KENNEBUNKPORT, Me. — At sundown here on a quiet June afternoon, the gulls are circling the harbor in their constant hunt for scraps. The lobster boats--two dozen of them and more--are moored in a line, their bows eyeing the Atlantic and the incoming tide. Down in Dock Square, the shops, quiet during the day, are already closed.
But it is the eve of the summer season--the raison d'etre for Kennebunkport and hundreds of other similar small communities along the New England coast--when the population here swells from 3,230 to 30,000 or so. Soon, 19,000 cars a day may crawl across the two-lane bridge over the Kennebunk River into Dock Square--the town center that is really just an exaggerated intersection.
In the uptowns and suburbs of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, the children, the bicycles and the dogs will be piled into station wagons and minivans to begin the trip to the summer place--a way of life in a land where winter is winter and beach time is rare.
Chief of Summer People
But to that mix in Kennebunkport now comes the first summer season in the presidency of George Bush, chief of the summer people.
Crowds. Gawkers out at Walkers Point, the presidential summer home. Hotel rooms booked up and cars backed up. Lines outside restaurants. Tacky T-shirts. Monstrous mugs. In short, the loss of innocence of Plains, Ga., with little of the sophistication of Santa Barbara. Right?
It hasn't happened yet, but folks in Kennebunkport are facing the summer with a certain trepidation--much as their squat, serious lobster boats are looking out to sea for that next Atlantic storm.
"The big concern seems to be . . . that because of adverse publicity that we're going to be overrun," that the opposite will occur instead and nobody will show up, said Uncle Jack ("that's what everybody calls me") Fenner, a friendly man who quit his insurance job in New Jersey 15 years ago to take over the Kennebunk Book Port bookstore.
A problem? Of course not, according to the Chamber of Commerce. All the better to keep Kennebunkport "pleasant."
Does Not Expect Crowds
"It will be a very similar season to what we've had in the past. No signs of very major crowds," said Susan M. Savell, executive director of the Kennebunk-Kennebunkport Chamber of Commerce, which represents both neighboring towns. "We won't be any more crowded than we've ever been and that's very pleasant.
"Everyone is gearing up for another good season, making this a pleasant place for people to stay. That's been the livelihood for years. It's what people here do best," said Savell, a fourth-generation Californian who moved here seven years ago after heading East to attend Union Theological Seminary.
For a few weeks now, as the forsythia and apple blossoms have begun to fade and the unmowed golden dandelions have reached skyward, Kennebunkport has been awaiting the untamed hordes. The first hordes to arrive--throughout Maine and the rest of New England--were mosquitoes, a bumper crop turned out by the second wettest May in 118 years.
But each time last month that the more human hordes have been expected, they have failed to show up.
French President Visits
First there was the Franco-American weekend, when French President Francois Mitterrand joined Bush at the presidential compound on the rocky promontory.
The accompanying French diplomats stopped by, said Michele Cheney, minding the counter at Port Canvas, a canvas goods store. "They were the most pleasant people I've ever waited on--polite, patient, appreciative," she said.
Then came the Sunday in the middle of the Memorial Day weekend. Busy?
"It was nothing. I couldn't believe it," she said, adding--though not, apparently, by way of complaint: "I haven't had a day when I couldn't sit and read the paper."
Out at Cape Porpoise, harbor master Ross Anderson oversees another side of Kennebunkport life several miles distant from Dock Square and shops like Malibu Magic (frozen yogurt), the Purple Heather (Irish goods) and the Snappy Turtle (hand-painted clothing).
Boats Yield Lobster Crates
A barrel of dead bait fish gives a special pungency to Anderson's realm, a dock where boats pull up and yield 100-pound crates of lobsters.
Across the water from his perch on a green canvas director's chair, white buoys mark a 500-yard perimeter around Walkers Point. Only lobstermen are allowed within the perimeter, and those who enter must submit to exhaustive searches by the Coast Guard.
"Most of the guys just stay away," Anderson said, avoiding the security hassles rather than checking their traps each day when Bush is in residence on weekend trips.