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Mameve Medwed

Losing a slice of Bangor

The Coffee Pot, now closed, made a gem impossible to duplicate

By Mameve Medwed
May 9, 2011

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MY COUSIN called me from Bangor, Maine. “Bad news,’’ he said. “The Coffee Pot closed.’’ I clutched my mug of tea. It was a Coffee Pot mug. I once owned four. “Est. 1930,’’ its logo announced. I phoned my husband. “Terrible,’’ he exclaimed, “but all good things come to an end.’’

I groaned.

“The owner probably died,’’ he added.

That’s it, I thought, he must have been 100, and nobody else could have carried on, replicated the sandwiches or the atmosphere. I remembered the owner and his sister: two ancient Pillsbury dough-people with white hair, white skin. I pictured the way they wrapped the waxy white paper around the sandwiches in the tiny ground-floor shop of what resembled a child’s drawing of a house.

The minute I hung up the phone, I googled the Coffee Pot. The Bangor Daily News had reported on the last day. Crowds lined State Street, some customers arriving at 6 in the morning with lawn chairs. The police redirected traffic; scalpers worked the queue; one latecomer offered $80 for two $3.50 sandwiches.

None of this surprised me. Except for two things: That the owner, a land-locked proprietor who never budged from behind the counter, was called Skip. And that he was retiring at 72. From my current vantage point, 72 suggested spring chicken rather than cow put out to pasture. How astonishing to realize that when I was a kid, Skip must have been younger than my age now. Unnamed, he and his sister were simply Mr. and Mrs. Coffee Pot, like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.

Just as any child could list the glories of the North Pole, any Bangorian would unanimously catalog the Queen City’s charms: the statue of Paul Bunyan in front of the auditorium, Stephen King on Broadway, and on State Street, the Coffee Pot. Proust may have had his madeleine, but we had that shop’s signature submarine sandwich — so signature the sandwich became known simply as a coffee pot.

To give it its due, you’d need a Calvin Trillin. But I’ll try. You started with the long soft roll (no imported French baguettes) courtesy of the local Brick Oven Bakery. Cut down the middle, the bread was layered with green peppers, then exactly five slices of tomato, followed by a thick filling of diced onions, all marinated in some mysterious formula including oil, salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes. Piled on top lay four squares of unnaturally yellow American cheese, then three circles of overlapping American salami studded with peppercorns — all garnished with a precise row of five fluted pickle slices.

When my mother visited, she brought Bangor taffy, which we re-gifted, and half a dozen coffee pots, which we kept all in the family. On every trip to Bangor, we stocked up. It wasn’t always easy because the Coffee Pot kept diva hours, 10 to 5, Monday through Friday. ’’Can’t you leave work at 12:30?’’ I’d beg my husband, who would sacrifice a Friday afternoon of billable hours to arrive before 5.

Once, down to our last coffee pot, I called upon two expatriate friends. We’d sift through the archeological layers of the sole remaining sandwich perfuming my refrigerator, we’d examine each stratum, make a diagram, take notes, go shopping — all for the noble purpose of reconstructing this Greek urn shard by shard.

We even calibrated the length of the onions, the curve of the peppers. We fussed over the amount of the oil, the ratio of salt to pepper, red to black. In the end we created a masterpiece of spitting imagery.

But then we tasted. Not even close.

In November my cousin called again. Two people who had worked for the Coffee Pot had just opened their own café. I called. Could they Fed-Ex me eight coffee pots? I asked. My scattered family — the Bangor diaspora — was arriving for Thanksgiving. Sure. We’ve Fed-Exed as far away to California, they boasted.

While the turkey roasted, I set the sandwiches out for lunch. “It’s OK,’’ said my son. “How much did you pay to Fed-Ex these?’’ asked my husband. The present will never live up to the remembrance of things past, we agreed.

Mameve Medwed, a Cambridge resident, is the author of five novels.