then swore I could see telephone poles melting on Winter Street. I worked third shift at the 7-11 on Congress Street; and passed out in the median of the Franklin Arterial. I shared an apartment with a gay roommate on Park Street. I lived on Peaks Island when the Portland ferry terminal was little more than a dilapidated building. I sold pipe, valves and fittings at W.L. Blake, an industrial supply wholesale distributor that is today the Old Port Sea Grill and up-scale office spaces.

I was evicted from an apartment on Preble Street; and fell madly in love with a girl who attended the Portland School of Art (today: Maine College of Art). I rode the escalators at Porteous, Mitchell and Braun. I ate scrambled eggs while hungover at Ye Olde Pancake Shoppe. I bumped into Sammy Hagar at the Sonesta Hotel, which quickly changed its name back to the Eastland.

I remember when WMGX had a studio on Cumberland Avenue and when Frank Fixaris announced high school sports scores on Channel 13 and Fred Nutter did televised editorials on Channel 6. I remember when you could get a great sandwich at Carbur’s or see the Kopterz play at Cayo’s.

Okay; you get the picture.

So, forgive me if I have a different perspective of Portland, Maine. Forgive me if I don’t buy into all the laddi-da crap about how wonderful and “livable” the city is.  Forgive me for believing that Portland is the most self-absorbed and obnoxious of Maine’s 457 cities and towns. Livable? Tell that to the people living in my old apartment on the third-floor of a Greenleaf Street triple-decker. Take a walk down Valley Street at 2 a.m. on a Thursday and tell me all about “livable.”

Suffragette City

Ironically, voters in the same city where the Temperance movement got its beginnings recently approved a referendum that allows the use of limited amounts of marijuana.

Neal Dow, the father of Prohibition and a former Portland mayor, must be rolling in his grave.

The referendum’s success was a much celebrated event among the city’s uber liberal progressives who spend their days dreaming about being free of “the man” and his corporate control over their lives; while simultaneously devising new ways to control and restrict the lives of their neighbors with a mountain of nanny-state regulations, from outlawing the use of Styrofoam to forbidding soft drinks on school grounds.

Portland — a once proud, prosperous and industrious community that hosted the North Atlantic Fleet during WWII — has today become the capital of hypocrisy and self-absorption.

I have no problem with legalizing the use or possession of marijuana. I am a Libertarian. But I wonder how a city that wants to celebrate individualism and diversity over everything else can keep a straight face when explaining the tobacco smoking ordinance the city council approved earlier this year.

In a March 6, 2013 Portland Press Herald story, Portland Mayor Michael Brennan said the city’s tobacco ordinance was created to address a serious public health issue: second-hand smoke.

“Secondhand smoke is a dangerous toxin,” Brennan told the newspaper. “Whether it’s children on a swing set or joggers circling the Back Cove or someone walking their dog along the Eastern Prom, we need to make sure we are doing everything we can to reduce the exposure to such a serious health hazard.”

Sure, it’s hard to argue with Brennan on this point, but I wonder if he can answer my next question: Why does the ban also apply to electronic cigarettes, which emit only a water-based vapor while delivering nicotine to the user?

I’m a smoker, so I can’t hold my breath waiting for Brennan to answer the question, but it’s really quite simple: Even the appearance of smoking does not fit with the fluff and pompoms of Maine’s most “livable” city.

Hiding behind the pretense of a public health concern (what is the city doing to control automobile fumes that I am forced to inhale while walking through the Old Port?) is little more than a ruse. Smokers are the ugly people, the less-than people. The NASCAR-watchin’, beer drinkin’ types who probably buy their clothes at Wal-Mart. That doesn’t quite match the image, does it?

And if there’s one thing we know about Portland, it’s that image is everything.

So, go ahead, Portland . . . keep patting yourselves on your collective backs.

Me? I’ll take cities and towns like Lewiston, Rumford, Sanford or Biddeford every day of the week.

Smoke ’em, if you got ’em.


7 thoughts on “Smoking in the boys’ room

  1. Great article! I am one of Portland’s 80’s children who remembers many of the old stomping grounds of which you mentioned. Your descriptions conjured up old memories of my childhood adventures in the downtown district and waterfront – before all the douchebaggery! I must admit that I have lived in or around Boston a handful of times over the last 15 years. I’ve always been drawn back to Portland. If you look for it, Portland still has it’s charm. Needless to say, Biddeford has always had it’s step-child persona in relation to Portland – a sentiment I’m ashamed to admit sharing until reading your article. Thank you for setting me straight.


    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and respond. Biddeford still has its struggles, but it’s moving in the right direction and Portland still has a groove that just too often gets overlooked.


  2. I went to college out of state. Someone from Portland dissed me for being from Biddeford. I told him that being the biggest city in Maine is like being the tallest midget. He had no response.


  3. Nice column. Some years before buying a house in Portland (a city I enjoy living in), I shared an apartment with another Press Herald reporter conveniently located across the street from the Wonderbar, a Biddeford landmark. I also remember laughing at a classic Biddeford joke: How can you tell when it’s spring in Biddeford? By the sap buckets on the utility poles.


    1. John: I grew up in Saco: that’s an old one. A Saco friend reminded me of the old Biddeford tradition that happens each year in the early spring: all the residents of Biddeford line the river bank, join hands and gaze across the river toward Saco, chanting: “some day, some day.”


      1. Then people at Biddeford Pool look across Saco Bay at Saco’s oceanside neighborhoods and say “isn’t it nice to see poor folk get a chance to live by the water.”


  4. Very descriptive and right on target. I lived on Gilman street in the 70s, then Bradley Street. We partied st Coyne’ s, Top of th East and Cremo’ s PPANC and The Peanut House. And we smoked and those of us who are still alive still do! Portland is not the only game in town, as you have pointed out! Carry on!


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