“Take It Easy: Portland in the 1970s,” by John Duncan; Islandport Press, Yarmouth, Maine, 2021; 144 pages, paperback, $19.95.

One cold spring night in 1975, I got off the 10:30 ferry from Peaks Island and walked through the mostly empty, bleak, timber-frame Casco Bay Lines terminal area toward Commercial Street where my car had been parked for a day and a half. I tried to steer around two guys with crumpled hair, unshaven faces, tattered coats and slashing eyes going in at least four different directions that all led to me.

No go. They hailed me and maneuvered with practiced discombobulation into my path. “Hey buddy, you got a cigarette?” Sorry, I don’t smoke. Trying to keep moving, but also seem non-combative. “How about a buck for a cup of coffee?” A buck for coffee? Now they were close enough for the stale smell of recently consumed cheap wine to filter from their yawps to my nose. Luckily, I thought, I have no money either.

They surrounded me, projecting sort of two-headed intent – they were either going to be my new pals, or kill me. I’m big enough to seem like the latter might pose difficulties, and anyway they were already too drunk to do either. When one of them nudged me with his shoulder I pushed him away and kept walking. They could not keep up, and I made it to my car and drove off.

In John Duncan’s book of photos, “Take It Easy: Portland in the 1970s,” there’s a picture of the Casco Bay Lines building on Commercial Street that exactly captures the gritty emptiness of that night and of the rough, shadowy side of the city that still obtained in the ’70s. Anyone who was there for it, is going to want to look at the photos in this book. They are full of the brilliant enthusiasm that was building out of Portland’s shadows in those days.

Duncan drove a taxi up and down the peninsula, always carrying a camera with which he shot thousands of pictures at random. His images are strikingly authentic to the time. Congress Square and its elderly denizens. The traffic in front of the public library when it was in the Baxter Building. The echoing interior of Cathay Garden. The scroungy bus station at Spring and High streets. Pizza Villa in its early, lovable, fake-wood-paneling incarnation. A view of the skyline from Munjoy Hill.


The many photos of faces capture the artistic exuberance that powered the 1970s renascence in the Old Port. People you would have seen or otherwise crossed paths with if you spent much time on the streets: musician and clothier Beth Blood; photographer Chris Grasse; street performer Reggie Osborne; artist Steve Priestly. Up on Congress Street, a glimpse of the poetry easel Bruce Holsapple set up every nice day in front of the library.

A lot of the faces are of Duncan’s friends from around town and Falmouth, where he grew up. Their dispositions and demeanors are superbly, truly represented, their smiles emblematic of the youthful enthusiasm, aspiration and centuries-old grittiness that defined the time. Softball games, a Long Island beach, Paul’s Foods, the Rook and Pawn. On downtown Congress Street, the diesel smell and roar of the buses practically percolate from the images.

Not pictured in the book is the blue three-story building at the bridge end of State Street where in 1973 two friends and I rented the top-floor apartment for $125 a month. But if you want to know what it was like, look through “Take It Easy.” I can’t recommend this book highly enough, to people who were there, and to people who wonder what Portland was like when it was gearing up to become too expensive to live in without a trust fund.

“Take It Easy” is available from Islandport Press and local and online book sellers. John Duncan will be talking about his book starting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, March 30, at Bunker Brewing, 17 Westfield St., Portland.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at offradar@dwildepress.net.

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