Wednesday, June 18, 2003

My Maine Adventure

There we were, sitting around the small formica table in the low income housing section of town, eating store brand crackers, Cheez Whiz, and cake, downing it all with beer, celebrating my uncle's birthday. My aunt and uncle must've met our hostess,their friend Ann, while drinking down at the "Amvet's", because I couldn't figure out any other way that their paths would have crossed. She seemed like a nice enough person, a salt-of-the-earth sort of woman, who'd been kicked around by life for years, but who would give you her very last crackers and Cheez Whiz if you stopped by to talk and laugh with her.

Middle aged and older people dressed in flannel and jeans with varying amounts of teeth seemed to mill in and out of the house, all being greeted by the people at the table, so I assumed that this was the normal course of events in that house. A man with the least amount of teeth present, who slightly resembled a much older Dave Mason, kindly showed me where the refrigerator was, so I could store the milk we'd purchased just before unexpectedly stopping by. The birthday cake, a homemade blueberry concoction, arrived with a woman from across the street. She said that she made the cake especially for my uncle. She had another woman with her, older and rather unkempt, who shyly presented my uncle with a present, a used Bic lighter. I was proud of my uncle for being so very gracious when he accepted it from her, as if it was a precious family heirloom. My uncle had a kind heart, that was for certain.

My aunt leaned over and told me in a stage whisper that this woman was "not right in the head", forgetting for a moment that with my background and life experiences, I should be able to spot any loony from several miles away. She was also incredibly kind and accepting of people, so I figured she was just trying to warn me away from any discomfort, which was considerate. Still, they both had a tendency towards over-explaining the obvious to me, as if since I wasn't a Maine native, there would be no way for me to understand events without a guide. It was to such an extreme sometimes that If I didn't know that it was all coming "from a good place", that they truly meant well, I would have been incredibly insulted by being spoken to as if I were simple.

I did my best to nurse my one beer for as long as possible, having accepted it only to be polite. Something about the surroundings made me feel like I should stay on my toes, and the lack of creature comforts made me think that if I had another beer, I was most likely depriving someone else of one, someone who needed it far worse than I did. Although, as time went by, and the conversation continued on and on about the ailments of people I didn't know, I was tempted to throw caution and consideration to the wind and down as many beers as would take me away from that place. But I stuck with my original plan.

The conversation finally made its way around to other things besides ailments, and Ann told me that she had a bag of sweaters up in her room that she was selling, and that I was welcome to go look through them, if I wanted to. She was selling them for $1 a piece, and I felt that it would be impolite not to take her up on her offer, not to mention that the woman could probably use a couple of dollars, so I went up to look. I only intended to go up and pretend to look, but I walked into her bedroom to find the Dave Mason guy lying on the bed, watching tv, with his ashtray carefully balanced on his chest.

At first, I was very uncomfortable about being alone in the bedroom with him, because it seemed weird to be in a stranger's bedroom with this old toothless man. But since the door was wide open, and he was friendly enough, I started to figure that he must be fairly harmless. Besides, I reasoned that he and the hostess must have some kind of thing going on, or what the hell was this guy doing hanging around her house? And surely he wouldn't do anything untoward with his "old lady" right down the stairs. As I was thinking all this, he cheerfully waved me over to the closet where the sweaters were, and then I felt compelled to actually root around in the bag and make a show of looking over these garish, badly pilled sweaters. He implored me to dump them out onto the bed so I could get a good look, and out came the nightmare clothing, sweatshirts with iron-on pictures of birds, kitties and cutesy nonsense, along with the acrylic cheap sweaters from hell. I picked out the three least offensive sweaters, and brought them downstairs, and everyone seemed very pleased as I handed over $3. Oh, and lucky me, it turned out that another guest, Donna, had a similar pile of sweaters for sale at her trailer, and we would be stopping by there the next day, so I could look through those, too. And while we were going to be there, she would show us her legendary doll collection.

Shortly after the sweater adventure, still sitting around with beer and cake, I saw an unusual parade of young people come in the back door and make their way upstairs to visit with the Dave Mason guy. Guys, girls, white and black, about four or five altogether. It struck me as particularly unusual, even given the loose door policy of the house, because none of the people coming in said hello, as all the others had, and no one at the table paid them the slightest bit of attention, either. After about 5 or so minutes, the group of them all trooped down the stairs and out the front door, again without a word of greeting.

After hours of visiting, we finally said our goodbyes, and I was able to convince my aunt and uncle to stop at a late night Chinese food take-out place, because I was starving from avoiding eating the few crackers and beers little those poor people had to offer. During the drive towards the life-reviving boneless spare ribs, they explained to me that the Dave Mason guy was living out in a trailer in Ann's back yard, and that she let him come in and watch tv. Since he looked to be very cozy in her bedroom, I asked if there was more to their relationship than just friends, and they said that she wasn't telling, and they weren't asking. I drew my own conclusions.

Since I was getting the lowdown on this arrangement anyway, I ventured to ask how Ann felt about this guy dealing drugs out of her house. I have never seen my uncle's head whip around that fast before or since. What on earth was I talking about? It became my turn to explain the obvious to them. I relayed the events I'd observed, particularly the strange parade of kids who came through the house, walking so close to our table as to actually have bumped into someone's chair in passing, and asked them how they could possibly have not noticed that, nor guessed at what was going on there? My uncle, the man who went ballistic when he so much as suspected my grown cousin of smoking pot in his house, and who howled about how disrespected he felt for that, had never imagined that he was whiling away the hours in a house where drug deals were rather blatantly conducted. Amazing.

In hindsight, it was pretty satisfying to realize that they stopped speaking to me like a simpleton after that night.

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