James Schmidt the Third has an unexciting life ahead: take over the family business and uphold the legacy his grandfather built and his father painstakingly maintained. For this he will be rewarded with comfort, prestige, and a reassuring monotony to the best years of his life.
Screw that, he says; he sees more romance in creation than in maintaining someone else’s dream. Though he can’t say what he needs, he abandons his comfort to find it. In the opening scene, his father finally believes he’s serious about pursuing his own future…
…and attacks him on the factory floor.
After losing that fistfight, James–who evades the connotations of his family name by going by just Jamie–communes with the statue of his grandfather in a park. His grandfather left his home country for America to build something all his own, and test himself in a strange new land of opportunity. He would understand, Jamie thinks.
What follows is Jamie’s discovery of a fictionalized version of Portland, Maine, a city in the throes of an identity crisis. Like many quickly-evolving urban areas, the city’s great fortune at attracting investors and developers means gentrification spreading like wildfire through the last affordable neighborhoods, and displacing many vulnerable populations. Broke and technically homeless, Jamie is shocked to find that those marginalized populations now include him.
He meets a community of artists and blue collar workers who contributed to the vibe that attracts the upmarket consumers who price them, increasingly, out of town. They help him get a job as a moving company laborer, doing the grunt work of gentrification, so he can afford to rent a room in their flophouse.
By introducing himself as “just Jamie,” to avoid mentioning his family name, he inadvertently discovers a secret organization that unites his roommates, coworkers, many of the town’s artists, and others: they’re members of the Hash House Harriers, a drinking club with a running problem. Established members earn irreverent nicknames and acolytes go by “Just (Whatever My Name Is).”
“So you’re not actually one of us?” his housemate Diddle Acquittal asks.
“I’d like to be,” Jamie says, beginning his journey to join the group, earn their approval…and help save the soul of their city.
First their neighborhood bar, and then their flophouse, come under attack from developers and the politicians who see change as both inevitable and lucrative. Jamie helps fight back, while struggling with questions like: how can an outsider earn the moral authority to meddle in local affairs? How do you break into a new social scene, as a complete unknown? And how do adults make true friendships in the tumultuous years after college?
Along the way he meets Kate, an artist with her own campaign to preserve the art scene against business interests and politicians; Evan, a corporate burnout who has given up on the social validation that Jamie craves; Sherman, Jamie’s landlord, who discovers that the pending forfeiture of his flophouse can be cheated by goading the police into burning it down for the insurance money; and Seasquatch, who believes that only through Radical Freedom the opposite in every way of Jamie’s quest for belonging, can he achieve the same sort of fulfillment that Jamie seeks. Their philosophies, aspirations, and self-interests, put them on a collision course with the fate of Portland’s creative class unwittingly at stake.
Can they convince the City to call off the destruction of their neighborhood? Can the artists defend their place in their community? It comes down to a dramatic rally with the fate of a neighborhood, and a way of life, at stake…and Jamie squaring off against the one person who might turn the tides.
Freedom vs Belonging
Jamie arrives as a stranger in a fictionalized version of contemporary Portland, Maine. He wants to build a life worth living, which for him means meeting people, making friends, finding causes, and working for them. His goal is acceptance, and to establish himself through service and relationships.
He meets Seasquatch, a gentleman outlaw who lives on an abandoned sailboat, who is trying as hard to leave Portland as Jamie tries to make a place within it. Seasquatch believes that only Radical Freedom can set him free to pursue life on his own terms, unburdened by a society he perceives rejects him. His desperate hope for Radical Freedom is the inverse of Jamie’s drive to belong…yet they’re after the same goal: a life truly worth living.
Evan has essentially given up on life, having convinced himself that he’s peaked already in this thirties. Belonging hasn’t brought him the satisfaction he craves; neither has the freedom of anonymity. He becomes jealous that Jamie hasn’t similarly given up yet, and that the newcomer seems to make the friendships and connections that he hasn’t made despite years of trying. If neither freedom, nor belonging, are the answer…what’s left to fight for? As Evan crumbles beneath the failure of his worldview, he finds hope in a peculiar place.
Kate, the informal leader of the street artists and one of the Hash House Harriers, finds that her many connections and passions embroil her in profound struggles: to defend the artists from the city, to defend the Hash House Harriers’ home from developers, and to defend her heart from the sabotaging doubt that she can’t hold on economically as the rents go up.
Many of the characters aspire for freedom, at the cost of connection…or, aspire for connection, at the cost of freedom. They struggle to balance their needs for freedom and connection in a tumultuous social scene that has decreasing room for them.
A Victim of Its Own Success
The Portland of “Hash 207” is a victim of its own marketing success: the developers who capitalize on its growing popularity with tourists, increasingly bulldoze the housing stock that supports that city’s creative and working classes, to house those who flock in droves to experience the bohemian vibe. Coming out of a decades-long depression, it was once home to artists and innovators and scenesters who couldn’t afford to live anywhere else…
…so they made their communities thrive in Portland. It’s an old story, familiar to any large city, that comes around on a regular cycle of boom and bust and reinvention.
Safety vs Aspiration
Jamie rejects a safe, if dull, life in the condiment business for the uncertainty of starting over in a brand new city. That freedom, he believes, is absolutely required to build a life on his own terms…even though, in rejecting his roots, he rejects his safety nets. Broke and homeless, he relies on his courage and the kindness of strangers to build a new life.
Sherman, owner of the Hash House Harriers’ flophouse, built a reasonably safe life by renting space to his friends and breaking even on his bills as he licked his wounds from a decade of working as a divorce lawyer. His safety is threatened by the aspirations of real estate developers, until he discovers a golden parachute for himself: cajoling the police into burning down his doomed flophouse. If they’ll all be driven from their neighborhood anyway, he surmises, the safe option is to cash out his investment for the insurance money…even though that would make his friends homeless. What greater hope might there be, among such bleak options? Jamie has very little time to restore Sherman’s hope…and save their house.
The characters were largely content to stay within their comfort zones, until circumstance intervened to prove that safety is an illusion and evolution is often your last hope. It’s dangerous to change, but suicidal to resist. Can they evolve together, and create a stronger place for themselves in the changing city, before their aspirations and fears (and a bulldozer) tear them apart?