It's probably for the best that my jingle writing business never took off. I was going to move to California, get a beach house in Malibu and live a life of opulent recklessness. Drink a lot, gamble a lot, hop from bed-to-bed like some kind of playful cricket.
Who needs it?
Instead, I stayed here to work for the man in downtown Lewiston. And to remind myself how Lisbon Street, Lewiston, is much better than Hedonism Boulevard, Malibu, I went down there on Saturday to enjoy some flashbacks.
I use the word "enjoy" generously.
1995. I lived in a second floor walk-up above Dick's Variety at the corner of Lisbon and Chestnut. The apartment had no walls. It was a huge flat with a men's room and a lady's room, like a blues club you live in.
I had my own urinal. Brother, that was living.
I used to stumble downstairs in the morning for coffee and a paper. Dick's was almost always elbow-to-elbow with working class stiffs, hanging around and talking about the gossip of the day. Outside, the foot traffic between Lisbon Street and Kennedy Park was always thick. I could stand on that corner for 15 minutes and find 10 things to write about for the paper.
Across the street, at a slant, the sidewalk was jammed with morning drinkers from the Lewiston Social Club. They went outside to smoke even though they didn't have to. They stood and smoked while lawyers, real estate men and politicians passed in wide arcs.
You could wade right into that clot of people in front of the Social Club if you wanted to, but you risked being groped, propositioned or challenged to a fight.
"You've got nerve," a very big man in a wife-beater T-shirt said to me once in front of the social, "showing your face down here."
Mistaken identity. The big man thought I was the scoundrel who ran off with his girlfriend and then made off with the young lady's welfare check.
But from the safety of the corner, you could just watch with all the detachment of a beekeeper watching his babies buzz around the hive.
The pleasingly buzzed man hugging everyone he recognized and a few strangers to boot. Domestic fights on the sidewalk at an hour when most are punching clocks. Overwrought men and women lugging televisions or VCRs to the pawn shop just a little farther up. On a good day, those people would come out of the pawn shop looking a little happier, a little less desperate. On other days, they'd come outside red-faced and fuming, still hauling the behemoth TV which seemed to have gained 25 pounds during the humiliation inside.
There was a video store, for a short time, right next to Dick's. You could rent "Jumanji," "GoldenEye" or "Waterworld" there for two bucks. (1995 wasn't a good year for film.) Or you could whistle past that video store on your way to something stronger, at the Treasure Chest just a little farther along. Couple that with a stop at the head shop across the street, my friend, and you were looking at a pretty decent day.
Of course, you couldn't do anything discreetly on Lisbon Street. Try to buy booze before noon, rent a movie about the exploits of a girl named Debbie or purchase a bong, and 10,000 eyes were watching; 5,000 tongues just dying to rat you out to your wife or boss or probation officer.
The beehive nature of Lisbon Street then was both blessing and curse. It was like the land sloped on either side of it and anyone who couldn't hang on just tumbled down there like rocks down a playground slide. You could get pretty much anything on Lisbon Street — from crack to art supplies, camera equipment to pornography — but the price would include your anonymity.
Somewhere around 1996 (Lisbon Street, like time, makes everything hazy) I moved out of the flat with the urinal. I didn't use a single car or truck to make the move. I went at another diagonal, to a nice place at the corner of Lisbon and Pine. I shuffled all my stuff over like an ant hauling crumbs to a new nest. Third floor. There was a telemarketing group a floor below me, a hair salon at street level.
To me, this was moving on up. A view from the other side. Now, if I wanted to mingle with the smokers in front of the Lewiston Social Club, I didn't even have to cross the street. I needed only to climb down to street level, bang a right out my door, and wait for the siren scream from one of the all-day drinkers.
"LaFlamme!" went that scream that made my name sound like a dirty word. "LaFlamme! Get your ass in here and buy me a beer!"
Brenda Williams always seemed to be at the Social. She's dead now and she took to her grave a Wikipedia-sized volume of information about Lewiston and those who inhabit it. And when I say information, I mean dirt.
Brenda had something on everyone. But she would weave through the haze of the Social, bouncing from one table to the next like a pinball, with nothing but a hard-knock lust for life that is unique to Lisbon Street in that era. And when you emerged from the Social (you really only meant to stay long enough for one beer) it would be dark, and Lisbon Street would sparkle in its shabby way. Half the population of the social would be stumbling out while another, fresher group would be stumbling in. It was a process as natural and orderly as the changing of shifts at a mill.
Outside, Lisbon Street would still be vibrant. Not vibrant in the way that the old-timers talk about it. The old-timers will tell you that, back in the day, folks would drag lawn chairs down to Kennedy Park just to watch the action on Lisbon Street. Cops were 7 feet tall back then and the bad guys even bigger. And every night, the cops and the bad guys went toe-to-toe, hurling bar stools and breaking bottles like paid entertainers.
But Lisbon Street was still pretty vibrant in my time, too. Living on it was like being in an abusive relationship. You knew you should get out but you always found a way to give it one more week. Maybe a month. And while I live maybe a mile away from that epicenter now, it might as well be the 2,652 miles between me and Malibu.
Because the Lisbon Street that I knew is long gone. As gone as a friend who packs up everything, moves far away and never writes, never calls.
Maybe Lisbon Street is just going through another evolution (you'd have to be a complete Pollyanna to call it a revival) but to me, it's a stranger. A lackluster, dispirited stranger I don't know and probably won't get to know. To me, Lisbon Street is like a haunted house you have to walk through to get from one place to another. You try to get through it as fast as you can and you don't look around, because ghosts will be everywhere.
It was a cop who told me that the Lewiston Social Club is leaving. At first I thought he was joking. If the Social isn't on Lisbon Street, in my considered opinion, then Lisbon Street ceases to be Lisbon Street. The Lewiston Social Club, if you will, is the belt buckle Lisbon Street wears to keep its pants up.
But the joke is on me. The Social isn't leaving the city altogether. It's just packing up and getting the hell off Lisbon Street, just like I did somewhere around 1999.
There's probably something poetic about that symmetry, but I can't get my brain around it. Poetry, like jingles, are things I never learned to master.
It's probably for the best.