As we begin our journey into the next decade, we do so in a constant state of fast forward. We are journeying through a time when change itself seems to be the only true constant.
With a few exceptions, of course.
In Bangor, for example, for about the last 70 years or so, you could pretty much be sure that on Monday through Friday there would be a line outside The Coffee Pot sandwich shop on State Street in Bangor.
I didn’t grow up in Bangor, but like most transplants I soon came to appreciate The Coffee Pot sandwich. After a couple of maiden trips, I had the ordering ritual down pat, almost as good as a native east-sider.
Stand outside the door and wait until there is space enough inside for you. Enter and try not to take up any more room than you need, for there were always more people waiting outside.
No one would scold you if you were not prepared when you got to the counter, but everyone, especially owner Skip Rist, certainly appreciated it when you were. Please don’t call a Coffee Pot sandwich an Italian — it’s not. Don’t ask why it’s not — it’s just not. Order, pay and slide a step or two to the right while your order is bagged.
One customer out, one customer in.
So it went for nearly 80 years.
And that’s exactly how it went on Thursday — but the line was a bit longer.
Everyone standing in that line was waxing sentimental. They told stories, laughed and held one another’s sacred spots in line for bathroom and coffee breaks. The line wound along State Street, down Boyd Street and around the corner onto York Street. The wait was hours and hours long. It was cold, and there was a pretty decent-size chance that those of us near the back would be sent home empty-handed.
But we waited.
For a sandwich?
For a Coffee Pot.
Word began to spread on Wednesday that Thursday would be the final day of Bangor’s iconic sandwich shop.
Ellen Cox was first in line Thursday morning. She arrived with lawn chairs in tow at 6:30 a.m.
She ordered 21 sandwiches when she got inside at 10 a.m., along with magnets, key chains and coffee mugs.
“What makes this sandwich so special?” I asked her.
“I’m not sure. I think maybe it’s the texture. You know, the bread and the meat and the vegetables.”
“It’s the onions. Skip does something special with the onions,” piped up one woman a bit farther back in line.
Farther back yet, latecomer Julie Bishop, who didn’t get in line until nearly 8:30 a.m., sighed.
“I got engaged over a Coffee Pot,” the Bangor mother of two said. “Really I did. Jim brought me a diamond and a Coffee Pot sandwich.
“I grew up in Orrington, and my parents loved Coffee Pots. We came here all the time,” she said.
Even farther back was Sharlene Hooper. She didn’t get in line until 9:15 a.m. and her journey started far back on Boyd Street, just a stone’s throw from Saint John Catholic Church.
Sharlene apparently was born with a taste for a Coffee Pot.
“When my mother was pregnant with me my father came here every day and bought her a Coffee Pot and a chocolate milk — every single day that she was pregnant with me,” she recalled, hopping from one foot to another to try to keep warm.
There were others, many well into their 60s, who could not recall a birthday celebration that did not involve Coffee Pot sandwiches.
“What’s so special?” I asked them all. “What makes them so good?”
“I think it’s the onions,” said some. “It’s the salami.” “It’s the freshness of the bread.” “It’s the simplicity.” “No, it’s definitely the onions. I think he marinates them in something.”
There were wonderful memories and stories shared among strangers in that long, cold line on Thursday. There were other, not so charming moments, such as when one woman came by bragging that she had just sold three sandwiches for $100.
Yes, that’s right: Sandwiches were scalped along State Street.
But back to Julie Bishop.
Bishop has lost both of her parents, and she misses them and talks of them often.
On Thursday, with a lump in her throat, she finally made her way into the small shop, placed her order and sidestepped to the right while Skip bagged up her order.
She had a modest number of sandwiches for herself and her family.
Then she turned the corner from State Street onto Boyd Street and spotted an older gentleman and his wife standing in the long, cold line, and she rolled down her window.
“I bought these in memory of my parents,” she told the gentleman, thrusting forward two sandwiches. “Would you like to have them?”
She drove away and the man, still stunned at such a simple but genuine gesture, slowly placed his arm around his wife’s back, led her with their two sandwiches, over a small snowbank out of the cold and to their car. He stopped for just a moment and said to no one in particular, but to all of us who witnessed it, “Boy, that was awful nice.”
After nearly four hours of searching for the answer to just what made a Coffee Pot so special, perhaps Jane Varney summed it up best.
“It tastes just like it did when I was 7 years old,” she said. “It hasn’t changed a bit.”
The last Coffee Pot sold on Thursday tasted just like it did on someone’s seventh birthday, on their high school graduation, when they gave birth to their first child or when they sat at the bedside of their dying father.
That’s what made it special. It wasn’t the salami, the bread or even those onions. The Coffee Pot was simply a tasty, comfortable constant, and all it cost you was $3.50 and a little bit of a wait in line.