The Archivist

The gatekeeper of Portland's history remembers everything

All photographs are of the past, yet in them an instant of the past is arrested so that, unlike a lived past, it can never lead to the present.

—John Berger, Another Way of Telling

Silver halides are exposed to light, and what’s left is a house: two mismatched windows, a cast-iron gate, a drainpipe running down the exterior. The sunken roof is caught in the shadow of the building next door, and white matter—either snowfall or dust on the negative—speckles the air. With time, the blacks have become less black, the whites less white, creating a palette of gray: memory distilled through five generations.

This house could be any house, inhabited by anyone, filed away in the archives under “H” for “house, owner unknown.” Neither the house nor the street exists anymore, but Abraham Schechter remembers.

The photograph was taken in 1883, the year Ms. Bertha Abrams of 53 Franklin Street, Portland, Maine, was born. The same year, two baseball teams in Fort Wayne, Indiana, played a game under electric lights. Also in 1883, railroad companies established standard time zones across the United States and Canada, dividing the continent into fifteen-degree slices.

Abraham wasn’t alive in 1883, but he remembers. It’s his job. As a librarian and the first-ever archivist of the Portland Room of the Portland Public Library in Maine, Abraham is the gatekeeper of Portland’s history. He has witnessed the city aging: the bricks spalling; the trees growing; the trolley tracks pulled up and paved over; the State Theatre opened, closed, opened, closed, and opened again. He knows when the house in the photograph, Congregation Beth Judah, was knocked down to make room for wider streets and taller buildings, and what your bubbe might have worn for Purim that year: a lion’s mask and a pleated skirt that hit just below the knee—the one your bubbe’s bubbe said looked smart from her sitting chair, recalling when she was young and her knees were stronger and the skirts were longer. He remembers when the port was a place of convergence, where raw cotton
from the South and molasses from the Caribbean arrived, and limestone culled from the Rockland cliffs and ice cut from the Kennebec River left, sailing away on ships built like the ribcage of a whale. Now, the port is used for docking ferries, container ships, and, in the summer season, luxury cruises filled with European tourists stopping for pictures and lobster by the pound.

“I am memory,” Abraham says, flipping through a pile of negatives housed in the storage room. He puts each negative in an acid­free envelope and then assigns it a number, written in pencil so the marking won’t fade. As a result of his work with the Portland Room’s collection of negatives, he can identify by sight, and in reverse, every building in town, every courtyard, every stairway, every alleyway, and every motif on a fence—iron spikes like pitchforks in front of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House or interlocking circles wrapping around a graveyard.

Abraham moved to Portland from New York when he was seventeen, and he has never left. He has lived in eight apartments on five different Portland streets, and if you ask him about a Jamaican restaurant on Federal Street or a synagogue on Deering Avenue, he will tell you how to get there from any cardinal point. Abraham has dark brown hair, deep­-set eyes, and pale skin the color of a new page. His cleft chin is obscured by a trimmed beard, and his brow forms an awning over his eyes—the kind of pronounced features that make it easy to imagine what his skull will look like two hundred years from now. He is forty-eight years old: a historian who has experienced the birth and death of generations and the rise and fall of empires with the excitability of a child prone to unpredictable tangents and loud interjections. He talks with the liveliness of someone who consumed two cups of coffee before daybreak, weaving through stacks of books with his chest slightly pushed forward and his feet splayed. His hands compose sentences in the air, and his voice rises and falls like a nursery rhyme. When he tells a visitor to the Portland Room a fact, he leans over his desk, as if letting his guest in on a secret.

The Portland Room is home to the library’s special collections: books bound in cracked leather and tied with red string, religious tracts, almanacs, maps, and letters, which Abraham presses with iron weights to keep the stationery from curling up. The bust of James Phinney Baxter, a benefactor to the library and a former mayor of Portland, surveys the room from between two bookshelves. Inside the card catalogue, three- by five-inch subject cards are filed alphabetically, from “Bears” to “Beverage containers,” “Horse blankets” to “Hotels,” “Liquor” to “Lobster fisheries.” The room is carpeted and quiet, and the occasional sounds of the living startle: an old man’s cough, the turn of a page, the crank of Abraham’s typewriter carriage.

A sign­-in book asks visitors for name, time of entry, and place of origin. Most visitors are from in or around Portland. They come to read the day’s newspaper or in search of a piece of history: meeting notes from the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association or the obituary for a man named Joseph or Jonathan Smith, who may have worked for the Ornithological Society sometime in the 1930s.

When Abraham became an archivist in the Portland Room, he inherited the still film archives of the Portland Press Herald: the negatives of more than 1.2 million photographs—an estimated number because archives are measured in linear feet, like a child’s height marked on the side of a doorframe—taken between 1936 and 2004. The collection had been abandoned in the basement of the newspaper’s former office building. The negatives were sorted in numerical order, but the cards, which contained basic information about only some of the images, were organized alphabetically. This made the prospect of “establishing archival control” daunting, but not impossible.

In the back of the Portland Room, Abraham lifts one negative at random, holding it up to the fluorescent light. The resolution is better than any digital image. “It’s silver!” he says, his voice rising, his eyes widening. “It’s oxidized, tarnished silver!” But the diacetate in the old film is an “inherent vice”—meaning the fugitive material has a short lifespan and will naturally deteriorate. Abraham has had to throw away more than twelve thousand negatives, damaged from prolonged exposure to darkroom chemicals. “They looked like this,” he says, holding up a shriveled black rectangle, like a neglected loaf of bread burning in the oven.

Before Abraham became an archivist, he worked as a custom printer. Maine, because of its placement on the globe, has harsh contrasts—bright lights and dark shadows—so he altered his developer to stretch the tonal scale, pulling out the shades of gray in between. In the darkroom, Abraham was patient for beauty, waiting for “miracles” to emerge. “Now, of course,” he says, “that skill is worthless. Nobody needs a darkroom technician.” Times have changed, and with it, technology. The onset of digital imaging “really spelled the end” for Abraham, and he started to turn his attention to the past.

Sorting through more than half a century of images, Abraham found many he calls “jewels”—images that offer intimate looks into the local institutions, people, and events of Portland. Among these, Abraham has found some pictures that provide rare glimpses into the lives of the small population of Jews living in Portland. Because of his Jewish upbringing in Brooklyn, Abraham takes a special interest in the history of Portland’s Jewish community. He suspects he is the only employee at the library who can identify a six-­point star in the corner of a picture as the Star of David, or a closed palm frond as the lulav for Sukkot. When photographs of Jews rise to the top of the pile, Abraham makes a note in his digital file in parentheses: Jewish.

“Anyone else,” he says, “would have glossed over them,” mistaking a tallit for a tattered scarf or deeming a mezuzah (a rolled piece of parchment with handwritten verses from the Torah, nailed to the right side of a doorframe) a strange decorative choice.

Abraham lays down a negative on the lightbox and leans in close with his magnifying glass. A man wearing a yarmulke, two women in long dresses, and a baby stare up at him. He reads out loud the number written in red China crayon across the right side of the negative and crosschecks it with the accompanying notecard from the Portland Press Herald. “Would you look at that!” he says. “Four Jews sitting on a couch.”

In another photograph, taken on December 9, 1951, four girls crowd around a menorah. They are wearing uniforms, and upon close inspection, Abraham can see a patch with the letters “CFG” sewn to one of their vests. “Camp Fire Girls!” he says, which is a youth camping organization that accepts members of all religions, including Jews. Two Camp Fire girls hold booklets to their chests, with their mouths open, their shoulders pushed back, their legs straight. A tall girl watches with a smile, her hands gripping her skirt. In the center, the girl with the patch on her vest leans over the small table to light a candle. Her eyes are narrowed, and her mouth is tense, as if any wrong move could burn the synagogue down.

The wicks have burned down, and the girls have all grown, and lived, and some have probably died. But their youth is made eternal by the photograph—they are stuck in their starched CFG uniforms, the flames glowing for much longer than eight days. “If I am not interpreting the negatives,” Abraham says, “they will not be found.” That is, if no one knows to look for them, they will be lost to time.

Portland Jewry grew like a pubescent boy—at times undetectable, even to a Jewish mother, then in bursts overnight. The 1890s brought a flood of Jews into the area. By foot, Jewish peddlers walked up and down the coast of Maine, selling wares they had purchased on credit, the weight of their burdens heavy on their backs. When they had saved enough capital, they often opened up stores in Portland and settled in the “Jews’ quarter,” near where India Street crosses Middle Street.

Abraham takes a Portland directory, a precursor to the phone book, from the shelf. In it, there are names like Levi or Susman, which sound Jewish—names that an uncle might yell across the Shabbat table—though it’s impossible to know for sure. The books are written in code, poetic in their pith.

Cohen Joseph, sizer 1 Beach, bds 457 Fore.

Joseph Cohen. A sizer by trade, who worked at a hat manufacturing company at 1 Beach Street—now a patch of overgrown grass and sow thistle close to the Casco Bridge. He “bds,” or boards, at 457 Fore. “From the listing,” Abraham says, “we can imagine Joseph’s walk to work.” It must have been no more than fifteen minutes, depending on the length of his stride.

Abraham’s finger runs down the yellowed page of the directory. A few houses over from Joseph, at number 469, lived Marcus S. Goldblatt, second hand clothing h. do. “Do,” Abraham says, “stands for ditto,” which means Marcus lived upstairs from where he worked.

Abraham grew up in New York, where he could hear the older Jews “with long memories” speaking Yiddish in Borough Park or where, in Forest Hills, he could buy a knish, the mashed potato filling spilling out from the top. When he was five, he moved from Flatbush, Brooklyn, to a housing project in Corona, Queens. The brick high-­rises stood in a pack, blocking each other’s sunlight. The sky was spliced by wrought iron bars across his bedroom window. He had to walk through what he called a “war zone” to get to his junior high, a school with a number for a name. On Fridays, he went to the Orthodox temple with his parents. He sat with his father, and his mother sat on the other side of the mechitza, the partition dividing the men from the women.

His parents, both children of the Holocaust, had emigrated from Paris to New York. Though the trauma preceded his birth by decades, the memory was still there, hanging over their apartment like the smoke from his mother’s cooking. They never spoke of the war, he says, but when he was old enough, his aunt—his mother’s eldest sister—brought him to Paris, where her father had owned a cabinetmaking business before he was deported to Auschwitz. Abraham’s own mother had been smuggled to Normandy by one of her father’s customers. Abraham stood on the Rue de la Main-d’Or, staring through what used to be his grandfather’s storefront. The day was hot, and the sun burned down on his head. “Why was I spared and he wasn’t?” Abraham wondered about his grandfather. “The only difference,” he says, “is time.”

Abraham spends a lot of time thinking about time: what it’s made of, where it’s kept, how it moves, how we inhabit it. It’s the way the sun bleaches the pavement in the morning and stains it black at night. Or like the language we use to describe it: the “now” and the “then,” the “before” and the “after.” It’s the distance between a grandfather and a grandson. Abraham remembers when, in his schoolyard, he was the youngest, and the smallest, and the weakest, and he was beaten until he bled; he remembers how he wished time would lose track of its own movement, skipping over itself.

Which is to say, Abraham understands the importance of recording history. As he sees it, the past is gone, the future hasn’t happened yet, and the present comes and goes without leaving a mailing address. Once, Abraham planned a solitary trip to the Green Mountains of Vermont. Before he left, his coworker handed him a notebook with a daffodil on the cover for him to write in. Abraham took the gift because he was too polite to scoff at the suggestion, but to his surprise, he filled up every page, and he has not stopped writing since.

Abraham knows that his walk to work on a Tuesday morning will not change the course of history, but if he doesn’t record it—a pigeon sitting on a telephone line, initials carved into the pavement—it will be forgotten. He has “hold-­that­-thought” books: small black notebooks in which he jots down notes in pencil while he’s walking outside or riding the bus. He has large black notebooks, which he calls “The Archival Record of My Pilgrimage,” in which he writes with a black fountain pen. His entries skip back and forth between the personal and the profound, his long sentences moving like rogue marbles on slanted ground. “Nothing deepens a soul like an inheritance of ennobling continuum,” he writes. He peels out pages from disc-bound, loose-leaf books and slides them into his typewriter—“best for stream-of-conscious writing.”

Abraham opens to a page of his notebook at random and begins to read: “A routine reference call came from a resident who described a tattered news clipping to me over the phone.” His voice rises as he reorients himself to his words, to a life he has already lived. He flips back a few pages, then farther back, trying to see how far he remembers. “Memory itself becomes place,” he reads. “Even retracing old steps is forward movement.”

When a group of elementary students comes to visit the Portland Room on a field trip, they sit in a circle on the orange carpet, staring up at Abraham. Abraham asks what he always asks for—a show of hands. “Does anyone here keep a journal?” he asks. Hands shoot up in the air. “If you are keeping a journal, you are working on a manuscript!” The students, of course, have no intention of such a thing. Records document functions, the activities of a business, the minutes of a club meeting, the vagaries of a life. That their writing could be preserved for posterity, or become a part of history, has not occurred to them. “Take pictures of your daily life,” he tells them—the convenience stores they passed by on their way to school, or the ATM outside. Ugly things. Things we don’t notice unless we have to. “Otherwise, they are going to get lost,” he says, as if memory is a red balloon set loose by a child. “There is no unimportant history,” he says. “There is no unimportant life.”

About the Author

Emma Rosenberg

Emma Rosenberg is a writer and editor based in Boston, Massachusetts. She wrote this essay while studying at The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Her writing has appeared in Slice Magazine, Guernica, The Rumpus, Fwriction : Review, and others.

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