I had offered to meet on a Commercial Street wharf, but he’d instead suggested one of the tonier wine bars in town.Â
“A wine bar,” I said, joining him in his booth.Â “I never thought a rat would —”
“Did you read the report?”
He meant the city’s report citing the Porthole Restaurant for health code violations. The report that eventually shut the place down.
“Well, I saw the paper’s coverage and I —”
“But did you read the actual report?”
“Here,” he said, “page three. âRat droppings everywhere in liquor storage locations.'”
I looked up.Â “That was you?”
He smiled and raised his glass of Pinot Noir. “I have a weakness, and they had good stuff. Not Chateau Petrus, you understand, but who am I to complain?”Â
“OK,” I said, “so you drank their wine, but — ârat droppings’? What’s that all about? Some kind of fraternity prank?”
He looked down. “That was a mistake, very embarrassing. I don’t know what came over me, won’t happen again.”
We were silent, sizing each other up. I spoke first.
“So how does it feel, knowing you’re responsible for closing those places? Putting people out of work?”
He raised his paws defensively.Â “Hey, don’t blame me. I like this town. My family’s been here for years.
For centuries. Came on ships, came down those — what are they called — those ropes on sailboats, y’know, the long ropes that —”
“Ratlines,” I smiled thinly. He smiled back.
“Something like what happened at the Porthole, now that’s a shame,” he continued.Â “But a lot of good rats are in trouble, too. Loss of a regular supply. No more of the noise, the conversation, the drinks.Â It’s affecting all of us.”Â
“There must be other places in town.”
“Oh there are, there are,” he answered, twirling his glass lightly.Â “I don’t have to tell you what a place Portland is for foodies like us. What is it, more restaurants per capita than anywhere else east of the Mississippi? Something like that.”
“But people won’t support the restaurants if â¦”
I chose my words carefully. “Visitors — and folks who live here — they may look for, uh, the earthier side of things, the waterfront and all that, but I’m not sure they can appreciate —”
I nodded. He glanced away, and I thought I saw his nose quiver.Â “It’s always the rats,” he muttered.Â “We’re always the first ones they come after.”
I’d offended him. “Look, I apologize. I can see you care a lot about Portland. And I value your opinion on — well, let’s say politics. I assume you approve of the recent election results?”
He sniffed. “Not until they’ve been ratified.”
“Then what’s your take on Democrats who voted for King instead of Dill?”
“Rats deserting a sinking ship.”
“So you do follow politics, then?Â Do you think that City Council will —”
“Hey,” he interrupted, “I don’t give a rat’s — oh, never mind. Listen, I care about Portland, like you said.Â But most things never change, so I don’t worry the small stuff. I like to take the long view.”
I was quick to respond. “But some things in Portland are changing, Rat. Like the climate. They say the oceans are rising, they say all of Bayside will disappear under a few feet of water in the next decade or so.”
“More water?” he cheered. “Bring it on: I’m a rat!”
“But more water means the waterfront will change, too. Like it’s changing now.”
He stared at me. “What changes you talking about?”
“You know, the fancy hotels coming in, the high-end stores.”
The rat grinned. “We can live with that.”
“Or would you rather we should try to keep the waterfront the way it’s always been, restrict it to marine usage?”
Again the grin. “We can live with that, too.”
I was stumped. “Well, then, how do you feel about Pierce Atwood? Taking that big warehouse down on the wharf and turning it into fancy offices for attorneys? Can rats get along with lawyers?”
He arched his eyebrows. “You don’t really expect me to answer that question, do you?”
I had to smile. “Rat, you’re incorrigible. What are we going to do with you?”
He raised the glass of wine to his lips. “You got that backwards, pal. What are we going to do with you?”
John Spritz is a marketing and communications consultant based in Portland, www.jspritz.com.
Illustrations by Robin Swennes, www.designchoc.com.