Another November has come calling to our Hotel. In an ideal world, it would be as quaint as a Grandma Moses painting this time of year; everyone all snug and cozy in their idyllic, New England scenery and stiff linen shirts while somewhere a hearth was burning bright against the impending gloom that was lumbering in from the top left corner of the canvas. But for our little building in our little neighborhood, we had to make do with what was offered.
Being an old building, every corner and joint, everywhere where wood met wood, there was air escaping through it. Fortunately, air conditioning is a foreign concept for many of the historical buildings in Maine. A cool breeze was a good friend to have in July, but by November, he has worn out his welcome. Drafty. But, as time went on, you eventually got used to the klunk-klunk-klunk of the window in the living room that was dangling by sheer will itself every time a breeze wanted to let itself out. You eventually didn’t notice the rain seep through horsehair plaster in the walls every time a strong nor’easter started its trick-or-treating a little late. You eventually learned to wear thick socks or shoes to protect your feet from uneven floorboards and the random heads of nails that sprout up like wild blueberry shrubs from them. It was cozy. It was befitting for a gaggle of Bohemian Twentysomethings; heat and hot water included, proximity to the University, two very good pizza shops and a 7-11. Proximity to downtown was obligatory and not important to get into because honestly, when you live in the West End of Portland, everywhere is walking distance, and somehow rather obliquely, that made the town itself cozier by default.
All of this conceived shock of living in squalor was short lived because if anything, this building had character, and our apartment, the Suite of the Hotel, had gone through many incantations before coming up with the right balance of comfort, apathy, angst, expression, joy and ambivalence. It was cozy, for all of its obvious flaws. Of course, electric heat included in the rent didn’t hurt either. The colder it got, the more that heater would blast. By January, the entire Northeast is encased in a wet, freezing tomb while our little corner of the universe stayed unnaturally warm and dry.
Another November has come calling to our Hotel, and change comes quietly if it was to come at all. Our landlord started one of what was to be many renovations that would take years to accomplish a couple of weeks ago. Prior to that time, our place was a burglar’s paradise; the front door was old, and the frame that was holding it could no longer do it’s job. The frame was swollen and mailable which worked in concert with the front door lock. The lock itself worked fine; you could only open it from the inside, while on the outside, you needed a key. Which is all well and good, but on the off night where you forgot said key, you could just as easily use a little English on the doorknob by lifting up the door itself by the knob and pushing the door open. If we were rich and were in constant fear of someone actually coming inside and taking all of our possessions, we would have been upset about it. But we didn’t have much by way of family heirlooms or pricey electronics, and the people that were bold enough to barge in were people that we knew anyway. That all stopped when the landlord purchased and installed a brand new front door; Heavy, metallic, industrial. Able to thwart the cattiest of burglars with the stickiest of fingers.
If anything, our new door kept more of the chill outside where it belonged. It was nice not having to deal with a creeping snowdrift that found its way inside every year. The biggest hassle from that moment on was that we had to eventually learn to take our key every time we left.
November. Darkness comes early and Winter is picking out wall coverings. My roommate, St. Ken, had just come home from being at school all day. No sooner had he reached for his fresh set of front door keys and unlocked the big gray behemoth, when he heard a small bleat over his shoulder. He almost didn’t hear it over the wind ripping his ears off, but he heard it again, and this time it had feet and it came rushing up to him in a hurry.
Most of the stories I remember during my tenure there, had nothing to do with me, which is refreshing. These are the stories that are painted in a particular shade of “hadtobethere”. These are stories that are deserving of a little embellishment, they are worthy enough to indulge in an extra coat of paint, because they may not mean anything standing on their own. But as you take steps back, and take steps back, and take steps back, you’ll have a better look at the bigger picture; a more detailed tapestry.
Before he could focus on what came flying past him, the noise was already heard again on the other side of the new door. It was a cat. A young male Abyssinian or American Short Hair; Golden eyed, fur the color of chimney soot. Even though it was maddeningly cold outside, this creature bore no ill will. It was as if he almost had a voice of his own, “Hold the door, hold the dOOOR!! Thanks! Wheew! *heh* How ’bout that weather, huh? It’s enough to freeze your pee right to your fur!…I MEAN…not…that you have a…problem…anyway. Food! You wouldn’t happen to have any food lying around would ya? No? Well it’s okay, it’s not like you were expecting me right? *heh* Of course not. But anyway….” By this time, he had infiltrated our apartment, and started making himself at home. Almost as if he knew his way around. No fear, an outgoing personality, never a wont for anything. He came in, found the warmest spot on the warmest section of the couch, shook the chill from the tips of his whiskers, curled up in a ball and went to sleep. We got food the next day.
A week later, he hadn’t left yet. Going by the current rules at the time, he had become a permanent roomie. And yet, he still went unnamed. We told this story to Di, St. Ken’s girlfriend at the time. As I recall, she didn’t have to dwell on the subject too long. As I recall, we didn’t have to finish the story. She named him after a wandering prophet.
His name was Elijah.
The Prince who painted is demons for fun,
My poet lover who spent her life on the run,
And a cast of hundreds strong.
We all sang a different song,
And the tune still sounds bittersweet.
The song still plays at Hotel Pine St.
Seriously, still good friends. As with most good friendships, it will have it’s ups and downs. This was one of the downs. We had given up the dormitory lifestyle a year before, and felt the need to finally snap that umbilical chord and live in a place where we weren’t under a scrupulous eye. He made it out first, I followed in the summer. The following summer, old mates came calling and they all found a place together. Not that I blame him. He has a longer history with people he grew up with, and I’ve only known him a relatively short amount of time. They had dibs. I was a smoker, he wasn’t. I was loud and obnoxious, he wasn’t. I didn’t blame him in the least. It wasn’t like he was moving to Europe or anything. A wise man once told me that you have to do what you have to do. But still. Still, it didn’t help matters any that this place was going to be more vacant in a manner of weeks.
(Overheard sitting at an outside table at a coffee shop on Congress St.) “My God!! Portland is so….HUGE!” My friend and I laughed over our double espressos upon hearing this from a Young Impressionable passing by. “Obviously from the sticks,” one of us said. It was a laugh of a common recognition, of getting the humor of any situation at the same time when there is no apparent humor to be seen. I’m sure we both thought the same thing, once upon a time. Although Portland is the largest city in Maine, it is by no means the largest in the world, and time compounded with wisdom and experience had made us slightly jaded about that fact. We thirsted and hungered to have our feet touch different soil, while at the same time being more than content to stay right where we are and have time pass right on by. I suppose that’s what home should feel like.
My once upon a time with The Forest City began when I was a boy. Once a year, my family and I would head south for the weekend. My father was a high school guidance counselor and my mother had a flexible schedule with the public library, and so every year in February, we would pack up the car, drive 2 and a half hours south, and shack up at a Ramada Inn in Portland for a few days. In those few days, we would stroll the Old Port, go to a Mall that was far better than the one in our town, and generally get away for a while. It was our Southern getaway. I was10 at the time. Now its 10 years later, and I’m still acting like I need permission to go outside.
It wasn’t too long before I discovered the Hive of the Boho. I say wasn’t too long because you could hardly miss it at the time. If you didn’t pass by it in the center of town, you would see its detritus strewn all over town. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters was cool before coffee was cool. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters was serving the counter-culture before there was a counter to the culture. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters pwnd Starbucks. Which isn’t saying much, because Starbucks slowly became the Wal-Mart of cafes, and either assimilated or drove everyone else out of business. It became so big as a matter of fact, that it stood next to the Mountain in Portland, and chopped it down with an edge of its hand. Green Mountain, has since been confined to the world of online shipping, and does all of its business out of one location. It was back before it met its demise, that I found myself inside its pseudo-industrial walls, huffing the dust of the second biggest Columbian export, shaking the rain from my head, trying to make sense of the menu, and coming to grips of how I was going to go about paying rent to a two bedroom place with what I was getting from a part time job.
When you get caught up in your own inertia, you don’t really focus on the world at large, except for maybe the cup of strong Venezuelan blend in your hand. You see the rain outside, and the bright contrasting colors of random umbrellas splattered against the canvas of dull gray, but it doesn’t register. You take a sip from your cup, but you barely feel the burn as it coats your stomach. You know it’s Paul Simon, but the piped in music is barely audible. You recognize his face, but the two months or more of growth from his face obscure the mental photograph you’ve taken a year or so ago. You notice that he is trying to get your attention, but you can’t get out of your head long enough to hear him say,
“Oh hey! How’ve you been? Haven’t seen you in a while,” I say as desperately try to clean the mental photograph.
“Pretty good,” he replies. There’s a calm-after-the-storm behind his eyes. There’s proof that there is an end to the Earth in his voice. His current outward appearance reflected his inherent inward nature; A refined unkemptness, a willingness to get his hands dirty while at the same time, a taste for the finer things. “I just got back into town.”
“Oh really? Where’d you get back from?” The picture cleaning almost complete. I think I remember him from a class last year, which is to say I recognize him in passing.
“I spent some time hiking the Appalachian Trail,” he says as if he just came back from the grocery store, “and I just got back into town.” His clothes weren’t dirty, they were beat up. Like they were cleaned with rocks in a stream. Small talk is a welcome diversion, especially when you need to clear your head, but you know it will end soon and you’ll be right back to what was weighing you down a few minutes ago. “By the way,” he continued, “I was wondering if you knew anyone who was looking for a roommate?”
It was at this moment that I came to know St. Ken.
We hung our lives on a nail in the wall.
Carved our philosophies into frames in the hall.
Never missed a chance to answer the call
To go howling at the moon,
And end up at a greasy spoon.
We’d laugh until we found our feet,
And stumbled home through a maze to Hotel Pine St.