PEAKS ISLAND — Last Thursday, while I was at work, my wife called with some terrible news: The water pipes at home were frozen. She had tried to thaw them with a hair dryer, but the hair dryer caught on fire. Water had slowed to a trickle. The toilets weren’t working, and who knows what else.

I offered to buy another hair dryer. She said, “Don’t bother. I called the plumber.” I said I would rush home to help in any way I could and promptly packed up and walked to the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal.

I had thought about the water pipes earlier in the day as I walked to the ferry. The outside temperature was 8 below zero. The cold air seemed to stick to me. I could almost smell it as I shook out my jacket and stored my mittens and hat. The office was cold, too – the kind of chill that seems like a door has been left ajar.

The walk from my office was painful. I could feel the cold air scraping against my face. My mittens seemed useless the longer I walked, and the squeaking of the snow and ice underfoot hampered my quick pace.

I was also thinking about those pipes. What if they had burst? A neighbor’s water pipes burst last winter, and it was thousands of dollars in repairs. What if the plumber couldn’t fix the problem right away? What would we do without water?

Now, “rushing home” takes on a different meaning when one lives on Peaks Island. As luck would have it, I missed the boat by 15 minutes and so I would wait an hour for the next boat. I unpacked, shook the cold off as best I could and settled in on a good bench overlooking the Fore River.

A few minutes later someone else arrived and began unpacking on the bench across from me. As he took off his hat and mittens, I recognized him. I had seen him around at the ferry terminal for the past six months or so. He always keeps to himself, quiet and unassuming.

I had overheard him talking with a friend in Buoy Park last summer. They were both talking about growing up in Portland, how the waterfront had changed in the last 30 years and how both of them once worked on the waterfront. They also talked about sleeping at the Oxford Street Shelter, and one of them mentioned they were now staying at the Milestone shelter.

As he sat down, I could see his face was a bright red – the red that comes from hard exercise or from the cold wind on your face for an extended period of time. Sniffling, like most of us, he settled in on the bench and gazed out at the river, just I was doing.

I glanced over and was struck by what he was wearing – a black hooded sweatshirt imprinted with a lighthouse in green and white. Big, green and white letters printed above the lighthouse spelled out “Maine” and below the image, in cursive, were the words “The way life should be.” I stared at his sweatshirt longer than I should have until he nodded, in courteous recognition that I was being impolite in my gaze.

Fifteen minutes passed as I watched the terminal fill with travelers to different islands. Some struggled to pack groceries into carts, others pondered how to carry all the stuff they had accumulated during the day and I thought about the phrase “Maine: The way life should be.”

How is it that “the way life should be” means someone will struggle to find a warm place to sleep at night? Wander public space to public space in order to avoid the bitter cold? How does the collective “Maine” allow this to happen? I reflected on just how minimal my problems of frozen pipes were in this larger context.

My train of thought was interrupted when the man across from me said, “Excuse me, do you know the outside air temperature?”

I looked at him for a moment, then looked up the weather on my cellphone and reported, “It’s 9 degrees.”

He asked, “Above zero?”

I said, “Yes.”

“That’s cold,” he said, and I agreed.

We said nothing else to each other and continued to gaze out at the Fore River, each of us lost in our own thoughts and worries for the near and distant future. As I packed up to board the ferry, I said, “Good luck to you tonight.” He said, “Same to you.”

Maine. The way life should be.

— Special to the Press Herald