On Saturday afternoon, I went to the Liberal Cup for a beer and returned home two hours later with an enormous jar of Vegemite.
Now in case you were wondering, this isn’t a regular occurrence, even though the Cup brews its own beers in the back room and the old joke goes that Australia’s famous sandwich spread is made of the leftover yeast from the brewing process.
This one was a (mostly) unexpected happening, because it was a gift from a column reader who knew I’d appreciate it.
It’s just another twist in the surreal tale of my time here in central Maine, adjusting to a community that’s smaller than I’m used to.
It wasn’t an entirely random situation of course, and I’m sure you already put that down to my penchant for the dramatic.
The reader, whose name is Liz, had emailed me back in July after discovering Maine Walkabout in the paper to tell me that she had an Australian connection of her own.
Her brother had recently moved Down Under, to Brisbane of all places, to take a job with QUT, the university I both attended and taught at (in different years, obviously.) And in an even bigger case of small-world syndrome, he was hired for a project that one of my old high school friends works on.
She signed off her email with, “P.S. I really like Vegemite!” This is not a sentiment I’m accustomed to hearing in this country, let me tell you.
A few weeks ago I heard from Liz again, this time to let me know that her sister-in-law had been to Brisbane to visit her husband before moving out there permanently in January. She had returned with two larges jars of Vegemite, knowing that Liz was a fan of the stuff, but of course there’s always too much of a good thing.
Even though Vegemite would probably withstand a nuclear explosion, Liz didn’t want to keep the extra jar in the pantry, so she decided she’d like to give it to me. Extra generous was the fact that a jar half the size had cost me a novel $13 at a British goods store in Brunswick a couple months ago.
So Liz, her husband Elmer (who had actually emailed me in the column’s infancy) and I all arranged to meet at the Liberal Cup for a beer. They knew what I look like already from my very handsome column sig, but told me to look out for “the old people with the jar of Vegemite.” As you can guess, that narrowed the possibilities down pretty far.
I sat at the bar for a moment when I arrived, but I didn’t have time to even order a beer before I saw a couple step out of a car parked outside with a large yellow circle in hand – the lid of a Vegemite jar. The three of us found a table and had a couple of beers each, shared some stories of being “from away” and talked about our respective experiences with Australia.
It made for a fun afternoon, not to mention a surreal one. And a couple days later, when I was in the gym struggling through Monday’s legs day, I got another dose of the same feeling. One of the other members, an older woman whom I see around the gym quite often, told me she’d been reading my columns, saw the mugshot that weekend and thought, “that’s got to be him.”
I had to do what I normally do, and deflect with dumb humor about “not being able to hide with a face like this,” offering a thanks for reading, and trying to stay humble about it. I wrote about this before a few months ago, when the column first hit the paper, about how strange it is to be recognized literally in the street for something I’ve bashed out in a couple of hours, a day before deadline, that consists of my inane observations other ramblings.
And truthfully, it still feels quite unusual. Since I’ve been out of town so frequently on column Sundays, when presumably my mugshot is freshest in readers’ minds, I haven’t really had enough of those chance encounters and moments of recognition to get used to it. But it’s extremely humbling in any case, even when people at establishments I visit regularly – the gym, the diner and the bar, obviously – joke with me about framing page B1 of the Sunday paper.
And it still happens via electronic means as well. After I wrote my column about being a Yankee fan, I received an email from a reader who’s not only Australian, but moved from Brisbane 23 years ago and runs a farm about 30 miles from here, and who invited me to drop by if I’m ever in the area. And a similar thing happened last night, when a reader dropped me a line to say, amongst other things, that he would like my address so he could send me a copy of his book.
Not to go all Bill Simmons on you, but: these are my readers.