The Bollard Turns 10
A history and retrospective of our first decade
by Chris Busby
As can be said of many wonderful things in this world, including two long-haired boys in South Portland and several obscure albums of psychedelic comedy-rock genius, The Bollard owes its existence to Eggbot.
What is Eggbot? On the 2005 release Phalling 4 U, recorded live during a “Battle of the Bands” at the Cosmos Cotillion (a.k.a. the since-defunct Portland bar and music venue Free Street Taverna), Bollard art director The Fuge (a.k.a. Mich Ouellette) gave the small, drunken crowd a brief introduction…
“1032 A.D., 961 years ago [not exactly], a tiny Eggbot was jettisoned from an extraterrestrial ovum onto a strange, violent, blue world,” The Fuge explained. “On this blue world, your Earth, a quest for universal musical knowledge began. … After the death of Eggbot’s 222nd drummer, Dirty Joe McGinty, a young upstart going by the name of Shish KaBob burst onto the scene, blackmailing Eggbot into mentoring him into the art of universal musical knowledge, thereby preserving the form for hours to come and solidifying Eggbot’s place in the Interstellar Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Infamy!”
So Eggbot was a musical duo comprised of the aforementioned drummer, Mr. KaBob (a.k.a. Tristan Gallagher, now of Covered in Bees fame), and Eggbot himself, who played an ancient and temperamental Farfisa organ and sang through a bevy of effects pedals, including a delay that allowed him to harmonize with his own distorted vocals. The set for the Battle that night included the rockin’ spoonerism “Yuck Foo,” the heavenly ballad “Natalie” (about Facts of Life star Mindy Cohn) and the free-jazz freakout “Old Hobo Death Camp” (complete with cornet solo by Eggbot). It ended with a bring-down-the-house rendition of the 1972 AM Gold standard “Precious and Few.” Obviously, Eggbot won.
I’d been an Eggbot fan since the turn of the 21st century. Had I not been drawn to this weird and wondrous music, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t have met The Fuge and his friend Country Rhodes (a.k.a. Sean Wilkinson), young Maine College of Art graduates and core members of an elite Eggbot fan club known as Table 6.
After being fired from the editorship of Casco Bay Weekly during the purge of 2002, I’d moved back to my hometown of Rochester, New York, and worked for an alt-weekly there. It was during my heartbroken year in that beaten-down town that I began dreaming of returning to Portland and starting a publication to keep the spirit of CBW alive. I knew I’d be able to tap the talents of many of the freelance writers and artists stranded by CBW’s demise, but I needed a graphic-design team.
Table 6, which designed Eggbot’s awesome flyers and album art, was the natural choice to design the kind of publication I had in mind. Mich and Sean and I hammered out plans on the Taverna’s back deck during the winter of 2004/05. Lacking the cash to pay a printer, we’d start publishing online and (hopefully) establish enough of a reputation to attract the advertisers necessary to support a free magazine someday.
For technical support, we turned to Jason Hjort, a local house/techno DJ and producer who did Web work for Portland magazine and freelance site design. I remember the meeting Mich and Sean and I had with Jason at the old Bramhall Pub. We explained the type of site we wanted, the features and capabilities it should have, and Jason assured us he could build it. He was excited about the enterprise, too. Then he asked us what we planned to name it.
“Brick City,” I said, and Jason’s face sank. His site-design company was Brick City Media.
To his everlasting credit, Jason agreed to build the site even if we stuck with that name, but I realized it wouldn’t work (for another thing, Brick City is the nickname of Newark, New Jersey). I was down in the basement of my apartment building in the West End, smoking cigarettes with my girlfriend and our downstairs neighbor, when it came to me: The Bollard.
My mentor at CBW, Al Diamon, had told me what bollards are years before, and the word had stuck with me. Portland has a lot of bollards: iron bollards along the waterfront that sailors throw ropes around to secure their ships to the dock, and granite bollards around the public squares downtown that keep cars from crashing into people in the parks. A bollard serves and protects the public, as does any decent news-and-arts publication. Plus, it’s a type of post, so it’s also a pun when used as the name of a paper.
True, the name has some drawbacks, not the least of which being that most people don’t know what a bollard is and many mispronounce the word (it’s “bah-lurd,” not “bo-lard”). But as soon as Table 6 reversed the first L and merged its foot with the second, thereby creating an image of a bollard within the word, we knew we had a keeper.
The Bollard launched online on September 1, 2005. We had no office and no staff, save for yours truly, the editor and publisher, sitting in a tan corduroy easy chair in a spare bedroom of that West End apartment, hunched over a coffee table and jabbing at the keyboard of a desktop Mac.
But we did have content, much of it courtesy of my former CBW colleagues. Liz Peavey, whose Outta My Way column ran in the alt-weekly for many years, began a new column that reflected her new life as a semi-suburban homeowner, Outta My Yard. CBW illustrator Martin Shields begat Bollardhead, the absurdist adventures of a super anti-hero with a bollard-shaped skull, and Pat Corrigan contributed surreal drawings and mixed-media work. Crash Barry, a reporter for CBW in another life (and under another name), soon began contributing short films, directing and acting as the character Bang Barry (a.k.a. Bang-Bangs) in shorts such as “Bang Barry’s Urban Yolk,” “Censored: A True Story,” and “Bang-Bangs Invades America,” in which Barry actually rowed from Canadian waters to American soil while dressed in a burka and wearing a Bin Laden mask (the point being to puncture our false sense of “homeland security”).
Our homepage that first day featured a one-off satirical piece by Diamon, who explored “rumors” I was in line to succeed Mike Chitwood as Portland’s police chief. (CBW illustrator Corey Pandolph did the accompanying drawing and many other assignments in the years to come, including several series of comics — “TOBY, Robot Satan,” “Li’l Spencer’s Adventures” — before moving on to contribute cartoons to The New Yorker, which is as close as this publication has yet come to fame.)
Anyway, Al was prohibited from contributing additional work to The Bollard by the terms of his contract with the Portland Phoenix, one of numerous Maine publications that ran his syndicated political column, Politics and Other Mistakes. The bosses at the Boston-based Phoenix media conglomerate considered our upstart website a “competing publication,” which would have been a compliment if it didn’t piss me off so much. (Sean had to quit his design gig at the Phoenix for a similar reason, and numerous local freelancers and potential advertisers were also forbidden to associate with us due to “exclusivity” agreements of dubious legal merit.)
Seven years later, we secured Al’s service as a media critic (Media Mutt), a role he continued long enough to report on the Phoenix conglomerate’s disintegration last year. Most of the other print-media products that were in the southern Maine market when we started have since folded or been sold for a pittance.
The two secrets to our longevity: low overhead and bullheadedness.
The Bollard has survived because it doesn’t have expenses typical of other media operations, like an office or a payroll. We had an office for a couple years in the Old Port, above the Gritty McDuff’s gift shop, but the old wooden fire escape caught fire (possibly due to an improperly extinguished American Spirit I was smoking that morning six years ago), so we had to vacate.
Before advertising director Emma Hollander was hired earlier this year, I was the company’s sole employee. Our art directors are contractors and our freelance contributors are paid what Bollard Publishing can afford, not what their work is worth (in my estimation). Many have been made to wait way too long for payment over the years (e.g., I’m pretty sure I still owe Rhodes a check for design work he did back when we still had that office).
Low overhead also means no circulation department. This is where bullheadedness comes in. Although I’ve had some help with deliveries here and there, I still handle most of the distribution duties myself.
After almost two years publishing online, we began printing The Bollard on a quarterly basis in the summer of 2007. Our first printer was in Norwood, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. It was cheaper to rent a U-Haul truck and drive there to pick the papers up than it would have been to have them delivered, so that’s what I did.
I’ll never forget the excitement of seeing the Summer 2007 issue for the first time, and how proud and happy I was to hand it out to friends and fans of the online Bollard. If I ever lose that excitement about a new issue, that edition will be our last.
Lacking the cash to rent a storage unit, I parked the truck on Cushman Street and, with help from my (now ex-) wife Meg and John Dennison (our first ad director), hauled over 18,000 copies of that 40-page mag, in bundles of 50, up the front stairs and into our second-floor West End pad. I slept next to tall stacks of Bollards that night. The scent of all that ink permeated the bedroom and inscribed another indelible memory on my mind.
From that day until about two years ago, when I bought a Prius, our delivery vehicle was a 1998, two-door Saturn “sports coupe” handed down to me by my sister, Brooke. I’d load that car with as many bundles as its shocks could support and set off to deliver. It took me about three and a half days to hit the 350-plus coffeehouses, corner stores, sandwich shops, supermarkets, pizza joints, public libraries and pubs inside our core circulation area, a triangle defined by Bath, Bridgton and Biddeford. These days I can complete the nearly 200-mile route making fewer than half a dozen left turns into traffic. (And I contract with a reliable driver named Ray to deliver issues along the coast from Wiscasset to Bar Harbor, as well as to the distant, mysterious cities of Bangor, Waterville, Augusta and Lewiston/Auburn.)
I’m very grateful to all the small-business owners who have welcomed The Bollard into their shops and restaurants. It’s telling that, with few exceptions, national chains and franchises are inhospitable territory to the free press. Locally owned, independent businesses make independent, local journalism possible, in more ways than one. Many of those businesspeople also advertise in The Bollard.
Advertising was another side of this business I had no experience in a decade ago, but as publisher, it was up to me to pick up any slack left by our part-time ad reps and make sure the printer, at least, got paid. Like the distribution duties — which can be a real drag, especially in the winter — I’m loathe to let go of my ad clients even now that I could probably afford to hand them off to someone else. I’m proud to say that these clients are also friends whom I enjoy seeing at least once a month. As I told Emma when she came aboard last spring, “We don’t do business with assholes.”
So our advertisers are atop the list of people I want to thank for helping The Bollard make it this far. Add to that list all our freelance contributors (past and present) and the handful of ad reps we’ve had over the years (especially Dennison and Steve Luttrell, the former Poet Laureate of Portland and longtime editor of The Café Review).
Our founding art directors, Mich and Sean, made this publication possible, and special thanks also go to Jake MacGillivary (another Eggbot fan), who took over for Rhodes late last decade. I’ve gotten about as many compliments on the design of The Bollard as its editorial content, and the kudos keep on coming now that art director Nathan Galvez is aboard.
My parents, Jim and Emilie, provided crucial financial support in the early years, as did Meghan Conley. Gallery owner Andy Verzosa and local businessman Ross Furman chipped in at key moments in the beginning, as did a dozen or so Bollard Boosters about five years ago. My fiancée, Sarah Bouchard, has been my biggest supporter for the past six years, and doubles as my best critic.
Special shout-outs to the good folks at the Bangor Daily News, who promote The Bollard on their website and employ me as a weekly columnist for their paper, and to everyone at Alliance Press, in Brunswick, where The Bollard has been printed for most of its existence. They always do an excellent job.
Speaking of news, let’s get to the retrospective. I’ve picked out a bunch of stories that made waves at the time, not a few of which folks still mention to me today, and provided some updates and behind-the-scenes commentary. All of this material and much more is on thebollard.com, where you can also find links via the online version of this retrospective.
Lastly, sincere thanks to you for reading The Bollard. As Eggbot would put it, “Precious and few are the moments we two can share….”
In September of 2010 we published a five-year anniversary issue, “Greatest Hits 2005-2010,” that covered highlights of our first half-decade. I’m not gonna cheap out and re-run that copy here, though several things are worth mentioning again.
The early, online Bollard didn’t really make any money, but it was a lot of fun. After years of working for weeklies, it was a thrill to be able to scoop the daily paper and post news first, for what that’s worth (which, again, wasn’t much).
One of our first big scoops led us on an odyssey that lasted years. In April of 2006 we got word that former Portland Mayor Peter O’Donnell and Bob Baldacci, Gov. John Baldacci’s brother, were holding secretive meetings with individual city councilors to discuss developing the publicly owned Maine State Pier on behalf of a private hotel developer (Ocean Properties). Our May 1 story, “Ex-mayor, Gov’s brother push waterfront hotel project,” was the first of a long series of articles about what turned into a highly contentious battle pitting two companies, and two factions of the council, against one another.
(Note: As the pier-development process became increasingly ridiculous, our coverage followed suit. In our Fall 2007 issue, we presented our own plan for the pier, The Bollard Boardwalk, which actually looks a lot like what’s down there now — minus the clam shack, tap room and drunk tank.
In addition to longer articles, we had two subsections in the News section: Briefs and Gossip. The latter was chockfull of items about bars and restaurants opening and closing, as well as anecdotes about local politicians and other public figures behaving badly — some of which went, if not viral, then at least sniffly. Tom Manning, who owned several Old Port bars in those days, was a fixture in the Gossip column. When he got arrested in 2006 for drunkenly “boxing without gloves” on Wharf Street in close proximity to Portland police, we dutifully ran his smirking mug shot.
In the Food & Booze section of the Bollard site, I did a series titled, “Drinking at a Crossroads: Neighborhood Bar Tour 2005-2006,” which called attention to the threats that watering holes in or near residential areas were facing, and celebrated those that remained (including Sangillo’s, which succumbed to those pressures last year).
The series asked this question: “Are neighborhood bars a scourge that must be stamped out before good citizens who drink in the privacy of their own homes see their property values slip from quintuple to merely quadruple what they originally paid? Or are local pubs the key links that keep our community together and make the six months of frigid dusk at this latitude tolerable?” It was rhetorical, of course.
In fairness to figures like Manning, The Bollard was itself a pretty tipsy publication in those days. We published a satirical political piece in November 2008 about “The Keg Party,” a fictional organization that nearly became real. And local rock-star bartender John Myers began his excellent mixology series, “The Land of Forgotten Cocktails,” in the winter of 2007. Did I mention our office above Gritty’s had a full bar?
On the more sober side of things, “The Dark Side of Parkside” (August 2009) delved into the dangers lurking in that densely populated Portland neighborhood, and generated a lot of letters from readers (read: Parkside residents) protesting our characterization of the place. But as we noted five years ago, “every time it begins to seem like the article’s critics have a point … another person gets stabbed.”
Chellie Pingree and Linda Bean, two prominent Maine women active in national politics, are quite different in their political views (the former is liberal, the latter is medieval). But in addition to being obscenely wealthy (through family connections to wealthy men), they also have in common the fact they were subjects of unflattering cover stories in this era of The Bollard.
“Chasing Chellie” (July 2008) exposed the Democratic lawmaker’s amorous relationship with S. Donald Sussman, a hedge fund mogul and political cash machine who got his own Bollard story in January 2012 (“Donald Sussman’s Dumps”). In the spring of 2008, Pingree, then running among a crowded field of lefty contenders in the Democratic primary for Tom Allen’s Congressional seat (a field that included Ethan Strimling and Mike Brennan, by the way), was not keen to have it known that she was literally in bed with big Wall Street money. As fate had it, I wasn’t able to confirm this relationship until her primary-victory party at The Porthole was over and I followed her and Sussman down Custom House Wharf as they walked hand in hand through the fog.
Pingree, former head of the government-accountability group Common Cause, went on to win the seat and marry Sussman and get busted by the Federal Election Commission for flying to a fundraiser aboard his private jet.
In “Citizen Bean” (November 2010), Craig Idlebrook described the many ways the L.L. Bean heiress (and bane of countless lobsters) was said to be screwing over the locals in the fishing communities of Penobscot Bay. Bean’s concept of a “Perfect Maine” appears to be one in which she controls all the crustaceans, gay people deserve discrimination, and women walk stooped over to avoid bumping or smudging the glass ceilings in their husband’s homes.
Art reviews have never been a big part of The Bollard, largely because our production schedule makes it impossible to review most gallery shows (by the time First Friday exhibits open, our mag has usually been on the street for a week). That’s a shame, because my review of the 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, “Trash Talking” (May 2011), had artists and art critics (armchair and otherwise) cheering that someone had finally spoken truth to the art world powers-that-be in this town.
The PMA’s prestigious Biennial — which is supposed to exclusively feature work by artists who have a significant connection with the state — had been a perennial source of complaint among Maine artists who believed its selection process was capricious, tainted by cronyism, and open to out-of-staters whose link to Maine was tenuous at best. I’m not claiming credit, but after this negative review came out the museum decided to scrap the juried-selection process (conducted in ’11 by three out-of-state art scenesters) and give one of its own curators sole discretion over the choice of work. This year’s Biennial, which opens October 8, also reflects the vision of just one person: the curator of an art center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
That May ’11 issue also had an interesting feature by Zack Barowitz, a longtime food writer for The Bollard, about the Jewish businesses that thrived downtown last century (“Before Mr. Bagel”). And this was the issue our veteran fishing correspondent, “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley, famously wrote about being blacklisted from the (then brand new) Renys on Congress Street. (He’s since been allowed back in.)
In August of 2011, Anders Nielsen wrote our cover story about plans to develop Thompson’s Point, the spit of land in Portland behind the Amtrak station. The story expressed a fair amount of skepticism about the feasibility of the $100 million project, which was pitched to city officials as a mix of multi-story office buildings, a 125-room hotel, restaurants, a sports medicine laboratory, and event space for concerts and games by the Maine Red Claws, whose owners were part of the Point’s development team. City officials had agreed to give the developers a property tax break worth over $30 million over 30 years, so we titled the story “That’s Our Dump!” — since Portland residents would essentially be major investors, as well (albeit investors with no share of the profits).
Anyway, four years later, precious little of that plan has been realized. There’s no office tower, no hotel, no restaurants, no jock lab, and no basketball. There was an outdoor rock concert there this summer, but the non-development led to the demolition of Grime Studios, a legendary (and very necessary) practice space for scores of local bands (see our story “Doomed Metal,” April 2013).
On the bright side, fat cat developers aren’t reaping cash at the expense of workaday Portlanders. Except maybe one, Jon Jennings, a former member of the Thompson’s Point development team who was hired as Portland’s new city manager in June, at a base salary of nearly $150,000.
Speaking of income inequality, in the fall of 2011, Occupy Maine activists and homeless people were setting up tents in Portland’s Lincoln Park to demand fairer economic policies. Among them was Claire Turlo, my future mother-in-law, a Whole Foods employee whose account of her week living in the park, “Embedded with Occupy Maine” (November 2011), blew many minds around town and is still a great read.
Claire’s powerful, first-person take on the struggles of destitute Portlanders prefaced other Bollard cover stories on the subject that elicited huge reactions, including photographer Doug Bruns’ interviews and portraits of traffic panhandlers (“Cornered,” May 2013) and Robin Rage’s November 2014 epic about his experience living in the woods at the base of the Casco Bay Bridge (“Sherwood Forest”).
Two of Maine’s most talented and compelling female singers were the subject of Bollard profiles in 2012: jazz chanteuse and poetess Lady Zen (“Lady Zen’s Moment,” February) and rock goddess Darien Brahms (“The New Face of Darien Brahms,” June). But otherwise, this was the year of Crash Barry.
In May, Crash wrote a cover story about former Maine Governor Angus King, who was then seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate. “The King and Me” came out swinging from the first paragraph: “Angus King is not a populist or an environmentalist,” Barry wrote. “And he wasn’t a very good governor. King’s a lawyer/banker/plutocrat one-percenter who tries to mask his cold corporate values with folksy charm. The U.S. Senate is already full of phonies like King. We don’t need to elect another one.”
But, of course, we did, even after Barry exposed a long series of highly offensive, racist and misogynist Twitter messages authored by the senator-to-be’s loutish, entitled, college-age son (see “The Crash Report,” Oct. 12, 2o12).
In November of that year, we published excepts from Crash’s book Marijuana Valley, and the next month Crash wrapped up the two-year series of columns he’d been writing about life working for a “gentleman” (quotes definitely necessary here) alpaca farmer in Down East Maine, “A Farewell to Wilbur.”
The fall of 2012 felt like a time of rejuvenation for this publication after some pretty lean times during the Great Recession. (I just noticed, to my horror, that the table of contents of our January 2012 issue listed only seven things, one of which was “Letters.”) Peavey’s column returned in September following a two-year hiatus during which she’d developed her one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother. Al Diamon’s Media Mutt column debuted in The Bollard in that same issue (he’d previously written it for Down East’s website), and Al was posting updates on the local media scene on our site between print editions.
The subject of the September 2012 cover story was Carter Smith, a kid from Bailey Island who grew up to become one of the most sought-after fashion photographers on the planet (see “Beauties and Beasts: The gorgeous and grotesque visions of Carter Smith”). That issue had twice as much content as we’d published nine months before, including a story full of portraits of movie stars. The stars were aligning in our favor.
Sure enough, we got our stride back in 2013.
That February’s issue was the first to be distributed in Bangor and other northern burgs by our media partners at the BDN. The cover story was Alex Veligor’s first-person account of working as a bodyguard for “escorts” in Portland. “Escorting the Escorts” exemplifies a type of story The Bollard exists to tell: tales of the underside of the city that the mainstream press and the glossy monthlies would never touch.
Alex’s descriptions of the clients and the escorts was blunt but sympathetic. “I like the trucker shows because they always pay,” he wrote, “the guys are friendly (most of them, anyway), and they usually ejaculate within the first 30 minutes and could care less if we bail after that.”
The February issue also contained a Media Mutt column, “Pissing Off Powerful People,” that took the mainstreamers to task for failing to probe the lives politicians actually lead, lest some uncomfortable truths come out that contradict their image or politics. “The media’s policy on [then Congressman Mike] Michaud could best be characterized as ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Diamon wrote, nine months before the future gubernatorial candidate announced he was gay.
And then there’s That’s My Dump!. Always one of our most popular features, the February 2013 Dump became legendary. It concerned an apartment building on York Street, in Portland’s West End, owned by an LLC called A Better Maine. Local broker Tom Landry (of Benchmark residential & Investment Real Estate) tried to hoodwink city zoning officials into believing the building would lose “all beneficial use” unless a restaurant and bar were allowed to be built there. Only under that condition would the city waive a burdensome parking requirement in that residential area. Landry cried poor on behalf of the mysterious LLC, which my quick check of state records revealed was actually owned by his wife (a.k.a. Landry himself, in this case).
“During a time when thousands of renters and homeowners in Portland are struggling to keep a roof over their heads, this yuppie fuck is pretending to represent a cash-strapped landlord — who in reality is himself — to fool neighbors and city officials into waiving the rules…” I wrote. In the end, the building got fixed up with no restaurant or bar inside, and Tom Landry moved on to gentrify other properties.
In the summer of 2013 we published our most talked-about cover story to date, or since: “Satan’s Sous Chef,” an exposé about the atrocious behavior of Portland restaurateur Harding Lee Smith and his wife, Darcy, who together owned and ran four restaurants (The Front Room, The Corner Room, The Grill Room, and Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room).
Researching that story was an extraordinary experience for me. At almost every restaurant and bar I went into that summer to inquire about the Smiths, I found a former employee or customer with a tale to tell about Harding or Darcy’s abusive, asinine treatment of people. In fact, I had so much material that we did something unprecedented: published a sequel, “Head Chef in Hell,” two months later.
As of this writing, all four “Rooms” are still in business, though I’m willing to bet most customers these days never read those two stories.
A couple other highlights from ’13: Carl Davulis’ inventive and entertaining profile of Skowhegan (“Skowhegan A to Z,” August), in which he found something noteworthy about the town for every letter of the alphabet; “SeXXX Education” (November), our investigation of the Portland Public Schools’ lax policies regarding Internet use by minors; and “Ticket to Ride: The many small triumphs of Michie O’Day,” Peavey’s inspiring portrait that December of a friend who hasn’t allowed numerous afflictions to keep her from making art and riding a specially designed bike around town.
I saw Michie at Coffee By Design, on Diamond Street, a few days before this issue went to press, showing off her new pedal-powered wheelchair. If I ever think publishing this magazine is too hard, all I have to do is think of her.
You know your publication is getting old when the features inside it start having their own anniversaries. Such was the case in January 2014, when dump hunter Patrick Banks wrote the first “That’s My Dump! Five Year Reunion,” a look back at crappy properties he profiled half a decade before, some of which got fixed up; others, not so much.
Crash was well into his series about his stint in the Coast Guard that year, providing opportunities to plug columns on our cover with lines like “Coasties smuggling weed” (April 2014). His rant about the wind-power industry in Maine, “Against the Wind,” ran in May, and our retrospective on the old Casco Bay Weekly days was published in June.
Much of Peavey’s column that May was devoted to a speech an immigrant student at USM had prepared, with her help, but which the student, Fatoumata Issifi Hidjo, was not chosen to deliver at that year’s commencement ceremony. I was proud to be able to publish it for our much wider audience. Likewise, in August we gave a writer named Sarah Hannan an opportunity to tell her story of battling obesity (“The Weights”). It wasn’t a pretty picture in places, or a tale with a happy ending, but that’s the point — to give voice to the voiceless and unseen, even if what they have to say isn’t what you want to hear.
Our Voters’ Guide that October, “Vote or Quit Bitchin’ 2014,” was a lot of fun to do. We covered the gubernatorial race and (online, due to lack of space in that issue) the match-up between Susan Collins and Shenna Bellows from the perspective of Jesus of Nazareth, as he’s described in Reza Aslan’s bestselling 2013 book Zealot. Sadly, even with such divine intervention, both candidates we endorsed (Michaud and Bellows) lost.
It was the spring of 2013 when a homeless alcoholic going by the nom de guerre Robin Rage submitted an op-ed about spice (“Pros and Cons of the Spice Trade,” May 2013), the synthetic marijuana — “catnip sprayed with Deep Woods Off!,” as one spicehead described it — that was being legally sold in head shops around town and causing freakouts all over the place. I met with Robin and his dog, Bella, at Speckled Ax, a coffee shop on Congress Street, to give him some money for the piece and discuss future work.
I asked Rage where he was living, and he told me he’d been sleeping in the patch of trees off West Commercial Street, near the Casco Bay Bridge. I told him that would be an interesting story and he vaguely agreed, but we made no firm plans and set no deadline. I later learned that after he and Bella left the coffee shop that day, Rage blew the cash I gave him on spice.
Rage and I didn’t cross paths much in the year that followed, though in the spring of 2014 I heard from a young woman he was dating, who worked at a different downtown coffeeshop, that he’d been working on the story about his time in the woods beneath the bridge. And then one day that August, there it was in my inbox, all 11,775 words of the first draft of “Sherwood Forest: Life as an outlaw on the Fore River.”
“Holy fuck,” I kept thinking as I plowed through paragraph after paragraph of Rage’s astounding story. “This guy can write.” Readers made a point of telling me how much they loved that story for months after it was published, strangers literally stopping me on the street just to say how blown away they were by it. One reader even took the initiative to submit “Sherwood Forest” for consideration for a prestigious Pushcart Prize. It didn’t win or make the cut for Pushcart’s Best of the Small Presses collection that year, and I’ve never cared to pursue prizes like that myself, but “Sherwood Forest” wins my admiration as one of the best stories we’ve ever had the honor to print in these pages.
Rage had secured housing and some stability in his life by the time “Sherwood Forest” was published, but still, the odds of him producing another masterpiece seemed long. That said, I think he came close with “Opiatopia: A street-level view of Maine’s drug epidemic,” which we published last May. As the heroin crisis continues to make headlines this summer, that story should be required reading for anyone who wants to know how the crisis happened and what’s really happening in the backstreets and alleys of the Forest City.
This has easily been The Bollard’s best year so far, financially and editorially. In February we published “What’s Wrong With First Friday?” — a brilliant five-page comic by local artist, musician and educator Jeff Badger. Paul Foster’s touching story about trying to hunt down and help a panhandler during the holidays, “A Christmas Idle,” ran in that issue, as well, as did Christine Arsenault’s impassioned indictment of the Portland public school system’s treatment of her special-needs child, “Going Public Versus Going Postal.”
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dan Zarin, whose bimonthly feature, The Breakfast Serial, marked its fiftieth appearance in The Bollard in May. Dan has hipped me (and all our readers) to scores of great diners, brunch destinations and surprisingly tasty sandwich shops over the years (e.g., this month’s piece on The Blue Rooster), and hung on with us even when the road got bumpy and the checks failed to arrive. His dedication to this paper has helped me maintain my own.
Samuel James’ Racisms column debuted last June and quickly stirred up a shit-storm. Some drunk racist prick in Ellsworth called me after last month’s issue came out and left a message claiming he’d thrown away a whole stack of Bollards in protest of a point Sam made regarding the Confederate flag. I called the number back that same morning but the coward didn’t answer and there was no voicemail set up. Keep up the great work, Mr. James!
Lastly, kudos to my pal Hutch Brown, lead author of July’s cover story, “M.I.A. on the A.T.” Hutch can seem a little eccentric to folks who don’t know him, and even I had my doubts last spring when he showed me on the Gazetteer how the stretch of the Appalachian Trail where hiker Gerry Largay vanished two years ago comes within yards of a secret military base in the woods (the Navy’s SERE training facility in Redington Township). But the more I looked into it, realizing that all of Hutch’s “crazy” anecdotes were true, the more I became convinced that this is a topic we had to explore.
So we did, and without giving away too much, I’ll say here that this story ain’t over. Largay is still missing. And there’s something going on.
Earlier this summer, Hutch (a bartender, by trade) was working a catering gig for Barbara Bush’s 90th birthday party, in Kennebunkport. Shortly before food service began, Secret Service agents entered the prep tent and told Hutch and another worker (a former Greenpeace activist) that they would not be allowed to enter the dining tent where the former First Lady and George H.W. Bush were mingling with their wealthy guests.
This happened about three weeks before our story was published, but after Hutch had made inquiries with Navy officials regarding the SERE facility. Other than a couple letters to the editor years ago, he’d never published anything or been in any serious trouble with the law.
Two weeks after our story appeared, Sens. Collins and King announced that the Pentagon was providing $2 million to the Trust for Public Lands to “restrict development” around the SERE facility, an unpopulated area that, as far as we know, has been the subject of exactly zero development interest ever. But a week after that I heard a reliable account about hikers, one day in the not-so-distant past, being startled by live gunfire near the facility’s border, and how SERE staff came rushing out of the woods to apologize to them for sending bullets through the trees above their heads.
We’ve picked on some powerful figures over the years, but Hutch’s story was the first time we poked the grizzly bear that is the U.S. government’s military-intelligence complex. We just may have to do it again.
Join us on Thursday, September 10, at Portland House of Music (25 Temple St.), to celebrate our 10th anniversary. Many of our contributors will be there, and there’ll be music by local indie-rock band Endless Jags at 9 p.m. Party starts at 5 p.m. Free admission, of course.