North by East
An all-season Santa in West Gardiner, Winslow Homer, fashion plate, and more.
Cartoon by David Jacobson
Retiree Ellis McKeen guides Mainers to their forgotten assets.
The Carrie Ricker Middle School in Litchfield has an additional sixty-six dollars to spend on math problem-of-the-week prizes this year, thanks to a West Gardiner retiree whose hobby is reuniting people with money they didn’t even know they had. Ellis McKeen spends several hours a week perusing the Maine abandoned properties list and tracking down the items’ owners. “I don’t take any money or donations or anything,” McKeen, 70, says. “I don’t need the money. But times are tough and this is a way I can help people without using my own wallet. I call myself the all-season Santa because I do it year-round.”
While a few people suspect a scam, most people are surprised and delighted when they hear from McKeen, who finds them through the phone directory, Facebook, and Internet searches. “What a nice gentleman,” says Carrie Ricker Principal Christine Lajoie-Cameron. The school’s property turned out to be a check from Hannaford supermarket, which she suspects were proceeds from a soup label redemption program. “We’ll take every penny we can get!”
Readers of Maine’s daily newspapers have likely seen the unclaimed propertylist, if not understood exactly what it is. Typically running several pages, the names of owners of abandoned properties are published by the Maine State Treasurer’s Office once a year. The properties include cash from inactive savings or checking accounts, paid-up life insurance policies, unpaid wages, uncashed checks, death benefits, and the contents of safety-depositboxes — money or other personal assets,in other words, that for one reason or another could not be returned to its owners.
That annual list represents just a fraction of the property the state is holding. “It’s strictly a list of what the state received during the past year, and it’s only the properties that are worth $250 or more,” says Kristi Carlow, director of operations at the treasurer’s office. The online database that Ellis McKeen scrolls, however, contains everything: some eight hundred thousand properties valued at $159 million. The state holds each claim in perpetuity until the owner or his heirs find it, and while the value is often just a few dollars, sometimes a nice chunk of change is involved.
“Last year we received about $18.7 million in items, and we paid out 16,600 claims, or about $11.8 million,” Carlow says. “Our average claim was $713, and our largest was $357,000.”
Dollar for dollar, Maine pays out 63 percent of what it takes in each year, which is the best dispersal rate in the nation. Those annual newspaper lists help, as do geographically targeted lists presented to each of the state’s 186 legislators, and the online database, which contains virtually every unclaimed property. (You can find it at www.maine.gov/treasurer) Ellis McKeen surely deserves credit for some of those percentage points as well. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘What do you get out of it?’ ” the disabled veteran says. “I just enjoy doing it. It’s a lot of fun, and I get to talk to a lot of people.”
Winslow Homer, Fashion Plate
J. Crew’s spring men’s line takes its cue from the painter at Prouts Neck.
Ah, Maine, the way life should be, where a man in a suit is the odd man out and “casual Friday” has no context. We are not a fashionable state, and truth be told, a great many of us would consider that a point of pride. That’s why we were tickled to learn that Maine — or more specifically, Maine as rendered by Winslow Homer — was the inspiration behind J.Crew’s spring men’s clothing line.
In a video promoting the new line, handsome young men in slightly rumpled seersucker jackets and rolled-up jeans line up on a stage while J.Crew’s lead men’s designer, Frank Muytjens, speaks about the watercolors painted by Winslow Homer in his studio on Prouts Neck in Scarborough. “The studio is still there, it’s been there forever,” Muytjens says. “It’s overlooking the bluffs, and you can see the ocean. You can see all the different hues and colors of the ocean, and we were inspired by that.” Featured prominently in the video is the catalog for Winslow Homer and the “Poetics of Place,” last summer’s acclaimed exhibition at Portland Museum of Art.
That catalog, written by museum chief curator Thomas Denenberg and designed by Daniel Pepice, is what drew Muytjens and his team to Maine in the first place. Pepice, it turns out, became acquainted with Muytjens when Pepice worked at Rogues Gallery, the Portland-based menswear company. “When the book was printed, I wanted friends to see what I thought was a good project and was different from what I had been doing,” says Pepice, who designed Rogues Gallery’s T-shirt graphics, hang tags, lookbooks, and “anything else that was printed or two dimensional” for six years. Pepice made sure Muytjens received a copy of the catalogue. “J.Crew being a fundamentally American brand, I knew Frank would have an interest in the vernacular of Winslow Homer,” he says.
Not long after, one of J.Crew’s Manhattan stores started selling the book, which Denenberg says was deliberately designed to mirror Homer’s enduringinfluence: The linen-covered hardback cover is traditional; the fonts are from the nineteenth century, when Homer painted; and the page numbers and catalog plates are executed in a modernist 1950s style. “We set out to raise a question with that catalog: Is this a book from today, yesterday, or last year?” Denenberg says.
Denenberg sees that same timelessness in the J. Crew clothing line. “Homer is the nineteenth-century painter who became a modernist by focusing on nature at Prouts Neck,” he says. “He is the painter who chose to make Maine his home and to create this mythology of place. That gets played out in that J. Crew line. Clearly they were looking for old New England — that slightly burnished genteel look, the khakis that have been washed one hundred times, the old Docksiders, the Wayfarers, all the myths of summer on the coast that have persisted for the last fifty years or so.”
Two Brownville bait dealers have their hands full with a family of wily weasels.
Never let it be said that all Maine woodsmen are rough, hard-hearted folk. Just look at Don and John Belvin, two brothers who own the Junction Store way up in Brownville. This winter the men arrived in their shop one morning to discover that most of the shiners and smelts they were keeping alive in a fifty-gallon drum as bait for ice fishermen were dead. They tossed the dead fish in the trash, but when they went outside a half-hour later, they found the bait stacked like tiny, slippery cordwood just outside the back door. Was it the work of North Woods gnomes?
The mystery was solved the next morning, when John Belvin came into the store and found a young mink sitting in the bait tank. Already halfway through his breakfast, the mink had stacked his latest kill on a water filter, just as he’d done with the discarded baitfish. “No doubt about it, we caught him red-handed,” says Don Belvin. His brother was able to grab the critter with a heavily gloved hand, but rather than dispatch him in a, ahem, quite final manner, John Belvin put him in a cage and brought him down to a stream about a mile away.
“Just to be sure we recognized him if he came back, we thought we should spray-paint his tail a little bit,” Don explains, adding that a reporter from the Bangor Daily News even caught wind of the story and ran a photo of the wily weasel.
But the tale didn’t end there. Within three more weeks, the brothers had nabbed seven more minks, each craftier than their predecessor in finding a way into the shop’s cold storage room and eventually into the tank itself. The one-mile trip to the river became two miles, then three, as the Belvins tried to make the journey more of a deterrent for the persistent mink family. So far the brothers estimate they’ve lost about five hundred dollars in baitfish, but they refuse to resort to more drastic measures. “We’re strictly catch-and-release up here,” Don Belvin says. “They’re just too cute. When they’re in the cage, I don’t have the heart to kill them.”
He says the minks’ free meal will come to an end this month, as the end of ice fishing season will mean the end of the bait bucket. In the meantime, the brothers are keeping their eyes out for a particularly colorful — and incorrigibly persistent — family of minks.
No ‘Almost’ About It
John Cariani’s play about a small town in Maine is a full-fledged success.
If yours is one of the many regional theaters preparing to stage Almost, Maine, a quirky romantic comedy set on a frigid night in this state’s remote north, you might want to pass along this word of advice from the playwright, John Cariani: “Sometimes the actors make the characters talk like Down East fishermen, and then it’s a disaster.”
A front page article in the New York Times about the robust post-Off Broadway life of Almost, Maine prompted us to get in touch with Cariani, who grew up in the small Aroostook County city of Presque Isle and has worked as a playwright and actor in New York since 1995 (if you’re a Law & Order fan, you’ve probably seen him: He played forensic expert Julian Beck from 2002 to 2007). Cariani is delighted with the Times’ flattering coverage, although he does take issue with the article’s characterization of his play’s Off-Broadway run as “a flop” “It ran for two months — sixty-seven performances,” he points out.
Craig Pospisil of the Dramatists Play Service, which has the North American rights to Almost, Maine, agrees that the word “flop” is an exaggeration of what he considers a so-so run. Nevertheless, he says, the contrast between its New York City stint and its success elsewhere makes Almost, Maine unique. Since the play closed Off-Broadway, more than six hundred American and Canadian companies have staged it, making it one of the most produced shows in North America. Audiences in Australia, Dubai, and South Korea have watched its nineteen characters, shivering in hats and scarves, navigate romance under the magical spell of the northern lights. And in 2010, Almost, Maine took the number one slot on the International Thespian Society’s list of top ten most-produced plays in North American high schools, beating out standards like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Crucible.
“It is warm and sweet, and it’s very funny as well,” Pospisil says of the play’s appeal. “It also can be done very simply.” Composed of eight vignettes, he explains, the play can have a cast as small as four or as large as nineteen, making it equally suitable for small professional theaters and high school drama clubs.
Cariani’s small-town stories also resonate, observes Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director of Portland Stage Company. The company premiered Almost, Maine and Last Gas, and it will stage his new work, Love/Sick, this spring. “There’s a huge percentage of folks who live in cities but grew up in suburbs or small towns,” she says. “His plays tap into a yearning for a familiar place and time.”
And even though Almost, Maine dips into the fantastical, its smart, inherently decent characters ring true. “John writes real dialogue,” Stewart says. “He writes the way people speak. It feels like real people in real situations.”
Which brings us back to Cariani’s point about avoiding stereotypes. “One thing I’ve learned is that people are really ignorant about Maine,” he says. “They think Maine is all lobstermen and people saying, ‘Ayuh.’ One of the things I try to do is honor northern Maine and the people who live there. When done well, Almost, Maine is a love letter to the people of Maine.”
“Goldfinches in Early Spring”
I didn’t see them
until I opened the door
and the whole flock rose up from the ground,
their newly brilliant plumage
like fresh paint,
as if all the yellow in the world —
butter cups and corn kernels
daffodils, crocus pollen
carried on the legs of bumblebees,
handfuls of dandelions,
and in every child’s first painting
the round sun
occupying the upper corner —
as if all the yellow,
all the thought of yellow
were condensed in the bodies of these birds,
flying up into the dark branches
barely dotted with green,
little flames kindling in the branches
warming us again,
the way the light always does return,
all the sparks igniting one at a time all at once
the yellow leaves
miraculously returning to the trees,
reversing all together
the direction of fall.