The man was the very definition of humility.

He came into the newsroom with his hat in hand, an older fellow whose eyes were red, either from crying or trying not to. He was shaking. He was pale. He was terrified.

“Does my name have to go in the paper?” he asked. “Can’t you leave it out? I’ll pay you.”

There was no belligerence in his pleas — belligerence had been shaken out of him. What was left was fear, shame and desperation in their purest forms.

“Please,” he begged in a voice that both trembled and cracked. “I’ve got a family.”

The latest police prostitution sting had ensnared another dozen souls — a priest, a probation officer, a teacher or two and a handful of ordinary Joes who now faced the ritual of public shaming. Public shaming, after all, is the real consequence of getting caught trying to make a cash-for-sex transaction in downtown. Anywhere.

Who cares about a measly $100 fine and probation when you’ll have to face your wife, your kids, your neighbors and your boss, who will have learned about the indiscretion through lurid newspaper headlines?

Back when I was fresh on the cop beat, police in Lewiston conducted prostitution stings regularly. They’d put an attractive lady officer on the streets in Daisy dukes and wait for the amorous to come trawling. From a reporter’s perspective, that should have been great fun — but for me, it was not. Oh, nossir. Because after the arrests were made and the paperwork filed, Jack Schoolteacher and Johnny Reverend would march to the newsroom like frantic men seeking to repent just ahead of Judgment Day.

These horrified men with their sad tales and red eyes inspired in me what the Germans call fremdschämen — an overwhelming empathy for someone else’s shame.

I imagined these hapless fellows sitting at their breakfast tables the following morning, waiting for their wives (or daughters or mothers or sons) to flip to the newspaper jump page where the mugshots resided. I imagined the terror of that moment, and of the many similar moments to follow in their now-shattered lives.

Guh! How could it possibly fall on me to participate in the puritan shaming of these men for the dubious crime of wanting to pay a willing adult partner for companionship? I mean, where was the victim here?

Fortunately, being the low rung on the ladder has its privileges. The responsibility didn’t fall on me, and so when the sad men came a-calling, I directed them to editors several pay scales above me on the newsroom food chain — editors who get paid to make the hard choices.

Not that there was anything hard about it, really. When covering news such as a prostitution sting, fairness is the name of the game. If we list one name, we list them all. If one shame-faced mug shot goes to the printer, they all do.

We’re just a mirror, remember. We’re not here to judge anyone; we’re just relating what happened and to whom.

Still, fremdschämen. I could never bring myself to dismiss their agony with sanctimonious lines about how if you can’t do the time, you shouldn’t do the crime.

People who rip off the elderly, abuse their kids or steal with abandon don’t always make the paper, but those nabbed in prostitution stings invariably do. Booking photos, too, if we can get ’em, and details about their careers and personal lives.

There are plenty of good arguments supporting the criminalization of prostitution, of course. It spreads disease, fosters violence and encourages the sex trade and all of its dark avenues. It’s probably a safe bet that the men in question were not pondering these ideas as they pulled to the curb and offered the lady in Daisy dukes two twenties and a ten.

They probably pondered them later, though. I’m not sure because I never got a chance to ask them — that’s one thing you can say about these busted johns: Once subjected to the public shaming ritual of headlines and TV news broadcasts, they tend to keep a low profile forevermore.

Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can fremdschämen him at [email protected]

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