Take a few wrong turns off I-710 in Los Angeles and bam! You're in gangland. Have fun with that.
Stay on the Boston T too long and look out! You're in a neighborhood where you probably aren't welcome. Turn around and don't make eye contact.
In Baltimore, hanging a right when you meant to take a left can land you in the big-time hood real fast. In D.C., you can be gaping merrily at a domed building on one block, ducking gunfire on the next. In Newark ...
Well, hell. I don't like any of Newark.
The point I'm trying clumsily to make is that most big cities have their bad sides. You learn how to avoid them and warn visitors when they come to town. Steer clear of 13th Street, Aunt Willamina, lest you get shived and shanked and hooked on crank.
It is one of the benefits of living in Maine, where even the biggest cities are tame and all bad guys have to be off the streets by 10. When Aunt Willamina comes to town, she can walk anywhere she pleases, provided she doesn't owe money to somebody on the corner. This is Lewiston, Maine, by golly. It's not Boston or Baltimore or St. Louis or Detroit.
So, when I'd get visitors, I'd advise them to roam wherever they please. Lewiston has its snarling side, I'd tell them, but it's more bark than bite. Get yourself an ice cream cone and walk your poodle the length of Bartlett Street, if that's what floats your boat. Nobody's going to bother you much if you don't say unkind things about their mothers.
There was just no Real Bad Neighborhood to caution them about, no specific Corner to be Avoided at All Cost. Lewiston was shirtless, scarred and frequently drunk, sure. It had a crew cut, a tank top and a definite drug problem. Lewiston might be a barroom brawler, but it wasn't a killer.
My view has changed somewhat.
I have absolutely nothing to present that will prove that Lewiston is a more dangerous place then it was two years ago. Hell, all the crime stats show otherwise. Assaults are down. Robberies and rapes and muggings, same thing. You don't see drive-by shootings, and when was the last time you even heard about a home invasion?
And yet, there's something. Lewiston, to my eye, looks a great deal meaner than it was just a summer before. Maybe it's the harder, more knowledgeable glint in the eyes of those who dwell on the mean streets. Maybe it's the tattoos, which suddenly look like art earned in federal prison, rather than something paid for with a coupon at the mall.
Maybe it's because every other call over the police scanner lately seems to involve a handgun instead of a baseball bat or a pocket knife. Shots fired here. A man with a gun in his pants there.
It's like the old guy says in "Maverick:" Everybody's got a damn gun.
But mostly, it's the attitude. It's as though downtown Lewiston was sent away over the past winter or two. It did tours of duty through places like Hartford, the Bronx, NYC and Lawrence, Mass. It served some time in the pen, getting wiser and buffer in the prison yard. Now it's back, and though it looks the same as it did before, Lewiston is suddenly a rabid dog on a frayed rope.
What do I have to prove that observation? Big fat nothing, that's what. No recent headlines, no bar charts, nothing anecdotal. It's just a feeling, like an itch between the shoulder blades when there's somebody behind you with a gun.
Dramatic, I know. And yet, if someone I like comes to visit me in Lewiston, I'm not shuffling them off into the downtown with no warning. Hells no, as the kids say. Right now, in my opinion, there are parts of Lewiston that are actively dangerous, corners of the zoo where real predators live. Places where you might find trouble just because you have a few nickels jangling in your pocket or because you made eye contact with the wrong beast.
Lewiston has always been tough. Now, to me, it seems tough with a purpose. Cruising through downtown, you sense a more grown-up and focused kind of intensity, a crouching viciousness centered around the usual suspects — crack, heroin, prostitution and weapons with which to defend a criminal enterprise.
Why all at once? It's not for lack of foresight, that I can see, on the part of police or city leaders. There was no bad decision or dropped political ball that opened the door for thuggery. The Lewiston Police Department has gotten bigger and tougher, itself. As a force, it's probably more equipped to deal with street crime than it's ever been. Experienced officers, dedicated leadership, a certain street-wise conscience dressed in blue and ready to roll.
I told a veteran cop the other night that I was going to head to Bartlett and Walnut streets and have me a look around. Maybe poke my head in a bar or two and talk to some strangers in the hood. I used to do it all the time. Hell, it's how I spent the 90s.
"Right now?" said the cop. "I wouldn't advise it."
It's a perverse and ugly thing to say, but crime in Lewiston has been good to me over the past two decades. It helped me land this gig and then year after year, it provided job security. I don't want bad things to happen, I said over and over, and sometimes with too much glee. I just want to be there when they do.
But I tell you, people. Like the Chicken Little character in every decent war movie you've ever seen: I've got a bad feeling on this one. All right?
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer and a visionary. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.