Summer gets a lot of good press, and rightfully so, for there is much to like, if not love, about the equatorial days that are upon us. Last week, as you likely know, was the Phoenix’s Summer Guide — an homage of sorts to the riches the upcoming months have to offer. Yet, I confess, all that summer praise made me suspicious. The cynic in me couldn’t help but think of Bob Dylan’s prophetic line: “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s been some kind of pain.” So it must be with summer, I’ve been thinking. What dark underbelly doth the dog days hide from us? Surely, it can’t all be good. Nothing is all good.
So now here I am, on a delightful June day, among the ambling crowd in the Old Port, accosting poor souls about what they don’t like about summer. It’s a little weird. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and I feel like the Grinch. Except, well, it’s summer. Plus, it’s so very nice out. Mid-seventies. Sailboats tacking and jibing effortlessly across the bay. Gulls rising and falling. But, alas, there is much to lament. One just has to look.
Like, for instance, sweat in undesirable places. Zac, who is a plumber, is very open with me about this. I find him in front of a food truck, sheltering his eyes from the sun. “That thing,” he says cautiously, “where there’s like sweat down in that place, between that place that’s on the exterior and the place that’s on the interior.” I nod, foreseeing, already, how this article is going to get me in trouble. Zac clears his throat. “Sweat in the foyer,” he says diplomatically.
“Of course,” I say, appreciating his discretion.
Zac lives in Vermont, but got up at sunrise this morning to make the four-hour drive to Portland to eat oysters. “I think I saw an Instagram post about oysters,” he says, “and then I had it in my mind that I had to come and get some.”
“You came just for oysters?” I ask.
“Four in the morning, I got in the car.”
Zac nods sagaciously. “Dude,” he says, “oysters are where it’s at.”
We shake hands, and wish each other luck. Wherever you are, Zac, I hope you found your oysters.
Close to the ferry terminal, I come across two women standing in the grass. They both wear big, round sunglasses, and look like they’re waiting for someone, or something. Aren’t we all? When I ask them what they don’t like about summer, one of the women, Ashley, says mosquitoes. “Bugs suck,” her friend adds, which is true, but feeling encouraged by the ease with which Zac and I spoke about his sweat, I ask for something more … I don’t know, personal. “What about summer breakups?” I say, reaching for whatever comes to mind.
“I’m going through one of those right now,” Ashley says matter-of-factly.
We look at each other for a minute. I think of myself as the summer Grinch again, and then I ask, stupidly, if it’s worse breaking up in the summer or the winter. “I mean, of course, neither are fun,” I say, “but …”
Ashley clarifies that it’s actually her marriage, of seven years, and then concedes that, yes, breaking up in the summer is worse. “I think it’d be way easier in the winter,” she says and then goes on about how wanting to go out, to concerts, to swim, to be with people, as summer encourages one to do, just makes it all the worse.
We’re quiet for a minute. “This is why people hate reporters,” I say, full of guilt, but am relieved when both Ashley and her friend laugh. We part at that, with laughter, because sometimes all one can do, summer or winter, is laugh.
I continue to walk out onto the Eastern Promenade, enjoying the sun. Catching up to a stylishly dressed young couple, Kaighin and Sarah, I put the question to them. They have to think about it. I imagine the incredulous look they are giving me behind their Ray-Ban sunglasses.
“Sweating down my back,” Kaighin says. I agree with enthusiasm, and then mention how the last guy also didn’t like the whole sweating thing. I can’t help but indulge in sharing the specifics. Kaighin raises an eyebrow and asks if I’m going to put that in the paper.
“I have to,” I tell him. “It’s my job.”
He seems to understand, and then adds to the list, “sunburns.” Sarah nods.
“Because of the skin cancer?” I offer, and yes, Kaighin and Sarah, fair skinned as they both are, worry about that.
Sarah knits her eyebrows. “I never know what to wear,” she says. “Because if it’s hot outside, everywhere has their air-conditioning turned up really high. So it’s cold inside,” she pauses, downcast. “I can’t win.” It is a dilemma, no doubt. We stand there for a minute, sweating, and then I let them go.
Sitting inside his trolley tour bus in front of the visitor center on the Eastern Promenade, I find Scott Macomber. A retired firefighter, these days he drives a trolley bus during the summer months, and basically does what he wants during the winter. I catch him between shuttling loads of people around town, climb aboard the trolley, and ask him what he doesn’t like about summer. He strokes his graying mustache thoughtfully.
“Hot days,” he says. “There’s no AC in the trolley. Driving around this thing in the summer is like driving around in an oven.” Just standing in the stationary trolley, it already feels much warmer than outside. “It’s pretty hectic when more than one cruise ship gets tied up here at once,” he says. “Two or three thousand people, plus crew. It can be busy, but it’s good for the economy, too.” Scott pulls some quick numbers from his head, mentioning that, supposedly, cruise ship tourists, at a high estimate, can “drop $110 in eight hours.” If Scott's estimates are right, when you do the math, a busy cruise ship day with 3,000-plus tourists can yield up to, well, somewhere around $300,000 for Portland. Next to the driver’s seat, he keeps a deflated football with Tom Brady’s name scrawled across it. It’s a joke trivia prize, he explains, after I naively ask if it’s real. Feeling slightly embarrassed for my lack of sports acumen, I thank Scott and leave him in his oven on wheels.
By late afternoon, the day is so nice I can’t resist the idea of going to the beach. But first, walking up Fore Street, I startle a group of elderly women getting out of their car. I don’t mean to, of course, but their backs are turned to me when I ask them what they don’t like about summer. “I’m sorry,” I say, after we all get our bearings and regain composure, and then ask again.
There’s some speculation among the women. “I’m not a beacher,” one of them says, “but summer’s still fun.” Her hair is a brilliant net of white curls. “This is a perfect summer week,” another one says, “because there’s no humidity.” I remind them, apologizing for being such a downer, that I’m interested in what they don’t like. The first one shakes her head. “You’re not going to get any negative stories from us,” she says. “We’re positive people.” She glances at the other women and then back at me. “We’re positive people because we’re old,” she says.
An hour or so later, I’m driving across the bridge to South Portland, windows down, making my way to Willard Beach. A breeze ruffles the bay, teasing barbs of silver light off the water. A few high clouds limb gauzy shapes in the sky. It’s all very nice. Boats and etc.
In South Portland, I stop at Scratch Bakery for a late lunch, and ask the guy making my sandwich what he doesn’t like about summer. He squints at me from behind the sandwich bar. “It can be anything,” I say. “There’s no right answer.” To reassure him, I tell how sometimes I find the sun depressing, which is true, the way it can make you feel guilty if you’re not enjoying yourself. It’s a lot of pressure.
He deliberates and then says, “Wet clothes.”
“Wet clothes?” I ask.
“Like if you fall off a kayak with all your clothes on.”
“I guess that can happen sometimes?” I say.
“It happens … like if you’re paddling backwards.” With this, he lapses into thoughtful reflection. Then, as he finishes making my sandwich, he recalls how one summer he had an infected spider bite that led to a staph infection. “It traveled all the way up my arm,” he says, and then sets my sandwich down to trace the length of his forearm. I’m interested, but I also don’t want to think about it in relation to my sandwich, so we let the conversation rest there.
On the beach, I take my shoes off. How nice the sand feels. I walk in the direction of Fort Prebble and approach two young women, stretched out on towels. They happen to be sisters — Jessica Eggert and Hailey Eggert. Inevitably, Hailey, freckled and much paler than Jessica, is worried about sunburns. But she’s brazen. “I don’t even have sunscreen on right now,” she says, and then adds, sounded defeated, “I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Jessica, who also happens to be a reporter, says, mosquitoes. “Zika virus is on the rampage right now. You never know. One mosquito bite and you could done.”
So true. We talk about sunscreen for a minute. Both Jessica and Hailey hate how it smells.
“What about seeing people have fun?” I ask. “Does that ever you bother you?”
“Seeing people have fun?” Jessica says.
“And enjoying themselves,” I clarify.
“Oh yes,” she says, joking, “I hate people.” But then, more seriously, adds, “This is so typical, but seeing couples out and about, enjoying themselves, having a nice little picnic. It’s like, get a room. Get inside. But they all come out in the summer, all the couples. In the winter, at least they hibernate.” I agree, though I’ve been guilty of having the picnic and enjoying myself. And yet, all joking aside, it is cause for speculation. How often is other people's fun the cause of our resentment? I think back to Ashley and her breakup. At least in the winter, when everyone’s miserable, misery is so much easier to bear. But then again, of course, there’s the other side of it, too. Fun begets fun. Perhaps?
Further down the beach, I interrupt a small group, sitting out on the sand in lawn chairs. There’re two men and two women. At first, they seem not to dislike anything about summer, but then one of the women speaks up: “inappropriate bathing suits.” Her name is Lisa, and she’s a physician. When I ask her how old she is, she says, “too old.”
I can’t help but wonder what Lisa means by inappropriate.
“Not covering enough,” She says.
“On you, or someone else?” I ask.
“Both,” she says.
I ask if there’s a ratio of flesh to fabric. Below what threshold does a bathing suit register as inappropriate? “Where’s the line?”
“It’s a moving line,” the other woman, Gerry, says.
“Speedos on men, and thongs on certain women,” Lisa says.
“Speedos on all men?” I ask.
“All men,” Lisa says.
“It really depends on who’s in the bathing suit as to whether it’s inappropriate,” Gerry adds.
“Because sometimes it might be okay?” I try to clarify.
Gerry shrugs. “Sometimes it’s okay. Unless it looks too good. Then it just pisses you off. That’s no fun.”
Everyone’s in agreement. When other people look too good, it’s no good for everyone else.
The men are tellingly silent.
I stop to chat with one more group, another foursome, two couples. They’re young, mid-twenties, tan, fit, and look like the iconic image of summer. They all just moved to Portland to do their residencies at Maine Med. They love summer. You can just tell. I don’t even have to ask. But after talking with them for a minute, one guys relays an incriminating story from some summers back. “I once hit a pedestrian when I was on a bicycle,” he says.
This was in Iowa City, where he was going to school, and on this particular day, he was late to class. “She was getting off the bus,” he says, “and I swerved around the bus, and I, uh, I smoked her.”
“It happens,” his friend puts in.
And we all agree that these things do, in fact, happen.
I ask if she was okay.
“I was so scared that I picked up my bike and sped off,” the guys says.
“So she might not be okay?”
“I think she was okay,” he says.
I suggest to the guy in question that he remain anonymous, and he agrees, seeing the practicality in my suggestion.
“So did you hit her hard?” I press.
The guy explains how they both fell over. “I lost my coffee mug. I didn’t even know I lost it until I got to school. It all happened really fast.”
The moral is, I guess, that traffic can be bad during the summer. So pedestrians watch out.
It’s evening now, and feeling like my summer day wouldn’t be complete without some ice cream, I stop at Red’s for soft serve. The line is short and the afternoon light is viscous and gold. I get chocolate and vanilla. Extra sprinkles. Why not? It’s summer. Standing in the parking lot, I approach one final group. They happen to be scientists, all three of them, two men — Nick and Josh — and one woman — Miranda — all youngish and each down to the nub of their ice cream cones.
Not so surprisingly, the issue of sweat comes up again, but in a more explicit vernacular than Zac’s quaint metaphor of the foyer. There are, however, limits to what I can and cannot say in print, so I will let the sweat rest there, despite Nick, Josh and Miranda’s astute observations.
But then Nick mentions the summer breakup, asserting that, contrary to today’s popular opinion, it is best to be single during the summer months: “You’re able to go wild, go out. … Especially in this town, a tourist town.”
Josh agrees. It’s summer. Go out. Be wild. There’s way more people in the summer for a fling.
“But the catch,” Miranda says, finishing her ice cream, “is if you meet someone awesome and then they go away.”
“But that’s only if they’re a tourist,” Nick says.
Maranda shrugs, but I get her point. There’s something fleeting about the whole summer experience. Something, I don’t know, already tinged with nostalgia, even before it’s over. Summer is topical, playful, such that to even ask, “What don’t you like about summer?” seems, almost, irrelevant. Because, really, what’s not to like? Well, perhaps just that, that there’s so much to like. Isn’t that, after all, Bob Dylan’s point? And Miranda’s as well?
I drive home slowly, crossing the bridge with my arm out the window, letting my hand rise and fall with the wind. I once asked a good friend, who also happens to be a writer, what she doesn’t like about summer, and thinking about it now, her answer seems relevant: “I hate that summer is as good as it gets,” she said. “And that there is nothing else to wait for. If you make it to summer and the sun is shining and the ice cream and the beach are there and you are still unhappy, you know that the problem is you.”
Of course, what her husband doesn't like about summer is chafed thighs.