Thomas McLaughlin

Thomas McLaughlin

Sparing a Moment for Alicia's Day

It was Friday afternoon when I met Alicia on Commercial Street, near LeRoux Kitchen. I had seen her many times before on my walking route through the Old Port to Elm Street MetroBus stop. I would occasionally give her money, when I had some cash, but I never really talked with her. Not because I didn’t want to. I think it was more that I was frustrated. Frustrated by a social service system that forces people to beg for money on the street in order to survive.

I’ve spent many years studying the issues and causes of homelessness. My conclusion is that it's not an especially complicated issue to solve, but policy makers have made it complicated.

Alicia was holding a cardboard sign, which simply said HUNGRY. “How are you today?” I ask. “I am good, thank you for asking,” she says cheerfully. I fumble for a dollar bill and hand it to her. We start talking.

Alicia tells me about her life in Portland. It's complicated. She has been living on the street since she was 14. Disabled at a young age, she struggles with mental illness. She talks about the stress of coping with her illness and how it impacts her daily life. She tells me she has a hard time trusting people. 

Alicia stays at the shelter when she can. When she can’t, she spends the night at various parking garages around town. Camping outside in the warmer months. When it’s really cold, she says she walks around as long as she can, hoping to find a place to stay warm. Sometimes that happens to be the emergency room at Mercy. “It was 18 degrees the other night. I ended up walking around until about 3 a.m. and then went to the emergency room to warm up,” she says. 

Alicia talks about her experience “spanging” - her term for asking for spare change with a cardboard sign.“ I try to make just enough to eat and for a couple of cups of coffee,” she says. She tells me she makes about $10 a day.

While the money helps with food, she also just wants to talk to people. But she knows that can be tricky. “If people smile or look at me, then I know it's going to be a good experience,” she said. “If they look away or not at me, I still say hello but don’t say anything else. Most people are nice. Some people stop and talk and I like to talk with people. I don’t get to do that much.”

This is a similar refrain I have heard from others I've talked with who live on the streets of Portland. They talk about being invisible. They also talk about how grateful they are to be able to have a conversation with someone.  

I ask if she's had bad experiences and her tone changes. “Sometimes people are rude to me. They make fun of me, tell me I’m lazy, to get a job, get off drugs. They don’t know me, I don’t do drugs,” she says.

Alicia tells me she's tried to apply for housing and other benefits. She wants an apartment, but the wait list for affordable apartments is long -- two years or more, she says. To get one, Alicia will need to qualify. That means multiple forms, certification of her disability and other documentation to qualify her worthy of assistance.

My research shows that Alicia will need some help to stay in an apartment, if she gets one. She'll need help with coping with her disability, and assistance with trusting people and feeling safe. That could mean even more forms and certifications.

As our conversation concludes, I ask about the rest of her day. “I am going to stay here for awhile and then go to the soup kitchen for dinner tonight,” she says. “I have a friend who goes there and I hope we can have dinner together. I haven’t seen her in quite awhile.”  

As I walk away, I hear Alicia offer a cheerful hello to another passerby. I stop to watch. They don’t see her, or they choose not to. From my perspective, it's a missed opportunity for them. Alicia has a full day today and would be happy to share with anyone who asks.

A Hot Dog and a Dialogue

The corner of Middle and Exchange streets is the epicenter of downtown Portland life. On one corner is Starbucks. Across the street, Tommy’s Park. There are high-end retailers like the Portland Salt Cellar and Stonewall Kitchen, Bard Coffee, and multiple banks and investment firms. You can see someone skateboarding in Post Office Park while overhearing a conversation between lawyers about a civil case in district court just up the street.

But the anchor to this quintessential spot in downtown Portland is Mark Gatti of Mark’s Hot Dogs.

Mark's hot dog stand sits between two benches across the street from Camden National Bank and next to Bard. From there, he's been selling hot dogs, sausages and drinks for 34 years. That is a lot of hot dogs.

A social worker by training, Mark has gotten to know a lot of people. On the warm sunny day I was there, he talked politics with one patron, discussed the pros and cons of a rock band concert with another, shared stories about his family with a third, and listened intently as a fourth talked about his son and the changes happening in his life.

Mark says when he was a social worker he worked with disabled adults in group homes, but running his hot dog stand has been his primary job for many years.  April through October are Mark’s busiest months, but he’s out there nearly every day. “In the summer, when there’s a lunch rush, it's pretty busy,” Mark says. "Sometimes there’s a line, but people don’t seem to mind, it moves quick.”

Mark’s hot dog cart is rather impressive. Big, red and all wood. The front and sides are festooned with stenciled dancing hot dog characters. When Mark opens the hinged cabinet doors on the front, steam wafts out and the air is filled with the aroma of hot dogs. Even if you don’t like the taste, the smell alone is enough to make you smile. A lot of people just stop to have their photos taken with the cart. Mark doesn’t seem to mind. Mark’s hot dog cart is probably on thousands of social media sites.  

Mark says he once sold ten hot dogs to one person. “He said he was really hungry," Mark says with a chuckle. "The guy said give me four of them plain and six loaded. I watched him eat all ten. He was thin but he managed to eat them all."

While there wasn’t much of a line when I was there last summer, those who did stop by the hot dog stand were as diverse as the neighborhood businesses around it. An older gentleman and is wife stopped by, tourists. “I’ll take a chili dog, loaded and don’t wrap it, I’ll eat it right here.” His wife took a picture and he and Mark made small talk. Another customer wearing a kitchen apron asked for a hot dog to go and then disappeared inside Stonewall Kitchen. Another customer, Starbucks cup in hand and a shopping bag, asked for a sausage to go. Two people stopped by asking for directions to Commercial Street.

What does it take to make a hot dog stand become and enduring fixture in the Old Port?  I think it takes Mark. Mark’s easygoing, affable style is welcoming to everyone, regardless if they're asking for directions, getting their picture taken, or are a paying customer. For $2.75, you can get a great hot dog with everything on it and the chance for an uplifting conversation. Or even someone who will just listen intently and smile.

A social worker who runs an established and respected hot dog stand in the Old Port. One that is welcome to everyone, where you are guaranteed to be greeted with a smile. If that isn’t what’s great about Portland, I don’t know what is.

  • Published in Columns

We are Mainers: Four and All

What do Abdi, Abu, Ali and Jim all have in common?  They are all immigrants. Immigrants who have settled in Maine, mostly in Portland. Immigrants who are friendly, helpful, and successful. They are also smart, reflective and believe firmly in the concept of paying it forward. They want everyone to know they are Mainers.  Here are their stories.

Abdi, originally from Somalia, arrived in Maine five years ago. His wife had already been in Portland for many years before he arrived. The father of two, Abdi earned degrees in accounting and business in Abu Dhabi. Arriving in Maine, Abdi worked two shifts a day as a taxi driver for a year before he was able to buy his own cab and hire others. As part of the cab company which operates at the Portland Jetport, he and his drivers are some of the first Mainer’s people meet when the arrive in Portland. His enthusiasm for his job and how he describes his conversations with his customers is infectious. “I love my job and I love talking with people when they arrive here”, he says. Abdi is proud to be a Mainer. Portland is home.

“My wife went to Portland schools and college and is in residency to be a doctor," Abdi says. Being an immigrant is also part of Abdi’s story but he says “I talk to a lot of people. When they tell me about their families or even traveling, I can tell we were all immigrants.”

Abu has a different story.  Abu came to Portland 25 years ago as part of an educational program sponsored by the U.S. government. Top students from that program were invited to the U.S. to continue their education. Abu is also a business owner. Abu and his girlfriend live in Portland.  He is passionate about his work and his community. Abu has family who live all over: Canada, Europe, and Portland. He talks about his work and his voice brightens. He shares a story from a week ago when a young woman walked out of the Portland Amtrak station. It was 1:30 am. She was crying and cold. She only had $20 and needed to get home to Augusta. She asked several cab drivers but there were no takers. She was distraught and afraid. The last cab she walked up to was Abu’s.

Abu said, “You pay for the gas and I’ll take you home.”  She did and he took her home. Grateful to see his daughter and grateful for Abu’s assistance, her father paid the cab fare. “I was really happy to help her, no one else would help her, and her father was very happy to see his daughter,” Abu says.

Ali was a lawyer in Baghdad in 2003. When the U.S. led war intensified, he and his family fled to Egypt and then finally to Houston. Ali says “the first year in the U.S. was really hard, I cried every day.” “I was a lawyer and then, when I arrived here, my job was as a bus driver.” To say it was a big change is an understatement. He says he didn’t struggle with English when he got here. English was taught in school in Baghdad and also in law school. He doesn’t say much about the current political situation; he tries to stay out of it. Thirteen years later, Ali says things are easier. He’s in Maine with his family. He has a good job.  A job where he can help people, talk with them and listen. Everyone has a story if you listen.  He is cheerful, friendly and someone whom you would want to have a cup of tea with and talk about anything, except politics.

Jim’s story is similar. He arrived in Bangor at age 10 with his family from Ireland. Because he didn’t have much in the way of schooling, most of his work experience was on-the-job training, but that was okay in Maine in 1913.  He, too, worked hard and was successful. He was a kind, big-hearted person who loved a good laugh and even more good conversation. He was someone who would happily help a neighbor or family. He too was married, raised three daughters one of whom moved to Portland. Jim once told me, on his 70th birthday, “You and I are Irish but are both from Maine.” He was my grandfather.  

At some point the labeled immigrant changes to become just a comma in a family narrative. Culture, custom and heritage remain and are important parts of cultural celebration. But when does the immigrant label change and who changes it? The change comes from within. It comes from those who are immigrants.  It’s their right to decide. For Abdi, it's “my children were born in Maine, I am an immigrant, but my family is now from Maine.”  For Abu, it's “I came here as part of George [HW] Bush’s program but now, Portland is my home. I have been here for a long time. ”For Ali, it's, “I miss Egypt sometimes but now, this is where my family is. This is my home.” For Jim, it was “Ireland is in you but you are from Maine."

As Abdi said, “It is okay to be an immigrant and from Maine at the same time.” I agree.

  • Published in Columns
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