Fishing in Public

by “Tackle Box” Billy Kelley

Mellen Street Memories

Hey folks. How you doing? I’m not too bad, ’cept for this weather. Killer, ain’t it? For the love of Pete, I never seen nothing like it. And spring ain’t over yet. Oh well, this is Maine, so on with the show. And the show today is Mellen Street, which has been a humongous part of my life and memories.

Mellen Street needs no introduction. If it’s not the best-known street in the whole state, it surely is the most notorious. I know it so well that I know virtually every structure on the street! So let’s do a sort of walking tour up this nefarious byway. Please excuse any discrepancies which may occur in this narration — still got the old bugaboo of a fractured head and a touch of senility. Tends to make me somewhat hazy on details.

Okey-dokey? Swell. This is a tale of many changes, and I been there to see it — ’cept for a little stretch in the slam, up in Tommy-town, as it was known at the time. And another stretch of traveling around the country, which gave me a great opportunity to view other red-light districts, a lot of which were much larger and more renowned than Mellen was. But we had our place in the sun, for sure.

You know, even while in the slam I’d meet folks from all over, and when I said I was from Portland the response was, “Oh wow, I go to Mellen Street!” Yessiree, guys from the boonies of Northern Maine were familiar with it. That’s why it’s important to write this — to maybe help tear down the image of the area, an image of drugged-up hookers dealing dope on the corners and using foul language, to boot.

I’ll start right at the bottom: Mellen and Park Avenue. In the driveway at the bottom of the hill is where we played roundball as school boys. For a couple of years, Doc Tabashnik’s driveway had the only basketball hoop to be found. Means a lot to a 12-year-old.

Those were heady days. Revolutionary days. The British Invasion. Peter, Paul and Mary. Beatlemania still in bloom. “Let the sun shine…” Oh boy, what times! Fast times. Weed. Girls.

I lived in the next building up from Doc’s for a bit, above the old police substation. A good spot for them, really — the Oaks nearby and all. They could also keep an eye on crime-filled Parkside. Now the cops are a few steps away, at the corner of Mellen and Grant, and they’re a real presence in the “’hood.”

I don’t quite remember the next two buildings, ’cept for the sign posted on the curb in front: “No cruising.” It didn’t refer to an ocean liner. I think the rule was something like you could only drive by once every 15 minutes, or some such nonsense. Nobody probably remembers — especially the cops. The sign’s gone now. What a joke.

The next house on the left is a place I don’t know well — just enough to talk to folks through the window as I happen to pass by — but the next building is a biggie: Mellen Street Market. It’s definitely not some kind of bam-bam-thank-you-ma’am place. It’s an extremely friendly neighborhood store, the kind you don’t find much nowadays. I think there’s maybe only three left in the whole city.

I’ve gotten to know the folks in charge pretty well. Tony and Joe, the owners, run the place. They moved to the ’hood about the same time as me. And they’ve about seen it all, as I have.

Joe is like a stand-up-comedian type. I’ve got a habit of swearing like a pirate while shopping, so Joe now prefers me to call him Jesus. You probably know the type of fellow he is: always joking, sees the humor in all you say, always in a good mood. He was a jack of all trades before Mellen Street Market, and I could tell by the way he repaired my broken cane one day. He was happy to do it, too.

Tony is the more conversational type, with a real knack for sports. I actually first met him playing b-ball at Reiche School playground, and have gotten to like him even more since he’s been kinda store manager. I tell ya what: Go in with a question about sports in general, or ’specially Boston Celtics — he’s your go-to guy. I’m always thinking about how much better it is to drop in on a nicer bunch of folks than to visit a robot at what I call “con-artist convene stores” that dominate the landscape nowadays.

Not everything’s hearts and flowers, though. For there, on the outside of the market, are the phone booths, and that’s the anchor of drugs and prostitution. They go hand in hand, don’t they? Back in my dope days, whenever I was in an unfamiliar city and looking to score, I’d just look for the place where all the phone booths were. That’s where the dealers inevitably hung around.

And so begins the real story of the infamous Mellen Street. Now, I wish to add that as soon as management at the market realized what was going on, it was, “Take the goddamn pay phones out!” They in no way wish to be identified as the location of these instruments of ill-gotten gains. However, until that happened — for better or worse, depending on your point of view — the market became somewhat of the anchor of those activities and that helped give the street its reputation, one I guess it will never live down.

But it’s trying. More about that next month.