Sept. 20, Portland, Maine – I’m at Starbucks in north Portland, and it seems like Saturday is slipping away. I drove down the coast last night in desultory fashion.
I pulled into the RV camping ground at the Falmouth Walmart. It’s a popular spot, with campers of all size strewn across the lot and facing in all direction. There was even a painted school bus, what looked conspicuously like a hippie caravan, parked at the far fringe with a cardboard sign in the window which read, “Help! We’re Stuck!”
It was early, but I was tired and hungry. This morning I got up and went across 1 to the McDonald’s, got my free coffee and consulted the Great God Google for directions to the Portland Planet Fitness on Marginal Way.
When I got there, I turned on the propane and made a quick and easy breakfast: two fried eggs with cheese on top and two pieces of 12-grain toast. Then I took a deep breath and girded for my workout.
As I walked through the parking lot, I absentmindedly looked down at a license plate and suddenly remembered that Maine is “Vacationland.” Which brought me back to last night’s frustrating drive along Maine’s beautiful coast. For one, it was dark, so I didn’t get to see a whole lot of beauty. More significantly, I was troubled.
When I reached comely Camden town, I recognized my problem. Each coastal town was prettier and more than the last. They all boasted of their stately Victorian inns and their quaint and cozy cottages with shiplap siding painted in pretty colors. I wasn’t supposed to be on vacation. I don’t even have a job, for Christsake.
I began to rebel against the pretty.
I found myself longing for the familiar and tawdry, the ubiquitous eyesores of corporate stripmall culture. Give me the Burger King and the Dairy Queen, the Big Mac and Little Caesars, and get me out the hell of here.
And I had what constitutes a minor epiphany.
America is beautiful, but America is not pretty.
Among other things …
America is a hooker with a black eye and a heroin-dealer boyfriend.
America is Charlie Parker dead at 34 and Dick Cheney alive at 73.
America is a 43-year-old miner dying of old age.
America is a 19-year-old girl passed out at a fraternity party.
America is a bloated corpse washed up on an oilslick beach.
America is a 7-year-old Honduran boy who traveled 1,700 miles all by his lonesome just to steal your minimum-wage job.
America is an ocean of oil and no one to blame.
America is 48-hour meth bender with bath salts for dessert.
America is an evangelical preacher with a 15-year-old paramour.
America is an honest banker and a senator with a broken spine.
America is a $10 million mansion on 9 acres with 8,000 square feet, 7 marble fireplaces, 6 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, 4-car garage, 3 living rooms, 2 parents and 1 child.
Well, you get the point. All I’m saying is I didn’t come this far to see pretty.
I came for the Walmart parking lot and the McDonald’s wife (and free small coffee during breakfast, through Sept. 29!). I came to discover the real America, wherever and whatever that is.
Well, back to Planet Fitness, Marginal Way, Portland, Maine.
I strolled though the door, signed the guest register and beheld the largest, most spacious, most wonderful Planet Fitness I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a few. I’ve been in nine facilities in four states. This one, on Marginal Way near downtown Portland, features two sprawling floors chock-full of machines of every kind. There’s even one room reserved solely for mats, which I’ve never seen.
I panted my way through a bit of stretching and assorted exercises Then I stood up and gazed out the window. Immediately I saw I’d come a long way from Aroostook County. I had ventured into the golden heart of Downeast.
And it’s not just the luxury Planet Fitness. Right out the window, a majestic Trader Joe’s rose from an ordinary large macadam lot. First one I’ve encountered since leaving Pennsylvania. Eastern Mountain Sports sits one door removed from Trader Jo’es.
Suddenly I realized Maine’s Portland is not all the different from Oregon’s. Bike lanes. Big box stores selling the latest in outdoor adventure gear. Trader Joe’s and its tasteful array of wines and cheeses And of course it’s easy to find a Starbucks is easy.
And now that I’m here, perhaps I should discuss something a bit more useful, like life in the Behemoth. For the seven of the past eight nights, I bedded down in the always capacious parking lot of the Walmart. It’s just too damn convenient, and most of all, it’s free.
This is my 27th day away from Pennsylvania. If you throw out the three nights Max, Becky and I camped at Promised Land State Park, I haven’t spent a penny on lodging. Nine of them have been courtesy of Sam Walton’s largesse. I’ve spent five in supermarket parking lots and two at Planet Fitness.
If you find yourself beyond the reaching of corporate comfort, options always exist. You just have to be careful. Max and I spent three nights in New York City camped on Occident Avenue, next to an apartment building. That left us a 1.5-mile walk to the ferry each morning. We weren’t troubled until the last night, when I was awaken by the half-siren of NYPD Blue. I rushed to the window in the back, peeled open the blinds and said, Yes Sir? Well, he said they’d gotten some calls about the Behemoth, and I’m sure they had. There were some pretty fancy homes perched on the hill across Occident from that apartment building. When I told him we’d be out in the morning, he said, “Cool.”
And that was that. Becky, Max and I spent three nights camped on the street in the Treme section of New Orleans, and not a soul bothered us.
Despite all those lonely nights in the parking lot of the Walton Family Inn and General Store, I’m pleased to report I haven’t broken the streak. Sixteen months ago, somewhere in western Georgia, Becky and I resolved to spend no more money at Walmart. So far, so good. But, you know, I am grateful for the lodging.
I’d rather stay somewhere else, parked somewhere off in the woods or along the seashore. And you can do this, it’s just not convenient. And it’s not easy.
I endured the workout, showered and returned to the camper. On the subject of bathing, we just don’t use any of the Behemoth’s plumbing facilities. We decided early on we’d rather not deal with that shit, so to speak.
And in 19 nights since parting ways with Max and Becky, I’ve showered 11 times. Planet Fitness every time. That $20-a-month membership has turned out to be a steal.
Well, I left the Planet and stopped in at Trader Joe’s.
God what a goldmine. No matter why you find one, Trader Joe’s is always a veritable madhouse. Especially on Saturday. I bought four bottles of 3-buck Chuck and then proceeded to get lost in north Portland.
I found a McDonald’s, where the easy wifi access usually clears up this problem. Not today. My laptop battery died abruptly, and there were no outlets. I left and drove on. I drove blind for about 20 minutes before I stumbled into Shaw’s supermarket, which is essentially Acme with an Osco Pharmacy. I bought a pint of half and half and one of those small containers of cottage cheese with pineapple on the side.
As I drove out of the parking lot, I said to myself, “Where now? Yes, Starbucks.”
When you’re alone for any extended period of time, you start talking to yourself. It occurs naturally. For long stretches of the day, you have no one else to talk with.
I was surprised the first time I noticed I was thinking out loud. I’m no longer surprised.
In fact, I have quite amiable conversations with myself. I rarely disagree with myself, and while I castigate myself quite often, I always forgive myself.
As I turned onto Auburn Avenue, I chanced to see the big sign listing all the fine stores in the Northgate Shopping Mall. Right up there in bold, green letters was S-T-A-R-B-U-C-K-S. I looked back to the right and saw it staring at me. It’s right next-door to the Shaw-Osco. Told you it was easy to find a Starbucks in Portland, Maine.
What an observer I am.
Well, here I sit. I’m going to get moving now, and see if I have anything interesting to say.