In January, the exhibit Our Places, Our Times: Portland Through the Decades, at the Portland Public Library, stopped me in my tracks. The prints came from the library’s Portland Press Herald Still-Film Negative Collection, a mass of archival negatives that the newspaper gifted to the library in 2009. The show was curated and captioned by PPL Special Collections librarian Abraham Schechter and grouped in decades ranging from the 1930s to the 2000s. Each image catapulted me back in time to a Portland that was both strange (trolley cars on Congress Street) and familiar (Dave Astor and the Dog Man). But the decade that floored me most was the 1970s, when I was coming of age.
It was a miserable time for me. I knew nothing about boys or bodies. I picked up what I could, where I could — friends’ older sisters, general locker-room eavesdropping, the appalling illustrations on the printed instructions I found inside my mother’s box of Tampax. I was careful not to let on how much I didn’t know. When information trickled out, it was best to take it in silently, gravely, with a knowing look that I practiced in the bathroom mirror — that is, when I wasn’t watching myself cry. It was important to keep your guard up in junior high. Not unlike life on the savannah, the weak ones were spotted and taken down with exacting precision. There were rules, and they were established early.
At the end of each school year, all sixth-grade students in Bath were sent to what was billed as “science camp,” but in truth was junior-high basic training, where the pecking order of who was in and who was out was determined. To my mind, it was preordained. A few tough girls from various grammar schools around town were already in charge by the time we got to this camp. They would run our seventh-grade class. About a half-dozen others formed the inner circle; another handful formed a planetary ring around this grouping — sometimes orbiting in, sometimes out. I made it to the outer ring, riding the coattails of an alpha girl who was the daughter of friends of my parents. All other classmates simply did not exist, except as targets of torment.
Woe be to a girl who didn’t know the rules — or didn’t even know there were rules — and didn’t have sibs, especially of the female variety, close enough in age to help navigate the very complex transition into adolescence. With my stringy hair, oversized mouth and flat chest, I wasn’t a player. What I knew and didn’t know hardly mattered, so long as I didn’t advertise the fact. A slip of the lip and you could practically feel the hyenas at your heels.
As devastating as not making the cut might’ve proved, being in that outer social ring was its own private hell. Overlooking one of the rules — say, wearing yellow on a Thursday (or was it Tuesday? I never could get it straight) — was enough to put you on the outs. Then there was the perpetual agony of whether or not you’d be invited to sleepovers and parties, and where you could and couldn’t sit at lunch. Most of these girls rode the bus, so I was spared whatever rituals happened there, but I also missed all that action. “What are you guys talking about?” I’d ask. “Oh, nothing,” came the response. “Just something that happened on the bus.” Invitations were issued that did not include those of us who lived within walking distance of school. I was furious at my parents for not locating us in either the south or north end of town.
A real game-changer occurred, however, when the Maine Mall opened in 1971. Looking at the photograph in the library’s gallery made me feel like I was standing in front of those Oz-like entry doors all over again. Simply saying I was going to the mall back then made me feel glamorous, important. I held an advantage over a lot of my classmates because my father had frequent business meetings in Portland. Very often Mom and I would get dropped off at the mall, free to roam, free to explore a level of sophistication Bath had never seen.
In its earliest stages, the Maine Mall was anchored by Jordan Marsh at one end and Sears at the other. We had a Sears in Brunswick, so that didn’t interest me. But Jordan Marsh was brand-new and swanky, so unlike the tired and humdrum Porteous department store in downtown Portland or the conservative Canterbury Shop at Cooks Corner.
My favorite stores were the Plum Tree and Spencer Gifts. What emporiums of delight! The former was a gift shop that carried all sorts of mushroom-shaped incense holders and polka-dot frog-shaped soap dishes and mini license plates with your name on them. Its air was redolent with scented soaps and candles, and there were mobiles and fuzzy creatures dangling from springs suspended from the ceiling. The space was so brightly lit you almost felt the sun on you, despite the fact there were no windows.
On the other side of the mall and the other side of the spectrum was Spencer Gifts, a glorified head shop. The lighting was low, with strobe lights and lava lamps on display. There were soaps and candles there, too, but they were marketed for the art of seduction. Up back was a poster gallery, where you could flip through posters in metal frames under black light. My big purchase was one entitled “Building a Rainbow,” which depicted elfin men holding paint pots and hammers and saws, working on a rainbow constructed out of scaffolding. Half of it was black and white, the other half in Day-Glo color, which required a black light for full effect. At home, without the light, it was more cute than cool, but I still hoped owning it would signal me as a player.
My mom and I sometimes split up to meet later under the giant clock at the mall’s center, where she would arrive laden with shopping bags and my dad would be waiting with crossed arms. I’m sure he got there early, hoping we would do the same, but there was never enough time at the mall for me. I pushed it to the very last minute on every trip. When I was a bit older, I sometimes got to eat by myself at York Steak House if my parents were at a dinner meeting. How I loved sliding my tray along the cafeteria line and waiting for my gristly piece of steak to come off the flame grill. I could get used to living like this, I thought.
One day I saw a pair of platform sandals in the window of Baker’s Shoes — just like I had seen in Seventeen magazine. I bought my first copy of Seventeen in the lobby of a Boston hotel when I was in eighth grade, tagging along on a business trip with my parents. Something clicked in my brain when I cracked that cover for the first time. It was like someone had tossed me a lifeline. The pages were filled with young women who were not wearing the Bath Junior High uniform: Landlubber or Levi’s (never Lee) jeans from Povich’s men’s shop, shit-kicker work boots or Adidas track shoes, and a White Stag parka. These models wore midi dresses and platform shoes and had curly-permed hair. I could almost see myself smiling back at me from those pages.
I had to have those sandals. Owning a pair of shoes just like ones in an ad in Seventeen magazine would surely undo all my other gaffes. All those Bath girls would see I was a fashion force to be reckoned with. I must’ve whined and wheedled for them, because those sandals came home with me. I could not wait to strap those babies on and stride into Bath Junior High and take my rightful place at the center of the inner circle.
Those sandals, of course, became yet another point of ridicule. I had broken the code, not observed the rules. But a change was happening in me. I was growing less concerned with falling in line and more interested in making my own way. It was clear I was never going to get it right anyway, so why not do it on my own terms?
These days, shopping is a chore for me, and a trip to the mall is as painful as all those early, misguided fashion flops. The big clock is gone, as is the Plum Tree. But that photograph reminded me how the mall once served as a gateway, a passage into a big world awaiting me in all its Day-Glo color.
I couldn’t rush into it fast enough.
Elizabeth Peavey continues to make forays and faux pas. Check them out here every month, or at elizabethpeavey.com.