PORTLAND, Maine — It was surreal. Nothing I could see matched what I was hearing. Then, it got even weirder. I’m grateful for that.
I’d just filed the last photo of the day from behind the wheel of my truck on Tuesday afternoon. I closed my laptop and was about to drive home but I didn’t. Gov. Janet Mills was about to come on the radio and I decided to stay where I was, in a parking lot overlooking Back Cove and the Baxter Boulevard walking path.
The sun was shining through the windshield. It was warm and I wanted to hear what Mills had to say about the coronavirus pandemic currently gripping Maine.
I listened as she ordered people to stay home, for their own good.
“This virus will continue to sicken people across our state. Our cases will only grow, and more people will die,” Mills said on my radio. “I say this to be direct, to be as honest with you as I can because saving lives will depend on us.”
Through my windshield, I saw a sun-drenched scene. The parking lot was jammed with cars. Helmeted kids whizzed by on bikes. Couples strolled together, hand-in-hand. Joggers puffed around the Boulevard. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky.
Nobody seemed worried. They weren’t listening to the governor. It looked like any other early spring day in the city with people out and about, enjoying the rare sunshine. I couldn’t reconcile my ears and eyes. The dire, deadly serious tone on the radio didn’t match the carefree scene in front of me.
I noticed the same disconnect in myself, too. The sun on my face should have felt something like bliss after a long, dark winter in Maine. But it didn’t. Deeper inside me, a gnawing, expanding anxiety was threatening to take over. Concerns paraded through my brain, one by one.
My father is not young. How can I help keep him healthy? I have a lot of self-employed friends. How are they going to weather this economic catastrophe? What about my wife and myself — can we manage to not get sick, to hang onto our jobs and our house?
I was unnerved. I felt like I might scream — but only for a moment.
Just about then, I saw a flock of juvenile herring gulls gathering in the blue sky. There were maybe 20 or 30 of them, squawking and diving after something I couldn’t see. It was behind a car.
My evil spell of doubt was broken. I switched off the governor, grabbed my cameras and went to investigate. Thankfully, my sense of photographic curiosity is still stronger than the fear and panic in my belly.
I found Damian Hoeflinger on the other side of the car. Hoeflinger was holding a ball of raw hamburger in one uplifted, outstretched hand. He held several more pounds of red meat in his other hand. Above Hoeflinger, lofted on a slight breeze, was a flapping, feathered mass of hovering birds. There were too many, they were too stationary to seem real.
I watched as one gull swooped down out of the cloud of feathers, gobbled up his generous offering and flew away, shrieking.
I started squeezing off frames, lost in the moment, the way I always am when I’m shooting. It was a sweet escape. There was nothing in my mind but shutter speeds and decisive moment calculations.
I could hear Hoefliger talking to the birds as he flung ground beef treats at them. Gulls snatched them in mid air and squabled over them on the ground.
“Here you go boys and girls,” Hoeflinger said. “Here you go.”
When he ran out of meat, he fed them cookies. I kept on shooting.
When Hoefliger finished, I chatted with him. He said he often comes to the boulevard with food for the gulls after he gets out of work in the afternoon. I asked if he knew the governor had just ordered everyone to stay home for the next month.
“I didn’t hear it but knew it was coming,” Hoefliger said.
He said he’d miss his bird friends but he understood it was the right call. I thanked him for his time and went back to my truck.
As I drove away, I couldn’t help but felt grateful for the meeting and the pictures. Staying busy, doing what I love just might keep me sane in the coming weeks. News is going to get even more grim. Knowing that there’s original Maine characters like Damian Hoeflinger to meet and chronicle on the other side of all of this is what will get me through. It even feels something like hope.