Field guide to Portland street hasslers

The denizens of Maine’s largest city are abuzz this week about The Whistler. On Sunday, the local daily ran a story about this notorious street scourge, a 32-year-old man who, for the past year or so, has been walking the sidewalks downtown all day, almost every day, emitting a loud, utterly tuneless whistle from his accursed lips.

The paper reported that the man, Robert Smith, was cited for disorderly conduct last May and arrested for the same two months later. The city struck an odd plea bargain with The Whistler, whereby he can only whistle while walking, so as to annoy every downtown worker and resident equally, rather than torture any single shopkeeper.

Glaring free speech issues aside, this seems like a less-than-ideal resolution. Smith said he works construction during the summer but is unemployed from fall to spring. The court should have ordered nine months of community service out on Ram Island in Casco Bay, where The Whistler’s hobby could help warn passing tanker captains (and firemen on the department’s party barge … er, I mean, fire boat) of submerged ledge in the area.

Unfortunately, The Whistler is just one of many nefarious characters chipping away at the quality of life in downtown Portland. I created this handy field guide for tourists and other out-of-towners, so they can more easily identify and avoid the types of hassles locals routinely endure.

The Shredder: This long-haired metalhead is most often encountered in the Old Port. Equipped with an electric guitar and a small (apparently battery-powered) amp, The Shredder rips wicked solos on the sidewalks of Fore and Exchange streets. He can also shred while riding a bicycle, pulling notes off the neck Van Halen-style with his other hand on the handlebars and the amp strapped to his back. The Shredder is entertaining to see and hear, but beware of engaging him in conversation. He apparently has a very dim view of humanity, particularly certain ethnic groups that may include you.

The Strummer: Also known as The Busker, this is the catch-all name for any number of street musicians who suffer the delusion that the world wants to hear their crummy covers of Bob Marley songs and is willing to drop currency into their guitar case to keep the music alive.

The Preacher: Slick-haired, red-faced and well-dressed, The Preacher was once a mainstay of Monument Square and Post Office Park but has since migrated west to Congress Square. Like The Shredder, this character also has a pretty dim view of humanity — specifically, a passionate belief that all but a tiny sliver of this world’s population will spend eternity writhing in a fiery pit. The good news is, that’s a lie told to children and other savages to make them behave. The bad news: Most of us still believe it.

The “Artist”: City officials are currently grappling with this class of street hustlers. Their tables typically block about half the sidewalk, which is not a problem until someone actually stops to look at the “art” on display, at which point the sidewalk becomes impassable. But the real dangers posed by The “Artist” are less obvious: a shift of scarce consumer dollars away from businesses that provide employment and property tax revenue and nagging aesthetic and legal questions about whether hemp bracelets and watercolors of lighthouses can legitimately be considered “art.”

The Con Man: This man only needs a dollar because his car ran out of gas, and it’s on the Casco Bay Bridge, and he doesn’t have his wallet, and he’s got to pick up his kid. This man is extremely unlucky because this happens to him every day. Or not.

The Smoker: City officials are also grappling with this plague, having recently banished smokers from every public park and square in town on grounds that secondhand smoke is as deadly as exposed plutonium. The good news: That’s a lie. The bad news: Rising cigarette taxes have steadily increased the number of smokers who can no longer afford the habit and thus accost others for their “extra smoke” on the faulty premise that packs commonly contain 21 cigarettes.

The Historian: Also known as Herb Adams, this man is identifiable by his telltale mustache and sensible sneakers. The Historian is harmless, and you can actually learn a great deal about Portland history and state government from this longtime legislator, but you will have to devote upwards of an hour or more to listen to his dissertation, by which point your lunch date has broken up with you and is now dating the cute and sympathetic waiter/waitress.

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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.