PORTLAND, Maine — It’s that time of year again. The snowbanks are retreating. Only a few dirt-encrusted sentinels remain crouched in shaded corners and alleys. The cold spring sun is doing them in, forcing them to surrender their winter secrets.
Late March is not a pretty time in the city but it’s a favorite. It’s time to wake up, get out and see what’s downtown on the ground. It’s fascinating stuff with mysteries and stories to unravel.
This is a shoulder season between winter’s snow blanket and the hum of the street sweepers. Instead of tulips and daffodils, city gutters and sidewalks are sprouting cigarette butts by the millions, countless decaying dog poops and last fall’s disappointed campaign signs.
Winter snow is magical. It makes the old city look festive and clean for a while. Trash, used needles and discarded clothing vanish beneath a layer of faultless white. When it starts to lose its sparkling sheen, a fresh, smooth coat of flakes falls from the sky.
Real spring, the kind that comes in late April, is a season of wonder. Grass grows green, flowers wave their rainbow colors at the sky and evenings linger into the night. The city gets swept clean, rinsed in a hundred warm showers.
Right now, it’s neither spring nor winter. There’s no white and no green. This is the gray time.
Still, there’s plenty to see and point a camera at. Every piece of detritus suggests a backstory. Many questions come to mind. None are answered.
Over there is a pair of forgotten bicycles, emerging from the show. They’re still chained to a “no parking” sign, right where they were left last fall when winter overtook them. How did their owners get around all winter?
On some streets in Bayside, the gutters are nearly bursting with orange syringe safety tips. There’s needles and saline packs, too, but mostly the tips. Why is that?
There are shoes as well — sneakers, mostly, and never in pairs. The same rule applies to gloves. Only one appears at a time. Are their mates waiting at home, or are they lost on a another block?
The most perplexing thing is bagged dog doo. Someone went to the trouble of scooping the stuff (thank you!) but just couldn’t manage to get it off the sidewalk. Did they think their job was done? Did they intend to come back later? As the saying goes: Hard telling, not knowing.
In the next few weeks, Portland’s street cleaners will be hard at work. By night, they will sweep the gutters and clear the drains. Parks will be spruced up and mulched. Much of what winter left behind will be gone. Nobody will be sad about that.
Still, if you’re a city dweller, you should get out and walk around. The sun is reviving, it’s getting warmer every day. Look where you’re going but also look down, by your feet. Notice the bits of humanity. It may not be pretty but it can be pretty interesting.
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