There was a time when I was eating, on average, five hot ham and cheese sandwiches from Speaker’s Variety every week.

For one thing, the hot ham and cheese sandwiches from Speaker’s were spectacular. I’d ask Jim or Pat or whoever was manning the ovens that day to cook them a little extra so that the cheese was browned and the bread crispy. A strand of cheese would invariably swing down and scald my chin but it was the most delicious pain in the world.

For another thing — a very important thing — Speaker’s always felt to me like the very epicenter of the downtown beat in which I toiled. The store, always crowded, was like a demilitarized zone in the middle of a chaotic battleground.

Crack dealers would come in from their Knox Street apartments for bottles of beer and Phillies blunt cigars. Streetwalkers would wander in for cold sandwiches and band-aids before the busy night’s work began. Cops would hoof over from the police station for boxes of hot chicken tenders, if hot chicken tenders happened to be on special that day.

No matter what the hour and no matter what was up on the specials board, every segment of the downtown population was represented at Speaker’s. Cops, crooks and the staggering addicted; everyone went about their business at Speaker’s in a calm and friendly fashion, never acknowledging that they might be wrestling around on dirty sidewalks later in the evening.

Speaker’s Variety was like the Geneva of downtown Lewiston, a neutral territory stocked with bread and milk, beer and cigarettes, bottles of Snapple and bags of chips.

I was in there constantly, snooping and skulking in search of sandwiches hot from the grill and lurid stories hot from the streets.

Back in the day, there was a man who looked a lot like the actor Peter Lorre and who was a frequent fixture at Speaker’s. I’d find him over by the soda coolers most of the time and he’d be quick to pass along news if he had any.

“‘You hear what happened up on Birch the other night?'” he’d say. “‘You might want to go talk to your friend the crossing guard lady, if you haven’t already.'”

Just then, the bell over the door would jingle and a police officer would walk in. Maybe it would be a desk sergeant or maybe just a beat cop coming in to wet his whistle. Nobody would go running when the cop walked in — Speaker’s was the DMZ, after all. The officer would mingle a bit and shoot the breeze with Jim behind the counter until his three-meat pizza was ready. He’d pick out a bag of chips and cash himself out, and when the cop walked out the door, I’d be on his heels, looking for a scrap of information on this case or that one.

Outside, on the sidewalk overlooking Kennedy Park, the officer would either throw me a bone or he’d advise me to get bent, depending on his mood that day. And then I’d see the crossing guard lady strolling into Speaker’s and back inside I’d go to bug the poor woman about the incident on Birch Street.

I can’t explain why Speaker’s was such an awesome place. It was often hot from the ovens, the lines were almost always long and the people behind the counter could be cranky.

But the food was great, there was always someone to chat with and if you needed to see someone in particular — lawyer, city councilor, that drunk dude with the bandanna — chances were good you’d run into him eventually at Speaker’s.

Pat Speaker, who owns the joint, was known to help out young mothers and others in need when they couldn’t scrape together enough dough for the week’s groceries. It was in many ways like your traditional corner store, where everybody knew everybody and there was no need for conflict no matter what was going on outside.

“Even when the park was divided by druggies and prostitutes, we never had a problem,” said Pat, the 83-year-old who has been running the store since 1982. “We never had a problem with anybody.”

When she told me this, Pat was leaning against the store counter, her arm in a cast. She looked tired. A week earlier, a shoplifter had shoved her to the floor of the store while making his getaway, busting her arm.

It was the kind of violence Pat didn’t use to see inside the store, not even when downtown Lewiston was at its feistiest. Back then, even the hardest of criminals managed to respect the sanctity of this store where ovens kept churning out pizza, chicken tenders and hot ham and cheese even when bullets were flying outside.

“It was a tough neighborhood,” said Kenny Smotherman, who grew up on the corner of Spruce and Knox streets and who was a bit of a brawler, himself. “But there were lines that were just not crossed. You certainly didn’t mess with the older folks.”

For decades, Speaker’s was a safe space, a kind of port in the Lewiston storm. But that was then and this is now. These days, there are shoplifters and fights and threats. There are daily problems of all kinds inside the store and although Pat didn’t say a word to me about the future of Speaker’s, she did let on that she was tired of it. She has become weary, and who among us would fault her if she were to call it quits?

Not me, certainly, although if the day should come when Speaker’s is no longer tucked into that familiar nook at the edge of Kennedy Park, my heart would mourn the loss, and I’ll tell you this, my chum.

It won’t be the hot ham and cheese sandwiches that I miss the most.

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