Down East 2013 ©
It’s nearly Feb. 27, the date on which Mainers will celebrate the 203rd birthday of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow , with concerts, lectures, fireworks, fist fights and pizza.
Longfellow, as you no doubt already know, is best known for thinking up a clever name for a major intersection in downtown Portland:
The city – which, until Longfellow had his burst of inspiration, was leaning toward naming the square “Ralph” or possibly “Chuck” – was so grateful for Henry’s contribution that it christened a much smaller intersection in a somewhat seedier part of town in his honor.
(Wadsworth Square was later paved over as part of that late 1960s urban renewal hysteria that spurred an angry mob of unemployed railroad workers to demolish Union Station. It’s now a strip mall full of the headquarters of gubernatorial candidates no one ever heard of.)
Anyway, back to Longfellow, who was apparently also something of a poet. Among his better known works are the limerick that begins, “There was a young man from Nantucket” and the lyrics to Monty Python’s “Spam” song.
Henry also had a soft spot in his heart for Maine’s smaller communities. His verses about the hamlets and towns of his native state were collected in a slim volume called “I’m Escaping This Horrifying Place and Moving to Boston As Soon As I Can Scrape Up the Dough.” In it, he extolled the virtues of backbreaking labor, poverty, illiteracy, domestic violence, and tubers for dinner seven days a week in such sonnets as “Mama Looks Like a Potato” and “Papa Looks Like He’s Gonna Hit Little Brother in the Head With a Splitting Maul.”
But some of Longfellow’s poems also had a Nostradamus-like prescience, such as “Watch Out for That Nixon Guy” and “The Red Sox Will Probably Win It All in 2004.” I was reminded of one such composition this week when word spread that the Empire Grill in Skowhegan was closing .
The diner wasn’t exactly a real restaurant. It was constructed from a semi-defunct pizza parlor in 2003 as a set for a slasher movie called “I Will Cut Off Your Face And Bake it Into A Pie That I Will Feed To Your Stupid Girlfriend.”
Oops, sorry. Wrong film. The newly renovated Empire Grill was actually used in an HBO mini-series called “Empire Falls,”  about how this small town decays away so that there’s nobody left there but slightly past their prime movie stars. It was based on a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning Maine author Richard Russo , which is a pseudonym for either Stephen King  or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I forget which.
Anyway, back to the Empire Grill, which – because it was really a movie set – lacked many of the features found in real restaurants, such as a walk-in cooler, plumbing, and enough customers to stay in business. As a result, the owners decided to close the place, effective Feb. 28 (coincidentally, one day after Longfellow’s 203rd birthday – what are the odds) and convert it into a semi-defunct pizza parlor.
News of these sad events enveloped me in a weird sense of déjà vu. I rushed to the bookshelf and pulled down Longfellow’s “Collected Verses and Guide to Beard Grooming.” A brief perusal yielded this forgotten gem, which, oddly enough, is titled “This Forgotten Gem.”
It goes like this:
On the main street’s shining pathway,
Near the mill town’s center and soul,
Stood the grill of empire’s falling,
Serving chowder by the bowl.
Paul Newman came here for a bagel,
As did Philip Seymour Hoffman.
But should Robin Wright Penn return again.
She’ll find the lights are off, man.
Many are the tears flowing to the river,
And great is the sorrow of Skowhegan.
Word of the beloved eatery’s closing
Touched hearts of carnivore and vegan.
In Prospect Harbor, sardine-canners got canned,
From Brunswick, naval planes have now departed,
And on the shores of the mighty Kennebec,
Breakfast eaters, forlorn and broken-hearted.
They long for bacon and eggs in grease,
And home fries ever so starchy.
They cry out to powers beyond their reach,
“Oh, help us, John Baldacci.”
In Portland, foodies frolic at bistros galore.
Chefs win Beard awards each spring.
But in sad Skowhegan, bleary-eyed folks
Begin the days at Burger King.
The ice is thin, the fog is thick,
In this sorrowful land called Maine.
Somewhere, there’s strong coffee and muffins and jam,
Here, there’s only quiche Lorraine.
Go ahead, don’t hold back. Let it all out. I’ve got tears in my eyes, too.
Portland really should name something else after that Longfellow guy. Maybe the civic center.
Al Diamon can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org , but he warns you in advance: He’s not responsible for any problems with the meter (or whatever you call that thing that makes poetry flow and not sound so stupid) that may be detected in the above doggerel.