One by one the fishermen arrive.
With no sound, perhaps a nod, they quietly take their seats. A cup of coffee arrives shortly after, silently and without any prompting. Then another fisherman enters, quickly followed by two more. Nods in greeting are exchanged with no words spoken, as this is clearly the non-verbal portion of the day.
They, too, take their respective seats. Early morning seats are not assigned in Downeast eating establishments, but somehow it seems as though the chairs and the people sitting in them, over time, have simply figured each other out.
Conversations begin separately and softly. The talking builds in volume and subject matter as the morning moves on until it all runs together, coalescing into a synchronicity of accents and slang phrases that some people are still trying to figure out.
For these fishermen the Downeast day has started, and will pretty much start the same way, every day.
This observation took place in a Downeast restaurant now closed. I was so fascinated by the precision and the non-verbal cues as it played out that, on subsequent trips back, I would bring friends and family. I would bring them not just for the food, but also to watch and perhaps even take part in a daily routine, Downeast style.
With the coffee, or whatever you would be having food wise, comes a full serving of politics, headline news, Red Sox, local news, some fictional fishing updates and the rare polished dirty joke. It was, after all, a family establishment.
Everyone has a routine when they start the day. For some it is a quick shower and right out the door to work. For others it is a lengthy process of accouterment, perhaps the morning paper with breakfast all leading to the beginning of a day.
And then you have the morning coffee flavored with a little Downeast that occurs in many places up and down the coastline.
Walk into Helen’s Restaurant in Machias around 6:00am and you will find a bevy of men and the industries they work represented. From fishermen to car mechanic, from excavator to wood worker, their day is different but the mornings are all the same. Good food, plenty of stories, and a place that can be relied on to harbor it all.
I have been told that back in the day, in Machiasport, the Bucks Harbor Shopping Mall, affectionately named by the locals, offered hot coffee, water, sandwiches, famous homemade soups and a place for the fishermen to begin and end their day.
Now closed, I have also learned that these daily routines continue, having now been relocated to kitchens and garages along the road because, for those doing it, it is just as important as picking up bait or fuel for the day.
I am convinced it is like this everywhere in Maine. From the small booths to the long counter, from the haphazardly arranged tables with folding chairs to the lobster crate turned on its side, to the polished booths at the local restaurants, the day is started and many times ended with a group of people coming together and sharing their day, their life and themselves through story.
This place is thick with story, and for the many people that live and work here, those stories are what mends the fabric of both life and place which ultimately weaves a tapestry of culture; a Downeast culture that many find hard and beautiful all at the same time.
The morning routine is just the beginning to a life lived on the water, or in the tool shed, or in the garages and tree soaked scape of the North woods. It simply is and always will be.
So, when you’re up early and staring into that bowl of oatmeal, or waiting for the coffee to cool, think of the early morning routine being played out in all corners of Maine and marvel at the wonderful stories being shared as the sun rises.