By Edward Crocket
The first line of his obituary in the Portland Press Herald proclaimed my father, Walter Crockett, “the biggest drunk in Portland.” It was right there in black and white. Of course, I didn’t need to see it in print to know the truth. I lived it. It haunted me my whole life. The Ghosts of Walter Crockett tells his story from my perspective as I tried to understand and deal with it all.
I am a Portland kid born and bred, having lived here for all but five years of my life. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s on Munjoy Hill in a modest two-family house on Kellogg Street with my mother, seven siblings, and numerous stray cats and dogs. My maternal grandparents, Howard and Nellie Mayberry, resided in the apartment upstairs. Grampa was a laborer with a binge drinking problem, while Grammy, like my mom, was a homemaker. Not surprisingly the family didn’t have much money, by which I really mean we didn’t have any money. My father left our home when I was two years old and spent my entire youth on the streets of Portland, its most identifiable skid row bum. We became “products of the State,” surviving thanks to its support.
My maternal grandparents arrived in Portland via Boston during the Great Depression with their two daughters, Ginny (my mom) and Millie. Grammy’s roots (Feeneys and Hannigans) were in Sligo, Ireland, and Grampa’s clan hailed from Glasgow, Scotland. Grammy was a cousin of the great film director John Feeney, who changed his name to John Ford. I never knew my paternal grandparents. Harrison Crockett died long before I was born, and Delia Clancy Crockett passed away shortly thereafter. My father had eight brothers and one sister. Seven of his siblings, like him, struggled with alcohol addiction.
My parents met in 1957 and married a year later. My mom had five kids from a previous marriage, then three more with my father. I am the baby of the family. I didn’t really appreciate that moniker as a child, but I totally endorse it now. For about five years we were all a big happy family, until the shit hit the fan and Walter checked out. The metaphorical and literal heart of my young world spanned from Munjoy Hill to Monument Square. Since my mother never learned to drive, I walked or took public transportation everywhere. My home, schools, church, and even my first four jobs were within this physical footprint. Coincidentally, it was my father’s domain as well. I loved growing up on the Hill and am proud of my neighborhood, of the very real people who lived and labored there, mostly Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrant families. The Hill is imprinted in my DNA.
Back then, Portland was a careworn, working-class city. There was no Arts District, no tourists paying a grand a night to stay in a boutique hotel, and no one was dropping a million dollars for a waterfront condo. It had a lot of history. Following the Great Fire of 1866, Portland rebuilt itself into a modern, prosperous city and it stayed that way through the early 1900s. But the Great Depression, followed by World War II, did a number on the fortunes of
Portland—new investment stopped, the economy shifted, and the vibrancy of downtown moved to the ascendant suburbs. Everything just seemed to get old. By the 1960s, the waterfront, an area that is now part of the trendy Old Port, was derelict and dangerous.
Congress Street, the once-booming retail district, was cracking. The State Theater turned to pornography to save itself from the wrecking ball and it was easy to find a dive bar or an all-night club or drugs or a lady of the night.
Yet, the most scandalous changes to the face of the city were caused by urban renewal. Urban planners of the era thought that more roads and parking spaces were the golden ticket. In Portland, entire blocks and neighborhoods were razed following the stroke of a pen. Near my home, Franklin Street sprouted into the four-lane Franklin Arterial. To make way for the wider road, more than one hundred houses were demolished and hundreds of people were relocated. Other city streets were rerouted or bulldozed to accommodate better traffic flow, damn the folks that lived there. The new Franklin Arterial effectively severed the Munjoy Hill neighborhood from the city’s downtown, deepening our sense of isolation and heightening our inferiority complex. We already had a chip on our shoulder, and it only got bigger when city planners made it official—Munjoy Hill was on the wrong side of the tracks.
All of this served as the backdrop to my daily life and looming over it all was my father. You see, my father spent most of his time straddling the arterial himself. His most frequent hangouts were Kennedy Park, the Cathedral Block, Lincoln Park and the jail that sat right on it, while Portland’s only flophouse, the 24-Hour Club on India Street, the Old Port, and Monument Square were just blocks away. I could not escape him.
When he wasn’t in my face, he was a spirit lurking in the shadows. Sometimes I felt his presence, other times I shivered; his predicament plagued me. My father was always drunk on the downtown streets—often sleeping on a bench in Lincoln Park, sometimes curled up against a building near the waterfront, or sprawled out in a local jail cell sobering up, if he was lucky.
When I was fourteen and attending Cheverus High School, I would wait for the school bus at the edge of Lincoln Park. On too many mornings, I would spy him out of the corner of my eye, a deeply flawed and crumbled mess of a man passed out on a bench reeking of alcohol. My friends sometimes nudged me and said, “Hey, isn’t that your dad?” I wouldn’t answer; I would just turn away. That time spent waiting for the school bus, no matter how fleeting in reality, was simply soul-crushing. In those moments, I hated him.
But the human soul is an amazing thing. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how aloof I pretended to be, and no matter how much I cried, I could never shake the fact that the ghost
who haunted my dreams, and would do so by hook or by crook for the rest of my life, was my father. That meant something whether I wanted it to or not. Our lives would be entwined whether I lived in Portland, Orono, or Houston, Texas. I tried to pretend he didn’t exist or that he was just another faceless bum. I thought I could, but I couldn’t. Compassion and forgiveness are critical parts of humanity. I couldn’t escape his shadow. I couldn’t forget that he was my father no matter how many mistakes he made. I knew that his brothers all fell victim to the bottle in one way or another. That their blood was my blood. No, that he was my father was a simple undeniable, biological fact. Still, the question that troubled me for years was this: “Am I destined to be just like him?”
It probably didn’t help my psyche that my mother would admonish me by saying, “If you drink, you will end up just like your father: on the street.”
As a result, the young boy crushed by the sight of his drunken dad on a park bench desperately wanted to race as far away as he could, thinking if he ran far enough, he wouldn’t be embarrassed by him; wouldn’t become a bum like him. But the path forward for the man I became was fraught with mental demons rooted in my father and my own dances with alcohol. Researching and writing this book has been a fascinating and, at times, therapeutic journey. And as I finished, it was once again right there in front of me in
black and white—the biggest drunk in Portland was my dad. Reconciling that mentally, trying to rise from poverty to find success and happiness, being a good father to my kids, understanding the power of forgiveness, and living my best life, has proven to be my lifelong quest. And hard as it may have been to imagine, I couldn’t have done it without him.
Ed Crockett, a native of Portland, Maine, is the president of Capt'n Eli's Soda and a state representative. This excerpt serves as the introduction to his first book, The Ghosts of Walter Crockett, an at times harrowing and heartbreaking tale of love and redemption that takes readers to a side of twentieth century Portland that has always existed in the shadows of lighthouses, lobsters, and sunsets, but is rarely explored in print.