North by East
Shirtless in southern Maine, from Monticello to Mickey Mouse, and more.
Cartoon by Jeff Pert.
Shirtless in Southern Maine
Mainers are losing their heads over losing their tops.
It is a little-known fact that Maine state law allows women to go around topless not only in private, but also in public. Now, we know what you’re thinking. With temperatures that might best be described as “brisk” even on the warmest of summer days, why would any sane person in the Pine Tree State — male or female — want to parade around without a shirt?
And yet 2010 might well go down in Maine as the “Year of Living Toplessly.” Consider these incidents: In a controversial feature, the Maine Sunday Telegram exposed so-called “family” restaurants in western Maine that transform into strip clubs after dark. Also, the arsonist who allegedly torched the nation’s most famous topless doughnut shop (the Grand View in Vassalboro) was arrested this spring after a long investigation.
But the issue of Maine’s torrenting toplessness finally achieved national attention when a woman named Ty McDowell decided to lead a parade of two dozen shirt-free women (and assorted men) through downtown Portland on April 3 that attracted a leering crowd of voyeurs.
“We just want to be comfortable with it,” asserts McDowell. Her provocative goal was to remove the stigma surrounding female breast exposure — and to push for true gender equality. If a man can walk around without a shirt, she reasons, why can’t a woman? “We don’t think we’re going to change the entire culture of this country. We just want to make it a little more acceptable.”
McDowell’s march came nearly twelve years after a notorious 1998 court case involving a Newport woman who decided to mow her lawn sans shirt. A neighbor complained of the less than grand view. But a new, more restrictive ordinance banning female toplessness in Newport was decisively rejected by voters.
“My gut reaction is that, probably, the legislature would want to leave this up to individual towns,” offers state representative Lance Harvell, who recently received a rash of complaints when a University of Maine at Farmington student from his district decided to air her breasts one spring day. “If you’re going to deal with [toplessness], it would probably be through a town ordinance,” he adds.
I’m getting more calls on this than anything I’ve done in the two years,” sighs Harvell. “Pass a $5 billion budget and you get ten phone calls. But if someone walks topless through town, you get one hundred.”
The Osprey Effect
Chaos follows a fish hawk’s fumble.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the butterfly effect. That’s the notion that the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings creates tiny changes in the atmosphere, which in turn trigger bigger fluctuations, which then set off strong currents and so on until, thousands of miles from where that butterfly had been flitting, a tornado swerves off its predicted path, sparing the village that had been battening down the hatches and flattening the one that was unprepared. We’re not suggesting the idea has any validity, but we couldn’t help but give it some thought this spring after one animal’s slipup set in motion a cascade of small emergencies in the town of Brunswick. Or so it seems.
It all began when a nesting osprey dropped a branch on the power lines behind Bath Iron Work’s (BIW) Harding Plant. In one fell swoop, the fish hawk’s bungle caused a fault that ignited a brush fire behind the BIW facility and disrupted electrical service to five thousand customers, not to mention the traffic lights at Cook’s Corner, the town’s busiest intersection.
On his way to the blaze, Brunswick Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Emerson veered off toward the banks of the Androscoggin River to investigate a second trail of smoke rising to the west. Soon he was alerting firefighters in neighboring Topsham that this one was in their territory — Cornish Island — and he rejoined his colleagues who were damping the Harding Plant fire.
The calls, though, kept coming. Brunswick firefighters raced to a Bath Road motel, where an alarm tripped by the osprey-triggered fault was screeching (there was no fire), and to Mid Coast Hospital, where someone was trapped in a stuck elevator. Meanwhile, a Topsham crew had boated to Cornish, where they found a brush fire that just so happened to be burning directly beneath the transmission lines on the uninhabited and otherwise deserted isle, raising speculation about the culpability of that clumsy osprey building a nest a few miles away. Central Maine Power patrollers would later find no evidence to support the theory, according to spokeswoman Gail Rice, who added that efforts to blame some of the other events on the feathered parent-to-be are further muddied by the fact that a second power outage had occurred around the same time when a tree uprooted by an overzealous skidder operator fell onto wires in nearby West Bath.
Heavy winds and falling trees are responsible for far more power outages than wayward animals, Rice says, but it’s not uncommon for birds, squirrels, and other critters to KO electric service, especially in a heavily wooded state like Maine.
As for the Brunswick incident, it did no long-term damage. In fact, the fires were extinguished and power was restored within ninety minutes. “But it was an unusual ninety minutes,” Emerson says. “We were pretty busy for a while.”
The Coffee Pot Lives!
A Bangor sandwich shop dies, but its most famous creation persists.
The signature Coffee Pot sandwich features slices of American cheese, salami, and pickles atop layers of chopped green peppers, Spanish onions, tomatoes, oil, salt, and red peppers; all of it is snugged into a foot-long roll from the local Brick Oven bakery. In other words, it’s a pseudo-Italian sandwich, but a very good one. When owner Skip Rist closed on New Year’s Eve the lunch shop that his father had started in 1930, hundreds of people lined up for one last Coffee Pot sandwich.
You’d think that would have been the end of it. Decent Italian sandwiches, after all, are more ubiquitous than lobster rolls in the state of Maine. But the Coffee Pot sandwich is enjoying a robust afterlife. In fact, it is nothing less than a phenomenon, spawning so many imitators it ought to be declared the unofficial sandwich of Bangor. You can pick up a Tea Pot at Jimmy V’s, a Java Pot at Java Joe’s, a Coppee Pot at Court Street Market and, the most recent tribute, a Coffee Pot from the Coffee Pot Café, which is managed by Cheryl Whittaker who made the sandwiches for Rist for twenty years.
Indeed, a virtual micro economy has emerged around Coffee Pot-style sandwiches. Take Birmingham’s Family Market in Old Town, where Brandi Folsom created one of the first of the new generation of Coffee Pots, named the Birmwich. Almost overnight Birmingham’s went from selling fewer than one hundred sandwiches a day to more than three hundred. Sales of everything else — chips, soda, gasoline — have followed. “We had to hire four new people,” Folsom says.
More than a 180 people showed up when the Coffee Pot Café, unrelated to the original business except by inference, conducted interviews for nine jobs in April, reports Robert Erickson, the Bangor dentist who opened the shop in a former Starbucks and hired Whittaker and another longtime Coffee Pot employee, Kathie Potter, to run it. The crew turned out more than one thousand sandwiches on opening day.
Although some competitors — not to mention Skip Rist himself — were miffed that Erickson’s café had adopted the Coffee Pot name, Bangor’s sandwich war has been largely good natured and good for business. Still, we can’t help but wonder, what makes something that sounds like an ordinary Italian sandwich a Coffee Pot special? “I believe it’s the quality of the meats and cheeses,” Cheryl Whittaker offers. “That, and we make sure that the meat, cheese, vegetables, and pickles go end to end. You get everything in every bite.”
From Monticello to Mickey Mouse
Disney World and Aroostook County have something in common.
Early in 2010, Dan Corey, a farmer in Monticello, Maine, sent seed potato tubers to Disney’s Epcot Theme Park in Orlando, Florida, after receiving a request from Epcot science team member Yuqing Fan. The purpose was to exhibit potatoes in Epcot’s “Living with the Land” exhibit: a fourteen-minute boat ride that show-cases major agricultural crops from around the world.
As Corey knows, you shouldn’t count your potatoes until they’ve blossomed. “This potato project is aimed to develop suitable hydroponic potato-growing methods and to select the right varieties,” explains Fan. “It’s probably going to take a couple of years to figure out.”
Why did Epcot single out Maine potatoes as a special crop? The primary reason is that the Maine brand is revered in the South — at least at the seed stage. “Florida is our biggest seed buyer,” explains Corey. “Because it’s got such a warm climate, [potatoes] can’t produce [their] own seed. Northern people supply all the seed on the eastern seaboard.” Corey sends his seeds as far down as Uruguay and Brazil. He’s even shipped to Korea.
But the more surreptitious reason is Yuqing Fan himself. “Say, ‘Hi, to Maine,’ for me,” says Disney’s science team member via phone. “I lived there for several years. I went to school at the University of Maine. My degree is in entomology.”
When asked if his penchant for potatoes inspired his request for Maine spuds, Fan politely demurs. “I come from China,” he says. “The potato isn’t big there. We never eat potatoes. We eat rice.”
Dirt roads are once again fashionable.
A significant number of Maine drivers get ticketed every summer for running their studded snow tires out of season (the statewide deadline to remove them is May 1). Burly winter tires rip up asphalt roads during the hot summer months, so the state has reason to crack down on procrastinators.
Recently, however, several Maine communities have decided to reverse the process and give up on asphalt entirely in favor of a perpetual gravel existence. The Cranberry Islands, Vienna, and more than half a dozen other towns have begun discussing whether it might be more economical to replace costly paved roads with gravel or dirt ones.
“People expect decent roads,” says Pete Coughlan, the director of the Maine Local Roads Center at the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT), “but in most cases they don’t want to pay for them.” Coughlan provides training and technical assistance to municipalities across the state. As an MDOT employee of thirty-three years, he won’t claim that Maine roads are now the worst he’s ever seen. But he will say the current condition is bad and getting worse. Insufficient funds — and expensive asphalt — are to blame.
Richard Beal, a selectman for the Cranberry Isles, says the town is seriously considering going back to gravel. “It is getting difficult to maintain these island roads, when you’re looking at transportation costs in particular and the cost of the product itself to get out here,” says Beal. “I don’t think the average person, whether on the islands or mainland, truly understands when they see road construction how expensive that is per mile.” The Cranberry Isles combined, Beal estimates, have only twelve miles of paved public roads used by several hundred cars.
MDOT’s Coughlan says that the bond package on the ballot this month “will go a little bit toward maintaining what we have — but it’s certainly not enough.” He said an increase in the gas tax by even a penny (or six dollars a person, per year) could help. But if you don’t like taxes you do have recourse: Remove your studded tires on schedule and persuade your neighbors to do the same.
Canadian seafood processors had better watch their steps.
How’s this for irony: The world’s top lobster-producing region — that would be Maine, with 80 percent of the global harvest — has one of the most limited product lines. A state law has had the unintended effect of restricting seafood processors to just three ways to market the iconic crustaceans: as whole lobsters; as whole tails in the shell; and as fully intact picked claw, knuckle, and tail meat.
No frozen split tails. No in-shell claws.
Come July, however, Maine processors will have more leeway, thanks to amended legislation that allows the selling of wayward lobster parts. “It’s something that has been a long time coming,” says Jim Markos, manager of Maine Shellfish, an Ellsworth seafood processor, and president of the Maine Seafood Alliance. “Now we have an opportunity to put new combinations [of value-added products] together, and we’ll be on more competitive footing.”
The soon-to-be-outdated law is intended to prevent lobstermen from selling claws, knuckles, and tails directly from their boats (because there’s no way to know if the parts came from undersized — or “short”— lobsters), according to Dane Somers of the Maine Lobster Council, an industry-funded organization that promotes the sale of Maine’s signature food. But the legislation’s broad language also stops processors from breaking down the whole lobsters and selling the frozen products that are marketed by our Canadian counterparts, who happen to purchase on average 45 percent of Maine’s annual harvest, says Somers. These goods include high-end treats like “cocktail claws” that can be enjoyed without the aid of shell crackers. “The meat in the claw and arm is really the prime meat,” Somers says.
Most Mainers, not being inclined toward frozen lobster, are unlikely to notice the legislation’s impact. Nevertheless, Somers points out that 55 percent of Maine’s annual harvest gets processed and shipped worldwide. With landings on the rise — 75,598,534 pounds of lobster were landed in 2009, more than double the catch of a decade ago — Maine needs to grow that global market. “We have a healthy, abundant resource, and that’s a good thing,” Somers says, “but we’ve got to reach out further and deeper to sell it.” It seems they need to start with bits and pieces.
Maine at its Healthiest
How does sparsely populated Franklin County keep its residents so robust?
The thirty thousand people who live in Franklin County happen to be the healthiest in Maine. That statistic is according to the latest health survey, “County Health Rankings,” released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The survey took into account everything from access and quality of health care to lifestyle habits, income, and other socio-economic indicators.
Consider this: Franklin County (which boasts just seventeen people for each of its 1,698 square miles) faces an unstable employment environment, high levels of poverty, and relatively low levels of educational achievement. In fact, the survey ranked Franklin County eleventh in Maine in terms of social and economic factors. That might lead you to believe that Franklin’s citizens would have a harder time staying healthy.
“We’ve overcome a lot of those challenges to make us healthier,” says Heather Davis, executive director of the Healthy Community Coalition (HCC). Davis’ group — and its umbrella organization, Franklin Community Health Network — stages forums to discuss the health problems facing the county, and what everyone can do to fix them.
The state has noticed, too. “The health successes shown in Franklin County, especially the improvements in cardiovascular disease, despite ongoing socioeconomic challenges, helped inspire us in state-level public health to replicate their efforts,” says Dora Mills, head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who
herself grew up and practiced medicine in Franklin County.
Still, people in this western Maine county strive to do better. “While we’re very pleased to have been named the healthiest county in Maine, and there is a lot of work that has gone into it, one should not rest on one’s laurels,” says Lisa Laflin, executive director of the United Way of the Tri-Valley Area.
Bravo, Franklin! Let’s hope other Maine counties share your success down the road.