“The Ghosts of Walter Crockett: A Memoir” by W. Edward Crockett; Islandport Press, Yarmouth, Maine, 2021; 272 pages, paperback, $17.95.

One night in about 1982, I was asleep in my unheated room on the first floor of the building behind Quatrucci’s store on Munjoy Hill in Portland. The bed faced into a corner just off the front bay windows. A writing table with books and papers filled the other corner. A ragged chair, guitars, amplifiers, bookshelves, a small kerosene heater lined other walls.

Suddenly a crash, bang and shudder of the whole house woke me up. Its source seemed to be approximately 3 feet from my head. Now what?

I cautiously looked out the window. A car, its crumpled front end smoking, had crashed into the house. I went to the side window for a better view and locked eyes with a pale, thin young man with frizzy brown hair. Then he bolted down our narrow driveway which was enclosed by an old stockade fence. We never saw him again.

By this time my roommates were on scene. The car had staved in the brick foundation under the bay windows. Something black was leaking out of it on the sidewalk. I ran upstairs and called 911. Moments later groggy firefighters were wandering onto Congress Street from Portland’s busiest fire station 75 feet away, pulling on their firefighting gear and wondering what the hell was going on across the street.

The remarkable thing about this incident was not that a car had nearly crashed into my head, but that we didn’t think it was particularly anomalous. This was, after all, the neighborhood Ed Crockett calls The Corner in his memoir, “The Ghosts of Walter Crockett.”

The Corner was the 1960s and ’70s neighborhood appellation for the stretch of Congress Street at the top of Munjoy Hill where all kinds of things happened. My roommates and I, who were not Hill natives, never called it that, but we’d had beer bottles thrown at us when we used the nearby laundromat at night. For reasons like that, we rarely visited the convenience store farther down Congress.

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Crockett, we learn in his book, lived on Kellogg Street, a block down Congress and east from where we lived. In the mid-’70s friends of mine had lived on parallel Waterville Street, where to keep warm in winter they burned wood in a makeshift-installation 55-gallon drum in the living room. When they couldn’t get flammable fuel on cold nights, they chopped up and burned pieces of the third-floor porch.

It was cold in Crockett’s house on Kellogg Street, but they didn’t have to burn pieces of the house, which was owned by his grandparents who lived upstairs. Downstairs lived Ed, his seven siblings and step-siblings, his mother, and numerous unhousebroken cats and dogs. Ed’s father, Walter, was MIA.

This was because, as the first sentence of the book states, Walter was “the biggest drunk in Portland.” The details are hard to take, but familiar to anyone who knew Munjoy Hill before its makeover for the 21st century. I’m sure I laid eyes on Walter slumped on a Lincoln Park bench or squatting on India Street in the 1970s. I’m pretty sure I heard stories about him from our North Street roommate’s Uncle Fran, who was a street alkie in the same neighborhood, but in his periods of sobriety would visit and tell us stories, some meant as warning shots, about the sometimes funny but frequently fatal ugliness of being drunk and homeless for weeks, months, years at a time.

Ed Crockett faces down these facts of East End life in his book. His father’s humiliating drunkenness and absence during Ed’s childhood and adolescence turns out to be just one thread in a story of climbing out of prototypical Portland poverty. We get not only incidents of gritty squalor, but also snapshots of commonplace human warmth and generosity—from gruff neighborhood good Samaritans; to the proprietors of Levinsky’s clothing store and neighborhood bars and restaurants; to the nuns of Cathedral School, toward whom Crockett mainly feels great gratitude; to the owner of that Congress Street convenience store, who gave teenage Ed a job.

The book covers Crockett’s whole life, from childhood through Cheverus and Portland high schools, his love of sports, his precarious dances with the family alcohol curse as a fraternity brother at UMaine Orono, then his later life in business. The deeply damaged relationship with his father surfaces and resurfaces throughout. It’s a real-life rags to personal riches story.

But it’s more than that. While everyday physical life creeps from moment to moment and disappears into the past, its emotions remain alive. They are the living, tangible threads between past, present and future. If you don’t find ways for the better angels of your nature to shape those living parts of the past, then darker beings transform them into suffering.

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Ed Crockett’s Munjoy Hill has all but disappeared, but his better angels prevail in this book. His homespun writing voice knits the brightest and darkest incidents of his life into a sort of garment whose warmth you can feel in its persistent good humor and expressions of love—for his city, and especially for his mother, who lives here as his savior from a life of alcoholism.

And just as the inner life of an individual needs to be looked after, so does the inner life of a community. The most striking, and important, part of “The Ghosts of Walter Crockett” is its depiction of what East End Portland actually looked and felt like before Portland’s upscale veneer  crept in. Munjoy Hill appears different now, but its lives lived still live. Ed Crockett’s memoir, autobiography, confession—whatever you want to call it—helps give those departed lives a home, instead of exile in an unattended past. This makes Portland a better place.

“The Ghosts of Walter Crockett” is available through local and online book sellers.

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 [email protected].

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