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OK, I admit it. The moment they rolled out Portland’s new slogan Tuesday morning at City Hall, I found myself somewhere between unimpressed and downright disappointed.
Eighteen months, countless creative brain cells and the best they could come up with was: “Portland, Maine. Yes. Life’s Good Here”? I’ve seen old telegrams with more sizzle.
Then I heard the backstory.
Speaking for a volunteer coalition of local creative types who labored long and hard in search of the perfect slogan, David Puelle of Puelle Design said the winning phrase came after one of many “deep dives” into local history that ranged from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow all the way to John Preston.
John Preston. A guy who died 20 years ago next spring and, I’d be willing to bet, never dreamed his words would one day be used to promote his adopted city.
Preston was already a nationally renowned writer of gay fiction and nonfiction when he moved here in 1979. He’d lived all over — San Francisco, New York, Minneapolis, Boston — before deciding on Portland because it was reasonably close to his boyhood home of Medfield, Mass., and it felt, even back then, like a place an openly gay man might want to call home.
“I’ve always had a strong self-identity as a New Englander,” Preston told me during an interview in 1985 for a story about the arrival in Maine of a mysterious disease called AIDS. “So I sat down and made a list of what I wanted the place I live to be like. It was clearly Portland. I love it here.”
So much that in 1993, one year before he died of complications arising from AIDS, Preston wrote an essay titled, “Portland, Maine: Life’s Good Here.”
The title stems from a question Preston was asked repeatedly by his friends in New York City, who couldn’t for the life of them figure out what he was doing in a city of 60,000 that looked from the Big Apple like the middle of nowhere.
“Are you ready to come back yet?” his friends would ask.
“No,” Preston would reply. “Life’s good here.”
“I always call it the toy city, because it’s so small, but it is a city,” he wrote. “It has all the urban accoutrements that keep it from being just a place where a lot of people happen to live — someplace like Manchester, New Hampshire, for example, which has more people but none of the cultured air of Portland.”
The essay reads in part like a travelogue: “Portland has museums, colleges, a symphony, a downtown, and history. God, does it have history. Everywhere you turn another plaque announces a landmarked building or someone’s birthplace, and statues all over the place remind you of political and literary figures from the city. Longfellow is very big in Portland.”
So, in his own way, was Preston.
His work, which often delved into the erotic, wasn’t exactly mainstream reading in an era when more gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Mainers were in the closet than out. Yet in Portland, Preston found a place “with the beginning of a gay community” that as far back as 1981 was dubbed the “Gay Mecca North of Boston” by the Evening Express.
(“What were they comparing it to, Nashua?” wondered Preston.)
His essay captures a city on the cusp of the gay-rights movement: One day, while Preston picked up an order at a photocopy shop, the manager confronted him and told him in no uncertain terms to take his business elsewhere.
“I don’t know if what you’re doing is illegal, but I hope it is,” she snarled.
(“I was writing erotica,” recalled Preston. “But it so happened the letter in the machine just then was to Gerard Conley, then-president of the Maine Senate, thanking him for sponsoring a gay civil rights bill.”)
Preston gladly found a new copy service. Around the same time, people began approaching him on the street and complimenting him for this or that piece he’d written.
“I would be puzzled because what they were referring to hadn’t yet been published,” he wrote.
Long story short, employees at the first print shop (who happened to be gay) had been making multiple copies of Preston’s work, which they loved, and were passing them out to their friends.
Mused Preston, “Those pieces that had so offended the manager were circulating promiscuously through the city, and she was paying for it.”
Portland then, of course, was far different from Portland now.
Back then, Preston boasted of “a gay pride parade, albeit small — this is Maine, after all.”
Last weekend, an estimated 10,000 people turned out for the 27th annual Southern Maine Pride Parade and Festival, which included the mass wedding of 10 gay and lesbian couples whose vows now are enshrined in state law.
At the same time, Portland’s new slogan clearly applies not just to the gays and lesbians among us, but to the thousands who either were born here and stayed put, or migrated here and never left.
I proudly count myself among the latter. And as I sit here looking out my window at the sea gulls, the greenery, the Portland Observatory high atop Munjoy Hill, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a phrase that better captures what Preston once called this “remarkably vibrant” community.
So go ahead if you must and trash “Portland, Maine. Yes. Life’s Good Here.”
It ain’t sexy like “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” It may lack the funk of “Keep Austin Weird” or the electricity of New York’s “The City that Never Sleeps.”
But it’s true. Life is good here.
And John Preston, may he rest in peace, helped make it that way.
(c)2013 Portland Press Herald (Portland, Maine). Distributed by MCT Information Services.