Exploring the lives of Mainers who go to work after the sun goes down.
By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Chris Becker
“This place is like Thunderdome.”
Viewed through the windshield of an unmarked cruiser, the Maine Turnpike is a spooky place on a full-moon Friday night. Already on his evening patrol near Portland, Corporal Lance McCleish has worked an accident scene at Exit 46 and responded to a domestic dispute that erupted right there on the side of the road. “A boyfriend and girlfriend got in an argument,” Corporal McCleish says. “He was highly intoxicated. He punched the dashboard and broke the radio. Then he exited the vehicle and ran across six lanes of turnpike in the dark, drunk. Didn’t get hit — surprisingly enough — and ran off into the woods.”
And this is a relatively quiet Friday night; the turnpike’s pulse slows in the fall. “In July,” says Corporal McCleish, “this place is like Thunderdome. It’s crazy.”
Corporal McCleish works out of Troop G, which covers a 109-mile stretch of the highway extending north from the Piscataqua River Bridge. Coverage is divided among five patrols. Corporal McCleish is working the most congested stretch, where the speed limit drops from 65 to 55 mph. “This is a good section to work on a Friday or Saturday night because a lot of people are speeding through here, not paying attention,” Corporal McCleish says. “And there are a lot of bars in the area.”
The correlation is clear. “We get a lot of calls about erratic operators — cars drifting from lane to lane.”
But not all erratic operators are inebriated. Some are merely putting smartphones to stupid uses. “We see a lot of people texting and things like that,” Corporal McCleish says. “You’d swear people were completely drunk. It’s really scary.”
This is not a man who scares easily. Lance McCleish was raised a cop’s son in Pitman, New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia. He went to the University of Maine on a football scholarship. In his twenty-three years on the job, he has done undercover work for the federal government as part of a task force. He’s worked for the governor’s executive protection unit. He’s volunteered for a special tactical unit. He’s worked in the Criminal Investigation
Department, solving violent crimes, including homicides. He has a permanent knee injury from the time a suspect assaulted him.
And yet he has concluded that the seemingly mundane business of writing tickets on the turnpike might be the riskiest duty he’s ever had. “My biggest concern is not getting shot or anything like that,” he says. “It’s getting hit on the side of the road during a traffic stop by somebody who’s not paying attention.”
As he rolls south near the end of his three-to-eleven shift, he’s compelled to make one last traffic stop. A Volvo steams past in the left lane. Corporal McCleish’s dash-mounted radar pegs the speed at 79 mph and climbing. “This guy’s getting a ticket,” he says, flipping on the blue lights. He pulls the driver over and writes him up.
So what was the big hurry? “He was trying to get to a restaurant before it closes,” Corporal McCleish reports.
It’s not the worst excuse he’s heard. Nor is it the best. In fact, the best excuse wasn’t an excuse at all. One time a driver simply handed him a Get Out of Jail Free card from a Monopoly game.
Did it work? “No,” Corporal McCleish says with a laugh, “but it was a good effort.”
“After a while you just shake your head.”
During the midweek dinner rush, Dysart’s is as true to its image as an HD feed. You see just the type of people you’d expect at this 24/7 truck stop off I-95 in Hermon. There’s Sally Alley, cashier for thirty-eight years. She’s worked two to ten o’clock ever since her kids got out of school. There are the Palmers, Sonya and Jack, married fifty-four years. They’re grappling with sudden celebrity, thanks to Jack’s epic struggle to deliver the line “Baked in a buttery flaky crust” in a local TV commercial. (The blooper reel was pushing 1.5 million YouTube views at last count.) And over at the Truckers Table are Gil (“Just Gil”) and Leonard (“Just Leonard”). Gil’s long-distance days are done; he drives trucks locally now. But Leonard still hauls potatoes from The County to Connecticut. He always stops at Dysart’s, coming and going. Why? “The grub and the girls,” he says. “I’d like a to-go box — for the girls.”
Overseeing “the girls” is server/supervisor Patricia Aylward. She goes by Patti in here and Trish out there, “in the scary place.”
It’s easy to see why she prefers life on the Dysart’s side of the divide. She met her husband Brian here. He’s a cook. For the Aylwards, working nights is just another means of connection, not a source of contention. “And we weren’t blessed with children — we have cats,” Patricia says. “They don’t mind the hours, either.”
Loyal customers provide another bond. “You get to know some of them so well that you can punch in their order as soon as they walk in,” Patricia says. “Of course, that’s when they change it on you.”
Born in Reading, Massachusetts, Patricia has lived in Maine for about thirty years and is fully assimilated. Still, she can draw on her roots when the situation demands. For instance, there was the group of motorcyclists who requested separate checks. After eating they began walking out before all the checks had been paid. “I stopped this gentleman, a big burly guy, and I said, ‘Excuse me, there’s still one ticket open in your party,’” Patricia says. “He says, ‘Don’ worry ’bout it. He’s in the crappah.’”
His dismissive tone tripped something. A dispute ensued. Patricia: “Finally, he says, ‘Listen, I’m from New York. The Bronx.’ And I said, ‘Well, congratulations. New York attitude just met Boston broad. And guess who’s gonna win?’”
But such confrontations are rare — even on weekends, when Dysart’s is the after-hours gathering place. “This is the mainstay,” Patricia says. Revelers from Bangor, university students from Orono — “This is where they all come.”
Patricia works from 5 p.m. until 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays — and loves it. “I like going a hundred miles an hour. It makes my mind work better. I can have five different things in my head.” She laughs. “And 90 percent of the time I remember ’em all.”
You can forgive her the occasional distraction. “Probably the most unusual thing I’ve seen is the girl who came in wearing a duct-tape prom dress,” Patricia says. “But you see so many things like that, after a while you just shake your head and say, ‘It’s Friday night at Dysart’s.’”
“It’s not rocket science — it’s doughnuts.”
Is there a hidden benefit to working from dusk till dawn in a hot kitchen? It’s such a stupid question that Craig Leech dismisses it with a couple of jokes. The first: “When the Red Sox play on the West Coast, we get to listen to the whole game.”
The second: “I don’t see my brother, so that keeps us friendly.”
Craig’s brother, Gary Leech, fifty-six, owns the family business, Congdon’s Doughnuts in Wells. But Craig, fifty-five, is the one who actually makes Congdon’s doughnuts. (The restaurant also bakes its own muffins, bread, and biscuits.) Doing so requires that he arrive in the evening and work until sometime in the morning. The exact times vary. Business hours remain the same year-round (6 a.m. until 3 p.m.), but the volume fluctuates greatly. (The 2013 tourist season peaked on an August Sunday, with seven thousand doughnuts sold over the counter.) On summer weekends, shifts can run as long as sixteen hours.
Craig’s explanation for why Congdon’s doughnuts sell like hotcakes — “We still make ’em the way they made ’em back in the sixties” — is accurate but incomplete. The only digital gadget in the classic red tile-and-stainless steel kitchen is a multifunction timer. (“Gary made us get that so we wouldn’t burn stuff,” Craig says.) Otherwise, every key piece of equipment looks like a candidate for Antiques Roadshow.
No part of the process is automated. The dough is hand rolled and hand cut. Doughnuts are turned over one at a time (using wooden rods like chopsticks) to ensure even cooking in the 350-degree oil. The two ancient fryers hold batches of no more than thirty each.
You could call the process “artisanal.” But Craig doesn’t. “It’s not rocket science — it’s doughnuts,” he says. “You know — close enough. If they’re not perfect, you can always fix ’em up somehow.”
Human touch and a lack of uniformity are among the qualities that distinguish Congdon’s doughnuts from the franchise variety. Connoisseurs favor them for the same reason that audiophiles prefer vinyl recordings to MP3 files. They’re authentic.
But making doughnuts this way takes work. Lots of it. On this night, Craig works with a crew of three: Dave Clark, Patrick Kerry, and Sara Thomson. They work steadily, with minimal chitchat. Adding to Craig’s air of hard-earned experience is a horizontal scar, branded on his left shoulder. It looks like an epaulet. “I leaned against an oven for a second,” he says. “I was probably asleep on my feet.”
Even when they’re not inflicting burns, the ovens and fryers can heat the kitchen to more than one hundred degrees on hot summer nights. Craig often staggers home at midmorning, sleep deprived and dehydrated. He grabs a few hours’ sleep immediately and a couple more in the evening before returning to do it all over again. His circadian rhythm is out of synch with those of his wife and two preteen daughters — not to mention just about everyone else in the Eastern Time Zone.
And he’s lived like this for twenty-five years. The question is, why?
“I’d rather help my brother than help someone else,” Craig says.
His answer helps explain why Congdon’s is a hardy perennial among the deciduous Route One sprawl. And why Craig remains his brother’s rock-steady night man. “When you work with family,” he says, “you know they’re going to show up.”
“We’re the heartbeat of the shipyard.”
Photos: (1) U.S. Navy photos by Jeremy Lambert, (2) U.S. Navy photos by Jim Cleveland
They’re burning the midnight oil at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s self-contained power station — along with the midnight natural gas. The loud, whining turbines in the background make the place sound less like a shipyard than an airport. With good reason. “Basically it’s jet engines with boilers attached to the back end,” says boiler plant operator leader Leland Anderson.
Although the shipyard draws a portion of its energy from Central Maine Power, the 297-acre installation in Kittery is essentially off the grid. That’s understandable, given the sensitive nature of the work. Keeping a fleet of nuclear submarines operational requires an uninterrupted source of conventional energy. It all flows from a small control room with a bank of computer monitors. “We’re the heartbeat of the shipyard,” says Anderson.
The heartbeat is continuous: twenty-four hours a day, year-round, through all kinds of weather. “Nor’easters can get pretty gnarly,” Anderson says. And it isn’t just the wind and rain and snow that cause problems. The shipyard’s location — on Seavey’s Island, just up the Piscataqua River from the Gulf of Maine — leaves its myriad underground cables vulnerable to high tides. It takes frequent troubleshooting to keep small, isolated problems from mushrooming into widespread blackouts.
Still, the tension is never as bad here in the control room as it was down in the “hellhole” on a U.S. Navy ship. That’s where Anderson began his career, at age seventeen, as a boiler technician. “At least I don’t have to worry about this thing running into rocks or sinking,” he says.
Joining Anderson in the control room tonight, as most nights, are Eric Lagerstrom (pictured) and Michael York. All are cut from the same navy-blue cloth. All served. All have worked at the shipyard for more than twenty years. They’re civilians now, employed by something called NAVFAC, or Naval Facilities. But they still approach each twelve-hour shift with the dedication of enlisted men. Most of the time they don’t even call it a shift — they call it a watch. Same as when they were in the navy. And, as in the navy, when you’re standing watch you can’t just leave. Not even if you’ve got the flu or it’s Christmas Eve or your wife is in labor — or all three at once. That scares a lot of people away from this job; one recent newbie lasted just two weeks.
The swing shifts — three 6 p.m.-to-6 a.m. watches followed by four in the other direction — scare off a lot of other prospective employees. “There’s no good shift work,” Anderson says. “The research shows that all of us — firefighters, air-traffic controllers, cops, nurses, doctors — we don’t live as long. When your schedule’s always changing you lose a couple of years on the back side.”
There’s also a hefty toll along the way, one that a roughly 10 percent increase in wages for night-shift work can’t even begin to offset. “There’s a high rate of divorce,” Anderson says. Among these three, it’s 100 percent.
“And it’s not from infidelity or anything like that,” Anderson says. “It’s because you [and your wife] just don’t have the same lives.”
On this job the only people who have the same lives are coworkers. That’s why, along with all the time they spend standing watch together, these guys also socialize after hours. “Basically,” says Anderson, “we’re the only friends we have.”
Contributing editor Rob Sneddon has written about a variety of subjects for Down East, including Maine’s most dangerous jobs.