The smaller the town, the more shoulders you rub

The State House, where it all happens. Probably. How would I know?
The State House, where it all happens. Probably. How would I know?

When I first started the interviewing process for my job at the KJ, I didn’t know anything about Augusta that the Wikipedia page hadn’t told me.

To that end, I knew a rough population figure and that it was the state capital of Maine, the third smallest in the nation behind Vermont’s and South Dakota’s capitals.

Now, a year on, I drive past the beautiful State House a couple of times a day, and I live on the same street as the Governor (a dubious honor indeed). It’s extremely easy for me to forget that this is the political center of Maine, to the point where I’m genuinely a little surprised when I see someone in a suit and tie carrying a briefcase on a weekday as I’m driving to work in jeans and a hoodie.

I grew up in a political hub of sorts – Brisbane is the home of Queensland’s government – and it never had any real impact on my life, but it’s a little different here.

I mean, hell: back home I never woke up to a phone message from the mayor.

Yeah, that’s a real thing that really happened, back in December. I was, and still am, just as surprised as you probably are.

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With a couple ounces of trepidation, I did call Dave Rollins back, and he said something to the effect of, “We haven’t met yet, have we?” Y’know, as if “meeting the mayor” is something that I should’ve expected to have happened already. At the grocery store or something.

Dave was full of kind words about my column, and said his call was on behalf of a group of his friends who were also fans of my written garbage work and who would like to invite me to a dinner they were having that night. I obviously had to work, but I relayed it to my boss under the guise of “column material” and “networking” and she gave me a pass for a couple of hours to take up the invitation.

I’m extremely glad I did, too. Column material or not – and hopefully it will be – I got to take an inside look into a place, a society, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to otherwise. The party was at Le Club Calumet, a civic organization for the area’s Franco-Americans, of which there are a considerable number, given our proximity to the French part of Canada. For obvious reasons, only those with French heritage, their spouses and children can be members.

I had expected a handful of people, 20 or 30 tops. What I found myself walking into was a huge space with easily a couple of hundred in attendance. One wall was lined with tables covered in casserole dishes, crockpots and platters all piled with homemade meals brought by the members. There was a stage at the front of the hall where one of Augusta’s downtown bar owners was playing, and the bar at the opposite end of the venue had people queued up three or four deep for a drink. My jaw must have been halfway to the floor just taking it all in.

Thankfully that probably made my big dumb face even more recognizable, and the mayor spotted me and introduced me to Ron, the man who was really behind the invitation. He’s the Calumet Club’s bar manager and said he’d wanted to invite me down for a while but “didn’t think he had the pull.” Who am I, the Pope?

Ron bought me a beer, ushered me over to the food and made sure I filled up a plate, then introduced me around to his table of friends (and everyone who walked within 20 feet of us.) It was unbelievably humbling, and their hospitality was as warm as it gets. So much so that over the course of the 90 minutes I was there, three separate members bought me a pint. I had to go back to work, but hey – one must be a gracious guest. Right?

I even met a handful of readers who’d sent me emails over the course of 2014 suggesting things to do (read: bars to visit) in the area. It was quite a surreal evening, the pinnacle of which was obviously having a pint with the guy whose name I’d seen on mayoral election campaign boards and banners all around town just a month earlier. The same thing sure wouldn’t have happened back in Brisbane.

My pal Bonnie has a similar story from around the same time last year, which sparked the same column idea a couple of weeks prior. She was in a bar downtown just days after election day, and texted me saying that a Maine politician of some note – who shall remain nameless, because duh – invaded her personal space a bit and “cramped her style.” The thing that again struck me was, how often would I, or someone I know, have run across a high-profile public official in the same watering hole back home.

The same things have happened in smaller doses (and in more positive circumstances) in Hallowell, especially since I started behind the bar at The Maine House. Not long after I arrived, and began frequenting the Liberal Cup, I got into a discussion one Friday night with a guy about my dad’s age who also professed to be a Yankee fan, not a common thing up here. He asked me what brought me to central Maine, and in turn I asked him what he did around here. He replied nonchalantly that he’s the mayor of Hallowell.

Oh. Of course.

I’ve had similar idle barroom conversations – unknowingly, at first – with assistant district attorneys, state legislators, people who’ve worked on PR campaigns for political candidates, a local radio station GM and countless others.

It’s been an interesting flip-side to the realization I made very quickly after moving here, that it’s easy to make ripples in a small pond. But I guess, given the fact that the population of Augusta is 0.01 percent of Brisbane’s, you’re bound to bump into the people in charge of things.

And unfortunately for them, they’re bound to bump into me too.

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