Saturday, June 25, 2005

Strange Maine: Milo

People "from away" often get a very skewed impression of this state. "From away" includes not just people from other states, but people living in the Greater Portland Area (Maine's largest city) and points south. Those people may live within the same official map borders, but the Maine they inhabit is so different from the rest of the state that it might as well be a different country. In fact, for many people living in Maine, the state only exists south of where they live. They never travel north. They never think about what goes on north of where they live. Case in point: the Learning Results is a set of standards that teachers are supposed to ensure their students meet. There are standards on the Learning Results that involve going to museums. There are plenty of museums in Portland and in Augusta, the state capital, but for the majority of students in Maine the nearest museum is hours away.

If people "from away" do happen to travel north of Portland, the go to places like Camden or Bar Harbor, relatively prosperous tourist towns. There the locals are going to be nice to you even if they hate you because they need the tourist dollars, and the local officials go out of their way to make the towns look and feel the way the tourists expect them to look and feel. In Camden it is illegal to paint your house any color but white, for example (unless you're MBNA and have enough money to bribe the local officials to look the other way as you're demolishing historic houses and painting them the corporate green and gray). Or else they go to the more uninhabited parts of the state on camping trips. Either way, what people are seeing is representative of only a small fraction of the state. What they're seeing is an idyllic fantasy of "the way life should be."

There's another Maine. People from away don't realize just how much Stephen King isn't making up in his books. Take Milo, Maine for example. If you were just driving through you'd see a pretty little town on the river. "Quaint" is the word that people from away use to describe towns like this. People from here hate that word and find it condescending and insulting. If you actually took the time to stop in Milo you'd notice that almost the entire downtown has been abandoned. Nearly all the stores are empty. All the factories that once supported Milo have closed down. The nearest population center where someone might find a job is Bangor, an hour away, where unemployment is also high and one would be lucky to find a minimum wage service job. There have been no jobs in the Milo area for so long that being on welfare is now the norm, and a large percentage of people will actually look down on you for having a job, for "putting on airs," or whatever. So here amongst this idyllic natural beauty that really does exist throughout so much of Maine, there's a hopelessness and despair. The jobs left. They aren't coming back. If kids grow up with any aspirations at all, it is to get out of town as soon as they can.

But there's more than just a depressed economy. Milo is the unofficial marijuana capital of Maine, where the majority of pot is grown. In Milo, there are police officers shacking up with high school students (I guess they aren't going to arrest themselves for statutory rape). Milo is the birthplace of the KKK.

Last year a man burned a baby along with the usual household rubbish, and nothing happened. He was burning trash in his yard and a neighbor noticed him tossing a baby into the trash. The coroner was never able to figure out if the baby was alive or not when he threw it in the fire, so he never got charged with murder. There was plenty of gossip and speculation, but nobody ever said for sure where the baby came from. The man had two daughters. One of them had been wearing extra baggy clothes to school, and after her father burned the baby she started wearing less baggy clothing, so she might have been pregnant. She might have miscarried. They might have done a home abortion, or maybe the baby came to term and was stilborn. Or maybe they killed the baby.

The girls kept going to school. The dad, well, everyone said he was a respectable man who loved his daughters and would do anything for them... Charges were filed, but not murder since they couldn't prove anything. The day of the trial a key person failed to show up, and the charges were dropped.

Life goes on in Milo. A baby burned. A respectable business man burned it. That is all anyone knows for sure, except for the man and his daughters and they aren't saying anything.

Welcome to Maine. The way life should be. If you lived here, you'd be home now.

And yes, this is where the name Milo in the novel came from, though when I chose that name, Milo was just a town somewhere north of Orono to me. I didn't know anything about it.