Lewiston Sun Journal

May 22—If you want to have some fun and add excitement to your day, walk up to the first cop you see and say: "Boy. Sure is quiet, ain't it?"

Sucker! Enjoy your cot and three squares a day — that cop will probably find a way to arrest your silly butt because police are a superstitious lot and as far as they're concerned, any utterance of the Q-word is bound to cause mayhem and ought to be a felony.

The weird fact is, I think they might be right.

Back when I was a relative rookie on the news beat, I made this mistake a few times, and every time I did, it seemed like that superstition was proven sound.

"Golly," I'd say to the desk sergeant at the Lewiston PD. "Sure is quiet."

Before the sergeant in question could burn holes in my flesh with his well-trained glower, the scanner would start to squawk. A home invasion on River Street! A building on fire on Bartlett and flames spreading to another! Car crash on Lisbon Street and would you look at that? Now the drivers are brawling in the street?

We're having some fun now, aren't we, Sarge?

Nope. Sarge doesn't think so. After working a double shift to manage all the havoc caused by me personally, he'd put me straight into his doghouse, refusing to talk to me for days because of the Q-word curse I'd thrust upon him. And who could blame him?

In Auburn one early evening years ago, I hadn't even gotten the dread word all the way out of my mouth — "Gee willickers, lieutenant. Why do you suppose it's so qui..." — when the voice of a frantic dispatcher came screeching over the airwaves. An explosion at a welding supply company! Many people hurt! Chaos all over the place! Additional explosions feared!

The lieutenant had time for only a short glower before he dashed out the door and off to the scene of utter pandemonium, and into the doghouse I went for a solid month.

I'm pretty sure a solid third of all the bar fights, shootouts and block fires to vex the area over the past couple decades have been caused by my irresponsible use of the Q-word and for that I am sorry.

Sort of sorry, anyway.

I used to feel a measure of genuine guilt whenever I jinxed the police in this fashion. I'd picture that veteran lieutenant unable to get home in time to tuck his kids into bed because I'd caused such madness with my verbal voodoo. I imagined all those hard working police officers disinfecting their wounds and laboring over police reports into the darkest hours of morning simply because I couldn't find any other adjective to describe the previously calm nature of the evening.

Peaceful? Uneventful? Humdrum? Dull? Placid? Unexciting? Perfectly adequate words that for some reason don't possess the same dark power that the Q-word seems to have over the temperament of the city and the mood of the police department.

And yet I wonder if I still need to maintain that guilt. After all, the method I use to determine whether a given night is Q-word or not just isn't the same as it was in previous years.

In earlier times, it worked like this. I'd spend every single minute of every single night on the beat with the police scanner crackling in my ear. Every call that police responded to was assessed by me, your faithful and (somewhat) hardworking news reporter.

Barking dog complaint? Yawn. Neighbor troubles? Meh.

Noise complaint? Business alarm? Dispute over a parking space? Shoplifting? Children troubles? Lost item? Broken-down vehicle? Some fool's keys locked in his car?

If these were the only kinds of calls I was hearing over the airwaves for hours and hours, I might've been tempted to unleash the Q-word, if I couldn't find a thesaurus to come up with an alternative. I mean, a guy can only listen to so much boring stuff before he does something drastic.

But these days, there is no police scanner chatter on which to judge the level of activity in the area, at least not from Lewiston-Auburn. A year ago, they shut off access to their radio traffic to the lowly reporter and to all concerned civilians for reasons that still haven't been made clear.

For the past year, EVERY night has been quiet on the police beat, as far as the radio goes. To determine whether things are lively downtown, we require a news release from some ranking cop to tell us so.

It's been quiet, alright, and that's how city leaders like it. For the 30 years I've been working the cop beat, I've always known police to be under intense pressure from mayors and city managers to keep bad news at a minimum. Who wants a newspaper filled with muggings, brawls and knife fights when you're trying to attract business, am I right?

It's OK to keep the citizens in the dark, in other words, as long as you get some sparkling new businesses on Main Street out of the deal.

Police in the Twin Cities have finally succumbed to that pressure from above and now THEY are the ones to declare whether the times are quiet or not, not some meddlesome independent observers. City leaders at last get to control the narrative.

It's a terrible system, and yes, I will complain about it forever. And yet, in the midst of this overreaching police control of the news, the long-maligned Q-word still seems to have some of its grim potency.

I started writing this column Friday night with the plan of finishing it later.

"Sure is quiet," I wrote in the very first sentence.

Less than an hour later: BAM BAM BAM KABLAM! The thunder of gunfire clapped across downtown Lewiston as a drive-by shooter peppered an apartment house and some cars with small-arms fire. A single use of the Q-word — written, not even spoken aloud — was enough to unleash madness, just like the old days.

So take that, coppers.

Give me back my scanner chatter.