Micah Berube is sitting in his parent’s kitchen drinking coffee, surrounded by six friends. They’re all out of work, laid off – like 80 others -- from the Fraser Paper Company’s plant in Madawaska, Maine’s northernmost mill town. He rests his coffee cup on the wooden table. “It’s easy to look at the big picture, and say, you know, it’s just another little town going ghost town,” he says. He makes eye contact with Kevin Bosse, his best friend from childhood. “I’m here, I’m going to be twenty-seven, I want to build a house, and I’m living at home with my parents. I can’t afford it. There’s no work. There’s no work. And I don’t like the city, I’ll never move to a city.”
Micah was the fourth generation of his family to work at the mill. At the plant he strived to uphold the Berube name, and he did a good job of it. He impressed the old timers with his hard work. “A good day’s work, and a good name up here is worth its weight in gold,” he says.
His mother, Anne, still works mornings at the mill, sometimes sleeping on the couch so as not to wake her sleeping family when she leaves for the early shift. His father, Larry, worked at the mill until a back injury sidelined him ten years ago. His younger brother, Jake, twenty-four, worked there, but was laid off and moved home taking seasonal employment in the area. Presently, he bags potatoes.
The oldest Berube child, a star athlete in high school, a motivated and capable worker, Micah represented hope for his struggling family in a struggling community. Until recently he was engaged to his high school sweetheart. Photos of the happy couple are still in the family album.
In the kitchen Micah lifts the full coffee pot, “Hey, we got milk and half-and-half. It’s better than the powder.” The largest man in the room, he towers over Dean Leusque as he pours steaming liquid into his mug.
Dean scratches his unshaven face and looks up, “Hey Micah, if you were a woman I’d marry you.”
“Oh yeah, Dean? Well I’d never marry you.” Micah pats his friend’s back and returns the pot to the stove. He lifts his cup with three fingers, his massive hands a contrast to the dainty flowered china.
Back at the table, Micah takes a quick sip. “My fiancée was going to go back to school when I got laid off. You know, she was working here as a dental hygienist. We’re engaged. Everything is peachy.” The men stop talking to focus on their friend. They know what’s coming. “And then I got canned from the mill, so that put a damper on things. I was saving money to at least put a foundation on the house. I want to start building - we have a tree farm, probably about 200 acres. Beautiful place.”
The room is quiet. Micah’s eyes fix on the table. “I mean this is a major curve ball. She got fed up and said, ‘you know what, I’m going to school.’ His voice cracks, and he wipes an eye, “It’s put stress on my relationship. I’m actually not engaged anymore. …because of current events, because of my not going down there, because of my trying to better myself here. I definitely blame things going on at the mill with that. Because if I was still working there…”
The men understand Micah’s display of emotion. Dean breaks the silence, “You’re not the only one,” he says, consoling his friend. “There’s a couple of guys who we were working there at the mill who are struggling with their relationships. You know, they’re going back to school. Money is tight. It’s tough times.” He leans back and grins, “Yeah, I sold my dog and my ex-wife… You gotta’ get money somehow.”
Fraser Paper Company, the keystone that holds the area’s fragile economy together, has laid off more than two hundred workers in the past three years. The company sought bankruptcy protection and began restructuring. Then a faceless entity bought the corporation, and a new company name was announced: Twin Rivers Paper Company.
Madawaska, a town of about three thousand, depends on the corporation for about sixty percent of its tax base. Restaurants and retail stores rely on its employees’ business; truckers thrive on its shipments, and lumber mills need its wood-chip orders.
Fear has engulfed this tight-knit community. A woman working in a gas station crumples her shoulders at the mention of Fraser. A current employee having lunch in McDonald’s leaves the table when discussion turns to work politics. A contractor leans on a glossy bar top, “It’s like they’re pulling the band-aid off slowly,” he says. As jobs disappear residents flee, leaving empty houses in their wake.
Across northern Maine mills, logging outfits and small farms are diminishing. The major throughway leading to Madawaska is dotted with dilapidated barns and fallow fields. The natural beauty juxtaposed with crumbling buildings creates a haunting scene.
Micah and his friends are all taking advantage of President Obama’s Opportunity Training Initiative. The government is paying for them to go back to school. Micah spends the weekdays living in a dorm at Northern Maine Community College, a school that offers a variety of trade programs. Micah rolls his eyes, “We call it ‘Little Fraser’ down there.” But laid-off Fraser workers aren’t the only ones at the school. Classes are full of the unemployed from the logging industry, lumber mills and other paper plants.
At the school library, twenty-somethings study next to middle-aged men in paint-splattered work pants and steel-toed boots. The irony about all this education is that Northern Maine is developing an increasingly skilled labor force just as jobs are dwindling away.
Micah already holds a degree in diesel hydraulics, and he is currently pursuing a second degree in gasoline mechanics. His goal is to open a mechanic shop, “Word of mouth, you know, is a big thing around here,” he says. “You put your work, you put your skill, you put your integrity in there. And you actually, you treat someone else’s thing like it’s your own.” He doesn’t want to be dependent on an employer. He’d rather work for himself. He doesn’t want to be a rich. He just wants to live. He is determined to make a life for himself in his hometown.
Bob Pelletier, head of Fraser’s Safety Department, has known Micah his whole life. In his office at the Madawaska headquarters he considers the prospect of opening a new mechanic shop in the area,. “Micah will give it one hundred and ten percent of his effort. And people will go to him. He’s got a good rapport with people in the area. But will he make it?” He shakes his head and looks out his office window. Empty storefronts stare back at him.
MAURA EWING is a writer living in Portland, Maine. Her work has appeared in Down East Magazine, The Maine Magazine, The Portland Phoenix and The Rumpus. She can be reached at email@example.com