Much of the South End, or SoRo, sits upon Atlantic Point: a small head of land protruding into the cold, choppy waters of Rockland Harbor.
This is my neighborhood.
The benefits of seaside life are many and obvious — particularly in summer. In the stillness of a warm morning, salt hangs heavy and fragrant in the air, and gulls cackle from their perch atop our dilapidated garage. The aloof tom who otherwise inhabits our property like a reluctant ghost lies pleasantly outstretched on the sun-warmed gravel of our walkway and gazes with uncharacteristic interest at low-flying ospreys as they return to their nests with newly caught fish. (An event of divine proportions for the feline set, I’m sure.)
These are the visions of summer that somehow sustain us; the fleeting fragments of romantic memory pitted against the near omnipresent realities wrought by the bitter months of majority.
In winter, proximity to the sea loses much of its charm. The breezes that once cooled us from heat are now the foul winds that batter the exterior walls of our home like colliding trucks. These foul winds barrel down our street like speeding teens, kicking up brown torrents of road sand that further darken the already sooty snow banks decaying upon the sidewalks. A few days ago, these winds grabbed hold of our screen door, tore it joint from joint, and scattered its splintered parts across our side yard like blast victims.
Perhaps this is a bit maudlin.
Truth be told, my perception is clouded by something far more dispiriting than foul weather. I, like 44,000 Mainers, am unemployed. Whereas I once found purposefulness in an illusory state of corporate belonging, today I while away the hours with the same grumpy lonesomeness of our aging cat.
I should be used to it by now. With the exception of a freelance project over the summer, I’ve been unemployed since April. Also, this isn’t the first time I’ve been unemployed.
Five years ago, I was laid off from a publishing company in New York. My experience wasn’t much sunnier then—I was steeped in the same sense of guilt and self-loathing; blind on the same cocktail of bitterness and ennui — but at least the streets of Manhattan provided infinite distractions during long, daily walks.
Manhattan is an island, but you’d hardly know it once you’ve arrived. From my apartment on 21st Street, I could stroll for miles in any direction and, even after months of walking, I would seldom see the same things twice. Sure, all the buildings and landmarks remained the same, but the street-level humanity was an ever-changing tableau of anthropological fascination. Cloaked in anonymity I could watch — with the stealthy detachment of David Attenborough — as small stories unfolded on the streets: Who were these well-heeled people who crowded the storefronts while the rest of the city worked? Trust-fund hipsters? Trophy wives? Actors? Models? And who were these less-dapper men and women who listlessly wandered the blocks? Addicts? Dealers? The garden-variety unemployed? From 9:00 to 5:00, the streets of New York are ruled by the upper- and lower-crusts of society while the vast, creamy middle sits hidden away in the cubicles looming high above the din of car horns and sirens.
Rockland lacks this mystery.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s a lovely town. If you’re adept at compartmentalization, you could make a case that Rockland is a cosmopolitan little city — replete with museums, galleries, and bistros.
And compartmentalization comes easy when you’re a denizen of SoRo. Surrounded by water on three sides, Atlantic Point naturally corrals its foot traffic onto the Boardwalk toward town. The Boardwalk is a pleasant, meticulously landscaped pedestrian thoroughfare, but it also represents a topographical dearth of options. In the walking world, it’s the proverbial velvet handcuffs.
Each day, while my wife stoically betters herself at the University of Southern Maine, I strap our 15-month-old son into his stroller and brave the bitter winds that strafe the length of our 2-mile routine.
In the early days of this unemployment, my non-speaking companion and I would explore Rockland’s side streets, delving ever deeper into the many neighborhoods that comprise this seaside community. Before long, however, these walks birthed an unshakable hunch that, for some Rocklanders, stay-at-home dads represent an unwanted stage in social evolution. Between the dirty looks and shouted epithets of my fellow citizens, the breadth of our walks narrowed concentrically until the path was relegated to a simple, narrow loop — a loop we’ve repeated so many times, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were as wheel-worn as the Appian Way. We stroll the Boardwalk, skirt the waterfront industries of Tillson’s Wharf, walk the perimeter of the wastewater treatment facility (where, incredibly, picnic tables and outdoor grills have been erected for public enjoyment), then return to the Boardwalk via Main Street.
It is on Rockland’s Main Street where the daytime spectrum of human experience seems particularly narrow. Whereas in New York City, I lost myself in detached observations of the obscenely wealthy and economically dire, I now find myself firmly in league with a much smaller study group: the Rockland eccentrics. With Rockland’s wintertime lack of independently wealthy shoppers to hide amongst, I now belong to a rarified group of local characters: Bottle Man Who Spouts Sports-Related Non-Sequiturs; Almost-Naked Man Who Jogs with a Cobblestone in Each Hand; and Basketball Jesus, the Long-Haired Baller with the 10-Speed Bicycle. And whereas the New York social landscape allowed for an outward focus of observation, my present-day narrative has turned painfully autobiographical. My mind can’t seem to surrender a suspicion that my sudden propensity for wearing the same clothes and general lack of personal hygiene has encouraged passersby to improvise their own proper noun: Wild-Haired Daddy with Green Pants and Stroller. And each footstep, which should, by all rights, lead me further toward escape, instead resonates with self-doubt: Shouldn’t I do more to find a job? Aren’t I better than this? What’s wrong with me?
The economy is an easy and worthwhile scapegoat, but the state of the unemployed mind deftly resists this rationality. It’s as if all the organization, creativity, and energy a man brings to the workplace seeks an outlet while sitting idle and unemployed. With little to construct, the mind dedicates itself toward demolition of whatever is at hand. It conflates the circumstances of unemployment into some form of sentient design, and punishes an otherwise innocent victim on the basis of this tenuous association.
For the next several entries of this blog, I intend to take a first-person look at what it means to be unemployed in Maine, the economic difficulties we face, and the bureaucratic red tape that binds us.
It’s a downer of a topic, to be sure, but it’s one that deserves exploration, or, at the very least commiseration. After all, so many of us are living the same circumstances.
And 44,000 Mainers can’t be wrong.
Ben McCanna lives, walks, and looks for work in South Rockland.