The Lobster Mafia

“Don’t ever hoard buoys like that,” Allyson says as we hurtle down a country road. “The lobster mafia is real.”

I barely catch a glimpse of what she points at, but I know what she means. Every so often I’ve seen small houses almost completely covered by buoys in every combination of colors. Naïve urban outsider that I am, I had assumed they were meaningless kitschy decorations, like those old metal Coca-Cola signs you can buy at a certain type of antique store.

But actually, a collection of different buoys means the possessor has cut them off others’ lobster lines, and this makes the “lobster mafia” very angry. If a lobsterman sees one of his buoys on your house, he’ll pull it off, and if some shingles come off with it, that’s too bad. Then he might destroy something of yours before leaving. The lobstermen live by a code of justice that has been in place for over a hundred years, Allyson explains.

And when you understand what cutting a buoy means, the reaction is understandable. A line is maybe $75, the pot is about $100, and then there’s all the tackle. Cutting a buoy means that as much as $1000 of equipment is lost, irretrievable on the ocean floor.

What’s harder to accept is that the lobster mafia won’t hesitate to cut your buoy if you’ve placed it in their territory. There are lines in the ocean, I’m warned. You or I would never know where they are, but you’d better believe that the people whose livelihoods depend on them know exactly where they lie. Lobster territories are passed through families, parent to child, for generations, and the rights to them are protected fiercely. It seems a harsh enforcement to me. What if you are only a hobbyist, and place your pot in ignorance? It doesn’t matter.

Of course, there’s little reason why a hobbyist would make that kind of investment, when anybody can walk down to the dock and buy as many lobster as they like fresh off the boat.

I’ve written before about the easy availability of lobster. When you live in a seaside village, off waters where lobster is so plentiful that it used to be considered “poverty food” – seriously, in colonial times it was fed to the lowest levels of society so frequently that Massachusetts servants finally had it put in their contracts that they wouldn’t have to eat it more than three times per week – it’s bound to be a staple, even if it has become big business elsewhere. A fifteen-year-old pulls a small boat ashore at one of what must be dozens of docks and boat launches in a five-mile stretch of coast. His dad has let him take from the family’s pots for a little spending money. $3 apiece. The workers finishing their shift at the small family restaurant thirty feet away can’t resist.

It’s hard to imagine the journey those lobsters take to become $45 entrees at fancy seafood restaurants on the opposite coast. Here, that world seems utterly foreign. But where I’m from, grocery stores and urban sprawl have made the dirty, wet, and often smelly process of pulling food from the earth the strange and unimaginable thing.

We sometimes joke about “two Americas,” the coasts vs. the middle. It’s more complicated than that. Maine isn’t just a different country than anyplace else I’ve been, it’s a different century.

As far as I can tell, there is exactly one benefit to a society set in a place with, well, Maine winters: change isn’t forced upon you the way it would be in a place people actually want to live. There’s no need for expansion. Sure, a few ugly trailers have been added to the landscape over time, but mostly, the old farmhouses are still sufficient to house the population. So there’s no need for giant highways, shopping malls, subdivisions, office jobs. Don’t get me wrong, Mainers fight change tooth and nail. They want things to stay the same, even when outsiders might think a particular change would be very much for the better. I’m just saying, they have that luxury. And for the most part, unlike most parts of the world, that’s a battle they can win.

So you go there and feel you’ve stepped back in time. The continued functioning of the “lobster mafia” is an example. The well-spaced string of small villages, linked by sparsely-traveled wooded roads that run beside charming – and still-working – colonial farmsteads, is another. The insular pride, the insistence that goods produced in Maine – from coffee and ice cream to everything else – are superior to those produced anywhere else, is taken to an extreme that makes it one of the more irritating examples. “Buy local” has become a catchphrase among the urban trendsetters. But never have I seen more local goods for sale, and more stores advertising that they carry only local goods, than in Maine.

And then you go to the farmer’s markets.

I’m a Los Angeleno of the hiking-vegetable-growing-composting-homemade-toothpaste variety. Of course I’ve been to farmer’s markets.

At first glance, it’s not so different, except that here it’s set up in the grassy town square, not a downtown parking lot, and everyone brings their dogs – off-leash. Some of the sellers even wear plaid shirts and the Amish-style beards that are so popular with hipsters. Off the top of my head I can think of three guys at the Altadena farmer’s market who look just like this. I think one of them sells fancy $25/pound peanut brittle.

Except… these men aren’t hipsters. It’s hard to say what’s different. Look the same, dressed the same, indefinably not the same. Maybe it’s that for these men, it isn’t a style statement – it’s just the way people dress here, the way they’ve been dressing for generations. Or maybe it’s that the woman who sells me bread is missing teeth. The woman from whom I buy raw milk and homemade butter and fresh, cake-y donuts (seriously, one thing that IS better in Maine than anywhere else is the donuts) has the brown leathery skin of a person who spends her days subject to sun and dirt.

So when the bearded and plaid-ed guy who runs a vegetable stand with his sister explains the difference between colors of carrots I’ve never seen before, it doesn’t come across as specialized, self-conscious knowledge the way it would in LA. It makes me realize how much “heirloom” knowledge we’ve lost in the cities. It makes me wonder how many acres they have to tend to make the money they need to survive over the six months when nothing grows and nearly every business shuts down. I’m conscious that this is his life. If this farm-stand thing doesn’t work out, he can’t just go get a job at an ad agency.

It’s a little unnerving, actually. This glimpse of what life is here feels more foreign than what I’ve seen on other continents, more incomprehensible than the swirl of language around me when I visited Paris with two years of high school French. For a moment, I’m embarrassed by the slick life I lead on these people’s backs.

August comes, and the chill of autumn touches the air. Summer ends. I leave, returning to the land of Trader Joe’s, and life in Maine goes on as it has for nearly 400 years. Of course an outsider can’t understand it.

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