Video killed the radio star

February 22, 2006 at 2:08 pm (Uncategorized)

I have no idea if this will work. Last week, I was asked to do a radio inverview with our local CNN affiliate. Flattering. But here’s my problem. I write because I don’t like to speak much. When speaking in a formal way, I tend to carry on with the speed of a bullet train. I proceed in a blur of words. There are no stops and starts to my speech, just one long sentence that might go on for minutes. Those of you who have suffered through conversation with me tend to just nod and pretend you understand completely. I know it, man.

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?

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Lewiston: Life on the streets

February 20, 2006 at 10:40 pm (Uncategorized)

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 piñata 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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The end

February 17, 2006 at 2:15 pm (Uncategorized)

It was around four in the morning when I finished my first novel in 2004. The sun wasn't up yet and the world was quiet. I put up a hand for a high five, but there was no skin there to slap. Not a word from the ghoul on the bookshelf. Nothing from the plastic rats or the looming skeleton in a corner. I went out to the porch for a cigarette. I tried to high five a tendril of smoke, but it broke apart and drifted away into the morning dark.

 

My second novel, finished last spring, was wrapped up after midnight on a Sunday. I made some calls, but there was nobody home. Still nothing from the props around my writing room. Still nothing from a circle of cigarette smoke.

 

I wrote the final lines in my latest book early Monday morning. It was 2:49 a.m. This time, I didn't even try. I wrote "the end," took pains to save the sucker, and stepped outside.

 

Lonely is the completion of a novel for one who keeps strange hours. I am new enough at this to get wildly excited at the very end. The thrill when it's over is part relief, part amazement and a touch of melancholy. All those characters you created will now get ripped through a printer, tucked into a box and left in a sort of suspended reality while you mull the project for weeks or months. Suddenly, the good guys and bad guys you've been hanging out with every night are off to another dimension.

 

Worumbo, The Pink Room and now Delirium Tremens. Three novels that were finished without drama in abject solitude. Clearly what I need is a tradition. A bottle kept tucked in a drawer to be opened only in these profound moments. A fine cigar. A hooker, whatever. Something to mark the moment. Something to count on when the words are on the page and the story has rounded to completion.

 

Someone loan me a tradition. Or at the completion of the next novel, I'll run naked through the streets screaming absurdities. No one wants that, man. No one.

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Pictures of you

February 9, 2006 at 2:59 pm (Uncategorized)

It is fitting that the blog is where I will expose virulent corruption in the medical field. This is the big one, people. This effects each and every one of us. I’m blowing this story wide open.

Doctors and dentists are secretly compiling photos of your brain, inner organs, teeth and bones to give to underworld operatives who are creating a race of super people to take over the world. Proof of this is slim, but the circumstantial evidence is everywhere. Think about it, please. When is the last time you were able to coax an x-ray — those very personal photos of your innermost self — from a physician?
You can’t do it. Ask, and the doctors will get all weird about it. I know, because just today, I tried to get x-rays of my brain from the doctor who has them. They get all weird about it. They pull the photos close to themselves and assume a defensive posture. “You can’t have these. They’re mine. Go away. Go AWAY!” Reach for the x-rays and the doctor will try to bite you. Freaks.
Truth is, I initially just wanted the photos to post here on the blog, for your disgust and amusement. God knows what might appear in a close up snapshot of my brain. Can they tell by examining the slices if you have frequent, dirty thoughts? Does your brain store copies of all lurid images it has entertained, like the cache in a computer? I’m getting freaked out. Let’s pretend I never said anything. No, I never brought up the subject at all.

www.marklaflamme.com

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BIG ACTION TODAY!

February 8, 2006 at 2:25 pm (Uncategorized)

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.”

Mark LaFlamme is the Sun Journal crime reporter.

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Everything I know, I learned in a puddle of beer

February 4, 2006 at 2:18 am (Uncategorized)

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.

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