Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Selling support

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Carolyn Gillis, a Falmouth mother who attracted national notice in 2004 for founding — a Web site with a yard-sale motif, where families can sell off their junk and donate some of the profit to benefit the town’s public schools — is broadening her reach. Gillis, who has since set up a similar site for the Westbrook schools, has just expanded the model to, which channels money to charities in Maine and around the country.

The seller posts info about an item for sale, including a suggested price, and designates a charity from a list of about a dozen (ranging from the hyper-local Another Chance Animal Rescue in South Berwick to the globally minded, and chooses a percentage of the sale price that will be donated — from one percent to the full sale price.

Prospective buyers can search for specific items or by product category or, curiously, by the charity they wish to help. Based on the sample ads (all five of them, which are the only postings on the site as of now), a person who wanted to support would have to love the water, because the only items offered on that charity’s behalf are a $60,000 sailboat (with half the money to the group), or a $75 kayak (25 percent donated). An animal-rescue fan has a choice of buying a $3000 baby grand piano or, well, nothing. (Anyone can donate directly to the charities through links on the site, and Gillis doesn’t take any cut.)

Wouldn’t it be nice if somebody tried to sell a piece of toast branded with the image of the Virgin Mary, and (a Web-based casino, which apparently has a collection of such artifacts) shelled out $28,000 for the holy bread and sent a sizeable percentage to a nonprofit along the way? Seems to happen all the time on that other online auction site, whose name we just can’t remember right now.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Naughty or nice? The holiday displays that put the bah in our humbug

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Portland-area residents do pretty well when it comes to horrendous light displays. By well, I mean absolutely, over the top, slap-a-ribbon-on-me tacky. I’m not talking about the traditional candles-in-the-windows or the subdued wreath-on-the-door. What I want are the light displays visible as you approach from miles down the street, or coming in from I-295. Or even, as Danny DeVito’s character suggests in the light-display extravaganza Deck the Halls, “from space.” We at the Phoenix found these all on our own, without relying on the movie’s Web site, which at press time lists just two “decked” homes in Maine. Clearly the Deck site is asleep at the sleigh, so herewith, our best of the worst:

Decked out
836 Broadway, South Portland
The top location this year, and with a strong prospect for next year’s showcase, is this home clearly labeled “North Pole” (equipped with a leaning, and apparently wayward, penguin), a Rudolph whose nether end is unlit (no guiding light there), an inflated tree around the site, and, to top it all off, Christmas music playing to passers-by. Don’t miss the Nativity scene, because Christmas is really all about the humble Baby Jesus. He would have loved this setup.

On the market
37 Fall Brook St, Portland
For sale: two-unit multi-family house on half an acre, apparently home to Santa and Mrs. Claus, Frosty the Snowman and a friend, and flashing snowflakes. Asking price $225,000, Santa not included.

Santa on a Harley
7 Woodmere Rd, Portland
A simple selection, unadorned with any other accoutrements, a shades-wearing Santa rides a flaming Harley through the suburbs off Allen Avenue. (No, the headlight isn’t red, and there aren’t any gifts in tow. This is Santa’s ride on a hall pass from the missus.)

Evil tree
460 Ocean Ave, Portland
The red candy canes illuminating this tree at Payson Park make me hungry. I also skipped breakfast this morning, so maybe that has something to do with it.

Frozen fish
230 Commercial St, Portland
Sapporo’s display actually looks better on paper than in real life. Perhaps it’s the reflection of the lights in the window distracting from the web of electrical cords exposed to the elements.

Kiss this
37 Casco St, Portland
Atop the entrance to “The Ambassador” apartment building is a festive green pyramid, but don’t stand under the mistletoe on the awning over the door — the passed-out guy on the top step might wake at any moment looking for love.

Zombie dolls
73 North St, Portland
These cheerful fellows make the most of a tiny Munjoy Hill front yard, but unlike the other displays, you have to catch them during the day — at night, they’re turned off and shrivel to tiny pieces of fabric on the ground, only to rise again the following morning.

Balls to the wall
231 Commercial St, Portland
Ah yes, those glowing balls of holiday cheer I love to hate. Get your ball fix throughout the downtown, but nowhere more abstractly than above Decorum.

Stocking stuffers:

Pole dancing
24 St Lawrence St, Portland
Not much special here, except the effort required to lift a five-pointed, two-dozen-lighted star some distance in the air on the back porch of this Munjoy Hill home. Which is enough.

Armed bear
29 Jordan Ave, SouthPortland
A polar bear carrying two sticks of uncertain origin does an approximation of the robot on the side of this lit lawn.

Three Santas
39 Mona Rd, Portland
A bicycle with “spinning” wheels is the first eye-catcher on this lawn, which also features a waving Santa, two other Santas, motorized dolls in the window, Minnie Mouse and Mickey Mouse dressed up for Mickey’s Christmas Carol, and a penguin blocking the front door.

Festooned follies
267 Brackett St, Portland
While perhaps more sweet than tacky, the moving elves in the front window of this West End townhouse are just plain creepy. And the lights around the door are a bit much.

Nonsectarian snowflakes
558 Main St, SouthPortland
Businesses are not exempt from holiday cheer. This chiropractic office has chosen the inoffensive snowflake as its expression of winter wonders.

963 Washington Ave, Portland
Meloon’s Florists takes a very specific approach, with lifelike statues in a timeless moment from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Is this the part where Santa redeems Rudolph from the status of outcast? Or is it the little-known section where Santa laughs at the illuminated proboscis, just like all the other reindeer? We’ll never tell.

Snow cones?
end of Mona Rd, Portland
It’s unclear what exactly Tigger and Pooh are thinking mounting poor Frosty and the jar of “hunny,” but I’m pretty sure they need some adult supervision.

Choo-choo chintz
921 Highland Ave, SouthPortland
Even the mailbox is decorated at this house, which also includes a decorated garage and a train puffing “smoke” in lights.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

State: One Santa okay; another no way

Published in the Portland Phoenix and the Boston Phoenix

Maine regulators have refused to approve an English beer’s label featuring Santa Claus holding a beer, saying it makes the product attractive to children. But they didn’t balk at approving the label for Gritty’s Christmas Ale, which shows a man dressed up as Santa Claus, also holding a beer.

In October, the state agency that approves beer-bottle labels (yes, we have one; it’s the Liquor Licensing and Compliance division of the Department of Public Safety) wrote to Shelton Brothers, importer of Santa’s Butt (a winter porter), saying the beer’s label (which shows a rear view of a fat-assed Santa sitting on a type of barrel that’s called a “butt”), and two other beer-bottle labels featuring bare-breasted women, are “undignified or improper.”

Last week, Shelton Brothers filed suit in federal court, saying the state’s ban and the rule it is based on violate the First Amendment’s protection of artistic expression.

New York and Connecticut have recently expressed similar concerns over artwork on bottles imported by Shelton Brothers, a Massachusetts-based beer importer (headquartered, of all places, in Belchertown), but anti-censorship lawsuits in those states led to the bans being reversed.

In remarks to the press before he began declining to comment on the case, Maine State Police Lieutenant Patrick Fleming, who heads the state’s liquor-licensing agency, elaborated, saying the depiction of Santa might appeal to children.

That doesn’t wash with Gritty’s owner Richard Pfeffer. “Children aren’t really in the beer aisle all that much, unless they’re accompanied by adults,” he says. The Gritty’s Christmas Ale label has met with no problems from regulators, and was re-approved in April.

Shelton Brothers imports nearly 150 beers from around the world, and has run into trouble with a few of them, mostly relating to holiday designs brewed by the Ridgeway Brewery in England, whose brewer — a friend of the Sheltons — collaborates with them on beer and label ideas.

Maine officials have also declined to say whether this ruling means long-approved labels on other beers might also now be determined to appeal to children. (In addition to the Gritty’s Christmas Ale with Santa, several breweries have beers whose labels include drawings of dogs, for example.) Approval by the state does not force a store to display or sell a particular beer; stores can choose for themselves.

Daniel Shelton, one of the brothers who owns the import company, says even if Maine reverses its decision — which state liquor-licensing supervisor Jeff Austin said had not happened as of Tuesday — the lawsuit will continue, to get a court to strike down the state’s rule, which Shelton says is “way too vague.”

In addition to Santa’s Butt porter, Maine regulators have banned sales of Les Sans Culottes (a French blonde ale), whose label features a detail from the 1830 Eugene Delacroix painting Liberty Leading the People. The symbolic figure of Liberty is a bare-breasted woman carrying a French flag and a rifle and bayonet. The painting hangs in the Louvre.

A third label to be rejected by the state, Rosé de Gambrinus (a raspberry-flavored Belgian lambic), features a painting specially commissioned by the brewery depicting Gambrinus, an unofficial patron of beers and brewing and legendary king of Flanders, with a naked woman on his lap (symbolizing beer, according to the lawsuit).

The state has yet to file a reply in court.