The Lobster Festival is up and running and, as you read these words, Rockland is quite likely charming and well-scrubbed and just a tad on the crowded side. I hope you have found a comfy coffee shop or a good place for an ice cream or a cold local brew, as there are several of each around here these days.

If you happen to be one of those visiting from elsewhere you might be interested to know that Rockland didn’t always look like this. In fact, it didn’t look entirely like this a few weeks ago. Rockland is going through interesting times.

By the way, neighbors of good will might note that I did not take the opportunity in the previous paragraph to weaken, and totter down that old road of snarking about “out-of-staters.” First of all, I recognize that I have no right; secondly, jerks can be from anywhere and nice people can be from Upper Starchyville, once in a while. More to the point, the visitor to the Lobster Festival could just as easily be from Caribou or Skowhegan, from where one cannot smell the ocean, and for whom the detailed knowledge of how to cook, sex, pronounce, handle, measure, haul, ship, or disassemble a lobster is as arcane as it might be to the Yooper or the Hoosier or the Girl from Ipanema.

In any event, dear foreigner, our Rockland did not always fancy itself an art hub, nor was it always a bastion of such refined sensibilities. At the risk of boring the regulars, allow me to reiterate the irony of all this culture, thinking back on “Camden by the Sea; Rockland by the Smell.” It wasn’t so long ago. I worked in the sardine factory and there wasn’t much to eat in town after a certain workmanlike hour of the evening. Well, there was Dunkin’ Donuts, but they basically sold … donuts, in those days. Anybody not a tourist was expected to eat at home, or to at least sit down in a normal restaurant like the Chuck Wagon at suppertime and be home by 8 p.m. How a restaurant in the Lobster Capital of the world got named the “Chuck Wagon,” complete with Conestoga wagon and cowboy décor, I never did understand.

Back when half the storefronts were empty and paying work was scarce, when Main Street parking was easy come September, when normal people had supper early and dinner at noontime, the small city of Rockland offered little for entertainment if you were of a gentle (read: safety-conscious) disposition. There was always the option of recreational fighting in the bars, and there was always “riding the rotary,” which meant driving the one-way circle in hopes that classmates were doing likewise and wanted to race.

Ah, Rockland in the 1970s, when ethnic cuisine meant La Choy noodles in a can.

I worked down on the end of Winter Street, at the Port Clyde Foods cannery, until 10 p.m. five nights a week one fall, cutting the heads and tails off those little herring fish one by one. You’d put on a hair net and a plastic apron, wrap your hand up in a fathom of white first-aid tape and go at each sardine as fast as you could with sharp scissors. I kid you not. Anyway, after work there was one place, in that season of 1981, where supper could be had at such an hour. It was called the Rockland Chipyard, a little pizza and sandwich place on Main Street beloved by a few cops and at least one late-shift fish-plant worker who still had to hitchhike back to South Thomaston and get some sleep and do it again. The guys behind the counter were earnest young entrepreneurs who did a fine job with the food, but the economy was too stretched and the Chipyard didn’t last. I ate there on their last day in business, and it was sad. These days a place like that wouldn’t be able to make pizzas fast enough, and they could charge anything they’d wish, and people would ask for gluten-free and goat cheese. In 1981 Rockland there just weren’t that many people who needed take-out after summer was over. 

So look around at all the silliness — ahem, I mean the cultural improvements — and consider the waterfront, now a bit of an enigma, but once a place of industry without apology and absolutely no pretense. You could be a seaweed cooker, you could work at Sea-Pro with the pogeys, you could be a herring choker (our apologies to the folks from the Maritimes but, yeah). You could also be a Hells Angel, or the local variant thereof. You were not so likely to make your living as an art history major. There’s a lot more to eat, now, too.