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Monthly Archives: March 2012

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Hurry up and wait. It’s March in Maine, the nadir of my seasonal depression. The landscape is brown and bare, and I am burning for greens and summer. I feel like I’m stuck at the border in Portsmouth, waiting for the drawbridge and hurling oaths at I-95 traffic screaming across the Piscataqua River Bridge to the left. Come ON, let’s GO! Let’s put the top down and cruise! Rt. 1 is calling!

I can see the route in my mind’s eye. I breeze past the outlets in Kittery and crawl along York Beach, between dune grass and hardcore east coast surfers. I stop at the Nubble Light and inhale the warm Atlantic salt air like my life depends on it.

Traffic is stop-and-go through Ogunquit, Wells and Kennebunk, as the invading summer swells from Connecticut and New Jersey gawk and pillage antiques. But I love it: this is the quintessential Maine summer resort stretch. Salt water taffy and ice cream stands, vintage Gulf station signs, bronze weather vanes and lobster buoys for sale. I roll the window down and picture Sandra Dee on every corner.

All the way up, the Atlantic looms on the right, culminating in the magnificent sleaze that is Old Orchard Beach. Equal parts Jersey Shore, Southern California and French Riviera, OOB and Palace Playland are vestiges of past glamour and decay. The ocean is freezing, but the taste of Pier Fries gets me through the most brutal winter.

Industrial boom and bust and boutique renewal tell the tale of Biddeford/Saco and Scarborough. Next stop: Portland. The Forest City is an adventure for another day, though. I’ll be back.

North of Portland I find myself in Brunswick, my home town and home to Bowdoin College and Danny’s Hot Dogs on the mall. From here north, my parents and grandparents are with me. We have all driven these miles countless times, together and apart. They are in my soul and memory bank with every shift of the wheel, and every trip from Portland through Rockland is new and old alike.

Past Brunswick, Rt. 1 curves inland, through Bath and Wiscasset, the self-proclaimed Prettiest Village in Maine. And it just may be. Wiscasset is the home of Red’s Eats, which serves what may be the best Lobster Roll in the world. The lines form early in the morning and the wait can be an hour. Pretty compelling evidence of greatness.

At Rockland/Rockport and Camden, the Atlantic reappears. Rockland was once a rough, hardscrabble town, but it’s coming back. And Camden is white spire and windjammer perfection. One of my favorite towns in the world.

We can continue along the ocean to Bar Harbor and the indescribable beauty of Acadia National Park, and from there all the way to the farthest north of Maine and the Canadian border, but this is the stretch of Rt. 1 I know and love. It starts at the border in Portsmouth, and it ends at home, no matter which exit takes you there. And in between, Maine Rt. 1 will give you enough memories for a lifetime, even in a spring dream.

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Photo Source: MLive

I got hit in the nuts with soccer balls a lot as a kid. I don’t know if that’s a skill, exactly, but if it is I had some serious game. My soccer career only lasted for one season of Brunswick, Maine rec-league, but it was enough to do some physical and psychological damage. I suffered the pain of not winning a single game, not scoring a single goal or steal and not escaping without a few good whacks to the manhood.

Also, wearing shin guards seems to have killed off all my follicles. My legs below my knees would not be miscast in a Nair commercial. I remember pulling sweat-soaked foam and plastic guards out of my sweat-soaked socks, and now I’ve got bald legs. It may be a spurious connection, but I can’t find a better one.

I played one year of tee-ball, on a team that also went completely defeated. I played right field very badly, and I had a penchant for swinging and missing spectacularly. Swinging and missing a ball on a tee. Yet another nonexistent skill that I was extremely skilled at.

Throughout my “career” in Brunswick, I was able to just play with my friends, and nobody cared. When I moved to Florida, at age nine, the teasing began. My chums said I ran like I had a brick shoved up my ass sideways, and much more, so by the time we moved back to Maine, at age fourteen, I was a wee bit sensitive and traumatized.

Attending the same high school as Stephen King, and running laps in the same gym that inspired Carrie, didn’t exactly help matters.

NOTHing in my life ever filled me with terror more than gym class my freshman and sophomore years at Lisbon High School. The fear of running, making an idiot of myself, being exposed, was all-consuming, like taking a walk to the chair. One was allowed to skip five gym classes per semester with impunity, and after that, it was laps in the gym after school. I may have cashed in my five skips my first week.

I preferred doing laps and walking the four miles home. It was easier, less terrifying and even comforting, running my penance in the company of other degenerates. And walking home, I often took the train tracks through the woods and along the river, just like that King guy, and I saw first-hand how Lisbon became Castle Rock and the Androscoggin River became the Royal.

I love watching sports, but I learned early on that I was not going to be the Maine boy that beat the odds to start for the Sox in Fenway. Not a chance. Take enough soccer balls in the junk and you just know.

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Image Source: PTLDME

The Ice Storm.

String those three words together around anybody who lived through it and watch the cringes and shudders. It was catastrophic, deadly, destruction on a scale previously unimaginable. It came on suddenly on a balmy day in January 1998, and it threw our world into primitive chaos for weeks afterwards. You had to live through it to believe it.

I was in Boston, trying to get home to Maine for a few days. January 5th was warm, with a light rain. There were rumblings that it would get colder, especially up north, and ice might be a factor. Little did we know.

I talked to my dad before getting on the bus, and he suggested I get to Portland, get a room and he would pick me up when he could: things were getting bad up north as the temperature started to drop. The entire trip was a cacophony of rain and ice, increasing in intensity against the metal roof of the bus as we inched northward. This was the sound of impending disaster.

I got a cab and headed for the Swiss Chalet in Westbrook, two miles away from the bus station. I checked in, and would remain trapped in my room for the next three days. And I was one of the luckiest ones in town.

Power was lost immediately. The weight of the ice on the trees and power lines caused a swath of crystalline destruction from New England far into Quebec. Power transformers were crushed and crumbled, wooden electrical poles were snapped like toothpicks, and entire forests were sagging and begging for mercy. And roads were completely impassable.

The Swiss Chalet had power, so I hunkered down, escaping only to eat at the adjacent Denny’s or to skate across Brighton Avenue to the Shop ‘n Save for beer and smokes. Literally, skating in the middle a major thoroughfare in my hiking boots.

Finally, after three days, the roads were cleared barely enough for my dad to get me. My parents had lost power at the beginning of the storm, and now I was joining them. It would be another eight days before I would know electric light and power and bathing water again.

For eight days the power company worked 24/7 to get electricity restored, and crews worked 24/7 to get the roads cleared of fallen power lines, trees and other detritus. Still the cold held on, and the omnipresent ice glared in the sun, and even in the dark.

We could occasionally get into the nearest town, Gardiner, for provisions, but with no electricity, it was mostly non-perishable, easily disposable fare. I choked down cups of Nescafe Crystals brewed on the woodstove and dreamed of three squares and a hot bath.

My friend Dana, a Korean vet who lived in a cabin in the woods, had given me an Army-issue winter coat that he had worn during the Battle of Inchon. It is still the warmest garment I’ve ever had, and I wrapped myself in it while hovering beside the woodstove over those eight days. I also warmed myself with nips of Jim Beam, and wished I had a hound dog to sit at my feet and complete my Jack London fantasies.

For eight days the power company worked 24/7 to get electricity restored, and crews worked 24/7 to get the roads cleared of fallen power lines, trees and other detritus.

And then it was over. Power was restored, life went on and suddenly it was summer, then it was a year later, then five years later, then ten. But nobody who lived it will ever be the same, and we will never take a day of normalcy for granted. If you survived The Ice Storm, you know. You had to live through it to believe it.

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State Street, Portland
State St. Church

We were NOT prepared for life as car owners.

On moving to Portland in 2002, after nine months without a car in Boston, we were gifted a slightly worn white 1996 Hyundai Elantra from my parents. At 100,000 miles plus, our new car was an elderly Maine gentleman, so we named him Chester, because that sounded like the name of an elderly Maine gentleman. Parking for our new ride was not included in our rent, but we were so excited to be home, we figured we’d make due as meter slaves.

State Street is a one-way heading east. Both sides have meters, but for every three meters on the north side, the south side only has one. Often, trying to snag a meter was like trying to get on the last chopper out of Saigon. Many nights we would literally drive in a square for upwards of half an hour, spying for abandoned meters, cars that looked like they might be backing out or people walking in the general direction of a meter.

Wednesday nights meant street-sweeping on the south side, and this meant a mad scramble for north side meters between 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM. This is how we ended up getting towed on our first week in residence. I guess we should have been a bit surprised at landing such a prime meter almost in front of the apartment on the south side. We were even more surprised in the morning when Chester was gone, and we had to take a bus and walk a few miles through some godforsaken industrial park to pay $50 to get him sprung. We thought he looked scared, and he hiccupped a bit when we started him up.

But the height of our virgin-car-ownership brilliance came on Christmas 2002. The day was clear, but overnight brought 12 ½” of fresh snow. Because the City of Portland did not call a Snow Ban, nobody was forced to park in a city garage. We parked on the street as usual. In the morning, poor Chester was buried up to his windows in snow.

Did we have a shovel inside? Nope. We spent three hours of the day after Christmas 2002 digging our car out of four feet of packed snow with a cookie sheet and two expired debit cards.

I choose to look back at this experience and see my native Yankee ingenuity kicking into gear, but it was really my big-city ignorance putting us in a hole of unpreparedness. And now, needless to say, we have a shovel, along with expired debit cards, in the house and in the trunk at all times.

I miss the apartment somewhat, and I greatly miss the neighborhood, the wisteria vine and the proximity to everything that comes with living in town. But I don’t miss the parking situation at all. No man is an island, and this man is no meter slave.

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Memory Lane
Home Sweet Home

May 2002: I’m sitting on a plastic lawn chair in the bay window of our new apartment on State St., just off Longfellow Square, in Portland, ME. My fiancé is by me in her lawn chair, and we’re relishing the feeling of escape and liberation. We’re only days removed from leaving Boston, after sharing a borrowed twin bed and a pillow for nine months while a commune of pot-befouled roommates floated in and out like driftwood outside our door. Now we’re in our own place and starting over for ourselves.

The new place is a dream. First floor of a three-story brick building in a row of similar buildings, on a street with brick sidewalks, low wrought-iron fences and flower beds. French doors, 10’ ceilings, crown molding, chandeliers, two gigantic non-working fireplaces and, best of all for a couple of avid bookophiles, the entire wall of the living room is a built-in book case. The decorative flourishes are enough for us to sign the paperwork before we notice the complete lack of storage, camp shower stall, inhumanly cramped kitchen, the stove that blows up when our rental agent turns it on in front of us and the freezer with layers of frost that will require boiling water to begin the thaw and Paleolithic chipping with butter knives. We will notice those things, but not now.

The apartment was obviously once part of an enormous single-family dwelling, and as we sit in our lawn chairs, eating peanut butter sandwiches and cracked pepper kettle chips, with boxes of books strewn across the hardwood, we speculate about the past. Perhaps a sea captain lived here. Perhaps the living room was once the ball room. It’s not an impossible lineage we’ve assigned to our new home: we can certainly feel the presence of a privileged past here.

The windows are open to a warm early summer workday, and the wisteria vine just outside our window is blooming. The smell of the flower mixes with the smell of the sea, mere blocks away, and we are incalculable miles removed from where we were only days ago. We sit in our lawn chairs, shaking our heads at the seismic shifts of our current lives, imagining the past of our building and pondering what’s to come next. Our new life together begins in this magnificent new home in our stately new neighborhood by the Atlantic.

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Image Source: Baeble Music

I cannot let go of the song. I hear off-beats and syncopation in the metronomic click of the turn signal, and fill the spaces tapping on the steering wheel. An air-conditioner unit thrums on the street and I hear harmonies and counterpoint. The bells of the church ring and the overtones are out of tune and I cringe. I have studied and lived the music my whole life through listening and playing. I am conduit and grateful receiver.

The cloth of my childhood is patchwork record covers. Simon & Garfunkle, Barry Manilow, Joan Baez, Elvis, The Monkees, The Beach Boys, The Crew Cuts, Beethoven, The Carpenters, The Bee Gees, Star Wars, Saturday Night Fever, John Denver and The Muppets, K*Tel disco compilations, AC/DC, Ozzy, Van Halen, all obsessed over and absorbed like nutrients.

Grade school added a layer of metal and punk rock: Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, The Dead Kennedys, The Ramones. My first guitar at age 11, and hours and hours playing records and learning how to play. Passion charging from my soul to my fingertips. Big, rich, melodic sounds on the radio: The Cars, Journey, Madonna.

High school brought CD covers and a return to the underground: Smithereens, The Smiths, The Cure, Hoodoo Gurus, The Replacements. College found me studying jazz: Bird & Diz, Coltrane, Miles, Hawk and Newk. Every day since has found me loving all of the above.

“Logic” dictates that when one grows up and discovers classical, jazz, talk radio or Adult Contemporary, one puts aside the music of youth. I’ve never bought that, and I’ve never practiced it. I have changed tremendously, but the Alvin & The Chipmunks or Gordon Lightfoot or Black Flag record I loved when I was a kid has NOT changed. And it remains as critical and influential as it once was. So why not add Adult Contemporary to my repertoire, rather than abandoning aural pleasure?

I can’t let go of my past, nor do I want to. And I am better for it.

I cannot let go of the song. The records of my youth, the CDs of my developmental years, the MP3s of my adult years all weave a sonic narrative through my life. Every note is still there, informing my every move. Every memory has a soundtrack.

I walk down the hall at work to the beat of a song I heard when I was five. I drive toward sunsets that trigger sunsets and songs from when I was ten. My studies allow me to recognize the 12 notes used by (insert modern star here) as the same 12 notes used by The Beatles and the same 12 notes used by Woodie Guthrie and the same 12 notes used by Louis Armstrong and the same 12 notes used by Bach.

Trace the lineage, count the rings on the stump. It’s all there in my mind and heart. I have studied and lived the music my whole life through listening and playing. I am conduit, receiver and giver of the eternal song.

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Image Source: flicker flu

She sways in tempo on the train, subconsciously, unaware of the public display of her private overture. A slight glide to the left as she stands holding a pole, head down, lost in thought. Her head rises, eyes closed, exalting in the crescendo she alone hears. A faint staccato tap against her purse. A pause between movements. A subtle jerk of her elbow, like a violinist, as her inner sonata builds. Her head rolls, her lips faintly counting time, as the music in her mind comes to a grand finale.

She is energized and replenished as crisp peals of applause greet the orchestra in her head. She has given herself the gift of her music, and her commute and her day job and the minutia of life float away. Just for a few moments…just long enough for her to get from home to destination. And then she’s gone and her day continues and she takes the music elsewhere…

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