So a nice lady wrote to me the other day asking for my input on a college paper her son is writing. Apparently, he’s been asked to write about where he is from and why it might be embarrassing for him to admit that he’s from there.

The boy is from Lewiston, apparently, and so the question became: Why would a person be reluctant to confess that he grew up here?

I answered her long into the night, asserting that, no, there is no shame at all in describing Lewiston as your home. Quite the contrary. Lewiston is a magical place tucked in close to a mystical river. It is a fairy-tale landscape of lush gardens and people so friendly and helpful you might suspect they are made of sugar.

Lewiston, I told her, is a land of peace and hope, a city where dreams are born and where they flourish. It is a place of beauty and serenity that has no equal across the globe.

Then I couldn’t contain the laughter anymore so I thumbed my nose at her, called her a filthy name and took off running.

I’m from Lewiston. That’s what we do.

My sarcasm is borne of confusion over the question. I’ve lived in Lewiston 15 years and I still don’t know how I feel about this city.

When I’m on the road and I mention to strangers where I’m from, they wrinkle their noses and step back a pace. Lewiston, they believe, is an impoverished ghetto in a state otherwise devoid of that kind of condition.

They have heard of people cooking, smoking and selling crack cocaine in plain view at a fearsome place called Kennedy Park. They have heard of drive-by shootings and schoolchildren caught in the crossfire.

At best, these misinformed strangers are the victims of wild exaggeration. At worst, they have succumbed completely to outright lies and urban legend.

The fact is, there is no more crime in Lewiston than in other city of a similar size and demographic. The city is just vexed by its own personality – when things happen here, they happen with flavor.

A son doesn’t just gun down his father, he blasts him through a window while the old man sits at the head of the table, the guest of honor at his own birthday party.

College kids don’t simply fight with townies. A massive teenager with horns tattooed on his head slices open a lacrosse star in some Scorcese-style treatment of our own West Side Story.

Thugs don’t just beat to death more fragile men for money, they kill former lottery winners after homosexual sex-for-cash deals get out of hand.

A young man doesn’t merely turn against his mother. He strangles her after a long and sordid life of incest and revelations that his mom was also sleeping with his wife.

It is not the quantity of nastiness that haunts the city but the quality of it. The city seems cursed by imagination; its people engage in madness that brings the news folks running.

A newscaster with feathered hair will stand on windblown Lewiston streets and describe the city as “scrappy,” or “rough and tumble” as he details the latest atrocity. National wires pick up tales from Lewiston because they are salacious and unique, not like those bland domestic killings in Portland, Boston or Hartford.

Lewiston’s flair for the bizarre has made it a name known far beyond the borders of Maine. It’s not fair or unfair, it just is. A lot happens here with the old mills, with new hotels and shopping centers. It was named an All-America City in 2007, but who wants to hear about that if you’re working the CNN copy desk and you need something fresh for your seen-it-all viewers?

If there is one thing that’s predictable about Lewiston, it’s that nothing is predictable. What happens here happens with pizzazz and it’s a real bane for city leaders. Months of relative peace are disrupted by one tasty story, and bam! The white-hot light of the national media is upon us again.

And over and over until the very word “Lewiston” conjures images of a carnival freak show where the laws of physics and civil men don’t apply. It’s no wonder Stephen King keeps using our city as a prop for his most outlandish story lines.

But is that a reason for our young scholar’s face to redden when he reveals the place that he calls home? It depends on his own character, I suppose.

Lewiston is a slush-brown city where tall tenements lean together like hard drinkers telling secrets at the bar. It is a city with a booze problem, a crack problem and a criminal history.

It is a city that can be kind or cruel, like a manic spouse who flies into rages without warning. It is an embattled fellow who is friendly enough, but you know he carries a blade in his shoe.

With all that metaphor, it’s hard to tell if you should love it or loathe it. But Lewiston has more character than five other cities combined and even a bit of shabby dignity. Anyone who lives here shaves off some of that hard-nosed charisma and takes it wherever he goes.

Me, I carry around a piece of Lewiston and wear it like a badge, though it’s cold and it will sometimes prick you. Our academic friend can brag about spending time here, too, because it means at least part of him is as tenacious and persevering as the embattled city he hails from.

Or he could lie and say he lived among daisies and daffodils in a gated community just this side of heaven. Whatever serves him best. Pride, like beauty, resides within the beholder.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer.

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