Sunday, March 9, 2014
PORTLAND - You'll hear The Whistler before you see him.
Robert Smith is called The Whistler because of his almost daily habit of whistling loudly around downtown Portland.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
Robert Smith whistles his way down Exchange Street in Portland recently. “I’m just trying to make people smile,” Smith says. But he disturbs some listeners, leading to legal troubles for Smith that he says won’t stop him from expressing himself.
Some say he haunts the Old Port. To others, he brings amusement.
But to Robert Smith, it's a calling.
"I walked around singing for a year," the 32-year-old said during one of his high-pitched rounds of downtown Portland. "I whistled a tune one day. I don't know where it came from."
Smith pauses for a moment, a large crucifix hanging from his neck over a football jersey.
"It came from God -- that's where it came from," he said of his passion for whistling. "God is showing me what I'm doing is OK. He shows me every day with laughter."
Smith's whistling triggers a wide range of reactions from the people he passes on sidewalks and street corners. He shows up in online comments, blogs and videos.
Some downtown businesses and the Portland Police Department aren't amused, however.
Over the past year, in fact, Smith has been summonsed, arrested and taken to court for disorderly conduct for "loud whistling."
Smith is now free to whistle, but only under one unusual condition: He has to keep walking while he whistles. The requirement that he keep moving was mutually agreed upon by Smith and the city in court so he doesn't annoy businesses and passers-by in any one area.
"It just got to the point last summer where the complaints just mounted," said Trish McAllister, the city's neighborhood prosecutor, who is charged with prosecuting quality of life issues. "He's so loud."
Business groups such as the Portland Community Chamber and the Portland Downtown District are worried about unruly behavior downtown, including disorderly conduct. And a city ordinance lists loud whistling as a form of disorderly conduct.
The business owner who complained declined to comment for this story, as did other shopkeepers. But PDD Executive Director Janis Beitzer said she understands why some shop owners would be upset.
"Just like if somebody plays an instrument in front of your business or has the radio on constantly, it's irritating," Beitzer said.
On most days, Smith can be found whistling his way around the Old Port. He likes wearing a baseball cap, Oakley wrap-around sunglasses, and a bulging orange and gray backpack. Thin wires dangle from his ears, playing classic rock and oldies all day.
"I'm always kind of curious what his story is," said City Councilor David Marshall, a street artist who runs a gallery on Congress Street.
Smith's whistling is impressive -- not for the melody but for the volume. The strong, steady monotone notes come in stabbing bursts that can be heard a block away.
When he first came to Portland, Smith liked to sing as he walked around, he said. Then one day he whistled along to a classic rock tune playing through his headphones. He doesn't recall which song.
"I thought, you know, that sounds pretty cool," Smith said. "I get more self-worth out of whistling. I do it every day -- weather permitting."
GETTING SMILES AND FROWNS
Smith said he lives on Main Street in Westbrook and works a construction job during the summer. On most days off, he takes a bus into town around 9 a.m. and leaves around 5 p.m.
His goal, he says, is to spread joy.
"I'm not out here to be the best whistler in the world," he said. "I'm just trying to make people smile."
Some people do laugh and smile. But others scowl or roll their eyes in disgust, making rude comments shortly after they pass by.
Whistling has put him at odds with local law enforcement.
On May 15, 2012, Smith was issued a summons for disorderly conduct after a business complained.
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