Monday, February 20, 2006

Lewiston: Life on the streets

The name's LaFlamme. Mark LaFlamme. I have two shots in me. One is lead, the other, bourbon. Yeah, that's me. I'm a crime reporter. It says so on my door.
For no good reason, I've decided to keep a nightly record of the action on the crime beat. Maybe there will be great big lessons to be gleaned from the mischief and mayhem in downtown Lewiston, Maine. Maybe it will be just an excuse for me to post some of the ugly photos I tend to get down in the hood.
Lewiston, in case you wonder, is the substance abuse capital of the state. Crack and booze is what we like, though there are pockets of heroin and meth.
Lewiston is also the most racially diverse city and arguably, home to some of the dumbest crooks. Not everything I see out there warrants a story in the pages of the Sun Journal. Some of it belongs in the funny papers.
Today is Monday, Feb. 20. It's 17 damn degrees outside.
A four-year-old boy was killed today after flames spread through an apartment house in downtown Lewiston. Many others were trapped on upper floors. Rescues were dramatic.
A story like that tends to galvanize this city. It's what people are talking about in corner stores. Even punks on the street acknowledge the gravity of such a thing. They stand around the burned house looking solemn for a few minutes before getting back to the tough poses a few blocks away.
The newspaper reporters and the TV crews scramble to get an edge. We look for grieving relatives, survivors with stories to tell, any angle that will put us a nose ahead of the competition. It's journalism at its finest, and its ugliest.
By the time it was over, we had two solid stories and a sidebar ready for tomorrow's paper. I was done wrapping up loose ends early in the evening and I began scrounging for other news. Among the most reliable facts about the news business is this: no matter how big or how tragic the day's news has been, it won't stop other news from happening.
Sadly, there were few diversions out in the hood as the night progressed. Just for kicks, I responded to a few scanner calls that sounded as though they might provide entertainment.
"Units, respond to Oak and Union for a report of 15-20 males with a stick and threatening to beat another person with it."
You just can't go wrong with a stick beating. There's just something very tribal about a group of screaming men battering at another with a fence post or club. There's also something very piƱata about it, but I'll spare you that image.
Anyway, on Oak Street, there was some variation of the report that came over the scanner. I found eight or nine guys getting patted down by cops. Most of them wore those gigantic, puffy coats that remind me of cheesy spacemen in the old 50's movies. One skinny kid wore his hat sideways and his pants low on his hips. All of them white, early 20's. A big yawn.
The stick, incidentally, was about four feet long and very thin. It was also very pristine and very delicate looking, something that probably supported a paper sign stating "keep off the grass" or "Willie Winkle for Mayor." Sucker looked like it would break the first time it was brought down on someone's skull.
A kid dies in an early morning fire at a downtown apartment house. Men go after a foe with a stick. Otherwise, Lewiston yawns in the 17 degree cold.


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