Portland, Straight Up

by Cliff Gallant
by Cliff Gallant

Welcome to Portland

The cruise ships will be floating into the harbor soon and I’ll be getting back into my blue blazer and khaki pants. I’ve been a bus-tour guide for the past few seasons and I’m really looking forward to getting in front of the people again. Fifty or so of them each time, from every state and from countries around the world, all eager to get to know Portland.

Well, sort of. Portlanders don’t realize that most cruise ship passengers never gave a thought to this city before they saw it was the next stop on the itinerary. They haven’t always been intrigued by the beautiful scenes and people up here in the northeast corner of the country. Their attitude is more like, “We thought the country ended at Boston, but we’re here, we’re on vacation, so let’s try to have a good time.”

Fair enough. At least we have a degree of cooperation. Now the challenge is to have them leave here having discovered what a special place Portland is.

I have a tendency to work myself into a frenzy trying to make that point, and that amuses them to no end. I see them smiling knowingly at one another when they think I’m not looking. They’re having fun, though, and that’s what counts. They think I’m quaint.

When they get on the bus in the ferry-terminal parking lot, one of the things I tell them, by way of a general introduction to the area, is that we’re on a peninsula, bounded by water on three sides. One time a guy from England remarked under his breath (but loud enough so those in the back seats could hear) that he supposed it wouldn’t be a peninsula if it were not bounded by water on three sides. He was right, of course, but he didn’t have to point it out. The English are like that — bloody well right, they are. When we pulled out of the parking lot and turned right onto Thames Street, I remarked that Tames Street is one of many indications of Portland’s English heritage — fully aware that the correct pronunciation is Tems, but intentionally offering myself up for this Brit’s amusement. Resulted in a bigger tip at the end of the tour, I think. Gave him a jolly good one to share with the blokes back home at tea time.

From Thames, the bus turns left onto Hancock, then right onto Fore Street in front of the Residence Inn. As we’re making the turn, I direct their attention away from the boulder on the corner with the plaque on it. A big part of my spiel is that we Portlanders really value our historical and cultural heritage, so I don’t want to get into the time we tore down the house that the most beloved poet in the English language was born in. It’s embarrassing, especially considering that was also the longest-standing residence on the peninsula when the wrecking ball hit. Better to save any mention of Longfellow until we get to the house on Congress Street.

As we continue up Fore Street and go by the Portland Company complex, I tell them the company was founded in 1848, by a man named John Poor, to build locomotives, and that Commercial Street, where their ship is tied up, was constructed as part of John Poor’s effort to accommodate the arrival of the railroad. This brought great prosperity to the city, I say, so there should definitely be a street in Portland named after Poor, “but who’d want to live on Poor Street?”

They always chuckle at this and nod their heads in agreement, but one day a teenage girl sitting across the aisle from me took the matter very seriously. I could see she had fallen into deep thought about it, and after a few minutes she leaned over to me and said, “If you want to name a street or something after him, you could use his first and last name. John Poor Street would be OK.”

“You’re right!” I said, and she broke into a big smile. I told the others her idea over the mic, and they gave her a nice round of applause. That’s the way things go on the bus. Everyone is very pleasant.

The young lady wasn’t through with me yet, though. Just after the Portland Company there’s a long open space where you can see Fort Gorges, Peaks Island, Bug Light and the beacon from Portland Headlight. On a good day, you can see quite far out to sea, too, so as we’re going by I ask them to imagine how the early explorers must have felt sailing into Casco Bay for the first time. The teenager leaned over to me again and said, “Yes, and imagine how the Native Americans standing here on the shore felt, looking out and seeing all those big ships with tall white sails coming towards them.”

“Ah, yuh, there’s that too,” I said. “Thank you again.” I didn’t share her insight with the group this time, though. Hey, I wasn’t going to let the kid take my tour over. You have to watch out for that.

Next up, the Eastern Prom. What do you say about one of the most beautiful places on earth? When I first started narrating the tours I’d chatter on and on about this and that, but one day I thought I’d try silence, and it worked very well. Now we park and look out over the water for awhile, then quietly move on.

Well, it’s not all that solemn. Just as we’re leaving I tell them that when I was in high school we’d take our dates up to the Prom to watch the submarine races. Most of them get it right away and there’s a big laugh, but there are always a few who sit there with blank looks on their faces. One time, after I told the joke and we had left the Prom, heading up Congress Street, out of nowhere a guy from New Jersey yelled, “The submarine races!” — and the whole bus cracked up.

Along Congress there’s the Munjoy Hill Observatory, Eastern Cemetery, the First Parish Church, the Longfellow House, and the Portland Museum of Art. The passengers are quite interested in what I have to say about each one, but truthfully, what they’re most interested in is the people we pass along the way. My narration easily gets preempted by a homeless person with a shopping cart who waves at us enthusiastically, or by the sight of some multi-tattooed MECA students playing Frisbee. The woman selling “redneck wallets” made out of duct tape and cardboard at a craft table on Commercial Street gets more reaction than anything I point out on the tour.

People are most interested in other people, and cruise ship passengers are no exception. Who would’a thought?

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