Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and a few other usual suspects are represented by license plates on parked cars in the Old Port. Like their local counterparts, the cars are covered in thick yellow pollen, the mark of the season.
Fingertip-drawn peace signs and the plea “Wash Me” written in the pollen on hoods and windows are a sure sign of late spring and early summer in Maine. The cars also signal tourists are here.
If the pollen seems extra bothersome this year, that’s because it is. High peak periods are stretching out and the season itself is now an average of 20 days longer than it was three decades ago. According to the National Academy of Sciences, human-caused climate change is a culprit of increasing pollen concentrations. In addition to more yellow stuff, it said, “climate-driven trends are likely to further exacerbate respiratory health impacts in the coming decades.”
As an asthma sufferer who is often triggered by environmental allergies, anything that exacerbates respiratory health puts me on high alert. But I religiously pack my albuterol inhaler and I’m fully vaccinated. Also, like other Portland pandemic survivors, nothing is going to keep me from roaming the Old Port, looking at yellow-tinged cars, and seeing what’s new and different, not to mention old and familiar.
Under the new and different category is live music every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, at Three Dollar Dewey’s on Commercial Street. Tucked behind the restaurant, between two very close buildings, is a skinny alley lined with AstroTurf-like fake grass. With QR codes on chic high-top tables, they’ve made the most of their space and offer interesting vegan and vegetarian items not expected on a pub food menu that debuted in 1980.
Literally stumbling from the pavement onto the “grassed” dining area, we ditched our fancy plans and instead ate at Dewey’s. In full Portland summer mode, there was a solo acoustic guitar player named Kris Hype and the music was as good as my blackened haddock Reuben. If it rains between now and next Tuesday (to wash the pollen away, of course), I’ll be going back.
I’ll probably go back even if it doesn’t rain because, at 37, Hype is a serious and gainfully employed musician. Also part of a band called Burning Time, he calls himself a “rock guy at heart who loves ’90s stuff.” If you happen to find yourself in his Tuesday night audience at Dewey’s, request Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best.” Like other things there these days, the style will surprise you.
Under the old and familiar category, but still surrounded by yellowish cars from all of New England (and the folks that rode in them, too), is weekend brunch on the deck at The Porthole.
Before COVID-19, The Porthole used to have a killer breakfast-brunch buffet. But like many things it has gone by the wayside. Our server this past Saturday didn’t know when or if it would be back, and the hostess was upfront about the long wait we’d have before our food would be up. They were fully staffed but still slammed.
The waiting list was already pages long by 10:30 a.m. (call from your car and put your name in) and seeing people mill around while waiting to be called was a most welcome sight. Only the staff, still diligently wearing masks, reminded me there had been any kind of blip in Portland’s summer mood.
Breakfast at The Porthole is always good, and when I asked for tomato slices instead of homefries there was no problem. The view, the quality of the food, our career server’s easy flow, the waterfront authenticity, all made it a great experience for my own out-of-town guest.
While waiting for our food, and happy to have been forewarned, we relaxed and people-watched. My guest asked if I could tell the difference between the locals and the tourists. It’s harder with anyone under 25, but I just knew the older sandals-and-white-socks guy was from away.
Sticking with shoes to further my speculative point, I said, “Women wearing stilettos are definitely tourists since we’ve all learned the hard way that cobblestones and uneven wooden planks will destroy them, as well as endanger the entire body. Many a pair of Jimmy Choos met their death on Wharf Street at bar time.”
Also, I told her, designer handbags with scarves lean toward tourists. Nodding to an oversized Louis Vuitton number on top of a picnic table, we both agreed it looked out of place. But the woman who had carried it seemed to fit in after all. The entire back of her little red sundress was covered in yellow, perhaps from leaning against a car or brushing against a pine tree with low-hanging needles.
Watching our server approach with food, the woman in the dress reached into her bag for tissues and sneezed no less than three times. New and different in intensity and appreciation, sliding into Portland summer is an old and familiar mood worth singing about.
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].