It was a Thursday, normally a workday but we were tucked in the downstairs of the Portland Museum of Art, around 100 of us taking pause to listen to Maine, live.
That’s what they call it: Maine Live. Like a TED conference fitted with flannel, 15 speakers with 15 minutes each to talk about whatever they want. Mainers of all backgrounds: a former U.S. Olympic luge racer, the co-founder of ReVision Energy, the department chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Maine Medical Center, business owners and nonprofit directors and artists. Pious Ali, Maine’s first African-born American and Muslim to be elected to a public office, shared stories of young immigrants and people of color searching for jobs amidst more roadblocks than on-ramps. Kennebunk-based architect Brian Beaudette talked about knowing he was gay but pushing his feelings aside through high school, college, a marriage and fatherhood. MaineWorks founder Margo Walsh shared her own struggle with alcoholism and how her work helping felons and addicts find jobs helps her, too.
Like most conferences of the inspirational type there were standing ovations, moments of teariness, hors d’oeuvres during intermissions and photo handshakes. But at Maine Live there was more. It was a distillation of creative energy, the state concentrated. Put 15 Mainers in a room and let them to speak on whatever they want and there could be 15 distinct topics, no linking thread. But themes emerged: immigration, climate change, the power of business for positive impact. If you wanted a pulse on Maine, a hint at what was important and pressing in the state today, with Maine Live as a carotid snapshot you got a chance to see it, what matters to those in the thick of it, out in the morass.
And there was a shadow among themes, a darkness that kept rearing: any Maine Live participant would be forced to note how often heroin came up. Among a roomful of professionals, nonprofit-types and business people opiates were everywhere. One speaker, Biddeford-based plumbing and heating business owner Jim Godbout, devoted his entire talk to addiction, to the impacts of heroin and other drugs and the toll they’ve taken on his community. He stood wet-eyed on stage and shared stories of more than 40 friends and loved ones lost. This inside the white walls of the art museum, a space more familiar with the picturesque projections of upper-middle-classness than somber stories of social decay.
But opiates have emerged so insidious they’ve wormed their way into all our halls, part of everything and everywhere, in the art museum not in some scrawlings by an on-edge surrealist but among the crisp crowd who rents the space for the ambiance. Addiction has left the shadows, gone mainstream.
It is a funny thing, watching talk of heroin and opiate addiction wind its way through such circles. These $100-tickets events are usually reserved for generative conversations that lighten the heart, exchanges that make you think, make you wonder. Perhaps they highlight a societal problem, but one distant. But here sat a hint of alarm bells, indications of a problem metastasizing close to home. Addiction the wrecking ball swings at all walls, even those lined by Wyeths and Winslow Homer. Something needs to happen, soon.
That was in the museum. Then Maine Live ended. I walked out onto Free Street, crossed over to Congress in my sport coat and dress shoes.
Around Forest a man pointed at me from a few feet away. He was walking towards me wearing a tee shirt and dirty jeans. “Wait!” he said. “Before you take another step…”
I kept walking, closing our distance.
“…can I have a dollar for something to eat?”
I continued to walk, brushing past him. I heard him turn but he didn’t follow.
A dozen more steps and I heard his voice again, this time shouting: “Who is going to give me a dollar so I can buy SOMETHING TO FUCKING EAT!”
No one paused to listen.
This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.