The best shoveling, this winter, was when the moon was almost full in December. The storm and the clouds departed around midnight after leaving a foot of fluff. Under what the Irish call “the lantern of the poor,” the beautiful woman and I shoveled and shoveled and shoveled because we have four paying customers. The moonlight reflected off the snow and made our world glow blue, except for the bay between us and the Canadian islands, which shimmered silver.
We prefer night-shoveling. In the dark, this island city, Eastport, is a winter wonderland. The stark white carpet covers the ugly mess of man. Trash heaps, dooryard dumpsters, forgotten junk piles, broken ladders and rotting wooden boats all look good. Blown snow, hardened by the damp sea breeze, forms fantastically rippled sculptures. Blanketed ledges and rocks, waiting for the tide to return, take on new shapes. Long water views, through Head Harbour Pass, make the first few miles of mainland New Brunswick look uninhabited.
In the brash light of a winter’s day, however, the bleak reality can’t hide. This depressed city, the birthplace and graveyard of the American sardine industry, is crumbling. Most young families leave because there are so few jobs. The population — a mere fifth of what it used to be — is graying fast. Workers have been replaced by retirees. Second homes, for some; a primary residence for others — people from away who can’t afford Boothbay or Rockland or Bar Harbor, but want waterviews from their kitchen windows. They fall in love too quickly and don’t see, or can’t see, the abandoned city on the verge of collapse that surrounds them.
Granted, not every house is dilapidated, but there are literally dozens of structures on this tiny island worthy of the wrecking ball. Every neighborhood has grim eyesores. Shattered windows and teetering chimneys that drop bricks even when the wind barely whispers are commonplace. Buildings disintegrate in front of your eyes.
Walking the poorly plowed streets, frozen into thick, icy ridges, it’s obvious how few people actually live here. Entire blocks stay cold and unshoveled. Frigid and forgotten. Forlorn. Snowdrifts cover front doors and, in some cases, reach the roof. Unshoveled means the property is either for sale, abandoned, or a crumbling summer getaway.
Unshoveled can also mean something much worse.
In late January, Gerry’s driveway and steps were unshoveled and his car wasn’t cleared off. The beautiful woman noticed this during a rare walk down Third Street. She sent him an e-mail. We didn’t hear back. A couple or three days later, it snowed again overnight, a slushy six inches. In the early morn, I was drinking tea and reading the Bangor Daily online before heading out for hours of shoveling wet, heavy snow. And I read that Gerry was dead. The cops and the media referred to him as a loner, but that wasn’t true.
Gerry Koed, our friend, a great guy, died alone, sitting in his chair. No one knows when, exactly, but it was a heart attack at the age of 50. Gerry had many friends and talents. He was an amazing organic gardener and a fanatical fisherman who loved going for mackerel off the breakwater. Pre-dawn, in the late summer, I’d find him down on the Fish Pier trying for squid he’d hooked in the past. And then there’s the great story of the brawl between the eagle and gull that resulted in a live flounder falling from the sky and landing at Gerry’s feet, in his garden, just in time for supper.
Four years ago, we lent him 10 bucks. He said he’d pay us back on the first of the month. He did, plus he gave us a couple IGA bags filled with beautiful produce. Carrots and potatoes. Broccoli and beets. Onions and garlic and scallions. Basil and dill. Squash and green beans. And a couple ears of corn. We spread the cornucopia on the kitchen table and took a picture. A veggie bounty worth far more than the loan. We tried to get him to take back the cash. But he refused.
The morning we learned he was dead, we cried and shoveled and cried. Goes without saying how sad and bad we feel about Gerry, dying alone in his ramshackle house. That afternoon, his grieving family, up from Massachusetts, gave me his really nice fishing rod. In the time we knew Gerry, he generously shared his vast gardening knowledge with my sweet wife and gave her several great books. Now, thanks to him, we’ll always be well-fed.