Can you top (less) this?

Wednesday Mollie looked at a story from about an odd encounter between a shop-keeper and a would-be robber. It wasn’t clear exactly what, if anything, actually happened during the meeting.

Spurred by the thought that I might find one as weird as Mollie’s, I jumped when reader Adam sent GetReligion an Associated Press story hot off the wires proving that “sin” still sells — or at least percolates. Here is another tale that leaves the reader begging for more: that of a topless coffeehouse that burned to the group a few nights ago, apparently a victim of arson. Situated in Vassalboro, Maine (the name itself is worth an article), the cafe and its shirt-free waitstaff had been controversial since it opened in February (apparently not every small town in the state has one).

The story opens in a straightforward fashion. It’s not until the middle, when the writer interviews owner Donald Crabtree, that things get a little confusing.

Crabtree said he’s determined to reopen his business.

“I’ll keep going. … I’ve got some girls out of work and I’m going to do all I can to get in there,” Crabtree said.

The shop’s opening in February raised the ire of dozens of residents. Someone recently called police to complain that a waitress was outside the business without a shirt. An ordinance was proposed to regulate nudity at local businesses.

Where was the ordinance proposed? Didn’t the town have any rules regulating nudity before — or was the opening of a topless coffee bar something the “Town Fathers” never envisioned?
Were any churches or religious organizations involved in trying to get the cafe shut down — or at least get the waitresses to wear shirts when the weather got cold?

Then there’s a quote from a Richard Flick (otherwise undentified) arguing that 97 percent of the townspeople probably opposed the coffehouse. Say that was the case. Who were the patrons?

But the most mysterious quote comes at the end, when Vassalboro resident Sherry Perry says: “I’m a believer and I’m a Christian and I don’t want this trash in my backyard. No good can come from it.”

A “believer and a Christian?” Sherry, what is it you believe in? Either reproter Glenn Adams didn’t ask her, or the editor chopped off the story at that point. Without more context about local and state “decency” laws, the possible opposition from local faith groups, and how Ms. Adams identifies herself, readers might get the idea that there’s some odd happenings going on Maine.

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  • Maureen

    Sounds like Ms. Adams may have said, “I’m a believer” (meaning, most likely, “I’m a believer in Christianity”) and then she qualified the statement, in courtesy to those who don’t understand. But you’re right that there’s no way to tell for sure.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    I wouldn’t get too wrapped around the axle parsing Ms. Perry’s comment. She clearly started off saying she was a believer, and then realized she needed to be more specific (everyone in Vassalboro would have understood her to mean Christian, but she felt she needed to amplify that) and then stated her Christianity openly.

    Vassalboro, pop. c. 4,000, is crossed by two U.S. Routes, 201 and 202, and thus has plenty of commuter traffic to patronize the coffee shop. It was settled in the early 1700s and contains a building once lived in by Alexander Graham Bell. That part of central Maine has a large number of small to medium sized evangelical independent churches, and the Catholic presence is strong, mostly from descendants of French-Canadian immigrants who came down to work in the fabric mills in the 19th century. A working knowledge of Quebecois French is useful at times in local businesses and stores…

  • Elizabeth

    Deacon Michael –

    I assume that you live in Maine? Thank you for the background!

    I think my overriding feeling about this story is that it was unmoored from giving readers any sense for the Vassalboro community, particularly the faith community. I live in a small town outside of Philadelphia, and I can as soon imagine our board of supervisors allowing a topless coffee bar as I can imagine them allowing a shopping mall. I’m not sure how to ask this tactfully, but is there something about Maine (a state whose legislature in early May voted to allow same-sex marriages) that would make it more like Vermont (a little more permissive) and less like smaller communities in Pennsylvania? Or was this town just taken by surprise, do you think?

    By the way, I’ve heard rumblings about a voter referendum on the same-sex marriage vote. Does that look like it might happen?

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    Yes, I live in Maine, near the New Hampshire border, and work in Portland. But I’ve been all over the state. Lots of towns regulate adult bookstores, but only Portland has had a strip club (and a topless doughnut shop under the same management!) and all the little communities never thought they would need ordinances about them. I know Glenn Adams, and most of the journalists from Augusta south (I was once president of the Maine Press Association), and I understand that readers “from away” would have wanted more background than the AP would normally include in stories like this.

    Maine is a state where the progressive south and the more rural and conservative north are in great tension over social issues. It has been dominated by Democrats for decades, re-elected in many cases by Franco and other ethnic groups who may be more socially conservative than the political class but who could never vote for a Republican unless their last names were Snowe or Collins, who may be fiscal conservatives (though they are huge earmarkers) but are socially very liberal.

    So we get no restrictions on abortion and legalized same-sex marriage. Re the latter, Maine has a constitutional “people’s veto” provision that requires bills to be put on hold for 90 days if citizens qualify to mount a referendum petition drive to overturn them. So, the SSM bill has not taken effect yet and won’t for a while. The Roman Catholic Church and an evangelical group are combining forces to gather petition signatures, and should get the 55,000 (in a state with 1.3 million people) to get the measure on the ballot in November. If it does qualify, the law will be on hiatus until the vote. Everyone expects the opponents to get the sigs, as the RCs and the evangelicals are passing the petitions around after Mass and services.

    How will the vote go? Polls show it about even, which to me means (given the usual dissembling to pollsters on such matters) that repeal is ahead as things stand now. However, the gay groups will spend a bundle on ads once Labor Day comes around, so I’m not making any predictions.

  • Brian Walden

    Morality and Theology are good and all that, but aren’t there health codes against serving food and beverages without a shirt on? Does “No Shirt. No Shoes. No Service.” only work one way?

  • Todd Kovich
  • David

    I remember hearing when the place first opened.

    No shoes, no shirt, no service depends upon the discretion of the owners.

    Another angle worth noting is the fact that the owner lives with his wife, his two daughters, their two boyfriends, and THEIR small children. What can we infer about his worldview from this?

  • Mollie

    Percolating sin — love the phrase.

  • Malcolm Boura

    Nice to see that so many of the people of Vassalboro are doing their bit to encourage body shame. How many teenagers became pregnant in Vassalboro last year? How many had an abortion? How many have gonorrhea or some other STI? Now think long and hard about why countries such as Denmark have about one tenth as many teenage pregnancies and abortions and less than one seventieth as much gonorrhea. Attitudes have consequences and the consequences of body shame are devastating. It is completely unforgivable for adults to harm children by using them as a smokescreen for their own hangups.

    Then take a careful look at what the bible actually says. Genesis 3. God was concerned by disobedience and not by any lack of clothing. That was a man and serpent problem. God provided clothing to make life easier outside the Garden of Eden. Then look at the original Hebrew. The contortions of the translators would be hilarious if it wasn’t for the harm that they have caused. The clothing referred to was just a belt, probably a hunter gatherers tool belt, and the translations tell us much more about the prejudices of the misguided souls doing the translation than what the bible actually says.

  • Malcolm Boura

    Clothing in a food serving environment is much more hazardous than skin. It is excellent at retaining food traces and growing all sorts of pathogens. This property of clothing is why in many countries hospital staff uniforms have been redesigned to shorten or remove sleeves. It makes patients safer.

  • Deacon Michael D. Harmon

    St. Paul used another term for “body shame.” He called it “modesty.”

    “On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensible, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.” (I Cor 12: 22-24a, ESV)

    Before we start copying Scandinavian disrobing habits, we should consider whether we will also be copying their church attendance habits too. It may be that, as one famous Dane was quoted as saying, their nudity “’tis a custom more honored in the breach than the observance.”

  • Maureen

    I’ve never spilled boiling hot coffee on my bare breast. One would assume the experience would be overwhelmingly painful.

    But hey, who cares about safety? That’s all body-shame! Take off your steel-toed boots while you’re at it, and your toesies will never be smashed to pulp or cut off. Your pride in your body will protect you!

  • Elizabeth

    Upon reflection, I should have cut the body shame thread off at the err, pass. I doubt it has anything to do with the profit motive behind this restaurant. But I did find it amusing to ponder Danes naked in the snow. If that was going on among a large group of Scandanavians, we’d hear about it.

  • Dave

    Elizabeth, it does go on. The traditional sauna involves running from the steam house to a river where someone has knocked a hole in the ice and jumping in. Sounds downright Darwinian to me, but there it is…