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Maine humorist Tim Sample knows a thing or two about out-of-staters.
Sample has made a career out of telling Maine stories, and in his repertoire he’s got plenty that centers on the traditional foil — hapless visitors from away who make the mistake of underestimating wily Mainers. He’s told those jokes a time or two in his life.
“It’s been a very common and longstanding, tongue-in-cheek thing, about people from away. Summer complaints,” he said. “It’s certainly a boilerplate part of the Maine humor canon… You could be from anywhere, any race, creed, color and religion, and you can do just fine in Maine — as long as you don’t do the cardinal sin, which is that thinking that whatever you do, wherever you came from, it makes you better than the local people.”
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But now, in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, some Mainers believe that out-of-staters are committing a second cardinal sin: that they could be unwittingly bringing the virus into the state with them. For some, the sight of cars from New York and Massachusetts heading north on I-95 seems more ominous than ordinary — a feeling that has evoked mixed responses from locals.
Under normal circumstances, Dan Miller of Belfast is welcoming of summer visitors. But this year, his usual friendliness is undercut by fear. He and his son were at Overlock Skate Park in Belfast recently when some visitors from Brooklyn, New York, struck up a conversation.
“Henry and I literally dropped our bikes and walked backwards up a corner ramp to get away from them,” he said. “We weren’t afraid of being mugged or killed — only breathed on or touched.”
New York City is at the epicenter of the global pandemic crisis now. As of Sunday, there have been more than nearly 100,000 confirmed cases there and more than 6,000 deaths from the coronavirus. New York state alone has more confirmed coronavirus cases than any other country outside of the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
While New Yorkers are under a lockdown, many have fled elsewhere for refuge. Escalated tensions between city-dwellers and the people who live year-round in more sparsely populated vacation destinations have made headlines around the country. But a couple of reports in Maine have been particularly attention-getting. Those include the short-lived effort on North Haven to stop non-residents from visiting the island and a small group of people from Vinalhaven who allegedly tried to force a group of out-of-staters to quarantine by cutting down a tree and blocking their driveway.
It’s enough to make a person wonder if the pandemic is tipping Maine’s folksy suspicion of those from away into something darker.
“Unfortunately, we’re in a time where there’s a great, massive vilification of the other,” Sample said. “You can call it xenophobia. You can call it jingoism. It’s not just in America — it’s all over. Oftentimes, in difficulty, we look for someone else to blame.”
‘Stay the fack home’
It’s an unprecedented moment, as everyone keeps saying.
Andy O’Brien, who is one-half of the creative duo behind O’Chang Comics, said he didn’t want to fan the flames of fear when he and his wife, Hanji Chang, recently released an animated public service announcement about the pandemic. In it, their character Donny, the grumpy Maine dad, who is the select board chairman for a fictional island community called “Fantasy Haven,” shares his two cents.
“All you friggin’ city folks, thinking about hiding out up here, we don’t want to have to go all Vinalhaven on ya. So for now, stay the fack home,” Donny says from an easy chair placed in front of his supply of toilet paper, sardines and Allen’s Coffee Brandy. “We’ll see you when this is all ovah.”
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For O’Brien, it felt important to strike the right tone: Donny doesn’t sound angry. He just sounds resigned to the current reality, and hopeful that we’ll get to the other side eventually.
“A lot of people I talked to in the area, like contractors and people who work on houses, were like, ‘I don’t have a problem with people from away. That’s how I make my money. But they need to respect the fact that we’re in the middle of a pandemic,’” he said. “It’s exacerbated the class tensions that have been with us forever … it’s a continuation, and the pandemic has blown those tensions up. It could get ugly.”
O’Brien said he’s been noticing the escalation of rhetoric on social media, as some Mainers have shared videos they’ve recorded in parking lots of cars with out-of-state plates in order to rile things up.
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“Everybody gets really, really angry, but you don’t know. They could be visiting health care workers,” he said. “At the end of the day, they’re here. We all have to live here together now. You don’t want to overburden the hospital from brawls between the natives and the people from away.”
A double-edged sword
Rep. Genevieve McDonald, D-Stonington, represents Vinalhaven and other island and coastal communities. It’s a district with many second homes and seasonal rental houses. Although the communities are generally very welcoming, there are understandable reasons why people may feel worried right now, McDonald said.
“One is the element of fear,” she said. “People are feeling as though they need to protect their communities and protect their families and keep people safe. I think we can all relate to that.”
Another reason is that rural areas — and unbridged island communities in particular — lack resources.
“There’s scarcity on the island, and it also takes time to get people to the treatment they need,” McDonald said.
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Still, she hopes that Mainers will keep in mind that a lot of people who need to be here may be driving around in cars with out-of-state plates, including traveling nurses, returning college students and those who are working on critical infrastructure. She also hopes that the people who are thinking of heading to their second homes will respect the realities of what is happening now.
“Please respect your neighbors and your community and shelter in place,” she said. “Maine is a very idyllic place to visit, and that is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, these are quiet, rural communities, and that’s why people come here. On the other hand, it may not be the best place to be if you need medical treatment. Stay where you are and where you have access to medical care.”
Beyond license plates
For one Bangor woman, when a family friend who lives in the Bronx needed a place to go, the notion of “being afraid” never crossed her mind. Sarah McCarthy drove to her Somerset County camp and snowshoed in the unplowed driveway so she could open it early. That night, the family of New Yorkers arrived around midnight and self-quarantined for two weeks. They took it seriously, and got other friends to drop a sled of food off outside the camp.
“I felt really good that we could do this. It felt right,” McCarthy said. “Then I read two days later about these freaking guys on an island, and saw that people are saying, ‘Why don’t we close the border?’”
That didn’t sit well with her.
“We’re seeing them as ‘other,’” she said of the out-of-staters coming to Maine. “We do this sort of jokingly over the summer. ‘Oh, the out-of-staters are here.’ But we also depend on them. So why are we being so hostile?”
McCarthy feels that she’s seeing a side of Mainers, or maybe just people, that she doesn’t like.
“I’m hearing more and more of the mean,” she said. “It’s scaring me that on such a basic human level, we are saying, ‘No — you are not welcome here. No — your health is not valued as much as mine. And the assumption that people are going to bring it and not practice good hygiene and safety. Why do people come from that perspective?”
The best and the worst
Not all New Yorkers coming to Maine have been met with hostility. Sara, a Brooklyn woman who has been staying with her husband and two children at her aunt’s home in Portland since March 22, said that she has felt welcomed by neighbors — from a distance, of course. But she understands why some in the state feel differently.
“We definitely talked before we left about, is this the right thing to do?” she said. “I understand the criticism.”
Sample, the humorist, is trying to take a long view. This moment will pass, just as one day the virus will. He recalled the Ice Storm of 1998, and a utility lineman from Detroit he met while performing in Michigan years later. The man told Sample he had been to Maine to help out during the power outage, and was met with open arms — even though he was from away, and even though he was a black man finding himself suddenly in one of the whitest states in the country.
“What happens in difficult circumstances is that the best of people rises to the top, and some of the worst behaviors also emerge,” Sample said. “Having been born in Maine, raised in Maine, I think at our core and our culture, we are tremendously given to helping one another out.”
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