Pissed off in Portland


Hunter Mallette

Graffiti in a Portland alleyway

I held my legs tightly together as I speed-walked down Fore Street in Portland, Maine. My foremost concern in this foreign city was, “Where am I gonna pee?” Portland has no public bathrooms, something I didn’t realize before I started driving there four hours previously. If I had known this, I would have reconsidered the two large coffees I had consumed that morning.

My trip companion, Jessie Warren, a Johnson State College alumna, and I walked five blocks to the nearest parking garage. After asking the parking garage guard where the nearest bathroom was and not getting a pleasant answer, I took a guess and walked into East End Cupcakes. The bakery was formerly on the cooking show “Cupcake Wars,” and it was my savior.

Alas, nothing is free in Portland, it seemed. A hot pink and glittered sign said “Customers only” on the bathroom. I knew I had to order a cupcake from the very basic cupcake lineup of chocolate, vanilla, funfetti, and salted caramel. I chose a salted caramel cupcake, and was informed that I had to buy another cupcake in order to make it over the $5.00 credit charge minimum. So make that two salted caramel cupcakes. My cupcakes were wrapped in a hot pink gift box, and with the box in hand I ran to the bathroom.

After using the bathroom, I was stuck with the question: so what the hell do we do in Portland? Known for the three L’s — lobster, lighthouses, and local fare — I had a vague idea that I wanted to see some lighthouses and some art museums, and eat some good food.

The trip from Johnson took four hours and we drove via route US-302 E, which took us through charming small towns in New Hampshire and the White Mountains. We made great time and arrived at 10 a.m.

The city of Portland has a population containing 24,000 more people than Burlington, Vermont, and therefore feels pretty small and easy to navigate around. The two major sections of the city are the arts district and the Old Port, just like Burlington has an Old and New North End. Both the arts district and the Old Port are in walking distance of each other. We took the first highway exit to Portland, which happened to be the Old Port, so once in Portland we were right along the pier. If you walk north a few blocks from the pier, you are right in the middle of the arts district.

Shops are situated closely together, and there is at least one bar on every block. Popular chains like Five Guys and Starbucks are there, but there are also more authentic and original places to go, which was excellent.

After scoping the stores, we decided by the time we walked the five-or-so blocks back to the car that we would stay busy for the entire morning. A black chalk board sign interfered with my travel path and made me read it: “You are getting very thirsty,” it read, with a tornado-like circle that made me think of a cartoon character being hypnotized. Maine Squeeze Juice had us hooked, and we walked into the juice bar while thinking what an interesting concept a juice bar is.

A young woman with a shaved head greeted me and asked if we had been there before. “The code key says what kind of smoothies and juices we offer. For example, we have ones specifically for energy,” she said. I ordered the Maine Blueberry smoothie, which had blueberries, banana, mint, and apple cider.

After leaving the juice bar, we kept walking down the same street and came to a shop titled “Cool as a Moose.” A giant moose head with blue sunglasses hung from the top of the building, and I knew this had to be a weird shop. Upon stepping up the stairs and going through the door, I noticed a small room that compared to the awkward and cramped state of my one-room apartment. There were things piled to my right, left, and in front of me. Before leaving I had to buy tourist essentials: magnets and car stickers.
Nearing noon, we were starting to get very hungry. Before arriving, I was told by a close friend and Portland “expert” that I should eat at Silly’s, which is named from an Albert Einstein quote.

Our GPS directed us across town to 40 Washington Avenue. The small side road was mostly apartments and parking was very limited. I could see a pink, green, and yellow sign painted on an alley entrance that said “Silly’s.” Silly’s is described as a “funky mainstay making familiar chow, including burgers and pizza, lots of desserts and vegetarian items.”

We walked down a small alleyway and were given the choice to walk either left or right, as the restaurant was split in half. We chose to go left since most activity seemed to be happening in this side of the dining space. I opened the doors and was greeted by a server, who brought us across the alley and to the other part of the restaurant, which accommodated both the kitchen and additional seating.

Jessie and I were led to a small table about the width of my forearm’s length, and were sandwiched between a family of five and the large kitchen. Our table had a med-kit on it, which contained napkins and salt and pepper. Since both Jessie and I do not eat meat, we chose Silly’s in part because they had an expansive and interesting selection of food.

We ordered vegan fried pickles and the Bio Diesel Wrap, which had BBQ flavored tofu, vegan mango and basil sauced coleslaw, tomato, and pickles. We also ordered the No Smoochie flatbread, which had vegan mozzarella, crumbled veggie burger, caramelized onions, and garlic.

When a woman with a heavily pierced face delivered our pickles, she burst into laughter about our table choice and proceeded to apologize. I had to move the med-kit between the family of five and our small belongings, like our cell phones, just to have room. I really didn’t mind that the food was practically in my lap, because it was truly so delicious.

After witnessing a waitress spill three milkshakes, we decided we had enough of a silly experience and headed back to Congress Street/the Arts district.

Congress Street is home to Maine College of Art and multiple art galleries filled with local and student work. The photography gallery at MECA is huge and covers the entire basement of the Porteous building, and is a cumulative display of work underclassmen and also seniors produce.

My favorite photo depicted a figure in purple fishnets standing on another person’s feet. That person was sitting down on a couch, and the photo was captured from the waist down. All of the photos, although done by different artists, captured this weird bohemian essence. Other noteworthy photos included a woman “cutting” her nipples with scissors, and a couple holding each other and “feeding” each other cigarettes to smoke from.

Directly across from these galleries sits a quaint art shop called the “Art Mart,” where I met the strangest woman. As soon as I walked in, I was verbally assaulted and asked who I was and where I was from, and in turn the woman told me about how rambunctious of a child she was. (She currently had a broken leg, and told me a story about how she broke it as a child as well.) I fumbled around the store without purpose, until I came to the micron pen section. I love colorful micron pens and they work extremely well for sketching. I grabbed a couple and dreaded having to walk to the counter to have conversation again.

I paid with a card, and the woman scolded me for not having my signature on the back. “You must sign your card. What if it gets stolen?” she yelled as she knocked down a stack of papers on the desk in search of a pen. Wanting to just pay and leave, I didn’t put up much of a fight. She blamed the knocking over of the papers and other materials on her Italian and Netherland and whatever-the-hell-else descendants.

“I’m just a mutt! Have you heard about Newfies? My father is from Newfoundland,” she said. At this point I just ran out with my purchase, and once on the street I was in tears from laughter.

The walk continued, and we took a right on Monument Street. The first thing my eyes set on was Longfellow Books, and I knew this would be one of our last destinations. I can spend hours in a good book store. In the front of the bookstore was an enormous assortment of half priced books and used books. I eventually found a huge book on Banksy, a British street artist, for $4.00, originally retailed around $30.00. Near the register was an assortment of pins and I got three small author pins: Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, and Virginia Woolfe.

The man behind the counter was pleased that I got a Virginia Woolfe pin, and we started a conversation about the enormous lime green Bernie Sanders pin he had attached to his shirt. After I explained that we were from Vermont, he gave us both free Bernie pins.

Jessie’s one and only need on the trip was to see the oldest lighthouse in Portland, Portland Head Light, which is across the bridge and in Cape Elizabeth. The drive was relatively quick, but a little confusing because we had no clue that it had been adapted into a park. Driving through Cape Elizabeth is vastly different, as the houses are more like mansions. After missing the turn, we drove into the park and walked to the shoreline.

Being midday in spring, the wind was very fierce but the trails along the shoreline stretched for probably five miles and had benches along the way for outlooks. Binoculars were also situated with benches every so often. Like any ocean front, the air was filled with the fresh scent of salt, and seagulls loomed overhead. Two lighthouses were present, and the larger one had a look-out dock to see the Head Light. After shooting a roll of film and walking nearly a mile, we were ready to move on.

“Do you care if we go back to Maine Squeeze before heading home? It was so good I want to try another smoothie,” Jessie said. That was our last stop, and it was nearing 7 p.m. We made it back in Vermont around 10 p.m., and were exhausted by the day but proud we navigated a new place so well.

As a college student, I often get bored with the mundane weekends in the little town of Johnson, Vermont, and assume others do as well. Are you looking for a getaway that is only four hours away, and doesn’t require driving through rush-hour city traffic? Look no further than Portland, Maine, an artsy college-town fueled by weirdos.