Viewpoint: A straphanger comes to town



By E.H. Gerard

 

When I moved to a small Maine town, an adventure began: from simply getting a car and camper stuck in mud to living off the land, as it was called back in the ’70s and ’80s. I assumed this monumental change in my life would be like previous moves to other states; however, I gradually learned our Johnny-on-the-spot town citizens regarded me as a straphanger, a term I had not heard when I lived in Illinois, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, and, forgive me, Massachusetts.

I could not picture who my neighbors thought had clumsily invaded their territory. Did they think I had whipped someone and then hung up my strap? Blimey, this was serious!

A quick Google search (straphanger.askdefine.com) states, “In the central Down East region of Maine, straphanger has become an insult used against persons who are perceived as being from away.” Those dear hearts were insulting me?

Where did this term come from? I speculate that a Down Easterner had the unfortunate need to see a sick relative in Boston. Even worse he took the subway to his destination. All around him stood strangers hanging onto a strap as the train swirled and rushed through tunnels. He came back and spread the word.

In my case, my neighbors’ actions overtook any preconceived ideas. When the landowner arrived and found us trespassers stuck on his land (I was trying to take a shortcut over his field onto my recently acquired wood lot — in spring), he merely chuckled and scratched his head. He kindly offered the field for a sleepover.

The next morning, another neighbor with heavy equipment arrived. He surveyed us bleakly as though, yes indeed, the aliens had landed. Two women, two girls and two dogs watched him demurely. After many shakes of his head and cleverly placed chains, we were soon on solid ground.

After a shaky or should I say a muddy start, I was off to experience the joy of rural living: few to no vehicles on the road, no waiting in line at a bank, a wave from all who passed me when walking or even driving around town and friendly, warm help at the town office.

Stopping into our general store — the center of all gossip, updates and jokes around the pot-belly stove, for gasoline was simple and quick. The stares were unintentional but curious as to how long this “straphanger” would last. We were living without electricity, running water, and indoor toilet during a harsh winter. (Ah, the good old days.) Nothing new to most Mainers, however.

Now, after some 38 years, was I too a Mainer? Nope. For the honor, one’s family must have lived in Maine from the beginning. Well, maybe not the very beginning of time. Another Google search.

A Mainer is someone who “was born and raised, and possibly had generations of family before them (who) also lived” here. “It’s someone who uses r’s where there ain’t none and doesn’t use r’s where they’ah supposed to be.”

Essentially, a true, diehard Mainer has roots in Maine that dug down for centuries. A lifetime will not cut it and certainly not for this newbie. Well, at least the luster of “straphanger” has faded.

E.H. Gerard has been an editor of a hospital newsletter, written an epistolary novel for middle-schoolers and has written a memoir on living in Saudi Arabia. She lives in Penobscot.

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