Sept. 16, Caribou, Maine – I sit in the Caribou Public Library, physically and emotionally soaked to the core.
A couple hours ago, after stopping in at the post office to mail Max a postcard, I strolled west along Sweden Street. The sky grew blacker and the rain fell harder. The weather mirrored my mood with uncanny sullenness.
Last night I found myself describing this project as my personal white whale and said it is likely to tear me apart. At the time I thought I was being glib.
When the blackness overwhelmed me in a parking lot in Nowheresville, Aroostook County, I had to reconsider. I decided a good walk in the rain might, in the way that multiplying two negative numbers creates a positive product, brighten my mood.
The only potential problem is I was wearing my hooded sweatshirt, the only real piece of cool-weather clothing I have with me. I have another pair of sneakers, and plenty of socks. But just one sweatshirt, and no jackets.
As I approached Prospect Street, a young man driving a red pickup slowed and rolled down his window. He had a cigarette between his lips and a friendly smirk on his face. He asked if I needed a ride anywhere.
I declined and thanked him for the offer. Soon I began to wish I’d said, “Yes, sir! Where’s the nearest bar? I’m buying.”
Why was I walking in the rain in northern Maine? I guess because I lack the courage, or perhaps the mental illness, to walk into New Brunswick and hang out there until U.S. border gendarmes find me and throw me into a holding cell.
Caribou, according to the wonderfully glib Nelson Cote (that’s Co-tay, as in French-Canadian and I do not know how produce the accent aigu on this keyboard.), is a “dead-end town on a dead-end street in a dead-end county in a dead-end state.”
The county is the fabled Aroostook, the true north country. This morning I asked the woman at the visitors center in Houlton how it was properly pronounced.
“It’s Aah-roo-stook,” she said, “but people here say Ari-stick.”
As for Caribou, it is bracketed by the white-steepled spire of the United Baptist Church at the east end and the brown-steepled spire of the Bessie Gray Memorial Methodist Church at the west. There is also a Family Dollar, a staple of dead and dying towns everywhere, at one end and a pawn shop at the other.
Everything in between is in an inexorable state of decay.
This place has the remnants of a fine town. The library sits across High Street from the police building. Both are made of sturdy, attractive red brick and painted with white trim. Same goes for the post office, which gazes across Sweden Street at the County Qwik Print. The brick-lined walkway of the downtown “mall” is pleasant enough, but when you take your eyes off your feet and gaze around, it looks out of place.
Sweden Street otherwise is populated by its share of vacant buildings. John Steinbeck visited Aroostook County with Charley in 1960. Caribou gets a mention among a parade of towns he passed through, though nothing he wrote reflected the separatist spirit of Aroostook. He relayed a magical tale, swelling with bonhomie, about the night he hosted a party of French-Canadian migrant farmers in Rocinante. All was cheery and upbeat.
In any case, things have changed. The sky above Aroostook has darkened.
The rain started to slacken as I ducked into a little produce trailer, the unmanned sort you see all over Maine with honor boxes to receive your payment.
On far wall, I was aghast to see the following written in black marker: “This place is being monitiered. Please be honest.”
The “be honest” was underscored with a double-underline. I had two reactions: First, I preferred to interpret the “monitiered” as a clever nod to the area’s French-Canadian roots instead of a typo; and second, I was stunned to learn the erosion of the social compact had reached the point where a Maine farmer felt he must monitier his produce stand. Things are indeed going to hell in a hurry.
I picked out three cucumbers (at 10 for $1) and two ears of corn (4 for $1) and slid a dollar into the locked box. I hope I eat at least two of the cukes and one ear of corn.
Emboldened by my soaking stroll, I got up the gumption to stop in at the police department, in the basement of the municipal building. I’ve been all across this country, back and forth and back again, and never chatted up local law enforcement. That’s how I met Patrolman Craig A. Peterson, who was fulfilling the role of dispatcher. He lives north of here in Stockholm, which I presume is near the Canadian border.
Everywhere here is near the Canadian border, in one direction or another. Up there, it’s to the north. Here, the east. The ubiquity of Canada is the primary thing that’s got Nelson Cote so fired up.
I told Patrolman Peterson I’d never stopped in a municipal cop shop before, mostly because I am generally afraid of the police. He said exactly what I knew he’d say: “Do you have any reason to be afraid of the police? Have you broken any laws?”
I said I hadn’t.
“You’ve never been in trouble?” he said with an air of professional doubt.
I said no, I haven’t, because I am far too afraid of the police to go around breaking laws. I fear them when I’m as innocent as a naked baby, imagine if I were guilty of a serious crime.
I asked about the town, and what challenges in particular face the Caribou Police Department.
He responded with well-practiced boilerplate. He said they face the same challenges, as far as drugs, thefts and assaults go, that police face everywhere, only on a smaller scale. I asked him if meth had reached Maine.
He said meth and bath salts are rampant up here.
“We were immune to those kinds of problems for a long time, but eventually they caught up with us,” he said.
I asked how long it had been since the last murder in Caribou. He looked up at the ceiling, as if the answer was somewhere above his head. I’d stumped him, and I took that as welcome news.
I thanked Patrolman Peterson for being so nice, and not abusing me, though secretly I wished he’d been a prickly SOB like some of those Border Patrol cops I met in International Falls. That always makes for a better story.
I walked across High Street to the library and asked the friendly librarian, I believe her name is Katie, if (1) I could use the Internet and (2) there was anyone about who might tell me a little about Caribou, Maine.
Then I asked if she was a local, and she said yes. I told her the same thing I told Cheryl at the post office, that the people in Aroostook County seem to lack the famed accent you associate with Maine-ahs.
Before she could answer, Nelson Cote appeared stage left as if I had written the part for him and directed him with covert hand signals.
“That’s because we don’t consider ourselves to be part of Maine,” he interjected. “This is Aroostook County, which we call ‘The County,’ or the ‘Other Maine.’
“The reason I said we don’t consider ourselves to be part of Maine is because it was stolen from us by the United States and the state of Maine.”
I told him to go on, and he said, “How much time do you have?”
I said I always have time for people who like to talk.
And so Nelson told me about the Aroostook War of 1839-42, a bloodless confrontation between the U.S. and England over the border dividing Maine and New Brunswick. FYI, the Aroostook War is also known as the Pork and Beans War. The history is kind of fascinating.
He told me about the mysterious “Red Line,” which refers to an 18th century map discovered in Benjamin Franklin‘s Paris archives by historian and future Harvard president Jared Sparks. In 1782, Franklin returned a map to French statesman Count Vergennes, writing, “I have marked with a strong red line … the limits of the United States.”
Franklin’s red line corresponded neatly with the red-line border on a map drawn in 1746 by the French cartographer Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville. The line shows the U.S. border far south of the St. John River, which marks the border today. In fact, by the line on that map, I’d be sitting in Canada right now. It also roughly corresponded with British claims during the Aroostook War.
Nelson had a lot of things to say. I sort of wished I had my recorder.
By day, he’s a 52-year-old accountant with an office in Caribou. At least that’s what he told me. I can’t find any corroborating evidence. Come to think of it, he had no business card and declined to have his photograph taken.
If he’s a man of mystery, I don’t mind. I still like him. He’s trim with a boyish mien. Glasses frame impish eyes. He wore a black polo shirt with a coat of arms emblazoned on the breast. A rooster is perched at the top of the crest. Beneath it is written Cote, the family name. He said his family has been here for 400 years.
I guess you would call Nelson something of a separatist. I don’t think he’d disagree, though he likes to describe himself as a historian. I’d seen him at the post office while Cheryl was denying there was anything different about the Maine of Aroostook County.
Nelson said there’s a movement afoot to divide the town of Caribou from the rural areas surrounding it. He’s not part of that movement, but he supports it. He definitely is not short of axes that require occasional grinding.
“The same three or four families have been running this town forever,” he said. “And they’re running it straight into the ground. This county won’t prosper until it rediscovers its roots and realizes its natural interests and markets lie in the direction of New Brunswick.”
In the 1970s, town fathers elected to construct a bypass on Route 1. I’d noticed this on the drive up from Presque Isle, but fate directed me to Caribou anyway.
“That’s one of the dumbest-assed things ever,” he said. “You might as well erect barricades at either end of town. We should make people drive through town. We should make it a four-lane road. Make them drive through, but make it easy for them. Who knows, one of them might stop and buy a Coke.”
I did like the construction “dumbest-assed.” I believe I’d never heard it uttered before. And the idea does sound, at minimum, dumb-assed.
He advocates teaching French in the public schools and fostering a sort of cultural separatism in lieu of legal secession. He knows Aroostook becoming the 51st state or rejoining Canada is about as likely as me becoming governor of Maine. And good luck getting Maine to agree to teach French in its public schools.
“America is always talking about freedom all over the world,” he said, “but it won’t let its own people be free.”
As he said, Maine is ruled by the Downeasters. The power locus lies in the corridor between Augusta and Portland. That’s where all the money is, and power follows money. Aroostook, he said, is the state’s bastard stepchild.
Well, they’re about to throw me out of the library. It’s closing time.
Before we parted, I asked Nelson why he doesn’t like to be photographed. He smiled his youthful smile.
“It’s not like the Native Americans,” he said, “I’m not worried about having my soul stolen. And I can’t say it’s for religious reasons. I just don’t like to.”
That’s OK by me, Nelson. Or whoever you are. I appreciate you turning up when you did and taking the time to set me straight about Aroostook County, Maine.