When I first moved here in 1979, someone I trusted told me that if I wanted to do theater in Portland I should check out Shoestring Theater, that wild band of stilt walkers and puppeteers who’ve led the Old Port Festival parade and dozens of other Portland-centric events for 30-plus years.

Taking my friend’s advice, I headed up the back stairs of what was then called the People’s Building on Brackett Street. It is still home to Shoestring and also to a meat market I have never been to. In my mind, that space will always be the Good Day Market, Portland’s original food co-op.

I remember the smell of clay, wood, paint and garlic that greeted me as I made my way up the unsound stairs.

But I don’t remember feeling welcomed by anyone. As far as I know, there were no official greeters or even official members of Shoestring Theater. There was also nothing romantic about the group, at least not for me. Basically, if I wanted to learn something about theater or puppet making, I just had to show up, grab some recycled clay and make something.

Sink or swim, survival of the fittest or simply being able to pay one’s rent and, therefore, to be available to carry puppets, was how you became a member.

With very little guidance (let’s just call it an independent study year with a bunch of unpaid, over-garlicked puppet bandits), I stayed for a year and, in the process, I made some really ugly puppets. I carried other people’s masterpieces up and down the fire escape of the Brackett Street building and ate cloves and cloves of garlic and participated in every parade and every event.

My digestive system was never better.

I understood, without anyone telling me, that I could be part of this motley crew as long as I made puppets and always, always showed up for a parade. If I wondered who was in charge, I soon learned that the person who was there before me, even if he or she had arrived just five minutes earlier, was the boss.

If I made puppets today to explain my year at Shoestring Theater, I would name them “Anarchy” and “Tyranny.”

Looking back, I had innocently signed up for mandatory participation in every parade in Maine with a group of ingenious puppet masters. I did not believe that I was creating or contributing anything meaningful. I simply showed up day after day and became part of something.

Oh, and I learned how to walk on stilts.

More than 30 years have passed since my time at Shoestring Theater, but I spent one recent evening with some of the founders. More than 100 friends and friends of friends crammed into a barn to watch the U.S. soccer team play Portugal. It is a tradition started four years ago during the 2010 World Cup by a family who have deep roots in the theater and who still walk on stilts and show up for parades.

My 13-year-old niece Fiona, who is here visiting from the other Portland, was willing to go to this “soccer barn,” but made it clear that she did not like soccer. She played lacrosse, and that was that.

I parked myself as close to the 12-foot screen as I could and, not knowing anyone else there, Fiona parked herself next to me. Ten minutes in, after clarifying which team was wearing white and which team was wearing red, she started texting her friends back in the other Portland, who, like her, were rooting for Portugal. Her smiles and texts continued all the way to the end of the game.

Her 10-year-old brother, Wes, oblivious to the big screen, was in the driveway playing goalie with 20 kids he had just met.

If you are a friend of a friend or a neighbor, you are welcome to watch any and all of World Cup 2014 in The Soccer Barn. But don’t expect to be greeted or told where to sit or what to do. The prize of belonging to this wild band of soccer fans is won by showing up, bringing food and picking a team.

Inclusion, I have realized much later in life, does not always lead to happiness, but it’s a step in the right direction. And garlic still aids digestion.

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:

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