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From The Telling Room: A Maine Lobsterman's Tale

We're delighted to kick off a new summer series in partnership with the Portland-based Telling Room, a non-profit writing center dedicated to the idea that children and young adults are natural storytellers. Every Friday we'll share an essay from a student between the ages of six and 18 with a unique perspective on the world: tonight, 13-year-old Toby Choyt of North Yarmouth Academy, on his interview with a Maine lobsterman.

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I walk down the Portland street that leads to Widgery Wharf. I don't know what's drawing me there except the smell of the ocean and an interest in looking at boats and birds. "Private Property" and "No Trespassing" signs are posted on the buildings near me, but I keep walking, trying to find a person to talk to.

The wharf is old and covered in barnacles and seaweed that clings to the pilings and smells of salty rotted fish. It is quiet. Only the sounds of a motor or two taint the air. I knock on the door of a building painted in black-and-white polka dots where one of the owners of the wharf usually works.

I wait awhile and see a man painting a nearby building. "He ain't here," the man says in a hearty Maine accent as he notices me knocking on the door, "but I am. Whaddya want?"

As soon as I see him, I think how he looks like he is one with the wharf, like he has been working here for an eternity. I have just moved to Maine. Everything about it is new to me, from the culture to my new school. I take out my notebook, sensing a good story on the way.

"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions about this place?" I ask.

The man comes off the ladder he was using to paint the upper sections of the shack he is working on. He brushes off his pants and sticks his brush back in the bucket. He seems like someone I could talk to. He has a friendly sort of aura to him, like he welcomes conversation. He looks like a local. I have never really been a local anywhere.

"Sure, I can answer a few questions. I know everything about this wharf," he boasts.

I start to ask questions about the wharf and the lobster influx, hoping that through them I'll learn more about him. I don't really eat much lobster, or know much about wharves or what it takes to go fishing to make a living. I've lived in Indonesia and New York City, and neither of them gave me much of a chance to spend time in places like this. The man seems to know a lot and claims he worked on the wharf when no one but lobstermen kept their boats there. Then slowly we start to talk more about ourselves.

He tells me his name is Jackie Grant. He is 70 years old, though his spirit seems much younger. He was born on December 1, 1942. He is balding, is around 5'5", and his tanned skin is laden with wrinkles. He has three yellow teeth remaining in his mouth and squint lines around his eyes from looking out on the ocean. His hands are rough and calloused. He looks pretty strong, but his physical condition has probably seen better days.

Jackie grew up on Munjoy Hill and went to Portland High, where he played football. He became a lobsterman at age 12 after spending time with a friend of his who set lobster traps. He says that where Widgery Wharf is now used to be under water. In fact, everything up to Commercial Street here in Portland was once under water.

"The waterfront was magic back in the 50's. When I was 12, I was out on the ocean and making a man's wages," Jackie says. "I'm the only one in my family who fishes, and they all think that I'm nuts," Jackie continues.

I learn that when he was 19 he started blood worming for his future father-in-law. I am amazed by how he has dedicated almost his entire life to the sea, nearly 50 years. He has also lived in California and Massachusetts, but he has always come back to his native Maine and the wharf he knows so well. Now retired from active fishing, Jackie still helps out on the wharf by painting buildings and being a handyman. Jackie says he has never owned a boat, which surprises me, considering that he has spent his life on the sea.

He has worked on many boats and when asked to remember unusual experiences, he tells me that he once caught a nurse shark by accident. He tells me a story of one night out on the water, when he woke up and heard a strange sound. He peered over the edge of the boat and saw that a whale, longer than the boat itself, was leaning on the side of the boat, sleeping, with its calf nearby. This makes me think, Wow, this person has seen things that many people never will.

When I ask Jackie about his family, his face takes on a melancholy look. It feels like the whole atmosphere changes around us then, and he looks away toward the sun. It is the first time I see his face look vulnerable. He tells me he had two children who died within 12 days of each other. His son, who died at age 25, had muscular dystrophy. His daughter died of a heart attack less than two weeks later.

He says, "Life ain't no bowl of cherries. You just gotta keep going. It's not like you can just give up." No, I think, you can't. Not if you're Jackie Grant. I stand there thinking about how this seems like something Jackie probably had to stick to his whole adult life. There is a small silence, and I thank him for his time and leave. We shake hands. His hand is rough, yet gentle.

Walking away from Jackie, I realize I used to think that all fishermen did was fish. I hadn't thought of them as people with their own stories that have nothing to do with fish. I suppose now that all people have their own stories, whether they are fishermen or business people or teachers. I wonder why he decided to share such personal stories with me. He was so kind and open, despite how much he has suffered.

I think about Jackie on the wharf and wonder how he'll be later today, and how he'll be tomorrow, and in 20 more years. Maybe there will be a time when I have something hard to talk to him about. I think he would understand.

Toby Choyt is a student at of North Yarmouth Academy. He originally wrote this essay for The Telling Room in Portland.


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