Public transportation, by intention or not, is designed to separate the haves and the have nots, first class and coach, gold card and commoner. On the ferry from Portland to Peaks Island, Maine, however, these lines are blurred in a way that is wonderfully and uniquely “Maine.” People from every class, every walk of life, come together in an experience that is, at times, ridiculous, and almost as striking as the natural beauty that surrounds it.
Mobs of tourists surround the blue and white ticket counter as stoned teenagers with “Casco Bay Lines” polos lazily pass out tickets, numb to the sharp words of frustrated customers trying to claim more than their allotment of tickets. What these strangers from away have yet to understand, but soon will as they move toward the haphazard line at the dock, is that there are four distinct groups of people competing to share this treasured ride.
First, of course, are the snap-happy tourists themselves, complete with over-priced cameras and overly warm scarves wrapped around their necks, pushing their children together for photos on the dock, craning their necks to get some of the famous fall foliage in the shot.
Next come the un-amused island people, who call Peak’s Island home. They look on the tourists with disdain, annoyed to have their daily commute made chaotic by these fair-weather friends.
Nearby are the urban Portlanders, easily identified by their casual comfort in the mix, yawning happily, coffee in hand, and the best dressed of the group, in classic “Portland” garb, with layers of plaid and oversized sweaters and mismatched overshirts. Here, thrift is fashion and J.Crew and Patagonia are snobby (unless you found them at Goodwill, of course).
Finally, and first in line, are the true “Mainers,” salt-of-the-Earth fishermen, unfazed by the early hour and grunting to one another in a native language, indecipherable to the untrained ear.
“Breezed up tuh-day” one grunts out gruffly. (Translation: “It’s windy out today.”)
The man next to him nods and says, “Chuppta Gary te-day? He’s nevah misseda day-uh work in ‘is life.” (Translation: “What’s up with Gary today? He’s never missed a day of work in his life.”)
“‘Es up the road a piece I reckon. Wouldn’t miss a workin’ day, but-e was lookin’ kinda pekid yestuh-day. Er maybe ina guam.” (Translation: “I’m sure he’s on his way. He wouldn’t miss work, but he was feeling a bit sick yesterday. Or maybe he’s just stuck in traffic.”)
“Ayuh” the first responds. As a tourist (from the group who caused the aforementioned traffic jam) snaps a not-so-subtle picture of the pair, he rolls his eyes. “Flatlanders.” (Translation: “Yeah,” eyeroll, “Tourists.”)
What the untrained eye misses is that the ferry serves as a tiny microcosm of Maine itself: fashion-conscious Portlanders vs the hunters and mill workers of the rural northern country, breath-taking scenery vs nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, this is my home vs this is my playground.
To watch the ebb and flow of movement and conversation on the ferry is to know Maine. To the Islanders, Portlanders are friends and co-workers – friendly couches when the last drink and the last ferry are out of sync, and free parking for their “mainland car” when the tourists have gobbled up every last spot. You can see the slight envy in the eyes of the Portlanders, who aren’t quite ready to give up their freedom for the quiet life on the island – but sometimes wish they could. This is Southern Maine: a little diversity, with the common bond of “life the way it was meant to be,” 2016 style.
The fishermen and farmers know a different story; a story of stiff coffee and daily before-the-sun-rises breakfast at Becky’s Diner, backbreaking and dangerous work where Mother Nature is the boss, dry seasons, and a kind of Groundhog Day repetition of days from age sixteen until the ever-dreaded retirement, usually forced on them by the incredible toll that their work takes on their aging bodies.
If they weren’t already obvious, the tourists identify themselves by their wrinkled noses, wincing at the overwhelming fishy smell of the harbor at low tide, pulling their sweaters and scarves up just under their eyes as they board the ferry. The locals, of course, are unfazed, immune to the smell, and comforted by the knowledge that a strong smell means a good catch.
Missing the people-watching on the Peak’s Island ferry is like falling asleep during a Broadway show in New York.
A group of three shivering twenty-somethings take shelter in the lowest level of the 6:00 am ferry, still gussied-up from the night before in their heels and short skirts, stranded after closing down the bars hours after the last ferry departed the dock. One, face stained with eye-makeup and tears, leans her head on her friend’s shoulder and closes her eyes, swaying slightly.
A plaid flannel-laiden young man leans on the bicycle he has walked on board, talking rapidly into the iPhone tucked between his shoulder and gauged ear.
“No, babe, I just lost track of time. I’m on the ferry now. No…no I was with Jessica. Tom wasn’t even there. The last ferry was sold out. I’m on my way home. Baby, it’s fine.” He reaches up and pulls the knit beanie off his mop of brunette curls – in distress, fidgeting.
At the bow, a teenage couple laugh as they recreate the famous titanic scene, looking ridiculous, until he tenderly cranes his neck around to kiss her cheek in a moment of sweet intimacy, on stage for the whole boat to view.
A small child, looking more like a snowman than a little girl in her bundles of warm clothing, taps her mother’s knee and points at them, giggling. Her mother shoos her away with a wave of her hand, her eyes never leaving the tiny box of her camera lense, hoping to capture a seal lounging on the rocks as the ferry nears the island.
The fishermen from earlier hands over crinkled dollar bills in exchange for steaming black coffee from a small cart manned by an older woman in a Patriots jersey and a hair net, chatting to the air about the Sox game last night and my Johnny made varsity his freshman year and wants to get in front of a college scout…
Gary, who did finally show, nods politely, with a close-lipped smile, and picks up a second cup of coffee. He walks over and hands the steaming paper cup to the girl with the tear-stained face and tilts his head to her friends before rejoining his circle. She holds it close to her chin, gratefully breathing in the smell and letting the steam warm her face.
This is Maine. Ordinary and extraordinary, side by side, one in the same. From the liberal hippies and Millennials of the south to the conservative north, tourists float through, strangers seeking a natural world, a reminder to us locals to lift our eyes up from the snow shovel, rake, or the bug spray in our hands and marvel with them at the natural beauty with which our state has been profoundly blessed.