CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine -- People in this tony coastal suburb of Portland don't have anyone to pick up their trash. Instead, they hoist bags of refuse into Volvo station wagons, Mercedes Benzes or pickup trucks and drive to a scenic green hilly site to hurl their garbage into a giant hopper.
People here like their dump.
It's the busiest meeting place in a town that has no real commercial center, no bars or fast-food restaurants. It's where Girl Scouts come to raise money, where politicians troll for votes and where people browse for books and antiques.
"We're a very congenial community, and we kind of like doing without," says Mandy Garmey, a former recycling committee chairwoman.
"And the dump is where everything happens in town."
Indeed, the dump -- please call it the "transfer station" around Public Works Director Robert Malley -- is the place to see and be seen in this 17-square-mile hamlet, population 9,000, with the highest per-capita income in the state.
It is where large shingle homes overlook sea-splashed rocky cliffs and residents doze off to the sound of foghorns from two historic lighthouses.
Political candidates flock here on Saturdays every election season, pass out trinkets and bond with constituents through open car windows as recyclers wait bumper-to-bumper for their turn at the bins.
People still recall a state representative setting up a five-piece jazz ban in the back of a pickup, and retiring Sen. William S. Cohen -- the Republican who has been named defense secretary -- helping people dump their bags.
Like many residents, Scott Collins looks forward to Saturday mornings, when he takes his Labrador puppy, Hazel, and a cup of coffee, and knows he'll run into almost everyone he knows. On nice days, contractors mingle near the construction-materials recycling station and settle the town's politics.
In recent years, as recycling fever has engulfed the town, the dump has come to serve many purposes. A "bottle shed" is turned over to a different youth group each month so kids can collect returnables, which yield on average $1,400 a month, $75,000 in the past four years. The station is booked for the next two years with groups from foreign language and ice hockey clubs to the Class of 1998's prom organizers.
Town councilor Rosemary A. Reid got the idea while campaigning. She noticed how many bottles and cans were going to waste.
"It's where you can see more people than anywhere, except maybe the IGA [grocery store] on Sunday after church," Reid says as she sorts bottles, stopping to accommodate a man who poked his head in for a soda bottle to use as a bird feeder.
A few feet away, a "book swap" housed in a former doghouse is crammed with books that people may take and drop off as they please.
And the most recent addition -- a swap shop called Cape Carry Out -- offers a perpetual garage sale with rows of furniture, bicycles, skis, computers, glassware, toys, grills and lawn mowers.
On Saturdays, visitors come in a steady stream to load and unload one man's trash, another's treasure.
What's unusual about Cape Elizabeth is that it has clung to the New England tradition of dump-as-meeting place even as the town evolved from a farming community that produced mostly lettuce, cabbage and strawberries until the 1940s, into a seaside refuge for professional types -- doctors, lawyers, engineers and retirees seeking a pristine existence.
They don't want to look at garbage bags blowing around on the curb or hear the thunder of trash trucks.
They like the independence of taking, say, smelly lobster shells away immediately after a lobster bake. And they don't want to pay the extra taxes.
Until 1977, the dump was an open burning pile that drew sea gulls and rats. For fun, teen-agers would drive up at night with their shotguns, shine their headlights on the rodents and shoot.
A dump keeper was paid a small salary to keep things tidy, so to speak, and had the rights to anything he could sell. For a while in the early 1970s, a local pig breeder also had a town contract that let him go door-to-door gathering kitchen waste for his 300 pigs.
Then came the state bans on open burning dumps, so in 1977 the town built its "transfer station," which began dropping garbage into a hopper. Trash is now sent off to be incinerated and converted into energy.
But picking through old junk has a long tradition in town, and freestanding metal, wood and demolition piles near the old dump always produced inspiration for household projects.
"I think we already had a 'swap shop' mentality," says Carol Fritz, the first to head the recycling committee.
In the late 1980s, environmental regulators required the town to properly close and slope the remaining landfill, so it launched a $550,000 project, completed this fall, that eases motorists through a succession of recycling stations: corrugated cardboard, clear plastic, used motor oil, batteries, compost, to name a few.
"It's warm and friendly, you chat," says Nancy H. Smaha, emerging from the book swap with her daughter, Jodi Rosengren, jointly lugging 14 books. "It's a wonderful experience."
The public works and recycling people are exceedingly proud, boasting that only an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent of residents pay for private curbside pickup, far lower than the 30 percent to 70 percent averaged in other Maine communities without organized trash pickup.
In a recent survey, 95 percent of residents said they recycle regularly.
"We have bank presidents, corporate leaders, all of whom take their own trash to the dump," Town Manager Michael K. McGovern says.
Not everybody has embraced the bells and whistles.
Tom Skolfield, a lobster fisherman raised on the secluded island of Seguin where his father was a lighthouse keeper -- and where he began recycling at age 6 by making toy submarines out of old curtain rods -- complains that now "some smart, educated person comes along and gets paid for what I've been doing for 25 years -- scavenging."
Others are angry that the town paid $550,000 -- $120,000 of which will come from the state -- to cap a landfill in a town that never had industry other than farming and fishing -- unlikely, they say, to have produced toxic wastes.
"It costs a lot of dough to satisfy idiot bureaucrats," says Jerre D. Jackson, a building remodeling contractor.
In the same breath, he acknowledges that the make-over created an attractive place. "It's got the best paved road in town, the greenest grass. A speed limit posted at 15 mph, which I can't even get on my street. I want to bring my Little League team down there to play. And it's going to be a hell of a nice place for the kids to slide this winter.
"Just don't call it a dump."
Pub Date: 12/26/96