To Die in Portland
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because life is but brief.
By David Hall
Maine is weird. It’s a strange land of raw beauty, sketchy little towns, desolation, isolation and an underlying vibe of the Wild West on opiate withdrawal meets a cast of Stephen King-esque characters.
I’ve been to Maine many times, but until a few months ago, I’d never spent any time in Portland. It’s a quaint enough city on the water, full of old Cape Codders and colorful row houses. Aesthetically, Portland is not unlike cities you find in the Canadian Maritimes or coastal towns of Norway. And the native Portlanders I met were all very friendly.
If you spend any time there, though, you’ll sense it: a slight patina of … sketch.
I was in Portland to shoot a video for the new Today Is the Day album. It was quaint and all in the name of art. It felt good to be alive for a minute. Then it didn’t.
“So is this part of town ‘safe’?” I asked my friend Steve.
I was in town to film a music video for underground stalwarts Today Is the Day. I was sharing an Airbnb on the south side of town with the band’s leader Steve Austin.
“I think so,” Steve said with a contemplative grin, “though, come to think of it, a woman at the gas station did steal my Big Apple points.”
Big Apple is a chain of local gas stations. After Steve gassed up and bought a few energy drinks, a woman dashed in front of him and swiped her Big Apple Card on the infrared reader, then booked it into the cold Maine air.
“Girl is working mad Big Apple Points,” Steve said without a hint of irony.
Welcome to Portland.
For a couple of days, we were college roommates sharing an apartment, with late-night pizza and repeat screenings of the film Isle of Dogs. Nuzzled deep in the isolation of a cold Maine winter. It was quaint and all in the name of art. It felt good to be alive for a minute. Then it didn’t.
It was the night before the shoot. I was standing outside of the Airbnb getting caked when I heard it.
“You ain’t no tell me what a dooo, you ain’t tell me.”
Up the street, approaching in wide zigs and zags, were two guys, probably in their late 40s, clearly wasted as hell.
“OK, Frank, les jus’ get home, OK?”
“Home! You ain’t tell meee.”
Bro and Bro looked like ol’ barebacked beasts wrapped up in shoddy winter coats and hats and mittens. Joined at the shoulders for support, the pair made their way by me, oblivious to my presence.
Frank was stocky and bearded with black matted hair and eyes like two piss holes in the snow. Frank’s compatriot was a slightly more sober, skinny, tall redhead with beady eyes and a shrill voice. Frank sounded like he was speaking from the bottom of at least three oceans, a dark gurgle peppered with dulcet belligerent tones.
“You ain’t tell me what a do!”
Frank suddenly stopped and started waving one finger in the air with long, sharp jabs. As Frank waved his finger, he lost his balance and slipped on the treacherously icy sidewalk. His feet shot out fast and high from underneath him and he seemed to levitate for a moment before crashing down against a snow pile and the curb. A loud thunk shot up the street as his head hit the ground. Frank’s skinny friend kept walking before he noticed his prostrate pal.
“Come on, man, just crawl. Crawl if you have to. Milestone is just around the corner.” I guess they were headed for a nightcap. “Do you need me to call 911? Do you really believe that?”
I had been filming on my phone up until that point. The sound of Frank’s voice was like a dead man talking and suddenly things went from amused schadenfreude to concern. I called 911 and told Skinny not to move or touch Frank.
Within minutes the street was a psychedelic nightmare of fire truck flashing lights and sirens and cop cars. It was a real scene. A cop asked me a few questions. Skinny had somehow made his way across the street. He shouted out some biographical info about Frank, then disappeared.
Paramedics got Frank onto a stretcher and began loading him into an idling ambulance. I heard a strange, almost celestial rumble, then watched in awe as Frank vomited a stream of filth straight into the air that must have gone at least 6 feet high. A geyser of bad decisions.
Frank gurgled and sputtered and all hands on deck worked the man’s body. A flurry of activity erupted, and the ambulance doors slammed shut as the driver peeled out and away. The cop took my name and number. I was stoned out of my mind. I went back inside.
“Dude,” I called out to Steve, “some shit just went down.”
But Steve was asleep. I sat on another chair and caught the tail end of Isle of Dogs.
Early the next morning the cop who had questioned me phoned. He informed me that poor Frank had not made it. Alcohol poisoning and a bad ticker. He had a few follow-up questions and that was it.
Damn. I smoked a bowl in memory of Frank, then started to pack up. It was time to make a music video in Portland, Maine.
- David Hall, OZY Author Contact David Hall