Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Saturday, March 25, 2006
The end of the world as we know it
Welcome Street Talkers. If any of you are left roaming the charred ruins of the Lost Sole, you can find safety and comfort here. All that is left of our old home is a mushroom cloud over a blackened pit in the earth. They blew us up, man. Blew us to smithereens.
For fear that no one will find this place, I'll keep it short. But should one of you wander by, drop a line and we'll get things started. There is much to discuss. There is rebuilding. There is repopulating our society. There is seeking retribution of the loathsome one who caused this apocalypse. Yes, there is much to discuss.
I've gotta get moving. There are noises outside and you can't trust that everyone is friendly around here. It's a savage new world we exist in. We've got to be careful.
Saturday, March 18, 2006
The Hills Have Yawns
Friday, March 10, 2006
Life, at last
Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Brushes with greatness
My brother still talks about the time he ran into former Gov. Michael Dukakis in downtown Boston. This brush with greatness was so profound, he alerted friends he had not seen or spoken to in years. He told the story with wild gesticulations, even if he happened to be on the phone.
As time went by, more details clung to the story like lint to a new sweater. Minute details of the conversation were recalled and shared. My brother told of meeting the one-time presidential candidate as though the two of them were old friends who had met for many drinks.
The poor, wide-eyed schlep. It was the same when we met John Travolta back in the '70s. And when we met Donny Most from "Happy Days" fame. It was life-changing fate for my brother when we got a few minutes to talk to Ron Palillo, the wormy guy who played Horshack on "Welcome Back, Kotter."
And when relief-pitching great Dennis Eckersley nearly mowed my brother and me down outside Fenway Park, well ... that's a story to be unleashed at just the right moment of a party.
My brother will tell complete strangers about the impromptu conversation we had with the Eck. I'll nod a lot and back up his every word. But what I remember most about the incident was that the hurler was running across the street toward the ballpark and almost ran right over us. I remember the conversation going like this:
Eckersley: "Sorry about that, guys."
Us: "Quite all right."
Celebrities don't do much for me. If the stars in the Hollywood tabloids jumped from the pages in a grocery store line, I would have no other reaction than to check to see if they had 10 items or less. No, really.
OK, I'll admit it. There are a few megastars who might make me stutter. I'd probably stammer a bit if I came face-to-face with Robert DeNiro, because I'd be trying to muster the courage to call him Bob. Martin Scorsese might set me back a few minutes, but I'd regain my voice soon enough. These are just people. They get colds, dandruff, skin eruptions and embarrassing stomach disorders just like everyone else. No reason to fan yourself and swoon.
I know what you're thinking: that I'm lying because you recall the piece I wrote about my first meeting with Stephen King. You remember that I described the first word I uttered to the great one as something like: "verymuchbigfanthankyou."
I will ask you to stop your snickering. It was a big moment for me. It's one thing to run into simple celebrity. Greatness is a different matter altogether.
So you can imagine my distress when I was asked to sign a copy of my novel for Mr. King. You can imagine the word-evaporating horror at trying to muster just a few simple lines to impress a longtime hero.
Not that the big man was anywhere in sight, mind you. No, I was at the Book Burrow in Auburn and the owner of the place asked for the signature so she could send King a copy later. I'm not telling you what I wrote, because I know how you are.
I've decided there are two kinds of people: those who regard the famous as godlike creatures worthy of all the hysteria, and those who have deduced that even the most esteemed celebrities are still made of flesh and bone. I am of the latter group, those temporary lapses notwithstanding.
And yet, I'm willing to wager that even the steeliest, most cynical people have one or two heroes capable of striking them dumb. If you're an airline buff, it might be Chuck Yeager. If you're a geek, it's probably Bill Gates. If you golf more than twice a week and wish you could do it more, an introduction to Tiger Woods might give you goose bumps.
My brother is easy. Michael Dukakis made his day, and how many people can say that? Frankly, I'm glad it wasn't Bruce Springsteen or Joe Torre he encountered that sunny, warm day in Boston. Either of those guys might have done him in for good.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Video killed the radio star
Here is the first part of the radio interview, which ran yesterday and this morning. The only question you will have at the end of it is: what?
Monday, February 20, 2006
Lewiston: Life on the streets
Friday, February 17, 2006
Thursday, February 09, 2006
Pictures of you
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
BIG ACTION TODAY!
A great man once said: "some days, it don't pay to get outta bed."
That man was Foghorn Leghorn. A person could conduct his entire life upon the wisdom of that wise rooster.
But the point is this: bad things happen when I get out of bed early. Unequipped to deal with the brightness and clamor of morning, I run into obstacles everywhere.
It was midweek, and I awoke to the girlish screeching of the alarm clock at 9 a.m. Unspeakable. But I was out of bed within minutes and fully dressed not long after. It was a January miracle.
The reason for this uncharacteristic rising was a hunch. I had a good feeling there might be big action downtown and I wanted to be there. I had already alerted my editors that huge news was imminent.
"Huge news is imminent," I told them, standing in a defensive posture and protecting my gallon jug of coffee from their talons.
At the paper, we have what is called (I have no idea why) a daily budget. On the budget go items that will appear in tomorrow's paper. With assurances from me that huge news was imminent, a notation was made at the top of the budget.
BIG ACTION TODAY! LAFLAMME WILL COVER!
And so I wandered out into the frothing world of a Lewiston morning. I parked my car discreetly on Park Street so I could watch the cops and anyone else that wandered in or out of the station.
It's always a funny thing when I get to surveilling the police department. Unsure of what I'm looking for, I lunge at everything that moves. A cruiser pulls out of the compound, I give chase, like a dog after a cat.
But you can't drive with utter freedom in the morning like you can at night. The roads are clogged. People stop for red lights. It's like skating on a rink with too many people jammed onto the ice. You never get a chance to open up and fly.
Many minutes and miles later, I learn that the officer was sent to a loud stereo complaint. I lob a few lines of profanity and return to my perch on Park Street. And wait. And wait. And get distracted by street noise.
"I am not going to take this anymore! You need to change your ways, buddy bone!"
What's this? Marital discord? An argument between drug peddler and a troublesome customer? I creep from my car to check it out.
None of the above. A cranky dad yelling at his 2-year-old. There goes that Father of the Year award. I return to the car and wait. And also, wait.
It's hard to lurk in daylight. I'm slumped in my car, peering over the top of the steering wheel and thinking I'm blending right in. A police cruiser rolls up next to my car and a cop is grinning at me. A familiar face strolls out of Speakers with a warm sandwich, looks at me, rolls his eyes.
In the morning I'm vulnerable, like an overturned turtle. Without the protection of darkness, I might as well have a spotlight on me as I wait. And wait. And besides that, wait.
Long story short: nothing happens. No big arrest, no huge news. The loud stereo complaint was the highlight of the morning. The following day, I'm at it again.
"Huge news is imminent," I tell the editors, approaching their webs with caution.
The item on the budget said something like: "Action today? LaFlamme will cover?"
And the next day, way down on the page, in parenthesis: "LaFlamme blithering about huge news again. Assigning weather story, instead."
So, I've stopped talking about it. Huge news? What huge news? Because I know better now. I learned from the sage Foghorn Leghorn, who once quipped: "That boy keeps talking, he's gonna get his tongue sunburned."
Saturday, February 04, 2006
Everything I know, I learned in a puddle of beer
The party was in the basement of a frat house and it was raucous. By the shank of the evening, I was weaving back and forth and sporting a dopey grin. At the pinnacle of this finesse, I prepared to lay a killer line on a pretty sorority girl. In doing so, I leaned against a wall that wasn't there and landed in a gutter filled with vile water.
High times at the University of Maine at Orono. I have many stories filled with such lowlights from UMO and yet I was never a student there. I never went to college at all.
Here, some of you will fold up the paper in disgust and cast it aside. How can you respect a writer who never received formal schooling? There are such people and they are aghast when I tell them. I have no degree. They never gave out diplomas for the kind of education I sought as a young wanderer.
I used to be ashamed of it. I used to mumble, "Yeah, I went to college." And I did. For about two days at the university in Augusta. And my, how I hated it, sitting in deep classrooms trying to learn about matters I had no real interest in. It took two days for me to realize that my attendance there was a joke. What did I want to be, anyway? An astronomer? A truck driver? The guy who puts the "inspected by No. 9" tickets in shirt pockets?
No idea. So I quit school and I roamed. I hitchhiked a bit and drank with people beneath bridges. Not a noble education, but I wouldn't exchange any of it for a B.A. in this or an M.A. in that. I'm not ashamed of it anymore. These days, I tend to wander around the newsroom declaring: "I ain't got no book learning."
A friend from the old days visited the newsroom not long ago. We talked about the business and how I had managed to evolve since the rowdy days of my youth. He finally asked where I went to college. I told him I hadn't. And he asked the question. How the hell can a person become a reporter without a degree?
It half amuses, half irritates me. Some of the best reporters I know barely graduated from high school. Some of the worst I've worked with had master's degrees in journalism. They had great theoretical knowledge, but ask them to respond to a scanner call and write about it on deadline.
Part of me wishes I had gone to college. Part of me also wishes I had joined the military. But I didn't do either. I wandered.
Back at UMO, I did most of my fraternizing with a group of my brother's friends. They were journalism majors, wide-eyed with expectations and plans for the great stories they would write. They planned to lay bare the inequities of society. Me, I pumped gas five days a week and cooked hot dogs on the weekends.
A few years ago, I got together with the same group on a beach in New Jersey. One owned a restaurant. A few had gone into sales. One was a welder. Happy, successful men, yet none of them had written a single word of news since collecting their diplomas and tossing their mortar boards into the air. I told them war stories from the news trenches and we mused over the irony.
Back in the day, a girlfriend who had a B.A., an M.A., and some other initials I forget, advised me that I'd never get near a newsroom without a college diploma. No way, no how.
The sad fact is, for a time I believed her. I spent a lot of nights staring up at the newspaper building in Waterville, imagining the news machine inside and wishing I could be part of it. And you wonder how many others are shuffling around with their heads down, convinced that without a nod from a college or university, they can never do what they feel created to do.
All some people have is what they have learned through the hard knocks they have taken. Down-and-out addicts have risen from the dust to do great things with knowledge that has been beaten into them. Seasoned criminals walk from prisons and turn their agony into gold.
I don't push a lifestyle of restlessness and hedonism as a means of education. I recommend higher education to anyone who asks about it. With a degree, doors will open quicker. Paychecks will likely be fatter.
But there's something to be said about embracing the experiences you do have, even if they were painful and ugly. There is a certain shabby nobility in the feisty mutt in a roomful of purebreds. There is something to be said for the person who has clawed his way into the kingdom rather than entering with the key of higher education.
Of course, I'm only raving, provoked to memory by an old friend aghast that I was never formally schooled. In the long run, I still have no book learning. And I'm still the guy who fell in the swill.
Monday, January 30, 2006
Amazing live sea monkeys
But I've said too much already.
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
Lies and damned lies
I'd been on the run a long time and I knew the cops were at my heels. They missed me by seconds over in Fresno. I caught the squawking of their scanners as they came up the stairs and I beat feet through a window and onto a fire escape. A big bull of a cop was waiting for me on the ground and we fought. He had me in a chokehold and I felt my freedom slipping away, along with my wind. But I came around after a few seconds and beat him down. When I left the musclehead, he was writhing in a mound of trash.
Those were hot, desperate times over on the West Coast. Everywhere I turned, those gumshoes were right behind me. I caught a train for Chicago and laid low there for a while. Then some U.S. marshals sniffed me out of the rathole flat I was living in and a whole squadron of them swooped in. I duked it out with another gorilla and managed to escape, this time through a dumbwaiter.
It's all hazy. The strip joint mix-up in Manhattan, the meth lab down in Baltimore, the brothel in Tennessee. I was using a lot then and the memories are fuzzy, like a blown-out photograph on a computer monitor. Running from The Man, fighting with The Man, knocking The Man down and beating feet.
Yeah, I was on the run a long time and I saw some crazy stuff. I was just a kid, but I was faster, meaner and slicker than the rest. I hear someone wrote a folk song about me in Tucson. In the Midwest they named a tornado in my honor. That's me, all right. Powerful, unpredictable and enigmatic.
Great stories I could tell for a lifetime. Too bad none of them are true. I just felt like going James Frey for a while. I felt like recreating my youth in hopes that people would believe it and find me heroic. Hey, feel free to send me money if my story has moved you.
I don't mean to get down on Frey and his struggle with booze and drugs. I think it's admirable that he conquered his addictions through sheer will and that he chose to write about his travails. What irks me is that he invented a majority of his experiences and then asked his reading public to believe it without question. One gets the feeling that Frey sat through a few group therapy sessions and felt inadequate for the tales he had to tell.
Which is fine. When one guy starts talking big, the guy next to him will start talking bigger. It's what we do. We are hardwired by evolution to build tales as high as they will go when we are in the company of our peers.
The problem I have with Frey is that he presents his struggles as mightier than those of the the next alcoholic or the next addict. He asks that you believe his battle was more valiant and harder fought.
He scrapped with cops. He served long prison stretches. He threw down with every officer and lost a girl while he was in the slammer. He suffered through a double root canal without anesthesia, stared down a Mafioso and established himself as the toughest hombre in rehab. He lost a girlfriend to a train wreck and spent his young years drinking away her memory.
At an AA meeting, it would make a great drunkalogue. Few people would bother to check the facts. But, sell a few million copies of a book and people will rightfully begin asking questions. They will find the police reports that reveal only minor arrests. They will find officer statements describing you as polite and cooperative, instead of combative and powerful. They will check prison records and find that you were never there. They will learn that the young lady killed by the train was never your girlfriend, and that you were never the neighborhood ruffian.
And so as the lies stack up, we start to wonder if Frey's sins of hyperbole are equal to or greater than those of someone like Jayson Blair. Blair fabricated news stories and hornswoggled those who trusted him. Frey deceived people who needed to believe the most - the suicidal drinkers and ragged-edge druggers who were inspired by his story. When they learned about his deceits, they might have felt they had been betrayed yet again, that there was one more entity in which they could not believe.
Mothers of rowdy children might claw your eyes out if you utter a word of criticism about Frey's book. Because they want to believe that even bad kids are essentially good, and that change is always possible. And while that may be true, Jim Frey should not be the symbol of the transformation.
Jayson Blair, Jim Frey. Two men who concocted clever mixtures of fact and lies and hoped they would ring true. Two men who fooled their audience for a time and then were called on it. A word of advice for them both: If you want to make things up, write fiction. People may still condemn your work. But at least they can't call you a liar.
Monday, January 23, 2006
Reporter looking for cryptic banter
In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime. And Mark LaFlamme, who whines about it incessantly. These are their stories.
So, I'm pretty sure I need a partner. It's not that I'm overworked. I spend more time trolling than a bass fisherman or an out-of-stater looking for a prostitute in downtown Lewiston.
The problem is that I don't have enough banter in my professional life. I have thoughts. Deep thoughts.
Fresh from the streets, popping like an overloaded Pez dispenser, I'll spring to my wife's desk on the other side of the newsroom.
"Somewhere in the distance," I'll say to her in my most dramatic tone, "a dog barked."
My sweet wife looks at me with those pretty, brown eyes and says nothing. The silence is enough. The brown-eyed silence says: "I married an idiot."
So I bounce as if on a pogo stick to the copy desk. There I find editors hanging from their desks like bats in a cave.
"It was a night just like this," I inform them with just the right tone of ominous foreboding.
The editors look at me with those small, black eyes and then consult each other with beeps and chirps. Protecting the queen is what they're doing. And then one of the worker editors is enlisted to advise me on the remark.
"Do you need something to do, Mark? Or shall we devour you and feed the remains to our young?"
The bane of banter
Cops are no better. Cops worry constantly about banter because it might get inserted into a news story. Cops need to think about what their chief thinks of their demeanor in the 'hood. So when I lunge at a cop with one of my profound observations ("The beasts are loose in Bethlehem tonight, wouldn't you say, officer? Eh? Eh?") they think heavily before responding.
"There is the possibility," a cop might say, "that perpetrators will commit misdemeanors or felonies this evening. That's affirmative."
Criminals get all itchy when you try to banter with them. You just want to yack about the nature of the city and they get all squirrelly about it. You unleash a few lines of fresh banter and to their delicate, crook ears, it sounds like trouble. They think you're wired and start patting you down, right there on Park Street. They look over one shoulder, then the other, and flee in an all-out sprint. It really kills the banter mood.
I've got nobody. I need a Lenny Brisco-type partner. Someone who will understand my non sequiturs. Someone who will scowl when I scowl and spit when I spit. Someone who will address me by my last name only.
"The one-eyed monkey barks at midnight."
"You got that right, LaFlamme. It is wise to know the difference between a hornet and a bee."
"Damn straight, LaFlamme."
The shadows know
On a few occasions, I've had people shadow me on the job. These were young people fooled into believing my occupation is exciting. I like having them along. They bring to the job scene a great deal of enthusiasm. For about six hours. At which point, they realize that nothing ever happens and the reporter they happen to be riding with is a big dork who speaks in riddles. I always try to use these people as banter partners.
"This is the big one," I'll say, ear cocked to the scanner. "Get ready to roll."
A barking dog complaint rolls across the airwaves.
"Sir, I'd like to call my mom," says the pimply, Lenny Brisco washout.
So, I need a partner. No journalism skills are needed. Hell, I don't have any of those, myself. All I'm looking for is someone who can keep up verbally. At those times when I don't make sense (estimated by my colleagues at 94 percent), you would just nod, spit and say something equally inane.
"The lunatics are in the hall."
"Hear that, LaFlamme. The paper holds their folded faces to the floor."
"And every day, the paper boy brings more."
"Yeah, LaFlamme. Yeah."