Postcard to Maine from East Tennessee

Dear Maine,

Greetings from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains! I’ve been down here now for the better part of two weeks and figured I’d drop a line so you wouldn’t think I’d forgotten you.

You know that lyric from the old bluegrass song “Brakeman’s Blues”? It goes “Portland, Maine is just the same as sunny Tennessee.” Well, that’s a dang lie. This part of the South has precious little in common with Southern Maine – thank God.

I’m in eastern Tennessee, outside Knoxville, in a little town called Vonore. If you were looking for a place that exemplified the income inequality plaguing the nation, you’d be hard pressed to find a starker example.

This has always been hardscrabble country: some corn farming and cattle, logging and aluminum manufacturing (the city of Alcoa is down the road apiece). About 20 years ago, the Tennessee Valley Authority began selling land around its man-made lakes to developers of retirement communities who built high-end homes and golf courses for the generation that spawned the Baby Boom. The newcomers helped spur a boom in commercial development along Interstates 75 and 40 leading into Knoxville – several miles of big-box stores, car dealerships, chain restaurants and strip malls – but most of those jobs don’t pay much above minimum wage (as President Barack Obama recently pointed out, a poverty wage), and housing and jobs for the middle class have yet to materialize in this area.

So outside the gates of retirement oases with misspelled Cherokee names, one passes dumpy trailers with rusty junk in the dirt yard and small brick ranch houses occupied by the slightly better off. Long, unpaved driveways curve off the main roads to hidden compounds where even the sheriff is loathe to go. The crystal meth trade is raging in this region, and the unwary backwoods interloper can expect to be greeted with shotgun shells.

Folks around here would find it curious that Maine gun nuts bullied the BDN into backing off its research into concealed-weapons permits. There’s no need to conceal firearms in these parts.

The wealth disparity down here hasn’t caused much class conflict. The gates are more for show than security. Burglars could simply walk or boat into the new neighborhoods, or BS their way past the guard on any number of pretexts, but they hardly ever bother. That type of crime is rare, and most locals are content to work only as much as necessary to meet their basic needs, then quit and go fishin’.

America’s obesity epidemic is on gross display down here, too, but nobody seems self-conscious about it. I came down to visit my mom in the hospital, and in the lobby I passed a doctor in powder blue scrubs grabbing a quick snack: a corn dog on a stick.

I know I don’t tell you this enough, Maine, but I’m proud of you.

I’m proud of your redemption law and recycling programs. Here in Al Gore’s home state, there’s no bottle bill. Curbside recycling is available, but all materials must be sorted and separated, and there’s a fee for the service that the poor can’t pay and the rich refuse to pay – the reasoning being that recycling saves the trash company tipping fees, so why give them money to save them money? I’ve been visiting my folks down here for 15 years, and I still can’t get used to throwing bottles and cans in the trash.

I’m proud of Maine’s marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws for gays. Tennessee has neither, and the issue is so far off the radar it may as well be in China.

And I’ve never been prouder of Maine’s medical marijuana law, which Tennessee also lacks. Cancer took away my mom’s appetite. By the time we realized how problematic this was, she was so weak she had to be hospitalized. The doctors initially gave her Megace, a synthetic steroid that can cause nausea. She became nauseous but not hungry. Their other option was Marinol, which is synthetic THC, the active compound in marijuana. I was willing to give Marinol a week to work, but if it didn’t I was determined to smuggle THC tincture into the state and give it to her in the hospital on the sly. Nothing less than a prison cell would have stopped me at that point, but it never got that far. She passed away on the 13th.

Fat or slim, rich or poor, homophobic or otherwise, the kind and caring character of my parents’ southern neighbors has also been on full display since then. We certainly have our differences, but in this regard the ol’ brakeman was right. I’m ready to come home.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.