In true Portland style, Gerster and a classmate were stopping strangers on the street, asking for permission to take their portraits. In the middle of downtown Portland, it made perfect sense.
“Look at that family holding hands,” Gerster said, pointing across the street to a human chain of four breezing down the sidewalk. “That is so Maine!”
“It is so Maine,” said her classmate, Ellen Sherwood, 24, an Augusta, Maine, native who has lived in Portland for about two years.
She said she prefers Portland to her hometown.
“You can do anything here,” she said. “You can go to school and get a job but still have things to do at night.”
But Portland, thankfully, also has some grit beneath its nails that keeps it from being too utopian. There are plenty of hippie types, tattoos (lots and lots of tattoos), and I was asked several times for spare change, albeit with the utmost civility and East Coast brotherhood.
“Spare any change?” one guy asked at the docks.
“Sorry, I can’t,” I said.
“Oh, don’t worry about it!”
He said it so cheerfully that I didn’t worry about it.
Being so small, much of the action — the shops, the James Beard-award-winning restaurants, the bars serving Maine craft beer — are downtown, just beyond the waterfront. Portland is small enough to soak up in about three days, though the east and west end neighborhoods bookending downtown also are worth exploring for their coffee shops and restaurants thick with locals who seem quite glad to be living in Portland.
Unfortunately, at the end of my trip, I never got to do the thing I most wanted to: find that man and his bicycle again.