Leftovers: Repurposed lives

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Most Mainers who support the COVID-19 vaccine have received it by now and we should be proud of ourselves. Maine is among the leading states in the percentage of vaccinated adults, and as most of us know, our chronological demographic is best classified as “old.”

As in a lot of adults per capita vaccinated, so good for us. 

Masks are now a maybe-or-maybe-not option, and more than one restaurant is in the process of removing the plexiglass between barstools and bartenders. Yes, things are still iffy but we’re on the way to something that resembles a different normal. 

Accompanying this different normal is a phenomenon of self-reckoning that has settled into the consciousness of some people who aren’t excited or willing to go back to their lives as they were pre-pandemic. 

“Every day before the pandemic was the same old day-in-day-out,” said Janis Malloway, 39, a medical receptionist at a private practice in Saco. “At first, I was scared not to have my routine. But the more time went on, the more I was able to step back and look at what I did.

“I finally had time to dive into my sewing room. I made masks and custom scrubs for friends, then I started selling them. I am thinking of not going back to work in June, or going back part-time because I love making scrubs for women with challenging sizes or physical disabilities. I’ve added pretty buttons, snaps, and hook-and-eye closures where they make sense, plus different length pants to name a few things. If I could just figure out insurance I think I’d do it full-time and open a business. I’m back-ordered for at least three months.”

Malloway isn’t the only one who now looks at the forced time-off as an opportunity to redirect the way she earns money.

“After going through the whole summer last year with no work, I almost lost my apartment and my car,” said Sharon S., 27, who was a career server in Kennebunk. “But I started interior painting and furniture refinishing and things just blew up. It’s rewarding to help people change a room into a different mood. Next week, I’m meeting with the Small Business Administration to find help to do this right. It’s scary, but without the shutdown, I never would have taken a hobby to this level.”

Malloway acknowledged not everyone has the option to switch careers mid-stream and considers herself privileged to have a job to return to if she desires. She also credits Maine as being a place where the side-hustle is seen as industrious.

April Carson has combined her landscaping skills and retail floral experience into a pandemic-born business.

“My dad always also worked different jobs so he could spend time metalsmithing,” she said. “Almost everyone I knew growing up had a main job and then sold produce and eggs, or did big dump runs for neighbors, or tinkered with plumbing or electricity. Usually, one thing they did was something they liked to do. That’s my problem, I like the people at the office but the job is so boring.”

April Carson, 41, of Standish, has always turned to nature, flowers in particular, for solace. With previous experience in landscaping, greenhouse, and side-hustling private garden design and installation, it made sense that she would look to her own multi-color backyard for a way to tie it together.

“I currently work a part-time job that allows me an opportunity to start a small, floral bouquet business based on a subscription model,” Carson said. “I’m doing 10 weeks (every other week) of hand-picked and arranged, seasonal bouquets for $225. I’m going to include the flower names and care tips, and give everyone a large starter mason jar. This year will be my learning year.” 

Carson is aware that many small businesses fail and that she has competition at local farmer’s markets and from national online companies. An avid photographer and artist, she knows her new business venture alone won’t cut it. “I’ll have to keep working other jobs for a while, but my husband is supportive and knows this is my true passion,” she said. “He works full time, but is a talented woodworker and craftsman. We support each other.”

Sharon S., the server-turned-interior-painter, said her time without a job gave her the opportunity to research prices, make calls to real estate agents and furniture stores, and develop the business plan she’ll be presenting to the SBA next week. Like Malloway, she also knows a side-hustle-turned-real-business is the Maine way. 

“There was a lot that really sucked about last year,” she said. “But I’m so happy I live in a place where I can do this kind of thing. I don’t want to spend my life never knowing if I could make it at something I love. I’d still be waiting tables, too tired to even look at paints. Now, I look at colors with people all the time.” 

With Malloway’s bright buttons and Carson’s beautiful bouquets, they’ll be bringing their customers the colors of a repurposed life, too.

Once again, good for us.

Natalie Ladd is a Portland restaurant veteran, freelance writer, and connoisseur of all things Bruce Springsteen. She loves Boston sports, chewy red wine and has never sampled a cheese she didn’t like. She can be reached at [email protected].