On Feb. 1, 2002, I published my very first Street Talk column in the Sun Journal. 

Mark LaFlamme’s Street Talk column from Feb. 1, 2002 Sun Journal

“At about 7 p.m., I’m driving downtown and listening to the police scanner,” according to the column. “Barking dogs and vehicle stops mostly. But then there’s a report of a woman threatening to jump off the roof of her downtown apartment building. You don’t hear that every day. I’m there.” 

The rather blustery column went on to describe the efforts of a police crisis intervention officer to talk the distraught woman down from the ledge. She succeeded, eventually, by convincing the lady that coming down from the roof was in the best interest of her cats. That was good for 500 words and so, boom! Off it went. 

It’s not exactly Upton Sinclair writing about the horrors of the meat industry, but hey. Lewiston doesn’t HAVE a meat industry. 

A week later, I wrote about a homeless woman who refused, out of hard-learned mistrust, my offer of a hot ham and cheese sandwich fresh from the ovens at Speaker’s Market. 

“She was walking along Park Street and carrying things that were spilling from her tattered bag,” this one began. “She had no gloves. The temperature on the Sun Journal sign said it was 16 degrees. It felt colder.” 


I got some love for that column. An admirable display of compassion and honesty, a few letter writers declared it. 

I also got some hate, mainly from people who found the piece to be a self-indulgent sob story and just a bummer to read over the day’s first coffee. Which it was, of course. I was still searching for my voice. 

In column three, I discovered a cherished secret to column writing — a secret that would carry me through a whole lot of low periods and dry spells over the next two decades. 

In column three, I wrote about nothing at all. 

“Man, I hate February,” this one began. “I don’t know about you, but to me, Lewiston snow looks brown before it hits the ground. The snowbanks are like hideous, unmoving dogs that won’t get out of your way. You trip over them and land in a puddle. The wind blows down your back and you stumble into traffic. Then you’re on Lisbon Street with nowhere to go. A cab rushes past and whisks more slush on your shoes. The profanities you yell are lost in the wind.” 

It never got any more substantial, that third column. We’re talking 12 column inches featuring nothing more than my spleeny complaints about the weather and about the spirit-crushing nature of the winter doldrums. And I got PAID for that! 


Column four was about area panhandlers and the different tactics they employ to tease dollars and cents out of our pockets. My favorite of them was a fellow I met on Park Street who didn’t make any bones out of what he needed the money for. 

“Tell you the truth,” he said, “I really need a beer.” 

A few days after that one hit the paper, one of my favorite downtown characters of them all died while trying to wean herself off the booze. Brenda, the lady’s name was, and she had been my very best source of information about downtown shenanigans of all kinds. 

“She was only 31,” I wrote, “but she had lived hard. She often lived recklessly. Brenda was the first to admit that her habits might one day kill her.” 

This was the first column I wrote that ventured into the blurry gray zone between opinion and news. Brenda was such an established figure in downtown Lewiston — such a presence — that just about everybody knew her in one way or another. 

“In the hours after she died, news about her passing spread like a fast-moving cold front across segments of the city,” I wrote. “I stopped on a street corner to discuss it with a cop. A friend from a law office learned about it at the same time I did and we discussed it at length. At corner stores, I was asked about it by people who shook their heads in sad disbelief. Brenda had seemed like a permanent part of the backdrop.” 


Column six was some lofty screed about how reporters have to be at the scene of atrocities even when it seems distasteful. It was written as a response to the recent murder of a Bates College student and all the frenzied media coverage that followed.  

Column seven was about heroin and how abuse of it just might become a problem for the Twin Cities in coming years. Column eight involved the troublesome fact that every police composite sketch ever drawn manages to look exactly like me.  

There followed columns about the scourge of nakedness in downtown Lewiston, the horrifying truths about ice cream trucks, the general weeniness of sweater vests, and the mystery of single shoes found in odd places around the city.  

A good time was had by all. By me, anyway. 

I don’t know if 2002 was a great time or a terrible time to start writing a column. In 2002, Facebook and its social media cousins were years away. No YouTube, no Reddit, no Instagram. If you heard somebody say “Tik Tok,” they were probably talking about a broken clock. 

The most popular cellphone in America in 2002 was the Nokia 6100, presenting one of the first color screens available. No email, no social media accounts, no video capabilities. Just a humble dial pad and a tiny screen that you didn’t need to stare at all day. 


I’m sure we found plenty to argue about back then, but we would mainly do it nose-to-nose, live and in person, where there were real-world consequences for smack talk. The culture of anonymous, online combat had not yet become the phenomenon it is today. 

In 2002, there was no such thing as cancel culture. Accusations of “fake news” and “misinformation” were rare and easily resolved. Fact checks? Doxing? Shadow bans? 

I mean, what fool would agree to start writing a regular column for a newspaper if he knew all of that was coming down the pike? 

Yet I have seldom regretted taking on those weekly columns. In 2002, I cared little about what transpired beyond the borders of the Twin Cities. I wasn’t into global politics or even the national stuff. I even wrote a column once about how I hated politics to the point where I had no idea whether I was a donkey or an elephant and didn’t care. 

I wrote about downtown Lewiston almost exclusively for the first few years because downtown Lewiston was where I spent just about all of my time. I wore out the tread on a whole lot of shoes down there because the internet had not yet transformed the world into a place that could be experienced almost exclusively from one’s living room. 

It’s downright strange to me that a person sitting next to me, drinking legally at a bar, could have been born the year I started writing Street Talk. I just don’t see how that’s possible when I am such a fresh-faced youngster myself.  

It’s when I start doing the math that it all falls apart and things get depressing. 

It’s a damn good thing for me that I’m plain terrible at math. 

When Mark LaFlamme isn’t thinking about that mustache from 21 years ago, he’s the crime reporter for the Sun Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]

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