This is the sixth and final entry in a series titled, “Ties that Bind.” Links to the previous five entries can be found at the bottom of this story.
When I first ventured down that obscure path, every little noise around me was startling, and every step felt like I was venturing further into foreign land. The more I explored in the Land of the Mohicans, though, the less it felt like a frightening, uninviting place.
My preconceived perceptions changed with every person I encountered, and I began seeing the place more as a communal village of people just trying to survive and get along than a wild patch of danger and sickness.
Folks living there treat each other like neighbors. They lend and borrow tools, they visit with each other, and even break bread together from time to time.
When Matt Coffey returned after abruptly departing to meet his boss for his day’s pay, I had already bid Carl and Phil goodbye.
Matt was frustrated because his boss had stood him up, and he had no money for dinner. When I first saw him on the path, he had just finished a full day of landscaping work.
“I’m so hungry after working all day,” he grumbled as he rejoined me, “I just want some dinner but when I got to the place we were supposed to meet I called him and he told me it’s gonna be another hour before he can get there.”
“I don’t get it,” he said as he toed the ground, “it’s like the guy doesn’t appreciate the work that I do for him, and he doesn’t understand that I need the money to feed myself.”
We were making our way to the campsite of Robert and Terri, a married couple who live further into the Land of the Mohicans than just about anyone else. To find them, you either need to know where you’re going or get lucky.
I was lucky enough to have Matt as my guide. When we got to Robert and Terri’s site, Matt called out to see if they were there. They popped out of their tent and smiled when they saw us.
After they came out and greeted us Matt told me he was going to head back to his site, and that he’d be back soon.
When I told Robert and Terri what I was there for they were happy to contribute to the story.
They invited me to sit and get comfortable, and then they opened up about their lives.
They’ve been together since 2008 when they met at a soup kitchen in Portland, and married since 2012 when they tied the knot at Portland City Hall.
At age 55, Terri is twenty-two years older than Robert, who is 33, and she was married twice before meeting him.
“In my first two weddings I wore a dress,” she laughed, “but when I married Robert at city hall we were wearing ripped jeans and sweatshirts.”
They both came to Maine by way of the Great Lakes region, with Robert coming from Michigan and Terri from Buffalo, NY.
In Buffalo, Terri said she was an exotic dancer for 27 years, and now has three kids who are about Robert’s age living all over the country. Robert has two sons who are still children, but they were taken by social services in Michigan before he made his way to Maine.
They talked about their experiences with mental illness.
Terri has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and although Robert didn’t point to any specific diagnosis, he said that the doctor he sought treatment with referred to him as, “an interesting case.”
“I know I’m delusional at times,” said Robert, “and I know sometimes I see things that aren’t there, hallucinations.”
“It doesn’t happen often,” said Terri as Robert put his arm around her lovingly, “but when it does, those times can be pretty scary.”
“I’m the one who’s the real pain in the ass,” Terri said with a smile, “I’m always hearing things and seeing things that aren’t real, getting scared, and convincing myself that there’s danger when there really isn’t anything to be afraid of, but Robert’s always there to protect me.”
“And she’s there to protect me too, anytime I need it,” said Robert as he grinned at his wife.
They opened up about their methadone dependency.
“Robert takes a higher dose than I do,” said Terri matter-of-factly, “so we try to make it to the clinic every day or else he’s gonna be in rough shape.”
“It’s hard to make it sometimes though,” Robert chimed in, “we usually get up pretty early and catch the bus out to the clinic in South Portland. They close at 11 am on weekdays, so that usually isn’t a problem, but on weekends they close at 10 am and on Sundays the bus doesn’t run.”
“So on Sundays we have to walk all the way across town, and usually the mornings are pretty tough for me until I get my dose so we don’t always make it.”
“Those are not fun days,” Terri said as they each looked towards the setting sun.
They talked about the lengths they go to each day just to get food in their stomachs.
“After the clinic we take the bus back in town to the soup kitchen for breakfast and lunch,” Terri explained, “then we usually go fly sign for a while until we make enough money to buy some dinner.”
Flying sign is another term for panhandling.
“I hate doing it so much,” said Robert with a disgusted look on his face, “I hate the look of judgement that people give you while you stand there. I pretend not to notice, but whenever someone gives me a dirty look, or yells at me to get a job or something like that, it hurts every time.”
“But we do it because it’s how we feed ourselves dinner most of the time.”
When asked how much money they typically make flying sign, they looked at each other knowingly.
“I always make more than him,” laughed Terri, “it’s because I’m a woman, but we hardly ever make more than about ten bucks for a couple of hours.”
“That’s our goal each day though,” said Robert, “we’ve got it down to where we can survive off ten bucks a day.”
“Just enough to buy some canned food at the dollar store to bring back to our campsite,” Robert continued, “we also try to make enough to have tobacco and rolling papers, and instant coffee for the morning when we wake up, but food is the only thing we need money for every day.”
“If we don’t make anything, we’ll usually wind up digging through the dumpster behind McDonald’s or something,” Terri muttered as she held her head low.
“You feel pretty awful doing it, but hunger can make you do some pretty degrading things.”
Then they talked about the love that they share for each other.
When asked where they think they’d be if they hadn’t found each other they simultaneously answered, “I’d be dead by now.”
Terri put her hand in Robert’s as she explained, “I think I would have killed myself if we’d never met, he gives me a purpose, a reason to wake up in the morning.”
“She gives me a reason to live,” said Robert as they looked into each other’s eyes, “there isn’t even a word for what we have, love doesn’t cover it.”
“All we need is each other.”
To see the first entry for this series, titled “Human stories from a Portland shantytown,” click here.
To see the second entry, “Meet Portland’s homeless city council candidate,” click here.
To see the third entry, “Hanging on to hope,” click here.
To see the fourth entry, “When cast offs pull together,” click here.
And to see the fifth entry, “A life of tragedy,” click here.