Change — spare, and otherwise

With the weatherman saying it would be noon before the torrential storms that have soaked the east coast arrived in Portland, Ace and I squeezed in a quick visit to the city’s waterfront early Friday.

My hope was to get there early enough to see some fishing boats coming in, maybe some loaded with lobster, 40 million pounds a year of which are harvested off the coast of Maine before making their way to bib-clad diners in fancy restaurants. But, seafood-wise, there wasn’t much going on.

So, taking in the sounds and smells of a city waking up and getting down to business, we walked down some wharves and alleyways as the sun came up — though it did so all but hidden by layers of grey clouds, some passing so low it seemed you could reach up and grab a handful.

Only a few souls were on the streets, one of whom, an employee at the Porthole Restaurant, saw Ace, then went back inside, returning with a handful of sausage balls.

In addition to those giving handouts, there were those seeking them, including the woman above who — treatless though she was — Ace quickly befriended, partly curious, I’d guess, about what might be under her blanket, partly, I’d like to think, because it looked like she needed a friend.

It being the first of the month, her rent was due. She didn’t have it. So she made a sign, grabbed a blanket, took a seat on the ritzy side of the street and hoped for the best.

We contributed $4 to the cause before wandering on. Following a sweet smell in the air, we walked down to the Standard Bakery, next to a Hilton. I had a cup of coffee while Ace stationed himself in a position not too far from the door, in case somebody came out with spare croissant, or spare scone.

Like the lone pigeon wandering the bakery parking lot — that showed some street smarts, I thought — Ace had no luck.

Plenty of upscaling has gone on in Portland’s Old Port District, as it has in harbors and riverfronts across America. As in Baltimore’s glitzy Inner Harbor, panhandlers — showing some street smarts, as well —  occasionally sneak in, as if to remind us of the incongruity of it all.

Unlike in Baltimore, Portland’s waterfront remains a working one — at least on one side of Commercial Street. On one side, former warehouses are now home to boutiques, restaurants and bars; on the wharf side, condos and cruise ships have joined the soggy blue- collar fishing operations.

Maine’s not an easy state to survive — much less prosper — in. The state government itself, like most, is having hard times. Just yesterday, the governor announced $10 million in spending cuts, mostly in the Department of Health and Human Services.

The cuts would not result in layoffs, the state said, or in a significant cutback to people currently receiving services — which sounds like a pretty good trick.

“What we have done is tried to absorb in programs funding that we otherwise would have used to expand or increase the program, because as you all know, we have significant demand on services,” DHHS Commissioner Brenda Harvey said.

I’ve read that sentence four times, and still don’t understand it.

Meanwhile, due to the poor economy, the number of people waiting for services– in nearly all the department’s programs — just keeps growing.

With many of its biggest industries being seasonal — potatoes, lobster, blueberries (the state produces more than 95 percent of them) — hard times are nothing new in Maine, leading it to turn to tourism to fill in the gaps.

An expansion of its casino industry is also being looked at. Maine voters will decide in November on a proposed $165 million casino and resort in the western part of the state.

In 2003, voters approved slot machines at a racetrack, now known as Hollywood Slots, in Bangor. Since then they’ve rejected three casino referendums. This time around, who knows? They might decide it’s the best way to weather the economic storm.

As Ace, the pigeon and the down-on-her luck tenant could tell you, you do what you have to do.

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