Sept. 20, Old Orchard Beach, Maine – I wanted to at least glimpse the ocean before abandoning Maine, and I chose Old Orchard Beach due to its reputation as an offseason ghost town.
I thought I might like to see a few ghosts.
I drove Route 1 south through Scarborough, where I once spent eight days in the company of my old pal, the one-of-a-kind Gabe Mazurkiewicz. I turned onto 98 east, and soon was driving down Old Orchard Street. I did a loop around town, past the Family Dollar and the Rite Aid and the Subway, and parked on Staples Street, adjacent to the Libby Memorial Library. I gazed straight ahead at the Ferris wheel in the Playland amusement park. Everything was still as death. The carousel, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Fun House, the Cascade Falls water flume. Silence reigned. No sounds of giggling teenagers and screaming children pierced the chilly night air.
I clambered out of the Behemoth and angled toward the main drag. Old men younger than me emerged from a bar, cigarettes in their hand and scowls on the faces. The wind whistled and moaned. I sensed a faint trace of malevolence in the air.
Lisa and Bill and Rocco were still selling pizza along Old Orchard Street. Slices went for a midsummer price of $3.50. People were about, but there atmosphere lacked the gaiety, the hormonal flirtation of summertime. The arcade lights swirled and the machines pinged, but it wasn’t enough to lift the pall. A month ago, this place must’ve been a kaleidoscopic whirl of color and sound.
I mounted the stairs to the Pier. The sign on the facade dates it to 1898. Hooligans was open and selling drinks. College football players flickered on plasma screens. Most places, though, were shuttered for the winter. Corrugated metal doors had fallen with a thud of finality. They were festooned with rusted and grease.
A good-time town gone in hibernation makes for a sad sight.
Gina’s not giving psychic readings. Toe Rings and Other Things was closed. Ditto the tattoo parlor. You could not get a hot dog and a soda for 99 cents at The All-American Meal tonight. No nine-ounce taco, fries and soda for $4 at the Potato Factory. No Old Fashioned Fried Dough. No T-shirts, no fruit smoothies, no Mexican food.
Even the bathrooms, the cleanest bathrooms on the beach, mind you, were locked up tight.
I walked to the end of the pier, and stood transfixed as waves crashed onto the beach and curled around pilings. I closed my eyes and tried to absorb the timeless pitch and roll of a great ocean.
Wind gusted down the alley of the pier, rattling the metal awning of a dormant shop. A heavy melancholy had settled in my bones. I looked above a gift shop and was startled to see a group of pigeons. Still as wooden ducks, they roosted in a dormer with a smashed window.
Suddenly I didn’t know what I had come for. Ghosts? I saw no ghosts, but there was a definite spookiness in the air.
The bars all seemed to be open, and people milled about, but it seemed they were going through the motions. All activity bore a conspicuous lack of conviviality. I felt a desire to sit down on a barstool and sip a Shipyard ale, but I had to get going.
I clambered down off the Pier and trudged slowly up Old Orchard Street. The piercing wail of train cut the silence, and in a minute a freight train rumbled through town, bells clanging and drowning out the roar of the ocean.
I reached the top of the hill, and crossed Old Orchard. As I passed by the St. Margaret Church, a lone cricket sang a plaintive song. I looked about, but it was hidden somewhere beneath the cover of fading hydrangeas.
It was time to go.
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