Guest contributor: Crash Barry
categories: Cocktail Hour
We took Captain Donald’s truck down to the shore so I could move into my new pad. We parked by the post office and I followed Donald on the foot path that wound around the edge of the harbor, through the village of fishhouses. I thought we were headed to the apartment that overlooked Donald’s wharf, the one I painted the autumn before, a nice one-bedroom with a sawdust toilet and a full kitchen, sans running water.
Instead, he brought me to another building, ramshackle and rickety. The first floor was garage-like, filled with ancient coils of used pot warp, tow lines, fishing net, broken buoys, and miscellaneous junk. We climbed a shaky exterior staircase to his shop on the second floor. The room was about 20-foot square. The floors and walls were splattered with orange and white. Freshly painted buoys of the same colors hung from the ceiling, making it mandatory to stoop and duck to walk across the room. We passed the tiny wood stove and came to another doorway.
The back room was ten feet wide and twice as long. But not cozy. Or comfortable. Or rustic. Or charming. The walls were fake wood paneling. The floor was particle board. A bare bulb hung from the center of the ceiling. In daylight, it was easy to see the layer of dust on the single wooden chair, small table, nightstand and unmade cot that filled most of the space. An ersatz kitchen – consisting of a dorm fridge, a two-burner gas stove and dishpan – occupied the rest. The east wall had a trio of windows that overlooked the harbor.
Wasn’t much of a room, but better than a berth on a ship, a mat in a homeless shelter or a bunk in a prison cell. And it did have a great view. “Doesn’t seem to have a door,” I said.
“This is the door,” he said, tugging on a blue tarp attached to the wall on the shop side. “Just hook the grommets on the nails and you’ll be all set,” he said. “Though I wouldn’t do that if you got the wood stove going.” He grunted. “Tarp will keep the heat out.”
“Oh,” I said. “What about a bathroom?”
“Hah,” he said. “See that?” He pointed at what looked like a green plastic ottoman. “Pull the cover off and it’s a toilet. But only use it in emergencies, ‘cuz it’s a sonofabitch to clean. Don’t worry, you’ve got an outhouse too,” he said. “Follow me.”
At the end of his wharf was an ancient shed. He pulled the door open. “In there,” he said. “Just like in the olden days. Hah!”
The shed was packed full of old nets and 55 gallon drums of diesel fuel. In the corner was a toilet seat on a wooden box. A classic one-holer. I lifted the seat cover and peered down. I felt a whisper of wind rising from under the wharf. I saw piles of shit clinging to the wharf’s cross braces.
“You share the toilet with my brother’s sternman,” he pointed to another building on the wharf. “That’s where Jimmy lives, but I think he’s in Rockland today.” He coughed and spit into the harbor. “Let’s go have some suppah.”
“I thought I’d be staying down in that apartment we painted last fall,” I told Donald while waiting for Mary-Margaret to serve the meal. He drank his red drink. I had water. The kitchen smelled deliciously of the chopped onions cooking atop the store-bought frozen pizza. I was starving and the smell was driving me crazy. “Didn’t think I’d be living in the shop.”
“Whatever gave you that idea?” Mary-Margaret harrumphed. “That’s a rental apartment. For tourists. Way too nice for just a sternman.”
“Wanting the Taj Mahal, are ya?” Donald asked. “Not gonna get it, ‘round here.”
They both chortled until their laughs turned into groans.
After supper, I walked to my new home carrying my sleeping bag, some borrowed sheets and a roll of toilet paper. The night was star-filled and quiet. No moon. No clouds. No wind. As I neared the shore, I heard the occasional clang of a bell buoy and the gentle hum of the island generator in the background. Didn’t see another person. Felt like I was the only human on the island. A good feeling.
My room smelled of old rope, salt and bait, though it could have been my personal odor since I hadn’t showered after hauling. I found bits and bones of herring in my hair and beard. Under the bare bulb, I smoked a joint and examined my new place. It was filthy, with signs of mice, but totally functional.
An unexpected bonus was the sound of the tide lapping at the wharf. As the tide rose, the ocean stretched and flowed beneath the building. The thought of sleeping above water calmed me.
I made the bed and set my alarm for 4:30 and hit the soft and springy cot. Tired in a good way and excited to have my own pad, I was content for the first time in a long while.
In the dark, I turned on the radio and scanned the FM dial and was happy to discover many frequencies came in loud and clear. I switched to the AM band and found even more stations, some as far away as Philadelphia and Quebec. I’d been a serious radio listener since I was a little boy. Pleased, I tuned to WOR in New York City, dozed off and slept soundly.
For the next two years, I lived on this beautiful island located in the center of the richest lobster grounds in the world. Despite its remoteness, Matinicus was a microcosm of modern American society. Ruled by gossip and slander. Rife with substance abuse and marital discord. Over time, the archetypes revealed themselves: The angel, the hero, the loner, drunk, the cheater, the molester, the abuser, the thief, the suicide and the killer.
Through the eyes of some, Matinicus was an outlaw’s paradise where hardened souls could lurk in the shadows of fishhouses and wharves, far from the watchful police state.
For other islanders, Matinicus was a protected homeport and an idyllic place to raise a family. An outpost where independence was necessary and honored, but where working with others – even sworn enemies – was occasionally required to save a life or livelihood. A world of heavy winds and violent storms, where fervent sunrises and fiery sunsets painted forests, meadows, beaches and ledge with vibrant colors. Except when it was foggy. Which was quite often from June to October.
Two years living in a fish shack didn’t make me an expert on Matinicus. But it was a long enough immersion to recognize the distinctive nature of the island. To see beyond the myth and hype. To study a unique society with a wanna-be writer’s brain, filtered through a thick lens of drugs, youth and hard work.
Next week: Island Justice
Crash Barry worked as a cow milker at a dairy farm for 1.5 years in order to save enough cash to pay for the publication of his first novel Sex, Drugs and Blueberries, which is being made into a film this summer, starring Maine rock legend Dave Gutter from Rustic Overtones and Paranoid Social Club. For more info about the audition process, visit sexdrugsandblueberries.com.
Crash now lives near a marijuana grove in the foothills of western Maine. His column One Maniac’s Meat appears monthly in The Bollard, and details his exploits as a young sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard. He occasionally blogs at crashbarry.com. Sex, Drugs and Blueberries and the complete version of Tough Island are available at Maine bookstores and libraries or via crashbarry.com or on Amazon. His latest book Marijuana Valley, Maine: A True Story will be published this fall.