Writing for Maine Times (part two)

Posted Wednesday, April 20, 2011 in Features

Writing for Maine Times   (part two)

by Alice True Larkin, special to the New Maine Times

I discovered that the best way to hang a man was with his own words. After I quoted a State representative as saying, "Everyone on AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) is a deadbeat", he squeaked through the next election by just eight votes. And a representative from Oakland was ousted when he argued against the town giving surplus foods because "it would cause a hardship for local merchants who profit from town orders." No matter what story I was writing, I was always careful to get accurate quotes, and the Mayor of Waterville told me I was the only reporter who ever quoted him correctly.

Although I no longer worked for NKVCAC, I kept in touch and my interest in poverty had not flagged. One day, while I was visiting around in the Waterville offices, a young woman with a baby on her hip came in, saying that she wondered if we could help her. Her situation, through no fault of her own, was dire, and she had been yanked around and insulted when she went to the Waterville Welfare Office to ask for help. I returned to the Welfare Office with her, and challenged them on their offhand dismissal of her requests. Apologies and help were quickly offered, and I chronicled her story under the title, "Welcome to the Wonderful World of Welfare".

I hit them again after I talked to a woman whose children had to go to bed with their coats on as soon as they got home from school. She'd run out of oil on a Thursday and was told by welfare officials that vouchers for oil were only given out on Wednesdays. The Welfare Office hated me.

The Maine Times was now in full swing. Articles that exposed shocking conditions in Pineland, a mental health institution, set off more investigations. Reporter Christopher Corbett explored the role of women in politics. Phyllis Austin looked into mining in Maine. A cover story by Peggy Fisher revealed the extent of pilfering in the workplace. There were a number of articles, some of them mine, about problems in the fishing industry, and environmental issues always had top priority. But not all the issues the Maine Times took up were grim, and there was plenty of variety. The weekly calendar listed concerts, movies, and special events, and artist Margaret Campbell's exquisite drawings livened up the ads.

I was submitting articles regularly now. John Cole respected my desire to maintain freelance status, although he did suggest that I look into the workings of the Maine State Housing Authority.  The result was a two-part article captioned, "Eben Erlwell is a nice guy, but he doesn't get much done."

I was still working at the hospital and I had six kids at home; one eleven, five teenagers. I got up at five to write before the kids got up for school, I stayed up late nights, and most weekends and days off were spent getting interviews. If I got up at night to go to the bathroom, I'd fall asleep on the pot, but I didn't care. I loved what I was doing.  It was fun roaming around the State House corridors, pattering down the connecting tunnels and grabbing a bite to eat in the cafeteria, where occasionally someone would recognize and nod at me.  I was meeting interesting people were experts in their fields, and often joined a jolly bunch from Maine Times who flocked to Bowdoin College for lunch.

Although I never had to use the magical slip of paper to gain an interview, saying you were from the Maine Times wasn't always well received. I got less than a warm reception when I interviewed State Representative Louis C. Jalbert, the venerable lawmaker from Lewiston. Mr. Jalbert despised Maine Times. He made no bones about it and repeatedly referred to the newspaper as "The Maine Pravda".  I was working on a three-part series on drug abuse, and he had made it known, in no uncertain terms, that he had no use for druggies.  But he was a gracious man, and when I buttonholed him in a State House corridor, he agreed to talk to me.  We found a couple of chairs and he talked freely while I scribbled like mad in my notebook. When we had finished, he leaned over and  patted my knee. "I hate the Maine Times," he said.  "But I like you, dear."

The newspaper did an extensive investigation of conditions in the state's nursing homes, and found that many of them were deplorable. There were major repercussions and the articles resulted in significant reforms.  I was not involved in this expose - a staff reporter did the series - but a short time later when I asked for an appointment to interview a patient in one of the nursing home, I was refused.  The nursing home was not one that had been castigated, and the patient was a man in his 90s.  I'd heard that he was a former lumberjack and a great raconteur, and I was eager to talk to him.  But not only was I denied an appointment, I was told by the nursing home director that they didn't want me anywhere near the place!

During all this time, I hardly ever I worked closely with  saw Peter Cox - I think he was taking care of the business end - but I worked closely with John Cole. Although he was passionate about cultural and environmental issues and never hesitated to take up the cudgel when a wrong needed to be righted, he had a sensitive side that was best revealed in the weekly feature, John's Column.

In it, he lauded artists who came to Maine to paint. "There is inspiration in purity, vitality in the turning of the seasons, and a climate for creativity in the relative isolation of Maine's rural communities." He urged his readers to take a day off from the daily grind:  "The day must be taken when it is born, at the moment of a May morning when you are shattered by the perfection of the spring."  And he railed against school buildings being built without windows.  "Without horizons, how can dreams find room to grow?"

On some occasions, either Tom Jones or Stephen Nichols, the Maine Times' photographers, accompanied me to illustrate my articles. Tom Jones was competent, well established in his own studio, and reliable, but not always realistic. One day, for an article I was doing on Boothbay Harbor, we had conscripted a lobsterman to take us out in his boat for a panoramic shot of the harbor. Tom told the lobsterman where he wanted to go, and the fellow patiently complied, idling his motor to a slow speed to maneuver around the various other craft and buoys.  Tom was looking through the viewfinder of his Speed Graphic and, when he got the angle he was looking for, he yelled out, "There. That's it!  Stop! Stop! Right there!"

(Sorry, Tom, but you're on a boat. If you want to stay in one spot, you'll have to jump overboard.)

I adored working with Steve Nichols. He made his living as a photographer, but he was an artist with a camera. One of the pictures I remember was taken at Conley's Garden Center, in Boothbay Harbor where a number of concrete garden ornaments were displayed, including those of the little Negro lad hitching posts.  In Nichols' photo, a bevy of them were reaching out, as though bowing to the statue of a little girl holding out her skirts in a curtsy.  It was a masterpiece.

On another occasion, Steve went with me while I interviewed a woman who lived in what could only be described as a shack. We skirted around a mongrel dog tied outside, and were followed inside by a little girl, about four years old.  While I sat at the kitchen table, talking to the mother, Steve snapped photo after photo of the little girl, whose sparkling eyes and blonde hair were remarkably appealing. He seemed to be concentrating on portraits of the child, but the photo that appeared on the cover of the Maine Times wasn't a portrait at all.  It showed the little girl outside on the ramshackle porch, posing with the dog and holding his rope, which was nearly as thick as her arm. It couldn't have been a more poignant depiction of poverty. Later, I learned that Steve had made an 8 x 10 enlargement of one of the portraits he had taken of the little girl and mailed it to her mother.  Now that's a nice guy.

Most of the time I did pretty much as I pleased, and sometimes it lifted eyebrows. A regular column, Dining in Maine, reviewed many of the more prestigious restaurants in the area, with a connoisseur's  glowing - or otherwise - evaluations of their cuisine.

I wrote about the pickle barrel in Tony's Pizza, and listed the various toppings - mustard, relish, ketchup and sauerkraut - offered by Brud's hot dogs, a food cart that was a familiar sight on Boothbay Harbor's street corners.

Occasionally I indulged in an irrepressible penchant for humor. John Cole encouraged me to go hog-wild with Maine humor for a Christmas issue. "No self-respecting lobster fisherman would ever admit that he could afford to buy new long-johns for Christmas" and a bill before the legislature to reinstitute returnable bottles inspired a lighthearted "Confessions of a Bottle Picker" in which I noted that "A secluded spot under the pines may yield up to a dozed returnable beer bottles, and other interesting memorabilia".

A rather tongue-in-cheek article explored the plight of a dogcatcher in Boothbay Harbor who was fired because he wouldn't wear a shirt. His tanned and muscular torso was a familiar sight to local residents, who hadn't given it much thought and were surprised when it offended a summer resident. They'd nicknamed him "Mr. Clean" because of his bald pate and gold earring, and the photo showed him shirtless, with arms folded, in a classic Mr. Clean pose. 

After John Cole left Maine Times, Peter Cox read my articles. We got along fine, but it wasn't the same. I missed John. Admittedly, Maine Times was livelier under Peter Cox.  For a while, he was encouraging staff to bring their babies to work with them, a concept being explored by other Maine businesses. There were cribs in the editorial department, and playpens in the composing room. The theory was that the mothers would be happier if they weren't separated from their children, but one mother voiced her objections.

"When I'm tending to the baby I'm nervous because I'm working on deadline, and when I'm at my desk, I feel like I'm neglecting my child."

The experiment ended when it was discovered that, like kittens who turn into cats, babies who could be put in cribs and playpens morph into inquisitive toddlers who demand the run of the place and are always underfoot.

Another innovation was a full-scale vegetable garden, planted, tended, and harvested by staff. This experiment was more successful, and resulted in a colorful guide for a vegetable garden  published by Maine Times.

About this time, Peter Cox recommended me to Nat Barrows, in Stonington, who had launched a monthly trade publication, Maine Commercial Fisheries (now Commercial Fisheries News).  This was a new adventure.  I got to go out on lobster boats and draggers, and the fishermen were very patient explaining to a flatlander about otter boards and winches. Gradually, I drifted away from Maine Times, and could only mourn from the sidelines as it changed its focus, was sold, and eventually met its demise.

I can't help but feel sad when I remember the old days of John Cole, and the excitement of crusading against poverty, corruption and injustice.  It's all gone now; Maine Times is just a memory; but god! it was fun.

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