Exile in Guyville

A little more than 35 years ago, I found myself working as a volunteer on the Cheyenne River Indian River Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

Life was good. I had a full head of hair, a smoking hot girlfriend and I was doing my part to make the world a better place by promoting social justice, peace and everything else that is super important when you’re 23 and someone else is paying your bills.

One day, on a particularly hot and arid August afternoon, I found myself in a local tavern (imagine that) and I attempted to engage one of the local residents in conversation.

“It must be really hard to be a Native American on the reservation,” I said with all due sincerity and earnestness.

He put down his drink and turned to face me with a quizzical (if not supper annoyed) expression upon his face. “What?” he asked.

So, against my better judgment, I repeated myself. He did not take it well.

He sighed heavily and said, “Please don’t call me that. I am an Indian.” He could see immediately that I was surprised by his response.

“The last thing I need is to have some self-serving white punk attempt to pat himself on the back by patronizing me,” he continued.

His tone told me that this would be an especially short conversation.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you,” I stammered, eyeing the exit.

“That’s my point,” he said. “You somehow think that a bunch of politically correct words are going to make up for the fact that your people stole our land, murdered our children and raped our women.”

 He sighed and returned to his drink. “Look, I know you’re probably a nice kid, and I really do appreciate what you’re trying to do to help my community but I’ve had my fill of white apologies.”

Me and some of my favorite kids on the reservation

And that was that. There were not a whole lot of people living on the reservation, but strangely I never saw that man again after that day. He did, however, teach me an invaluable lesson: more often than not, words are nothing more than just words.

Life During Wartime

My grandfather, whom some of you may recall as an eccentric English teacher at Biddeford High School in the 1960s, tried to teach me the values of developing critical thinking skills and avoiding populism. I was 12. The world was all about being popular and not thinking too hard about anything.

And so it is that I find myself, more than 40 years later, on this bitterly cold morning — an overweight, bald, middle-aged, underachieving white guy — briefly contemplating whether I should continue this column because I know deep in my bones that it is going to piss some people off. (Look, Grampa! I just ended a sentence with a preposition! Ha!)

Tomorrow, our nation will celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Day in honor of one of history’s most prolific and courageous leaders who inspired all people to be better versions of themselves while promoting peace, justice and equality by his stunning examples of how to find common-ground with our fellow man.

Ironically, on this same day — here in my hometown of Biddeford, Maine – the city council will be holding a special meeting to decide whether we should create two committees that aim to study and foster the development of goals, policies and practices that are intended to foster the principles of “diversity, inclusion and equality.”

No, I did not stutter. The city is not creating a committee to study these issues. They will be discussing the formation of TWO committees to basically do the same thing. Why do one when you can have two for the same price? (A popular mantra in the world of government).

Here, hold my beer.

Look, don’t get me wrong. I am as a big a fan of diversity, inclusion and equality as the next guy, but really? This is something that warrants the need to create two committees in the city?

For starters, who on Earth, will serve on these committees? It’s not like we have a mass of people beating down the doors of City Hall to serve as volunteers on various city committees. For Christ’ sake, more than half of the city council seats were unopposed in the last election.

Begging my pardon. But this seems to be a classic example of a solution desperately in search of a problem.

If the city council is really concerned about “diversity” and “inclusion” why are they so blind to the plight of downtown residents who do not live in such pretty hip, cool neighborhoods when it comes to snow ban parking rules designed to support a privately operated parking garage?

Is Mayor Casavant going to stand outside of 3D’s Variety on Main Street and ask customers who just purchased a carton of generic cigarettes whether they feel included and well represented by their local government?

What about working-families that are struggling to get by and hoping – against all odds – to be able to someday buy their own, affordable home and then listen to Councilors Marc Lessard and Amy Clearwater bad-mouth and dismiss the notion of a housing development with modular homes? “I think the majority of residents would much prefer to see the creation of stick-built homes.” Lessard reportedly said during a recent meeting about a proposed housing development.

Hmmm, the good people of Cathedral Oaks Drive and Thacher Brook Lane aren’t too crazy about new neighbors with modular homes, huh? How inclusive! How diverse! It’s just that some animals are more equal than other animals, I suppose. Diversity, my ass!

Okay, I think I have made my point. Now, I’m going to head down to Mulligan’s for a beer. If I run into Casavant, Lessard or Clearwater there, I will drop dead on the spot. After all, the place isn’t especially known for its diversity. Strangely, however, the regular patrons are really nice people who are always more than happy to welcome a new face to the crowd. And that, my friends, is the definition of inclusion.

Peace.

Originally published in Saco Bay News

Werewolves of London

It is a well-known fact that participation in the world of politics – whether it is national, statewide or local — is often a rough and tumble affair.

But here in my hometown of Biddeford, politics is a blood sport and its machinations are not for the faint of heart, those with thin skin or fragile egos. You better put on your big-boy pants if you want to play in this arena.

This was a strange election year in our city. Several city council seats were uncontested and the mayoral campaign between incumbent Alan Casavant and his challenger Victoria Foley was relatively quiet — right up until the last few days of the campaign.

So, what happened? Why did just a small handful of Foley’s supporters all of a sudden go rogue on social media and get their knickers in a knot?

Me and the mayor in 2011

Well, it was a couple of things, including a direct mail piece that the Casavant team sent out just a few days before Election Day. The reaction to that mailer from a few renegade Foley supporters was swift and scorching. Heads exploded, small children went missing and locusts began to ravage the city.

Relax. I’m joking.

(Disclosure, I was a member of Casavant’s campaign team.)

Foley, and an overwhelming majority of her supporters, ran a clean, positive and civil campaign. But some new terminology was introduced into the broader spectrum of campaign rhetoric this year: ageism and nativism.

What? Do I now have to feel guilty about being an old native of Biddeford?

The unhinged objection from a small group of Foley’s supporters on Facebook was likely sparked by Casavant’s use of a direct quote that Foley gave to a newspaper reporter several weeks ago. “My opponent says Biddeford is on a great trajectory,” Casavant wrote. “I appreciate her kind words.”

Another objection was the mention of Foley’s age on the Casavant mail piece. Again, that was from a newspaper profile of the candidates. I very much doubt that any member of Foley’s team wanted to storm the Biddeford-Saco Courier’s office because they had the temerity to list her age (38).  For the record, Casavant is 69.

Throughout the campaign, there were many subtle comments made about the need for a more “energetic” candidate in the mayor’s office. I will not reveal the names of those thin-skinned Foley supporters, but I will quote some of their social media comments, which, by the way, were taken down very quickly once the Casavant team replied.

No worries. I have the various screen shots.

PR 101: Nothing is ever truly “erased” once it has been published on a public site.

A Foley supporter, who I will dub as Jane Doe, wrote a screed on Facebook attacking the mayor for invoking his experience and for the fact that he is a lifelong Biddeford native who bleeds black and orange.

“When I saw the first post on the socials for Alan’s re-election campaign weeks ago, I was repulsed by the nativism dog-whistle language, that only someone “from” Biddeford, who has deep roots here, is capable of being Mayor of Biddeford,” Jane Doe wrote. “. . . (and) mentioning Victoria’s age is a clear attempt to label her as “too young” to do the job.”

And John Doe wrote this:  “There is a young, progressive female Democratic (sic) running for mayor of Biddeford, Maine. The current mayor is an old, entrenched, multi-term good ol’ boy Democrat.”

John Doe continues: “As with everything the current mayor does, there’s plenty of wolf-whistle nativism on the (Casavant direct mail piece.). The whole production looks and reads like an Onion joke about old, straight white guys desperately clinging to their fiefdoms…but unable to do more than make fun of the competent women around them.”

What John Doe conveniently forgets is that Alan Casavant appointed Victoria Foley to the city council. Casavant also appointed Councilor Amy Clearwater to the council. I could keep going, but you get the point:  Casavant obviously recognizes the competency of female candidates.

The Casavant team created a campaign website, which included video endorsements from several “natives” but it also included profiles of newer residents who like the way our mayor is leading the city. Maybe that stung. Who knows? But I also know several lifelong residents of Biddeford who supported Foley’s attempt to capture the mayor’s seat.

Biddeford has a long and storied history of welcoming and embracing “immigrants” who flocked here to work in the textile and shoe mills more than 100 years ago. These people, and all the others who followed in their footsteps (Including Victoria Foley) contribute so much to the fabric of a truly diverse community.

In summary, we should all thank Ms. Foley for offering an alternative checkbox on the ballot. She has a lot to offer this community and she has a bright future ahead if she chooses to continue in the city’s political landscape.

Now it’s time for this old white guy to take a nap.

The One Thing

I don’t know what to say about that day, much less what to write about it.

What I do know is this: all of us born before 1990 remember exactly where we were and what we were doing on that awful September day 20 years ago.

I don’t want to add just another layer of profound sadness to that series of events. You don’t have to search hard to read or hear much better and more poignant testimonials.

But as we approach the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorists attacks, I feel compelled to offer my own personal take. I still have a hard time recognizing what really happened and that it is not part of some re-occurring nightmare.

Photo credit:Reuters News

Before 9-11, I could never comprehend that level of evil could exist anywhere. On the flip side of that coin, I had never witnessed such bravery until approximately 9 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.

In the blink of an eye, our nation was suddenly galvanized. There was no right or left, liberal or conservative, young or old. We were horrified, but united.

I remember that day like it was yesterday. I was the editor of the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier, and Tuesdays were our weekly deadline day. It was always a bit tense and chaotic in the newsroom, trying to decide what would be on the front page (and all the other pages).

Just a few minutes before 9 a.m., my phone rang. It was a friend who told me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I quickly brushed her off, I was much too busy to worry about some small plane accident in New York City. I dismissed the news as probably a pilot having a heart-attack in a small plane.

A few minutes later. My friend called again. I was annoyed by the interruption. She told me that another plane had flown directly into the second tower.

For just a moment, I wanted to believe that it was another small plane that was caught up in the smoke. Then she told me: “No, these were big planes, passenger jets.” Both towers were now burning.

And just like that, our front page was scrapped. Things would never be the same. I quickly walked down the street to Mulligan’s so I could see a television. One of the bar patrons told me: “There’s going to be hell to pay for this.”

We had our new headline.

Straight. No Chaser.

More than 2,900 people died that day. It is now described as the world’s deadliest terrorist attack. Even now, two decades later, it is still difficult to comprehend. I recall seeing people make a god-awful decision: either jump off the tower or burn to death. Our world was forever changed.

A few years ago, Laura and I had the opportunity to visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial Site. We were tourists, accompanied by dozens of other tourists, but you could have heard a pin drop when we arrived at the site, which sits on the water across the bridge of the sunken USS Arizona.

President Franklin Roosevelt described December 7, 1941 as “a day, which will live in infamy.” More than 2,400 people, including 68 civilians, were killed during that horrific surprise attack.

Other than the death toll, I don’t think there is much similarity between 9-11 and December 7, 1941.

Yes, it was a surprise attack. Yes, thousands of people died. But one was an act of war, the other: an act of hatred, pure evil.

Today, our country seems bitterly divided, political parties are polarized and consensus is a rarity.

What will it take to unify our nation, when even the idea of wearing a mask seems to spark such vitriol and anger?

What will it take to put the “united” back into the United States of America? Will it require another tragedy, or can we all try just a bit harder to find some common ground? Will we find the courage within to face the threats of today?

Will it take another horrific disaster to create more heroes and acts of bravery?

I certainly hope not.

Shiny, happy people

The 19th Century French novelist Romain Rolland once opined that “we are reckless in our use of the lovely word, friend.”  Nowhere is that more true than on Facebook and other social media platforms.

As an example, as of today, I have 1,202 “friends” on Facebook. Really? Do I have more than a thousand people who would loan me $20, help me with a home repair project or drive me to and from a doctor’s appointment?

Probably not. Because when you look deeper into my life you will see that I am actually blessed with close to 20 real friends. These people do not judge me, but will also share their honest opinions if asked.

In a few weeks, one of my real friends will get out of bed at 6 a.m. in order to pick me up at my home, drive me to Sanford for an ECT treatment and wait roughly two hours before he can drive me home with zero compensation. Now, that is a friend.

What about all those other “friends” on social media? Well, for starters, they are better described as contacts in a very large and fluid Rolodex.

Sure, social media can be fun, interesting and sometimes informative, but it’s important to remember that, for the most part, you are looking through a carefully controlled lens as you scroll through the posts on your social media page. Few of us would go to the grocery store wearing only our underwear. (Some things are best left to the imagination.)

When you see a friend’s post on social media, more often than not you are seeing only what they want you to see: their happy family, pictures of their vacation or beloved pets, etc.  What you rarely, if ever, see, is someone posting that they will need to file bankruptcy or facing divorce because of infidelity.

Instead, you are seeing only the beautiful posts, which can lead to feelings of envy and inferiority, especially among young people.

Teenage Wasteland

According to studies by the Pew Research Center and the Mayo Clinic, teenagers’ use of social media “allows teens to create online identities, communicate with others and build social networks. These networks can provide teens with valuable support, especially helping those who experience exclusion or have disabilities or chronic illnesses.”

“But social media use can also negatively affect teens, according to the 2018 study. Social media can distract them, disrupt their sleep, and expose them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure.”

The risks might be related to how much social media teens use. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens.

Other studies also have observed links between high levels of social media use and depression or anxiety symptoms.

As a strategic communications consultant, I can tell you that maintaining your own online reputation is very important. Nothing is ever truly “erased” on the Web. Businesses and political campaigns need to be fully aware and consent to everything they post in the digital town square.

Remember: it is often better to just scroll on by posts that seem like “click-bait,” otherwise choose your words and images carefully. Because, whether you like it, people will judge you by the words you use.

Originally published on the Saco Bay News website.

Gimme Shelter

There is no question that downtown Biddeford is going through a renaissance. From a run-down and neglected corridor of assorted and vacant mill buildings to one of the most desirable places for young people to live in southern Maine.

Suddenly, without warning, downtown Biddeford became hip.

Today, long-since abandoned textile mills in the downtown area have been redeveloped into high end housing stock, surrounded by small and eclectic restaurants, shops, a parking garage and a proposed downtown hotel with a rooftop pool.

How did this happen? And are there any drawbacks to this fast-paced revitalization of the city’s core: The Heart of Biddeford?

Let’s begin with the factors that began a little more than 10 years ago.

A group of citizens from both Biddeford and Saco became activists and they began pushing city leaders to close the controversial MERC facility, a downtown trash incinerator that served several surrounding communities but left its putrid stench in downtown Biddeford.

It took vision to close that plant because it was one of the city’s biggest taxpayers. That vision came into focus when Alan Casavant was elected to his first term as the city’s mayor.

Casavant pledged to close the plant and he won his first term by a healthy margin over incumbent Joanne Twomey, who said closing MERC would likely never happen and focused her attention instead on developing a racino on the outskirts of town.

(Disclosure) I was Casavant’s campaign manager.

Although closing MERC was likely the impetus of Biddeford’s revitalization, there were many other factors taking place.

First, rising real estate and rental values in Portland forced many residents to seek more affordable housing elsewhere. They could keep their Portland-based jobs with only a 20-minute commute from Biddeford.

Real estate developers saw a golden opportunity, and they began investing in neglected and crumbling mill buildings. More than a century ago, young workers from away flocked to Biddeford in search of jobs in the city’s textile and shoe mills.

Today, it is young renters and home-buyers flocking to Biddeford. For those already living in the downtown area, rental costs began to soar, forcing them out of the city to places like Sanford and Westbrook.

A classic example of gentrification.

Our house, in the middle of our street

Rising real-estate values have also had a significant effect on homeowners who have seen their property values climb at a phenomenal pace.

For example, Laura and I purchased a modest, working-class home not far away from the downtown area. Our neighborhood was created for the hundreds of baby-boomers returning from WWII and raising families.

We purchased this home in 2004. Today, based on real-estate comps in our neighborhood, our home has more than doubled in value. Yes, we made several improvements but not enough to explain such a dramatic increase.

Today, it is almost impossible for first-time homebuyers to find an affordable home for working-class families.

All of this may explain why there has been a lot of chatter on social media about establishing the concept of “rent-control” in Biddeford.

Let me be clear. Rent-control is a bad idea. Fostering the development of affordable housing, however, is a good idea. Relinquishing more power to government will likely stagnate growth and hinder new opportunities and investments.

While many people blame city leaders for the problem, their frustration is understandable but misplaced. Late last year, the city of Biddeford tackled the subject of affordable housing. Over the next five years, the city will work toward a goal of creating at least 90 units of affordable housing per year.

“This is a statewide issue especially in coastal communities,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “There are limitations on what the city can do regarding private developers. Our tool box is limited,” he said.

Casavant says that many once worn down and unsightly apartment buildings are now being renovated by earnest landlords who want to increase the value of their properties. “They (landlords and developers) have a right to recoup their investments in our community.”

According to Guy Gagnon of the Biddeford Housing Authority, his agency calculates Fair Market Rent for various apartments every year. “The rapid rise in rent prices has outpaced the standard averages,” Gagnon says. “The real problem is a basic economic principle of supply and demand. We need much more supply of all types of affordable rentals and homes in southern Maine before the curve can be bent back in the right direction.”

Gagnon agrees that goal will be hard to reach as long as the real estate market is continuing to rise and he is worried about the plight of existing and long-time residents.  “All these changes, improvements are great, fantastic and amazing,” he wrote on one of his Facebook posts. “It’s especially important to be able to keep our children from having to move away for affordable housing. It is very, very, very important that the change in buildings does not change the fabric of our community.”

I agree with Gagnon’s concerns, but as I said before: rent control will do little to nothing to solve the problem.

Originally published on the Saco Bay News site.

I’m a boy and I’m a man

Ralph Waldo Emerson once quipped that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” This week, I offer a solid example in which society is best served from at least a little bit of consistency.

State Rep. Maggie O’Neil (D-Saco) has introduced a bill (LD 706) to lower the voting age in Maine from 18 to 16. No other state allows 16 year-olds to vote in general elections. In fairness, several states do allow 16 and 17-year-olds to pre-register but those states also require voters in a general election to be at least 18 years of age.

In North Dakota, however, there is no need to register to vote.

Do you remember when you were 16? I do. I had black-light posters, a crush on Farrah Fawcett and I listened to AC/DC on an 8-track player. I was also a political junkie who watched Nixon resign and board a helicopter on the White House lawn when I was 10.

When I was 12, I got to shake President Carter’s hand when he made a campaign stop in Biddeford. When I was 16, my father volunteered for Ted Kennedy’s failed presidential run in 1980.

Subsequently, without thought or curiosity, I became an ardent and passionate Democrat.

Today, I have had the experience of raising two 16-year–old boys. I love my boys and they both turned into fine young men, but there was no way that they were ready to vote back then.

Old enough to die; old enough to vote

In 1971, Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. That amendment was fueled in part by the Vietnam War and the compulsory draft of 18-year-old into military service.

The 26th Amendment set up its own range of inconsistencies. For example, at 18 you are old enough to join the military but not old enough to purchase alcohol.

O’Neil’s bill, however, is riddled with many more inconsistencies. 16-year-olds are rarely, if ever, tried in criminal court for a criminal offense; instead they are tried in juvenile court and sentenced to a juvenile detention facility if found guilty.

While 16 is the minimum age of consent, they cannot act in pornographic movies and are too young to buy a pack of cigarettes. At 16, society says that you cannot sign a legal and binding contract, including marriage without parental consent. I could keep going, but you probably get my point.

When it comes to minimum age requirements, Congress mandates that you must be at least 25 to serve in the House of Representatives; 30 to serve in the Senate and 35 to be elected president.

While O’Neil acknowledged those inconsistencies, she also says her bill is designed to address some other inconsistencies.

Reaching the age of 18 is a big milestone in all of our lives,” O’Neil says. “But the truth is [turning 18] does not signify some seismic shift in an individual’s ability to participate in society or civic life.  At the age of 16, young people are working under our employment laws, paying taxes, and driving on roads. They are attending school–there’s no one more in touch with our education system than students and educators who are in school every day.”

O’Neil says she was motivated to submit the bill after working with several juvenile supporters during her campaign for office, specifically pointing to her campaign manager, 16-year-old Cole Cochrane, a sophomore at Thornton Academy.

Cochrane says “we don’t need to just focus about current responsibilities for 16 year olds, but about how we contribute and the ultimate outcome.”

 According to Cochrane, lowering the voting age has proven to increase voter turnout rate in countries like Austria, and even in some American cities. “One must consider the contributions we make to society.  We are foundations of campaigns, go to schools that are run by the government, and take on jobs that support our economy. Although we may be considered children by law, it is time to consider us voters as well.”

While many scientists and neurologists say that a brain is not fully developed until one turns 25, both Cochrane and O’Neil point to other studies that say 16-year-olds are fully capable of making decisions and critical thinking.

I already consider this argument somewhat irrelevant given this data point.” Cochrane says. “Decision making capabilities are developed by 16 years of age, indicating that we are able to make decisions despite these concerns.”

Overall, there are multiple benefits to lowering the voting age, Cochrane says. “From validation of millions of voices, to strengthening our democracy. It is time to act now, for the betterment of our state.”

O’Neil readily admits that her bill (currently stuck in committee) faces a “steep hill to climb to send the bill out to voters.”

“No matter what the outcome is, these young people have led an important conversation in the legislature,” O’Neil said. “I’m proud of the work they have done. Their voices are so important, and the legislature needs their perspective.”

Video killed the radio star

As we continue our march through the 21st Century, there are still a great many people who are less than pleased about the various advances of technology and about how the so-called charge into a brave new world is affecting their lives and their nostalgic memories.

Henry Thoreau opined that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” This is especially true when it comes to the Baby Boomer generation that is constantly trying to catch up with Gen X and Millennials on the technology choo-choo train.

Facebook is full of memes that disparage overweight, poorly dressed or otherwise ‘redneck’ people who shop at Wal-Mart.

Twitter or Facebook will not suspend your account if you share photos of a fat lady using a motorized cart while buying Twinkies and a case of Coca-Cola at Wal-Mart.

Boomers are those who write a check for their purchases at the supermarket. The ones who still pay cash for their Turnpike tolls. I’m not necessarily suggesting that all Boomers are a bunch of troglodytes, but if the shoe fits . . .

In a world where people are increasingly offended or feel marginalized, it is still acceptable to look down upon those who shop at Wal-Mart.

For all of its successes, Wal-Mart faces steep criticism from the pretty people who gladly shop at Target or Whole Foods.

Wal-Mart does not need me to defend it from gross mischaracterizations. (But if someone from their corporate headquarters wants to talk about public relations, please send me an email.)

Now, back to the talk of technology. We carry mini-computers in our back pocket. We have robots to clean the floors in our homes. We use Alexa for everything, ranging from setting the thermostat to maintaining a shopping list. Many people have satellite dishes on their roofs and satellite radio and GPS units in their cars.

In 1985, MTV only showed music videos. My girlfriend at that time said MTV wouldn’t last long because people would get “bored” watching videos. I wonder what she would say today about You-Tube? Today, MTV broadcasts “reality” shows such as “Jersey Shore” and “Sixteen and Pregnant.”

Would you like to join me and invest in opening a new Block-Buster store? Things change. And that’s not always such a bad thing.

Now back to Wal-Mart bashing.

Over the past year or so, dozens of social media memes have popped up, decrying the advance of the self-checkout lane option at Wal-Mart. They argue that this trend is poised to exterminate the need for cashiers. Really?

What other national retailer pays someone to simply greet and welcome you to the store?

Other memes include quips such as “when is Wal-Mart going to send me W2s if they expect me to work there?” Another meme: “if I wanted to self-checkout, I would stay at home and shop at Amazon.”

That last one leaves me scratching my bald head. Amazon is the epitome of technology and consumer trends. If you use Amazon, why are you bitching about Wal-Mart and its self-checkout option?

And why is Wal-Mart singled out for providing a self-check-out option? Hannaford grocery stores have self-checkout lanes. Target stores also have self-checkout options and even Whole Foods (gasp) is experimenting with a self-checkout option for its customers.

I went to Market Basket today. I only had a few items in my cart yet it took 11 minutes for me to get through the traditional checkout lane. Market Basket does not offer a self-checkout option (at least not at its Biddeford store.)

There is an old saying that time is money. If I have just a few items in my cart, I breeze through the self-checkout lane in less than three minutes, saving roughly eight minutes for me to do something else instead of waiting in line to buy a six-pack, a loaf of bread and a box of Twinkies.

To add insult to injury, I get on the Turnpike without stopping to pay a toll, simply by using my EZ pass device. I have to guess that EZ Pass is more profitable for our friends at the Maine Turnpike Authority because these devices decrease the need for human toll booth attendants.

When I was a young child, I remember that my father had a night job pumping gas at the Top Gas station in Saco. He would wash your windshield, check your oil, or inflate your tires upon request.

Today? There are no gas station attendants. Welcome to the jungle. At some point, the machines are going to become self-aware; and we all know what happens then. In the meantime: Thanks for reading! See you next week.

Originally published in Saco Bay News on May 13, 2021

One by one, until we’re done

It started with an e-mail I received Friday afternoon. It was sent to me by Marty Grohman, the man who sponsored my recent membership into the Biddeford-Saco Rotary Club.

Marty was looking for volunteers who would be willing to give up a few hours to help FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) at its Mobile Vaccination Unit (MVU), which is at Biddeford High School this week and ending on Wednesday evening.

There is an old saying: Many hands make light work. I joined Rotary because I wanted an opportunity to give back to my community, to the people who live, work and play in my hometown.

Photo by Marty Grohman

I signed myself up for three five-hour shifts, starting Monday and ending Wednesday. I finished my first shift this morning. When I first arrived I was warmly greeted by one of the many FEMA staff members. The gym became a giant, yet effective maze as people are screened, tested and then remained sitting at least 15 minutes before going on their way.

No appointment is required to receive the vaccine, which is the Johnson & Johnson version, commonly known as the “one and done” vaccine.

A FEMA staffer told me that they very much appreciated the presence and assistance from community volunteers, allowing them to focus on data collection and other tasks. I actually had a blast because I got to interact with just about every newly-vaccinated person. I manned the check-out station, collecting the data sheets and then informing patients that we would like them to hang out for 15 minutes. (By far, the longest part of the vaccination process.)

We averaged about 70 vaccinations per hour, more than one person every minute; and the process was stunning in its efficiency and design.

People came from all over, from Fryeburg to Sanford and from Turner to South Portland. I also saw a lot of familiar local faces and it was good to see them again. Everyone, it seemed, was in a good mood; happy to scratch the vaccine off their to-do list.

Some people are always quick to gripe or tell horror tales of bloated government bureaucracy. But what I saw this morning was a finely tuned model of efficiency and ease.

The object of Rotary is to “encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of worthy enterprise.” I want to thank Marty and all the members of Rotary Clubs around the world (Yes, it’s a global organization.)

I know some people think that COVID-19 is a hoax, others say it is a tool of a tyrannical government. Those voices can yammer away all they want.

What I witnessed this morning was nothing short of a mosaic of humanity: young and old. Men and women, people of color and differing sexual orientation. And guess what? They all smiled today.

And for me, that was a beautiful thing. I got way more than I gave.

If you want a vaccination, they are free and available without an appointment. So, go ahead do your part: roll up your sleeve and take another bite out of this global killer.

Originally posted in Saco Bay News.April 26. 2021

When Irish eyes are smiling

Damn! I remember it like it was yesterday, but actually it was about a quarter century ago when I first met Vincent Keely and his son, Brian.

It was Halloween day and I had just started my new job as a reporter for the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier.

Back then, the Courier office was located on Washington Street in Biddeford, directly across the street from the Wonderbar restaurant.

At that time, the Wonderbar (as I would soon find out) was a political and social epicenter, where everyone felt comfortable knowing that their conversations were confidential, off-the-record and checked at the door. It was also a comfortable haven for those of Irish descent.

The Wonderbar restaurant 0n Washington Street in Biddeford

It was a place where political deals were struck, but more importantly it was a place where everybody knew your name, comforting and familiar, sort of like the television show Cheers.

And now it is for sale.

Back to Halloween 1998.

I left the office to pursue a feature story about downtown merchants handing out candy and other goodies to small children. Brian Keely was standing in the middle of the road, wearing a chef’s apron and clutching a rubber chicken in one hand and a toy axe in the other.

I had no way of knowing back then that Brian Keely and I would become close friends.

I soon became a regular at the Wonderbar. I don’t have a drop of Irish blood in my veins, but the Wonderbar became my home away from home.

I would marvel at the way that Mr. Keely — with his mischievous grin and a sparkle in his eyes — poured a pint of Guinness, forming a shamrock in the foam of the beer. That was a trademark of the Wonderbar that I have not seen since.

Every time, I met a new woman to date, I would bring her first to the Wonderbar for a drink. Following my date, Brian, Vincent and other regular customers would rate those women, always with a chuckle.

I recall late nights hanging out with former school superintendent Kent Webster and some members of the school board after school board meetings, and I remember watching Super Bowl games from my favorite seat at the bar.

Soon after my first date with my wife, Laura, I brought her to the Wonderbar for inspection and evaluation. On the next day, I got a unanimous thumbs up from Vince, Brian and some regular patrons. Who knew then that I would eventually become married to that woman?

My friendship with Brian Keely grew stronger with each passing day. We started a call-in political “talk show” on Biddeford’s public access television channel and later served together on Biddeford’s Downtown Development Commission.

I asked Brian to be the best man at my wedding. He readily agreed.

Laura and I held our wedding reception in a function room above the bar and restaurant.

The Wonderbar was and remains as an intrinsic part of my life. And although now it is for sale, I hope that my memories of the iconic business will endure.

I spoke by telephone with Mr. Keely a few days ago. He told me that he purchased the Wonderbar nearly 30 years ago in 1992 from Edward “Ted” Truman.

I asked why he was selling the business.

“It was a matter of time,” he said. “Covid didn’t help matters any.”

Keely will soon be celebrating his 87th birthday. He said he routinely has back pain and often feels weak when standing too long.

“I didn’t get any help from the city, the state or anyone else,” he said with a tone of frustration.

He said he has had several calls from potential buyers, but most of them were “tire-kickers.”

For me, the Wonderbar was always so much more than an Irish bar and pub. It was my home.

To Vincent and Brian, I offer this Irish blessing “May the road rise to meet you; May the wind be ever at your back; May the sunshine warm upon your face; And the rain fall soft upon your fields; And until we meet again; May God hold you in the palm of his hand.”

Slainte.

Originally published on March 24, 2021 in the Saco Bay News

Local water rates set to increase

Public water consumers in the Biddeford-Saco-Old Orchard Beach area will soon see a moderate spike in their monthly water bills.

According to Maine Water, a rate increase of 77 percent will be spread out over a three-year period and be used to help fund the upgrade of existing infrastructure and build a new treatment plant on outer South Street in Biddeford.

Rick Knowlton, president of Maine Water, said the typical residential water bill will increase about 20 cents per day in each of the next three years, roughly $5 to $6 per month in each of the three steps proposed. When the full rate increase process is complete, water service will cost about a penny per gallon.

“We understand this rate increase is significant,” Knowlton said. “There is never a good time to increase water bills. The project to replace the water treatment facility began years ago and construction is nearing completion. We delayed our rate filing for as long as we could in hopes of some relief from the pandemic. Filing now allows our customers the opportunity to phase in this increase gradually over three years. Delaying the filing further would increase water bills even more.”

In addition to assistance from local and state agencies, Maine Water has financial assistance available for customers that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19, Knowlton said.

Maine Water purchased the Biddeford-Saco Water Company in 2012. Knowlton said his company knew that the existing treatment facility and water delivery systems would need significant upgrades.

The current treatment facility was built in 1884, and renovations to that facility were last made in 1936 in order to keep up with the growing demands of a robust manufacturing sector on the banks of the Saco River.

Knowlton said Maine Water hired an engineering firm to evaluate the company’s infrastructure in 2013. According to Knowlton, that report detailed a laundry list of needed improvements in order for the company to keep providing clean and safe drinking water.

Construction of the $53 million project began in 2020.  The new facility will be in service in the spring of 2022.

“With 40,000 people relying on one source of drinking water every day, we have to have the facilities in place that can deliver,” Knowlton said. “This project will provide reliable, resilient and efficient water service for decades to come.”

The new facility will produce high quality water more consistently, Knowlton said, pointing to the fact that the river water quality does change with the seasons and with storm events. He said the new facility will be better equipped to handle those natural variations. The new facility will be more efficient and use less labor, less power and less chemical to produce a gallon of drinking water than is used today.

Biddeford Mayor Alan Casavant said that he and other municipal officials from Biddeford, Saco and Old Orchard Beach took a tour of the plant four years ago.

“I was shocked by what I saw,” Casavant said. “There was no question, whatsoever, that the plant was near the end of its useful operation.”

Casavant said the municipalities will not be making the decision about whether to approve the rate increase.

The rate increase proposal is now being reviewed by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

Maine Water serves more than 40,000 people in Biddeford, Saco, OOB and the Pine Point area of Scarborough and the company employs 45 people in the Biddeford-Saco area.

Originally published in Saco Bay News