I wanted to spend some time at the center of things in Coddington, so one day last week I showed up for the morning shift at the Bagaduce Market. John, who’s owned the store for the last twenty-seven years, had given me permission to loll about the place and take notes on the town’s comings and goings at this local institution. The modest frame building that houses the market has served as Coddington’s general store since 1882, when it was moved to the present site where its front door opens on the town’s central artery and its back windows face the Bagaduce River’s northern bay.
Long before I arrived that morning, the staff had been busy getting the place ready for business. Claire, who never stops working at her station behind the kitchen’s massive stainless steel table, is there to prepare the food and to mix things up with you. Unless you’re overly shy, or prefer to remain aloof, or are just so alienated one has to wonder what you’re doing in Maine in the first place, you can interact with Claire. She’s one of those gifted creatures who, for the past two decades, sees her job as having a single goal: giving you something to smile about before you walk out of the store.
How she accomplishes this depends on the customer. Sassy or sweet, Claire’s got what it takes to get you going. Depending on how well she knows you and what you might need, she’ll hurl a mock insult or send a heartfelt compliment your way. Most everyone thinks she’s a love, a wonderful combination of pretty and plain, maybe a lot like your sister, only more interesting. It’s pretty obvious that most of the guys lingering over their coffee by the back kitchen are there to get the treatment from Claire. Whether it’s unassuming talk therapy or non-stop teasing, she dishes it all up with her famous “egg and everything” sandwiches. Taking their cues from Claire and their fellow coffee drinkers, everyone gives as much as they get, and pays for it all with a smile. One fellow who was in early for his coffee, came back at the end of the morning for a second cup. I asked him why he passed stores closer to his work to come here. “The coffee is better here,” he said shyly, “and so is the welcome.”
At around 7:00 a.m., Claire offered me a seat in a corner of the kitchen, close by the coffee bar. One-by one, the locals drifted in. A small crowd had gathered by the time Ralph, the potato chip guy made his appearance. Claire introduced us and declared that re-supplying the market’s snack shelves and having a cup of coffee with her was the highlight of Ralph’s day. “Isn’t that sad!” Ralph replied, never missing a beat. Claire shot back that she can’t decide who she likes better, Ralph, the Wise potato chip guy or the Frito-Lays deliveryman, due later in the morning. “Someday you’ll have to decide,” Ralph told her, and then turning to me, he said confidentially, but in a voice for all to hear, “Just so you know, whatever the Frito Chips guy says about me is all lies.”
We were soon joined by the town’s eighty year-old historian Fred, whose home, I’ve been told, is littered with photos of Coddington and its citizens over the last century. The first thing Fred said to me was, “Whatever you’ve been told here about me here is true. I’m the purest person in town.” At which pronouncement, great hoots went up from those who, presumably, know better. Fred took another look at me and said, “You’re not properly dressed for dealing with the talk back here. You ought to be wearing hip waders and a safety helmet.”
Meanwhile, at the front register sat Martha, a congenial, unassuming woman who’s been working at the market for twenty-six years. Martha will greet you with a shy smile and, if she thinks you might be interested, will ask you about your garden. Ask about hers, and she’ll tell you she’s just an amateur and doesn’t know too much about gardening. Don’t believe it! Martha knows exactly when to put out the basil and when to trim the roses, (usually some time in April, “when the birds are fattening,” she told me). Whether it’s raising flowers or talking about a recent funeral, sharing the secret of growing giant tomatoes or slipping a locally-made root-beer candy to a ten-year old, Martha is glad you came in and ready to offer a small dose of the support you might need to get through the day.
Support is one item the Bagaduce Market is always running a “Manager’s Special” on, it seems. It’s store-owner John’s high calling. The day I was there John took a call from a woman in Massachusetts who was in a rising state of panic because her elderly friend who lives down the lane from the market hadn’t answered her phone for three days. John ran down to check things out and found that his neighbor had just recently changed her phone number and forgot to let her friend from away know about it. All over town you’ll hear tales of the market’s proprietors efforts on behalf of the community. A neighbor who lives up-river from us told me that when her grown son, accompanied by his wife and two small children were three hours late getting back from a kayaking expedition, she phoned the Northern Bay Market instead of calling the County Sheriff. John and his wife Pam went up and down the roads leading to the bay asking folks to be on the lookout for the missing family. When the kayakers finally arrived home, four hours late due to several mishaps, the son told his mom that in the last hour they passed two boaters, each of whom told him that they had better get home quick, his mother was looking for them, and she was upset!
Caring is central to the business plan at the Bagaduce Market, that over the years has become an enterprise amounting to far more than the sum of its parts. In a late-morning conversation, co-owner Pam told me, “I grew up as a store-keeper’s daughter and learned early on how important it is to take take care of people, especially your year-round customers. They’re the ones who see you through.” ‘Seeing each other through’ is what the conversations were all about the day I spent at the store. I made a list of the topics covered. It reads like a summary of the human dilemma: sowing your wild oats and when it’s time to get past that; the delicate art of breeding oysters; how to respond when you know your teen’s having sex; when to start digging up the garden; dealing with a loved-one’s suicide; politics on every level, (invariably discussed with searing satire and a fine sense of the ridiculous); whether a college education is worth it these days; confronting domestic abuse; protecting the merchant marine from piracy; facing cancer; how to get the fish bait smell out of a lobsterman’s clothes, (add lemon juice to the wash); racism and its roots in fear; what the former county official was up to when he rented the apartment above the market; confronting a husband whose drugs were more important to him than his daughters; dealing with depression; some good ways to encourage young people; accepting death.
Equally striking is the diversity of the market patrons who stopped in that day. Here’s a partial list of characters, in order of appearance: three carpenters, a retired ambassador, a teacher and a custodian from the elementary school, a ship captain, two trash haulers, a banker, an artist-poet, a plumber, a dress-shop owner, three lobstermen, a truck driver, a pastor, a shell fisherman, the town’s road superintendent and the fire department’s deputy chief. What’s distinctive about this heterogeneous community is that, for the most part, it’s not class status, but egalitarian standards that govern how folks interact in Coddington. As Clair confided to me in a quiet moment late in the shift, “Around here, when you first meet people, you’ll find they will test you, because they’re looking to see if they can trust you. You don’t have to be anybody but yourself, and if you can do that, and don’t think yourself better than anyone else, people will accept you. They’ll begin to care about you, they’ll want you to be part of their lives and will be concerned if you’re not around. That’s the way every town should work.”
As it came close to quitting time, Clair confessed that she was “a little worried that I might have been jabbering your ear off.” I told her that was hardly the case, and said I had one last question for her. I asked how she had learned to deal so skillfully with such a wide variety of people. “Well, it’s not very complicated,” she replied. “The one thing I’ve learned over the years is that when you ask someone a question, you need to be prepared for what they might say. Then, when they do answer, you better pay attention.”
When the shift was over, I took my leave by the front entrance, letting the year-round screen door bang behind me. I stepped off the weather-beaten porch with its park bench where people eat their lunch in good weather. I crossed the market’s front lot where there are no lines to tell you where to park, walking past the island where the two fuel pumps on their last legs offer you a choice between ‘regular‘ and ‘regular‘ gasoline. I turned around for one more look at the unassuming building. Here was a good place, I thought. Here you’re invited to pay attention to the heartaches and the happiness of your neighbors. Here you’re encouraged to play your own part with honesty, humor, compassion and just a little panache, as well. Here was a good place, it seemed to me, an ordinary place without pretension, a holy place, in its own way, without guile.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012