Mark LaFlamme: The rise and fall of George Stanley’s empire of stuff

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Despite having his home and business in Greene ransacked and looted, George Stanley retained his sense of humor while surveying the damage Thursday afternoon as he picked up a hubcap and stick and pretended to be a gladiator protecting his possessions from barbarians. Watch and listen to George talk about it at sunjournal.com. (Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal)

For about a week, I talked to George Stanley just about every day. On the first day, as we discussed the Craigslist scam that led to a frenzy of scavenging on his property, Stanley quoted a line of Latin to describe his plight.

A day or two later, he offered Thomas Wolfe’s most famous line, and a short time after that he was quoting Jesus.

You can call Stanley a lot of things — eccentric, strange, more trouble than a house full of monkeys — but stupid isn’t one of them. He’s not stupid, that’s for sure, and he sure as hell isn’t dull.

I first made his acquaintance five or six years ago at a Lewiston supermarket. I was standing in the checkout line along with a few other shoppers who just wanted to pay for their oatmeal and cat food and toilet paper and be on their way.

At the front of the line was a man with a massive hill of groceries waiting to be bagged and a long receipt he examined in excruciating detail. He grilled the clerk about every item, invoking sale prices he was absolutely certain had been missed. After the price of one item was clarified, he’d move on to the next, interrogating the harried checkout clerk like a courthouse lawyer bearing down on a weakening witness.

This went on for long minutes and ultimately resulted in a huddle of store employees who went over the receipt with admirable patience. Others in the checkout line rolled their eyes and breathed sigh after sigh as they heaved their meager items from one arm to the other.

It really was a wonder to behold. The following day, I wrote a column about the experience, and the result was predictable: George Stanley, having recognized himself in the column, called the paper ranting, in a fireworks frenzy of complaints, about how he had been misrepresented.

My editors endured those tirades, not me. That’s why they make such mammoth salaries.

A short time later, Stanley became embroiled in a legal battle with the town of Greene, which had said, in essence, hell no, you can’t declare your property a flea market. It doesn’t matter how high you build mountains of random stuff or how many wooden aliens you tack to your barn. No way, mister, and no how.

Stanley sued. And sued and sued but never got anywhere. He couldn’t call himself a flea market, but that didn’t mean the array on his property couldn’t grow larger and more eclectic by the day. Go ahead and imagine a big thrift store falling out of the sky and landing smack dab in the middle of a salvage yard. That describes what Stanley’s place looks like today.

Sort of. There really is no describing it.

In the midst of all this, purely by chance, I ran into Stanley at an art show to which I had been sent by some cruel, mammoth-salaried editor. When I first spotted Stanley, my reaction was wariness. He’s going to want to talk about his legal battles, I figured. Or, God help me, the checkout line fiasco.

But Stanley talked about neither. What he spoke of was the art on display within the walls of the old Bates Mill. He described his feelings about the artwork and the historical relevance of the setting in such an expansive and colorful way that I was momentarily too stunned to write any of it down.

I swear to God it’s true: Stanley’s intellect, for the moment unencumbered by rants and raves, shone so bright I was temporarily blinded and my pen just hung there unmoving over the notebook page.

This man who had caused so many headaches for so many editors, store clerks and town officials was not only intelligent and articulate. He was downright likable.

For the moment, anyway.

When we first heard that a bogus Craigslist ad had sent dozens of people to loot Stanley’s property like pigeons after spilled french fries, my first order of business was to call Stanley.

I braced myself — having a conversation with Stanley on any occasion is like facing gunfire with words instead of bullets. When he’s angry or upset? Better duck and cover, son. It’s a busy day on the firing range and you’re the target.

Stanley ranted long and loud, sure enough. But he didn’t just string together angry words like a man who has dropped something heavy on his foot. He ranted about property rights, about matters of the U.S. Constitution and about the general ugliness of a greedy, gullible society.

And how could you argue with him? Nobody, no matter how tempestuous and argumentative, deserves to have his or her property stolen in such a brazen manner. Cut to the bone of legality and what we have here is a clear case of mass thievery with a single victim.

Yet not everybody sees it that way.

“They did him a favor,” offered one who commented on the strange saga. “Clean up your dump.”

“That place is an eyesore and a s**thole,” spat another.

“George, you live in mayhem,” opined a fellow who weighed in on a YouTube video of the carnage. “You are a hoarder. You have a pathological illness. Clean yourself up, and see a therapist.”

A third of those who weighed in were of similar opinions. The man might have been victimized, they suggested, but his yard is a mess so he probably deserved it.

A small number of them wondered if Stanley himself, driven by dubious motivations, had placed the sham ad himself. One even suggested Stanley might be more than conniving and messy. He might be dangerous: A true madman just waiting to rise in murderous psychopathy out of the mountains of debris in which he dwells.

Crazies, the fellow observed. Every town has one.

For some, the verdict in the matter of George Stanley was as cold as it was swift. Yet to my absolute astonishment, more people than not were unequivocally sympathetic to what Stanley had endured, and they were unabashed about saying so. Theft is theft, they declared, and you don’t have to like a person to recognize him as the victim of a crime.

One man was so moved by the story he was compelled to set up an online fundraiser to help Stanley with his losses. Many wrote in to ask how they, too, could contribute.

Whether they supported Stanley or despised him, tongues were wagging across Greene and beyond. The last I heard, a publication in the United Kingdom was preparing to unleash its own story about George Stanley and the Craigslist caper.

An intricate and intriguing cat is George Stanley, and to his credit, he knows it.

Last week, while photographer Russ Dillingham and I were being led through that wild labyrinth of stuff, Stanley commented on the nature of the people who were forever complaining about his way of living. These people, he said, are the types of irksome folks who fuel the imaginations of horror writers like Stephen King.

“That’s why he lives here,” Stanley said. “So he can write about all the weird, strange characters.”

A bemused expression crossed his bearded, almost-elfin face. Stanley had caught the irony of his own remark almost at once.

“Of the worst kind,” he amended. “I’m of the good kind.”

Then he bounded over a scatter of strewn debris to rail some more about the atrocity he had suffered, quoting Jesus as he did so.

Every town has one?

I don’t think so.

Mark LaFlamme (not every paper has one) is a Sun Journal staff writer. Email him at [email protected]

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